I had a fantastic and energising talk with my old Panos London colleague Murali Shanmugavelan just now, during which he urged me to read Working-Class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China, by Jack Linchuan Qiu. Here are some extracts of that book, via Google. Just skimming the first few pages, it’s pretty engrossing – buy it!
Over the past four months, we’ve tried to feature and contextualise videos we felt should be seen and debated by a wider audience. Today’s featured human rights video is something completely new.
You may be one of the millions who have sought it out online – or you may have decided to avoid it. Someone – a friend, a colleague, a relative – may have emailed it to you, or called you up to tell you about it. You may have seen a clip of it on the TV news. One way or the other, you’re likely to have an opinion on it, because it’s made for a memorable start to 2007, as political cartoonist blackandblack’s cartoon illustrates:
Click here to launch blackandblack’s blog in a new window.
If anyone was still in any doubt that sousveillance was one of the ideas of the year, then the Saddam video should put that beyond doubt. What’s different about the cellphone footage of the execution of Saddam Hussein, former dictator of Iraq, is that, aside from being probably the most watched web video in history, it has re-ignited a global debate on a perennial human rights issue: capital punishment.
Judging by the Iraqi government’s indignation at the unofficial footage, and the ambivalent reaction of many major media outlets (as detailed by Armenia-based Onnik Krikorian here), they were the only ones genuinely surprised that a cameraphone was smuggled past the security checks into the death chamber. If whoever filmed it had surrendered his cellphone before the hanging, the world may never have seen beyond the mute, carefully-edited, tastefully-faded-out official video of the proceedings.
The real story emerging from the Saddam video is that, in laying bare the huge gap between the managed official account of his execution and the far messier reality, it has provoked people – and many bloggers – to reflect less on whether Saddam merited his fate, and more on the nature and appropriateness of that fate for the age we live in.
Hot on the heels of the Chinese government’s claim of a 22.1% reduction in “mass incidents” (read “protests”), here’s some more video of “mass incidents” from China, in case you missed this portion of John Kennedy’s latest Beijing bulletin:
Backing up to China late last month, students at one technical college in East China’s Jiangxi province found out from a television show that they wouldn’t be getting the four-year university diplomas they had been promised, and some started rioting. There was bloggage here, here and camera footage posted here, but the story didn’t hit YouTube until a few days later. Video clips of the two thousand-strong team of police and soldiers arriving at the school, moving in, inspecting dorms, chasing students and attacking them here: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.
To give you a taste, here’s video number 7, showing the police dispersing protesters:
Hop over to Technorati right now and you’ll see that six out of the top fifteen videos being linked to by bloggers show the same incident – University of California police officers using a taser gun on an Iranian-American student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, in the Powell Library at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). Here’s one of those videos, from UCLA’s student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, which explains the story (which contains some graphic imagery and abusive language):
For more background and reaction, take a look at Iranian group blog Iranian Truth‘s coverage of this story. There may be more coverage in the Persian-language blogosphere – Los Angeles has such a significant Iranian population that it’s sometime humorously called Tehrangeles…
The UCLA incident is one of three videos of different incidents showing police in Los Angeles appearing to use excessive force when arresting suspects. All three videos were shot by ordinary citizens. The first video of the three emerged on YouTube, and showed an LAPD officer punching a handcuffed suspect repeatedly in the face after a foot chase. The second video, which has not appeared online yet, but was shown as evidence to the L.A. Times by the victim’s lawyer on Monday 13th November, involved a homeless, handcuffed suspect being doused in pepper spray by the arresting officer. The officer has since been cleared of wrongdoing, citing the officer’s restraint in the face of the victim’s “belligerent, threatening and combative behavior”.
Emily at PicturePhoning.com provides links to other incidents involving police captured on video by citizens both in the USA and elsewhere. This seems to testify to a trend that can only grow as more and more people get access to videophones. Some groups are encouraging citizens to use their phones and cameras to record abuses by the police and to upload the clips to video-sharing sites. Sherman Austin, a founder of Cop Watch L.A., a police watchdog website, told a Yahoo! reporter that:
We urge everyone to have a camera on them at all times so if anything happens it can be documented. The concept of patrolling the police is something we are trying to push as a form of direct action.
Do you think this could be an effective form of scrutiny of the police?
When a young teacher is found dead outside her apartment building in Ruian, the police report concludes suicide, but her family and students suspect a cover-up. Over a thousand people take to the streets in protest, and are met with police violence. Protestors film the clashes on their cellphones, and upload the clips to Chinese video-sharing sites, but the clips are rapidly taken offline – only to re-appear on other sites, as respected English-language Chinese blog Danwei reported on Tuesday. The Dai Haijing story – pieced together online by Roland Soong of another blog EastSouthWestNorth, or ESWN – is, despite the best efforts of the Chinese authorities, gathering pace online.
It’s clear why the authorities don’t want this footage to be seen. Despite the low definition of the cameraphone, the video clearly shows police officers beating protestors. ESWN quotes one commenter on bingfang.com as saying “Post those video clips and photographs onto international websites and let the world see the so-called democracy in China.” The consequences of doing so are unclear – whoever uploaded the videos to YouTube has a blog, http://dhj2006.blogspot.com/, which now returns the message “Sorry! Blog temporarily closed!” One US-based law professor’s blog suggested that the authorities are sensitive because it reveals the lack of trust in public institutions.
It’s more likely to be a question of timing. Wen Jiabao was in the UK on Tuesday to talk climate change with Tony Blair, and this is a bad time for a story like this to be leaking. The authorities have been concerned by the increase across the country in organised protests – against farmland seizures, corruption, pollution – of which the government said there were 87,000 in 2005, or around 240 per day. The latest release from the Public Security Ministry a month ago showed a slight decrease in protests for the first half of 2006, to 39,000, still well over 200 a day – and well before the Dai Haijing case.
The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders issued a statement Monday claiming an intensified crackdown by the Chinese authorities ahead of two Chinese Communist Party events and the 2008 Olympics. The statement calls for the release of a number of journalists, writers, lawyers and activists arrested and imprisoned in the last month, and robustly states that:
“The ruling authorities appear not to appreciate that their conventional tactics of using harsh crackdown to tighten control in advance of major political or social events has become obsolete. Rights consciousness is on the rise in China and grassroots activities to defend rights have been spreading rapidly. Repression has contributed to a growing and more active community of human rights defenders.”
This series of posts at ESWN illustrates the challenges faced by bloggers trying to get stories like this out to a wider audience, but this doesn’t just affect China’s bloggers – we’d like to hear your stories, wherever you are, about how you make sure videos like these remain online when the authorities seem extremely keen to ensure they get deleted.
This section of GVO is a collaboration between WITNESS and Global Voices Online, and in the coming weeks we’re going to be highlighting a wide range of footage filmed by citizens, as with these videos, or by perpetrators of human rights abuses themselves, as I wrote about last week. We’ll be seeking out videos from cellphones and camcorders, depicting – as in today’s post – protests and reactions to human rights violations, but also many other rights issues including gay rights, refugee rights, prisons, police brutality, and violations by the military as well as the economic, social and cultural rights like those to water, housing, and health and a host of other human rights-related footage. We’ll also be looking for footage of survivors of violations speaking out about abuses.
If you come across videos of this kind, whether on video-sharing sites like Google Video, Photobucket, BlipTV or YouTube, via email, or via MMS, please do let us know, either through the comments facility below, or by email.