The issue of freedom of the press came under threat this week when a police officer forced a SEARCHLIGHT journalist to delete a lawfully obtained recording of an interview with a patient at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital (MCMH).
Journalist Katherine Renton left the SEARCHLIGHT office on Wednesday afternoon to visit Bally Alexander, a patient at the MCMH to follow up on a report where Alexander alleges he is a victim of police brutality. The allegations are that he was shot four times in the legs by an officer of the Rapid Response Unit at Rabacca, last Saturday.
Renton arrived at the male surgical ward during visiting hours, and she was one of several persons who visited the wounded man, who was under Police guard at the hospital.
“I asked him (Alexander) why the Police were there, and he said he hadn’t been charged with anything,” the reporter recalled.
She was almost through with her interview when the police officer on duty, who she identified as PC 1014, approached her.
“He came up to me and it seemed like he was speaking on his phone, and he asked me if I was a nurse. I said no, I’m a journalist and he said no, I can’t be doing that; that I could be criminally charged for it, and that the matter was under investigation…,” Renton said.
SEARCHLIGHT’s reporter said she inquired about the investigation he was referring to, but did not receive a response.
The police constable accused Renton of committing a criminal offence by interviewing Alexander and threatened her with being charged if she did not delete the recording of the interview.
He also forced the reporter to go through her phone and play at least three recordings there, to ensure that the correct file was deleted.
Two of these three recordings were made at the MCMH and related to Renton’s interview with Alexander.
“He asked me to play it back, play it to make sure. He asked me if I had been there before, or if it was the first time I had spoken to Mr Alexander…he asked me that a few times,” Renton said.
“He also made me play the other recording I had just before that – it was like these actions were being taken by him because he was speaking to another officer on the phone – he made me play the recording before.”
The officer further ordered her to go into the ‘Recently Deleted’ log and delete the files that were there, so as to completely erase all traces of the interview.
“He was wrong on several fronts,” Clare Keizer, editor of SEARCHLIGHT newspaper said.
Keizer noted that Renton was lawfully carrying out her responsibilities as a reporter as no subterfuge was used to obtain the interview, and that Alexander willingly spoke to her. She further argued that once Alexander was allowed visitors, Renton was within her right to speak with him.
“Katherine was one of many visitors the patient had that afternoon, and reporters are not a special class of citizen for which special prohibitions apply. So, if he could’ve had other visitors, there’s no reason why a reporter could not visit and interview him,” she said.
“As a matter of fact, in some situations, reporters are often granted access to places where regular members of the public are excluded. Our only intention was to investigate a report we had received and the officer, in my opinion, greatly exceeded his authority.”
SEARCHLIGHT’s editor said that she reported the matter to the Commissioner of Police on Wednesday night, and from his response, she believes that he is in agreement that the police officer acted inappropriately.
A legal expert has also advised that the police constable’s behaviour may have contravened Section 17 of the Police Act, which deals among other things of behaviour unbecoming of a police officer.
“He caused her to destroy an audio recording which was the property of SEARCHLIGHT newspaper, thus impeding us in the conduct of our lawful business. Through his outrageous behaviour, our reporter was left traumatised, and we are left to wonder what do the police have to hide?” Keizer queried.