23 January 2010

I'm a Photographer, not a Terrorist!

© I'm a Photographer, not a Terrorist

At last, Liberty won a landmark case at the ECHR regarding stop and search powers of UK police. "Today the Court of Human Rights ruled that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (the broad police power for stop and search without suspicion) violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights."(Liberty, ibid)

The ECHR's decision is regarded as a victory against the increasing harassment of journalists, street photographers, art and architecture and other students who take pictures or record video material in urban public places. Even tourists have not been spared, the most prominent case of which being Austrian Klaus Matzka (who happens to be a retired cameraman for Austrian national channel ORF) and his teenage son Loris who were taking artistic pictures outside of Vauxhall underground station and in Walthamstow where they were forced to delete all their pictures. I quote: "In a telephone interview from his home in Vienna, Matzka said: 'I've never had these experiences anywhere, never in the world, not even in Communist countries.' "

The whole issue has sparked immense outrage against already extensive stop and search powers of police officers and is fuelling fears of an ever increasing curb on civil liberties, in this case, freedom of speech. In the last few years, amateur and professional photographers alike have both been subject to detention, deletion of pictures (which is actually not within the police officer's power to decide and illegal unless the picture can be proven to be intended for the use of committing a serious crime) or even arrest .

The enforcement during protests and demonstrations have played a major role in consolidating the broad interpretation of anti-terrorism laws, especially after the controversy around police conduct at G20 protests in Liverpool Street back in April and whether it led to the death of one peaceful protester who died of a stroke after being shoved by a police officer exercising "crowd control". Many fear that the additional misuse/abuse of Section 44 is eroding freedom of expression and infringing the freedom of the press and ultimately, by proxy, civil society. Yes, a city like London or a country engaged in a controversial war like the UK obviously does have reasonable security concerns and nobody says anything against ensuring the safety of civilians. However, terrorism hysteria or even any mismanaged political pressure on executive officials can only be ideologically counter-productive and leads to a society based on mistrust - not just against citizens but also against the police. In a public statement on the Met's website published last December, Assistant Commissioner of Special Operations John Yates concedes in a guidance to officers and staff stop and search photo policy:

"These are important yet intrusive powers. They form a vital part of our overall tactics in deterring and detecting terrorist attacks. We must use these powers wisely. Public confidence in our ability to do so rightly depends upon your common sense. We risk losing public support when they are used in circumstances that most reasonable people would consider inappropriate."

There are two video accounts published in a daily newspaper that illustrate well the issue at hand. Italian art student Simona Bomono, 32, was actually filming the moment when she was arrested in November 2009 while filming for fun. And journalist Paul Lewis takes his camera to a London landmark and minutes later police officers are on their way.

The founder of "I'm a Photographer, not a Terrorist!", photojournalist Marc Vallée is "currently working on a long-term project to document political protest and dissent in modern Britain. Marc is also a investigative journalist who has worked on major investigations on police surveillance of protesters and journalists as well as covert state targeting of environmental activists." Find his comment here.

The Independent reported in December 2009:

The British Journal of Photography says it has received a steadily increasing number of complaints this year. Olivier Laurent, the magazine's news editor, said: "The person will normally be taking a photograph of something perfectly mundane and a police officer will approach them and either claim that they can't take photos in that particular place or they will ask the photographer to explain what they are up to and record their details.

"Those who refuse to co-operate have been threatened with arrest for either breaching the peace or impeding the public highway. We find that a lot of the time police officers are not even aware of the rules governing photography in a public place."

Marc Vallee, a photojournalist who specialises in documenting protests, has become so exasperated at how often photographers are questioned or searched by officers that he has co-founded a campaign group to keep tabs on how public photography is being policed. The "I'm a photographer, not a terrorist" campaign group now has more than 4,000 supporters and has held a number of protests, including outside Scotland Yard, to highlight what they believe is the growing harassment of amateur and professional photographers by police and over-zealous council officials.

"Why is the act of taking a picture deemed by the state to be so potentially threatening? Photography is not a crime but it is being routinely criminalised," he said. "Anti-terrorism legislation talks about creating a hostile environment for terrorists to operate but the reality is that it is creating a hostile environment for public photography. That has an incredibly detrimental effect on freedom of speech."(The Independent, ibid)

... which is why in February 2009, photographers protested at New Scotland Yard.

On 23 January 2010 and around the time of the ECHR's decision, "I'm a Photographer, not a Terrorist!" organised a mass gathering in Trafalgar Square - and received massive public support. See for yourselves:

But the victory doesn't last long: The ink on the ECHR ruling about stop and search powers hasn't even dried yet and a few days later already, there is serious talk about the use of surveillance drones in routine policing!

12 January 2010

The London Freeze

I am sitting, wrapped in three layers of clothes and blankets (each) on the floor of my room, next to the badly working radiator, having ice-skated down the road to my house - without ice-skates of course. At least, councils are starting to get on top of providing grit, on more frequented streets than ours at least...

Even though London is supposed to be warmer than the continent, it's far more freezing on this side of the Channel. As any person knows who has spent a fair amount of time in the UK, the British cold is sth that goes right to the bone. It must of course be the chill effect due to the higher humidity. Bloody Britain. I guess some peoples got unlucky when the norns were waving their future nation, one of them to become the UK. Britain got dealt a really bad geological feng shui (usually a constant small margin of mild temperature, endless grey skies, hardly ever sunlight, such humidity that constructing buildings is tricky and of course, a symbolic geo-political location between the United states and the European Union - by the way, I am reading Chris Patten's book now which seems to confirm many observations I have formed about the UK and provides even greater insight into some political dynamics).

As I already indicated, my heating is somehow broken, it only heats within a radius of 0.5 meters (my bed is 1.5m away) and not as warm as other radiators in our house. In order to get any warmth I can, I sleep on the floor, right next to it but still freeze at night when we switch off the heating. Having sleeping troubles because of that is the real price I pay for a house that is cheap but an environmental sin (non-existent insulation and drafting windows leading not just to insufficient heating but to the necessity to heat in the first place, running tap and of course flatmates who keep buying non-ecological cleaning products). In Austria, you don't even have to switch the heating on to be have a comfortable ambient temperature and if you leave the heating on for too long, you can even start to sweat because the insulation is so tight, you'll be cooking yourself and Britain wants to achieve 30% CO2 emissions?!

I cannot fall asleep or sleep through and the orange stadium-strength light illuminating the mews outside my window behind our house is not helping and even if I sleep the hours, I don't feel rested.

As another result of the cold, our bathroom was damaged. The new paint, only received in October, is now flaking off the ceiling because we just could not open the bathroom window to let out the steam from the hotter-than-usual shower we'd take for longer-than-usual if we did not want to let in the cold into a tiled room surrounded in nothing much than bricks. The cold would not just stay in the bathroom, it would also take hold of the staircase leading to the other rooms in the house and also make the bathroom even colder than it already was if you needed to use the loo in there. It was so cold in those weeks, that you could actually see the condensation of your breath WITHOUT even having showered at all, like for example while you were trying to fight the goosebumps on your behind once it touches the toilet seat. When you wash your hands, the tab water makes your hands all red and numb. When you shower, you can see yourself giving off actual steam for a few minutes. When you do shower, that is for you tend to postpone showering for up to a week - until you can't bear to run around like a big health and safety hazard.

Despite all this, I do not want to buy a radiator for reasons of environmental recycling and considering it is my last winter in the UK, it is just extra stuff you won't need. I'm sure they sold like hot rolls though (note the irony).

Speaking of dump, rubbish bins were not emptied for weeks because most staff had been reassigned for snow clearance and then, when it did get warmer, some councils wanted to stick to their bi-weekly collections (what kind of council collects every two weeks in the first place?!) despite the fact that bins in front of people's houses were piling up so high, I once winced in fright because I mistook a bin for a tall bulky person in the darkness of the moment, suddenly appearing in the corner of my eye.

And all the while, the space dedicated to the snow in print news became bigger and bigger. Even the Guardian could not help but add article after article to the front page section about the snow every couple of hours, annoying the hell out of me for real news is happening out there and they are wasting capacity for this?! I wrote a slightly bemused complaints email to them, asking if it was possible to do a tongue-and-cheek feature interviewing continental Europeans on their view about all the fuss around snow British people make. I never got a reply.

SOAS was covered in snow, so much so that one procrastinating or very mesmerised SOAS person even found it an event news-worthy enough to share their excitement with the world by posting a comment on the website, illustration included. The snow was of course, also worthy of a library closure (among other disruptions) because "it would take all day to heat the library" which reminds of Big Snow in February when thousands of people stayed home because they could not be bothered to go to work or find a way to. Aren't the British reputed for their lack of work ethic?

In the mornings, I am not sure whether to put on cream or not. It's like spreading ice cream around your face, except the Shea butter is nearly solid and it takes a while if you don't want to leave the house looking like stepping out straight from a Winnetou movie with war paint on my face.

I change in the kitchen (Siberian shower!) for it's warmer down there due to appliances and not being right under the roof. Sometimes I sleep there too. Makes the trip to the kettle shorter.

On the way to uni, I dodge what I first thought was a sudden break of cloud, then i thought sb was doing a prank on me until I saw it was the water of melting icicles running down the jalousie of some kebab stall. WTF?!

And of course, once again a video clip about "servere weather conditions" (sic!) I wonder if the Met Office really said that?!