Photojournalists usually bear witness to unfolding events, and then share it with the rest of us. It’s not everyday that they make the news themselves.
This photojournalist, Gemunu Amarasinghe working for Associated Press in Sri Lanka, just did. Earlier this week, he was detained, questioned and released by police — all for taking photographs near a well-known Colombo school.
According to news reports, Gemunu 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. Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement has already protested to the police chief on this – the latest in a series of worrying incidents.
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.
In an op ed essay published today on the citizen journalism website Groundviews, I have discussed the far reaching implications of this latest trend – when misguided citizens turn on professional or citizen journalists simply taking photos in public places. That’s still not illegal in Sri Lanka, where many liberties have been curtailed in the name of anti-terrorism.
As I write: “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.
Cartoon from Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka
“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.”
I mention some examples of this cameraphobia. 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’.
I stress the point that, unlike journalists working in the mainstream media, citizen journalists lack trade unions or pressure groups to safeguard their interests. The citizen journalist in Sri Lanka is very much a loner — and very vulnerable.
And it’s not just in war-torn Sri Lanka that the right to take photos or film video is under siege. I cite a recent example from what is supposed to be a more liberal democracy: in the US, where 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 public 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’.