Annie Paul | Slightly pregnant
I was struck recently by a news item that appeared in the Jamaica Observer of June 12, written by an 'Observer analyst' and titled 'Did former Contractor General Christie hurt more than help Jamaica?' It appeared to be written in response to an article by former Contractor General Greg Christie concerning a claim by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute's (CaPRI) Desiree Phillips that "over 40 corruption cases" had been referred to the director of public prosecutions (DPP) by the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), to date, and that none had been prosecuted.
The article quickly got to the kernel of the matter it was interested in discussing: a case concerning Jamaica Observer Managing Director Danville Walker, dating from 2011 when Walker was commissioner of customs and Christie was contractor general. Walker was threatened with criminal prosecution "for obstructing the OCG's investigation into the Jamaica Customs Agency's (JCA) alleged illegal exports of scrap metal in violation of a standing Cabinet/ministerial order, and without first securing the requisite government licences or authorisations".
The OCG had demanded a response from Walker regarding shipments of banned scrap metal he had authorised, information crucial to an investigation of corruption at the time. The news item by the Observer analyst tried to suggest that Walker's only misstep was that he had missed a deadline to supply information regarding these shipments to the OCG by "a mere six days". It was unfair, therefore, of the former CG to insist that such a small "administrative breach" was a criminal offence like any other.
But surely this is more than a little disingenuous, sort of like the idea that a woman might be 'slightly pregnant'. A criminal offence is a criminal offence, whether it's murder or petty larceny.
Crucial data omitted
The anonymous analyst leaves out the crucial information that, according to the OCG, its initial requisition to Walker was dated November 18, 2011 and required a written response by no later than 3 p.m. December 2, 2011, that is, within two weeks. He or she neglects to report that through his attorney, Walker first responded by questioning the OCG's authority to investigate, then after receiving several extensions and written warnings about the potential for criminal prosecution, Walker sent a final written response to the OCG saying, "... We will not be frightened by your deadline of December 9, 2011. If it is convenient for us, we will comply."
Christie pointed out at the time that of the more than 16 persons who had been formally requisitioned in writing by the OCG, or formally interviewed by the OCG to provide sworn evidence to assist it in its investigation, Mr Walker was, up to then, (a) the only respondent who obstructed the OCG, (b) the only respondent who failed or refused to comply with the OCG's lawful requirements of him, and (c) the only respondent who "refused to formally accept the OCG's lawful authority to conduct its investigation into a matter in respect of which, ironically, he, Mr Walker, was the lawful and responsible government accountable officer".
The Observer news item offered no explanation for any of this and sought to minimise the offence committed by Walker by insisting, "If the punishment is to fit the crime, it cannot be that one must hug up the label of criminality for the rest of one's life for missing a deadline by a mere six days." To characterise the series of refusals to respond to a formal requisition and the questioning of the OCG's authority to issue such a requisition as the mere missing of a deadline by six days is troubling.
The analyst then dwelt at length on think tank CaPRI's mischaracterisation of what the DPP called "administrative breaches" as "corruption cases". This overlooks the fact that regardless of whether the offence in question could be characterised as a "corruption case" or not, it was certainly relevant and material to the investigation of corruption in the instant case.
The Observer analyst's attempt to highlight the error rather than the gravamen of the charge against Walker could be seen as an attempt to influence public opinion in his favour by a very selective recounting of details.
A basic tenet of good journalism is that news media must scrupulously avoid any appearance of having skewed a news story to benefit itself or its associates. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the story, as it exists, does by arguing the case selectively in favour of its managing director. The public might well conclude that this is a classic case of a media house further private interest. There is a word for that.
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to email@example.com or tweet @anniepaul.