Right to Record Law Enforcement Critical for Accountability

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) is concerned about news reports that Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador has barred citizens from recording videos of policemen at roadblocks across the country. He apparently said that “this was an irresponsible action and contravened the movement control order (MCO)”. The Inspector-General’s statements were not only dangerous, they were also unclear. He threatened citizens who film the police with arrest, but also reportedly claimed that “if they have gone out to purchase goods, it is not a problem, but if they purposely go out to record the roadblocks, then it is an offence.” The Inspector-General must make it clear that any citizen who is out in order to purchase goods, visit a doctor, or another valid reason, is also able to film the police while doing so.

SUARAM views these statements as an unlawful violation of the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 10 of our Constitution. That right can only be restricted in special circumstances. Protecting the public image of the police is not a matter of security or health. For many people, exercising their contemporary right to free expression regularly involves taking out their camera or handphone and filming.

The Right to Record is clearly protected under provisions of international human rights standards such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights that protect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the right to information.

Christof Heynes, former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has stated that governments must respect and protect the “the individual’s right to make a recording of a public event, including the conduct of law enforcement officials”

Further, there is nothing in current legislation that bars citizens from recording the work of law enforcement officials unless it is interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations or it involves privacy related issues where consent would be required. Filming the police at a roadblock is not in and of itself interference.

Recording is also crucial to ensure adequate oversight of law enforcement officials. While most police officers may be carrying out their duty according to the law there have already been reports of ill-treatment and abuses by the police. The ability for citizens to record and expose such abuses is a critical aspect of police accountability and provides victims with access to a remedy and redress. At a time when other forms of oversight such as the media and civil society are distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens must be able to document without fear of arrest, violence, or other retaliation.

SUARAM believes that the police should have nothing to fear about these recordings if it is carrying out its duty according to the law. Further, where enforcement officers have been accused of being high-handed and violating human rights, these recordings will offer a truthful account of what occurred.

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