Friends and relatives of Mido Macia stand next to his coffin. Photo by Siphiwe Sibeko.
By Meghan McDonough
Early this year, the Human Rights Channel featured two citizen videos that emerged the same week from different corners of the globe, both exposing damning cases of abuse of authority. For the second time since then, we check back in on the impact those videos have made in bringing about justice or driving change. (Read the earlier update.)
Caught on video
On a busy South African street in late February, police officers handcuffed and dragged Mozambican taxi driver, Mido Macia, from the back of a police van when he resisted arrest for parking illegally. Macia died in his jail cell as a result of external and internal injuries he sustained.
In Fiji, a graphic video documenting officers physically and sexually assaulting an escaped detainee went viral, prompting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International to demand a thorough investigation. The Fijian military government, which has a history of torture, stated that it would investigate the incident, though the prime minister pledged his allegiance to his officers.
Warning: This video may be disturbing to some viewers.
Following the internal investigation nine police officers were charged in connection with Macia’s death. The trial, originally scheduled for May, has been delayed and is now on the docket for November. Officers were initially denied bail due to concerns that they would interfere with witnesses, but in an August hearing, the judge agreed with their argument that circumstances had changed, and freed them all on bail. Meanwhile, Macia’s family is still waiting on government compensation for their son’s deaths.
The Mido Macia case may have been the only one caught on camera, but it is just one example in a long pattern of police brutality in the country, and it has amplified calls for reform. In July, the South African Police Service (SAPS) submitted a press release calling for the public to “Help create a professional, accountable and responsive police service” as part of an open consultation process on policing. Workshops around the country aimed to resolve issues including “ill-discipline by some members of law enforcement agencies.” Later that month, after Transparency International released a survey exposing the prevalence of bribery within the South African police, the force resurrected an anti-corruption unit.
Reality might prove to be slightly different, notes Peter Gastrow of The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. Gastrow sees the SAPS’s recent moves as more of a façade than anything else: “The draft policy document has been written behind closed doors, and the consultation process is now being rushed through, leaving little room for meaningful public input.” Alarmingly, the document hardly addresses the issue of impunity regarding criminal conduct within SAPS.
Warning: The video linked to below contains graphic images and may be disturbing to some viewers.
Immediately after the video’s release, three officers were reportedly fired, and the police department claimed to be investigating the case. A couple recognized the face of one of the victims in the video as their son, Iowane Benedito, and the police force confirmed that he was an escaped detainee who had been recaptured along with three others. Benedito remains in prison, though may be released in September. The government has yet to provide any information about its investigation into the torture that appears in the video.
While the UN calls for more Pacific nations to ratify the Convention Against Torture, the Fijian Prime Minister has not responded, appearing to stand by his initial comment: “At the end of the day, I will stick by my men, by the police officers or anyone else that might be named in this investigation.”
In March, the Lowy Institute for International Policy published a piece examining the current state of police brutality in Fiji. The author predicts that the video’s spread may change a predicament that has been occurring for years without significant backlash: “In an age where social media plays such an important role in influencing the thinking of young people, [Prime Minister] Bainimarama would do well to consider the implications of his management of this incident on his country’s image as a tourist destination and its dependence on the tourism dollar.”
In fact, the case has gained significant attention in the region. New Zealand parliament took a symbolic vote to formally condemn the Fijian government, and Australian union leaders launched an online campaign called Destination Fiji: A vacation from worker’s rights, urging tourists from Australia and New Zealand to increase pressure against the human rights violations of Fiji’s military government.
Moving beyond witnessing
Whether in South Africa, Fiji, or the United States (think Rodney King), citizen video can play a crucial role in exposing abuses of authority. Without such documentation, the voice of the victim is usually undermined by those in power. These two videos significantly drew international attention to issues local human rights advocates have long documented.
However, the potential of the videos to help bring about justice is dependent on other factors including the strength of the justice system and the freedom of the press. When the trial of the South African police officers begins, we’ll be watching to see if and how the eyewitness video plays a role. In Fiji, the vast majority of police brutality cases are not documented due to media suppression.
Yet as reported by the Global Mail, a local underground student-led campaign called Say Nothing, Video Everything has arisen to fill the void in Fiji. And in South Africa, this online petition created in response to the Mido Macia citizen video reflects social media’s crowdsourcing potential.
Viral video indeed makes everyone a witness. The question now is how can all of those witnesses be active participants in creating change?
Meghan interned with the Human Rights Channel during the summer 2013.