Police services in the region are not sufficiently transparent and are slow to provide information to the media, both at the national and local level.
Author: Marija Vukasović
Legal Researcher, Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia
The implementation of regulations that oblige the police to be transparent in their work is incomplete. Police services in the region use a selective approach when informing citizens about the cases that are of interest to the public, or they tend to inform the public only when they feel the need to receive praise for their own operational results. In such an environment, journalists are finding it difficult to obtain accurate information, especially concerning the cases of politically sensitive nature.
When they ask for information, representatives of the media have to wait a long time to receive a response from the police. Moreover, in cases when information is indeed provided to them, it is usually stingy and incomplete. Therefore, one gets the impression that information is provided solely for the purpose of formal compliance with statutory obligations, and not because there is a need to fulfill a professional standard.
For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the biggest problem in the relationship between the media and the police is the slow pace of the police when it comes to providing information. When journalists officially address the police, they receive only incomplete information that meets the bare minimum of professional standards. Information about sensitive cases is obtained through other or irregular sources, unofficially; this is usually the information that is obtained first, while the official confirmation often requires a very long time. The process of obtaining information frequently takes a long time even in countries where police administrations do have spokespeople. In some situations, it is difficult to reach a spokesperson and find his/her contact data, and one has to wait a long time for a reply.
In Serbia, a report on the work of the police cannot be found on the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, at least not in a separate, readable and easily accessible document, although the obligation to publish such a report is stipulated in the Law on Police (Article 6). The Information Booklet on the Work contains only the report for the year 2015. The exception is the Sector for Internal Control, which has significantly improved the transparency of its operations in the last three years by making work reports accessible to the public. Statistical data, such as those provided by the Croatian Ministry of Internal Affairs, for example, cannot be found on the website of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
A similar situation was observed concerning the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it is possible to find work reports, but without any other statistical data. There are countries in the region where the names and contacts of spokespersons in police administrations are published on the websites, such as in Macedonia and Serbia, where it is possible to find their e-mail addresses.
There is also the problem caused by the fact the state administration authorities do not respect the statutory deadlines for the provision of information of public importance; in fact, they have been known not to provide such information at all. As a result of this, journalists, media outlets and citizens end up in a situation where they have to submit complaints and address institutions charged with the protection of the right to free access to information of importance.
We have such a situation in Serbia, where quite a large number of complaints have been submitted to the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. In 2017, the Commissioner has submitted 5.5% more complaints than in 2016, creating 3680 complaints; 3242 complaints were transferred from 2016 because the procedure was not completed, which resulted in 6922 complaints in total in the year 2017. Such a large number of complaints leads to over-burdening the Office of the Commissioner, whose capacities are already tight. In Montenegro, 3880 complaints were submitted to the Agency for the Protection of Personal Data and Free Access to Information in 2017. The fact that institutions dealing with information of public importance are not independent in their work presents an additional problem. Such a case was observed in Macedonia.
Police services in the region rarely hold press conferences. This is done mostly by political representatives of the ministries of internal affairs or public safety, but hardly ever by professionals. In addition, such conferences are most often held only when operational work involving a successful police action should be commended.
Police services in the region should be transparent to the greatest extent possible. In order to make the data more accessible to citizens and enable journalists to obtain news and information more quickly and easily, it is necessary to publish important documents and information concerning the work of the police on the official websites of the ministries responsible for internal affairs and to regularly update such data and documentation. The data should be presented in a language that is understandable and easily accessible, and one should be able to read and download the published documents. The minimum information that should be available on the websites is as follows:
- Description of the police within the organizational structure of the state administration, and especially within the criminal system;
- Explanation of the role and responsibilities of the police based on the Constitution and the laws;
- Presentation of the organizational structure of the police at the local and national levels;
- Explanation of the employment system utilized by the police;
- Description of the training of police officers;
- Explanation of how integrity is enhanced and the disciplinary responsibility of employees is ensured;
- Profiles and role of police unions;
- Explanation of how to get in touch with a local police station;
- Description of the priorities of the police force at the national and local levels;
- Description of police powers and professional work standards;
- A detailed explanation of what citizens can expect when they contact the police;
- Presentation of police equipment;
- Explanation of how the police are developing the concept of community policing.
As regards the internet, the media and citizens should be able to find information about the work of the police not only at the national level but also at the level of specific local police administrations, provided on their official internet presentations. It has been proposed that all the territorial organizational units of the police acquire their own websites, or – at the beginning – at least police units of the largest cities in the region. It is necessary to regularly update the annual reports on police work, statistical data, press releases and information provided to the public, data concerning specific topics that are important for the safety of the citizens, reform activities, information on safety-relevant or risky events, as well as contacts of persons in charge of public relations.
It is necessary to establish the position of police spokesperson at the national and local levels. These persons should be available to journalists and should be charged with receiving requests from the media for the purpose of the timely provision of information to citizens. Police spokespersons would facilitate faster communication between the media and the police and would serve to avoid formal submission of requests for information of public importance. They should be readily available to journalists. The relationship between the police and the media should be regulated by clear public relations guidelines, especially relations with the media. The guidelines should precisely state when and in which situations the police ought to communicate with the public, who on behalf of the police should do the communicating, and what information is actually available to the public. It is necessary to introduce the practice of holding regular press conferences, which would be attended by police professionals and at which said professionals would be the main speakers.
It is necessary to strategically approach the development of communication. Serbia is the only country in the entire region whose police force strategically approached the topic of communication in the period from 2012 to 2016. A strategic approach to communication implies that the police or ministries in charge of internal affairs have an idea about the following issues in advance:
- A realistic assessment of the quality of communication at the national and local levels;
- Objectives that they wish to achieve through communication, which is measurable, time-specific, achievable, relevant and concrete;
- Exact target groups they wish to address;
- Communication tactics that include knowledge of the style and tonality of communication, as well as the exact time of placement of certain types of information or reaction to specific situations;
- Ways of involving citizens in communication;
- A methodology for assessing the success of different communication tactics.
The internet communication of police services in the region should be conducted in accordance with the mission, vision, and values of the police forces themselves. Accordingly, the strategic framework for online communication should be developed as complementary and supplementary content, or – instead – as a pillar of the overall police communication strategy. Finally, it is necessary to strictly observe the statutory rules and deadlines regarding the application of the right to free access to information of public importance.
All of this is important since media and the police play an important role in the democratization of a society, i.e. in the adoption of democratic values such as the rule of law and freedom and accountability, and in adherence to democratic principles in decision-making through active and responsible participation and dialogue based on arguments rather than power.
The article is part of the publication “Media and Police in the Western Balkans” published with the support of the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces and European Union.
Read about possible solutions to overcome the current challenges in communication between the police and the media in the policy paper by Marija Vukasovic (@NUNS_1994), ahed of the International #AccesToInfo / #RightToKnow day ⬇https://t.co/QsYig7e89e
— POINTPULSE (@POINTPULSEnet) September 27, 2018