Media not to blame for police failings

Media not to blame for police failings

If violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, blaming the media for your failings is the next most desperate place to take shelter. It is a stance that is rarely defensible; those waging a war of words with the messenger look as though they are petty, deflecting uncomfortable truths or unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. Lately, it has become a common refrain for authorities, from junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha down, to lash out at reporters whenever difficult questions are asked or anything remotely controversial is up for discussion.

Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda, the deputy national police chief overseeing the investigation into last month’s deadly Erawan Shrine bombing, is the latest to take up the baton and wield it against the media. He accused news organisations last week of helping the prime suspect escape, saying the hunt for the man seen planting a backpack minutes before the explosion had to “start all over again”. After being “100% sure” key suspects would soon be arrested, he said reports had alerted them to sensitive details of the police operation. This meant, among other things, the man accused of killing 20 people and injuring 130 more was able to evade capture.

“If there had not been media reports about suspects fleeing here and there, they would have been arrested last week," he said. "I understand the nature of the media and the media should try to understand police investigators, too.”

This was no ordinary Prayut-esque outburst — police chief Somyot Poonpunmuang has already provided one of those during the investigation, memorably demanding to know if a Voice TV reporter was Thai for asking whether the first suspects were scapegoats. Until now, Pol Gen Chakthip had been admirably circumspect in his comments to the media, certainly compared to his boss, as he heads the country’s highest-profile investigation. Even last week he was calm and polite, but he did speak lightly; most likely he said what he meant and meant what he said.

The problem is, his claim is preposterous. Police either knew the prime suspect’s location in Malaysia and were ready to pounce, or not. There is no way he goes from the cusp of being arrested — “100% sure” — to “like a free bird” simply by reading the news. Assume, for now, the suspect heard through the media that Thai police planned to visit Malaysia last week and decided to make his move. Advance warning may conceivably have hindered the investigation, but only if the police were a lot further from an arrest than Pol Gen Chakthip claims. Even that is a generous conclusion to draw. If the net truly was closing, his escape could just as conceivably have been due to rank incompetence.

Still, even this is hypothetical. There is no way of knowing if the media tipped off the suspect or whether other factors were at play. The most wanted man in Southeast Asia knows police are after him: several alleged accomplices have been arrested and footage of him wearing a yellow T-shirt has been spread far and wide.

And it should not be forgotten the police have trumpeted every arrest, publicised every raid, handed themselves a handsome reward for doing their job and shared all the details Pol Gen Chakthip now despairs at seeing in black and white in the morning paper. If there is fault with the information about the case that has been made public, the blame lies with the police. Statements from the police chief, spokesman and others have been confusing and conflicted since the investigation began. It is up to them to get the message straight, and it is disingenuous to complain about journalists reporting what they are told.

There are legitimate reasons to withhold information in the course of any ongoing criminal investigation, especially with suspects at large, and authorities would be wise to err on the side of caution after a terrorist act such as the Erawan bombing. Equally, there are important reasons for sharing information, as the media and public can play essential roles in identifying and apprehending suspects. But Pol Gen Chakthip should know, if he understands the media as well as he says, journalists will not run his agenda unfiltered. They will hold police to account on the public’s behalf, since the men in brown are public servants entrusted with ensuring public safety. That trust has never been particularly strong, and has only diminished since the explosion that killed and maimed so many, the bomb at the Sathon pier a day later and the haphazard investigation that has followed.

In less than two weeks, Pol Gen Chakthip takes over as national police chief. He will still have the aftermath of the bombing to contend with, plus questions about the force, corruption and major crimes that will inevitably come along. It will not be enough to attack the messenger — at some point he will need a message.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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