Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Endangered: Our right to ’shoot’ in public

13 February 2008, Colombo: Earlier this week, a leading Sri Lankan photojournalist was detained, questioned and released by police for taking photographs near a well-known Colombo school.

According to news reports, Associated Press (AP) photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe was apprehended by a group of parents who formed the school’s civil defence committee. They had handed him over to soldiers on duty near by, and he was briefly detained by the Narahenpita police.

It is not clear exactly why the experienced and credentialed photojournalist had to undergo this treatment. This might seem a minor incident in the context of highly dangerous conditions in which Sri Lankan journalists operate today. It was only a few days earlier that the World Association of Newspapers ranked Sri Lanka as the third deadliest place for journalists (6 killed in 2007), behind only Iraq and Somalia.

But Gemunu’s experience is highly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is depressing that some members of the public have resorted to challenging and apprehending journalists lawfully practising their profession which responds to the public’s right to know. Battered and traumatised by a quarter century of conflict, Sri Lankan society has become paranoid. Everything seems to be ‘high S’: practically every city corner a high security place; every unknown person deemed highly suspicious; and everybody, highly strung.

Secondly, far from being an isolated incident, this seems to be part of a disturbing new trend. Anyone with a still or video camera in a public place is suspected – and presumed guilty until proven otherwise. This endangers everyone’s basic right to click for personal or professional purposes.

Some previous incidents attracted much attention. One involved two French journalists from France 24 news channel, who were detained last Christmas eve for video filming a road block in Rathgama in southern Sri Lanka. A Tamil family whom they were filming, as well as the driver and assistant of their mini-bus were also arrested.

“Videoing a road block is not a crime to keep whole family and two journalists overnight in a police station,” the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka protested at the time. “There are so many instances that road blocks are filmed for various purposes including news reporting. Making a film on a family is not a crime either.”

While journalists working for the mainstream local and foreign media organisations – who carry government-issued accreditation – face these difficulties, Sri Lanka’s growing breed of ‘citizen journalists’ have found it even harder to bear witness in the public interest.

Citizen journalism is when ordinary people, with no formal training or affiliation in the mainstream media, engage in gathering and disseminating of information, opinions and images they believe to be in the public interest. In recent years, the proliferation of digital cameras and mobile phones, and easier access to the Internet, have created new opportunities and platforms for citizen journalists.

The simplest way for them to self-publish their content is through blogs, which are personalised websites that can be set up within minutes with anyone having basic computer skills. But some might choose to photograph or video film a public incident and turn it over to mainstream media for dissemination.

That happened on Boxing Day 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit coastal areas in South and Southeast Asia without any public warning. Stunned holiday-makers and local residents captured dramatic images of the killer waves with their handicams or mobile phones. TV networks and ‘professional’ reporters arrived hours later, and many relied on citizen-captured imagery to tell the big story.

The mega-disaster marked a turning point for citizen journalism in Sri Lanka. According to researcher and new media activist Sanjana Hattotuwa, citizen journalists are increasingly playing a major role in meaningfully reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict, often glossed over or sensationalised by traditional media.

Hattotuwa contributed an incisive chapter called ‘Who’s afraid of citizen journalists?’ to a book titled Communicating Disasters that I edited last year. He argued that the ready availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) per se does not guarantee public-spirited citizen journalism.

He wrote: “In Sri Lanka, the significant deterioration of democracy in 2006-2007 has resulted in a country where anxiety and fear overwhelm a sense of civic duty to bear witness to so much of what is wrong. No amount of mobile phones and PCs is going to magically erase this deep rooted fear of harm for speaking one’s mind out.”

This makes the courage and persistence of the few citizen journalists even more commendable. But unlike journalists working in the mainstream, they lack trade unions or pressure groups to safeguard their interests. The citizen journalist in Sri Lanka is very much a loner — and very vulnerable.

In recent months, pedestrians who filmed public bomb attacks on their mobile phones have been confronted by the police. One citizen who passed on such footage to an independent TV channel was later vilified as a ‘traitor’. Overly suspicious (or jealous?) neighbours called the police about a friend who was running his video editing business from home in suburban Colombo.

None of these individuals had broken any known law. Yet each one had to protest their innocence.

It may not be illegal, but it sure has become difficult and hazardous to use a camera in public in Sri Lanka today. Forget political demonstrations or bomb attacks that attract media attention. Covering even the most innocuous, mundane aspects of daily life can be misconstrued as a ‘security threat’.

A fellow blogger recently wrote a moving piece about a 65-year-old woman who sells fruits and vegetables at her local market in Colombo. In the ensuing exchange, she revealed how she had been surrounded and questioned by four men and the police, who demanded whether she had ‘permission from the municipality to photograph’.

Luckily, the vegetable sellers came to the rescue. “They…said they asked me to come with the camera to take some photographs of them,” she wrote, posing the question: “Do we have to have a camera license like a gun license of yesteryear?”

If that were to happen – perish the thought – not only civil liberties and media freedoms, but our progress to information society would suffer a serious setback.

Exactly whose security is being endangered? In this day of Google Earth, when detailed satellite images of every nook and corner of the land is available on the web at a few mouse clicks, what additional information could a camera-totting individual really gather?

Less than three decades ago in Romania, under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, it was illegal to own a typewriter without an official licence. Regimes before and since have tried to over-regulate citizens’ access to information and their opportunity to generate their own.

Even in liberal democracies, bureaucrats occasionally try to push the limits. For example, New York city officials last year proposed new regulations that could have forced tourists taking snapshots in Times Square and filmmakers capturing street scenes to obtain permits and $1 million in liability insurance. The plans were shelved only in the face of strong pubic protests, spearheaded by an Internet campaign that included an online petition signed by over 31,000 and a rap video that mocked the new rules. Photographers, film-makers and the New York Civil Liberties Union played a lead role in this campaign, which asked people to ‘picture New York without pictures of New York’.

As Tony Overman, President of the National Press Photographers Association in the US, remarked the day after the revocation: “We are offended at the notion that a city agency or police officer would have the power to keep a photographer from taking a picture or video on a public street. City property belongs to the citizens and the city has no right to limit safe, constitutionally protected behaviour in a public venue.”

Wisely, New York -– scene of one of the worst terrorist attacks in history –- did not allow bitter memories or paranoia to limit civil liberties. But citizens and photographers had to fight for that freedom.

Indeed, “F8 and Be There!” is an old expression among photojournalists. The point being that the technical aspects of a photo are less important than being there when things happen!

“Being there at the right place at the right time is probably the most important thing that a trained photographer learns to do, and that is precisely why he/she is a threat,” says the noted Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, a former jury chair of World Press Photo. “A photographer can report an event ‘as it happened’. It makes it more difficult for the spin doctors, for those who take law into their own hands, for those who would rather not be made accountable. That is why photography is such a threat — and precisely why we must fight to defend our right to photograph.”

Who will F8 for our right to click and shoot in Sri Lanka’s public place?