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!

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