Outcry at ban on crime figures

South Africans face a crime information blackout for a year or longer, despite the fact that the government will continue to collect and analyse statistics for its own purposes.

This means that the public, including foreign investors and tourists, will be denied information until the authorities lift the ban.

The blocking of the further release of statistics by Steve Tshwete, the minister for safety and security, follows a recent instruction by the national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, that the system of collection be revised and new computer technology installed to weed out "flaws".

The blackout, however, has angered crime analysts, researchers and opposition politicians who say the moratorium comes at a time when the number of reported crimes is "at an all-time high".

"It's an absolute abuse of power and a sinister attempt by Tshwete and the government to manipulate and manage the news - to spin the situation as it suits them. It's outrageous that they think they can get away with this in a democratic country," said the Democratic Party's spokesperson on safety and security, Douglas Gibson.

Selebi's spokesperson, Sally de Beer, denied that there was a political motive for the ban and said Selebi required accurate statistics for operational reasons.

De Beer said issuing figures to the public was not Selebi's "main priority". She said they "should be in a position to review the decision in twelve months' time".

She said it was difficult to pinpoint the extent of the problem, that inaccuracies could be as high as 15 percent but could also be within the internationally accepted error margin of 5 percent.

Selebi's "doubts with regard to accuracy" and the fact that top police management viewed the figures with "scepticism" led to the moratorium by Tshwete, De Beer said.

Antoinette Louw of the Institute for Security Studies said: "The motive for the moratorium is unclear and it raises questions about the integrity of statistics. The reality is that violent crime is increasing, especially robbery.

"The government is increasingly calling on NGOs, business and civil society to help combat crime but at the same time is telling us we can't have the crime figures. I'm not convinced that the problems are bad enough to warrant a moratorium. This decision is very bad for public confidence."

Louw said that if the blackout was to last a year, the government should commit to running a "victim survey", as it did two years ago, to ensure that some crime information was available to the public.

Louw also questioned why the recommendations made by the 1998 Orkin commission of inquiry into the system - on which the institute had representation - had never been made public.

One of the recommendations was that statistics should be released more often. An independent analyst, who declined to be named, said: "Whatever the internal intentions are, its having the unintended effect of undermining public confidence."

The head of the South African Police Service's crime information analysis centre, Chris de Kock, said that revising the system was a "continuous process" and that about 500 stations, which covered 75 percent of South Africa's crime, already had trained analysts in place.

But despite the centre having statistics available, De Kock said dealing with queries after releasing them put too much pressure on resources needed to focus on the revision. He did not believe that there would be a "dramatic difference" in figures once the moratorium was lifted.

But De Kock said crime statistics had a "major impact" on foreign investment and tourism and needed to be accurate.

"Our website is visited by a lot of overseas people so we must be sure we don't undermine confidence by having the wrong statistics," he said.

Selebi has repeatedly cited examples of crimes such as rapes being registered as robberies and pick-pocketing as cash-in-transit heists but De Kock said this "happens all over the world".

The real problem was that the report system on location was "too wide" and needed to be specific to "street corners".

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