Social upheaval is surging through the world–protests against economic protests buffet Europe, protests against politics rock in the Middle East. Governments are responding with new laws to suppress citizens’ right to film police. Will they succeed?

By Julia Gilbert.

While an intern at WITNESS, I came to understand better the profound importance of footage captured and shared by “ordinary” citizens. Citizen video has never been more consequential than it is today, when over 100,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each day.

In November, a bystander shot and posted a video of riot police beating a teenaged boy to the ground in Tarragona, Spain. I was one of over half a million people who witnessed this human rights violation. Similarly, civilians like those at Occupy demonstrations and Kuwaiti protests have shared their stories with the world through uploaded video. And indeed, over the course of many millions of views, the world has seen and listened.

At the most basic level, to film and photograph in a public space is to exercise one’s right to free speech. Today’s proliferation of cameras and mobile technology has led to a massive increase in the volume of information being collected and communicated. This has resulted in increased transparency in government, business, and social movements alike. Specifically, the right of citizens to film and photograph police allows civilians to take largely unbiased records of incidents of misconduct and abuse; in many parts of the world, these can later be used to hold parties accountable for their actions and to raise awareness of similar occurrences.

Will New Spanish Law Protect Anonymity or Violate Freedom of Speech?

In Spain, in light of the nation’s tanking economy and a subsequent outbreak of civilian protests, policymakers are drafting a law that would prohibit citizens from taking photos and video of police officers. According to the act’s supporters, by banning “the capture, reproduction and editing of images, sounds, and… information about police while they’re working”, this measure would protect officers’ right to anonymity and would mitigate bystanders’ interference in police activity. Furthermore, they contend that it would reduce the circulation of misleading footage of alleged misconduct, which could otherwise potentially misinform viewers by failing to capture the full context, including what occurred outside the frame and before/after the video was captured.

Those who oppose the law argue that the ban is an attempt to quell civilians’ awareness of and response to police misconduct and human rights violations. They point out that the ban would violate journalists’ and photographers’ freedom of press and citizens’ freedom of speech. Although police officers are entitled to privacy, many argue that their right to anonymity should be preserved only when it does not infringe on the rights of other citizens, as this bill threatens to do.

Given this intense opposition and controversy, it is uncertain whether the law will be passed, and, if passed, if it would even be enforceable. Regardless of whether it is ultimately implemented, however, the ban raises important concerns about citizen video’s place in society.

In contrast to Spain, the United States has established legal precedents that protect citizens’ rights to film and photograph in public spaces, and U.S.-based groups like the ACLU actively advocate to uphold these rights. Even within the U.S., laws related to one’s right to privacy vary from state to state. For example, until recently, Illinois law forbade recording audio of police officers, even in a public space – an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Admittedly, the fact that these rules exist on paper is no guarantee that they are enforced, as evidenced by numerous cases of unlawful arrests of citizens who were filming or photographing in accordance with the law.

The Importance of Protecting Freedom of Expression

Particularly after the events of September 11, 2001, the belief that photography in public is suspect and threatening has become more and more prevalent. As the United Kingdom implements its Counter Terrorism Act and the Spanish government proposes its ban on photographing police, it grows increasingly evident that even in countries that value freedom of expression, it is necessary to advocate for the preservation of citizen video and photography.

If properly implemented, the U.S.’ legal protection of film and photography could serve as a precedent for other nations. By capturing video and photos, people across the country and around the world can and must provide a crucial check-and-balance to civilian and authoritarian misconduct. But first, we must exercise our rights.

How have you seen citizen video and photography affect events in your community? What impact do you foresee citizen video having in 2013 and in years to come?

Julia Gilbert is a senior at Montpelier High School in Vermont. 

3 thoughts on “New Laws Threaten To Restrict Filming of Police Actions Worldwide

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