Police’s media parades of criminal suspects target society’s poor

11 Nov 2018

If you are poor and unlucky enough to have been caught with barely dried biltong from a stolen cow, chances are you will be appearing on Btv news within 24 hours with still unconsumed evidence spread out at your feet. If you were part of a gang, you will be lined up in a column and your humiliation shown from all camera angles. On the other hand, if you are rich and also steal cows, there will no media cameras when the meat is recovered from the refrigerator.

The odd Honda Fit and “mouth cavities that scream” (direct Setswana translation that describes yearning for the soft and salty joy of meat) appear to have driven up stocktheft. In what appears to be ongoing campaign to fight that type of crime, a good many cattle-herders have been nabbed by the police and paraded on state media, namely Btv and the Botswana Daily News. Some street drug dealers and electronic equipment thieves have also been subjected to the same treatment. This shaming ritual show is not unique to Botswana. Someone caught with what they imagined to be expertly concealed stash of cocaine at Bangkok Airport definitely ends up on national TV. In the United States, suspects – including rich ones like a Hollywood producer who is alleged to have sexually harassed anything with a heartbeat within a heartbeat, are routinely made to take a perpetrator walk – or “perp walk” as it is more commonly known.

Those who have sought to align the perp walk with virtue claim that it yields tactical benefit to law enforcement in that it sends a message that no one is above the law, deters criminal behaviour, encourages witnesses to come forward and restores public confidence in the efficacy of law enforcement. On the other hand, there are those who have condemned the perp walk as gimmickry that turns justice into mere spectacle. Writing in The New York Times, John Tierney said the following: “It honours the police, sells papers, boosts television ratings and entertains the public—all at the expense of a person who is supposed to have the presumption of innocence.”

The latter argument was actually made by a Nigerian judge who declared the parade of suspects before the media illegal and unconstitutional, precisely because courts would not have made any pronouncements on guilt or innocence of suspects. The judge was presiding in a case in which a man suspected to be a member of a gang of armed robbers was paraded before journalists. However, he was later exonerated, whereupon he successfully sued the state. The judge ruled that this shaming ritual “makes nonsense of the applicant’s right to presumption of innocence as enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and leaves much to be desired in the administration of justice system in the country.” It is highly likely that some of the people who have been shamed on Btv will also be exonerated.

However, the Botswana parading goes beyond this legal point because only one socio-economic class has been subjected to public shaming on TV – the poor. Senior police officers giving commentary on Btv about suspected being paraded never actually say “Today we have caught five poor men who stole a cow …” but a pattern that has emerged clearly shows that only the poor are subjected to this treatment. Some prominent people in Botswana (some of them leaders) have been accused of heinous crimes but never once have the police paraded them on TV. Late last year, Btv showed dramatic pictures of three young professionals accused of money-laundering P250 million from the National Petroleum Fund being bundled into law enforcement vans. To the extent the media parade of suspects is structured that was certainly not it. The different law enforcement agencies involved in the matter had not provided an opportunity for the media to photograph the suspects. If the shaming is applied uniformly, all the property that NPF suspects (thus far presumed innocent until guilty) would have been publicly displayed. If anyone bought a house in Italy with the money, he should have been made to pose for Btv cameras with a blown-up picture of the house. Whether he actually did buy the house with such money is not an issue - that he should be treated the way cattle thieves are is.

Crime is an economic security threat and in any society, it is the rich who pose a greater threat than the poor. The combined value of property that was stolen by all the criminal suspects who have appeared on Btv comes nowhere near the P250 million that was allegedly tricked out of the NPF - or the billions of pula that are routinely tricked out of government coffers through public procurement processes. If media parades of suspects is at all a way of safeguarding economic security, then these parades should be focused on a socio-economic group that poses greater economic security threat.

BPS is doing something a lot similar to what the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) used to do a few years back. DCEC would take out paid advertisement to publish the names of suspects in newspapers. Over time, a deeply disturbing pattern emerged: the suspects were ordinary people. A spokesperson gave what sounded like a perfectly legitimate explanation: according to him, the publication of the names served as feedback to sources who had tipped the directorate off who might otherwise have been frustrated that their effort had not borne fruit. However, what complicated this explanation was that sources who had spilled the beans on the rich and powerful were not provided similar feedback because the names of the latter were never published.

Tragically, the media – which should champion social justice – is also complicit in this atrocity because the police use it as a vehicle to shame people who have not been found guilty. In the particular case of Botswana’s, the media is being co-opted in a venture that entrenches class discrimination.