Saturday, August 24, 2013

Know Your Rights (1): Taking Police's Photographs

  • Translated by Dương Ánh Hồng

In an evening of late August, 2009, I was “urgently arrested” at a café in the central of Hanoi for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens”, violating Article 258 of the Penal Code.

I still remember the full name of the police officer who read the arrest warrant with a threatening face and suppressive voice. Also, I cannot forget how stuck and helpless I was getting on the following days. I even burst into tears in the interrogation room for I did not know how to prove my innocence, and I could not understand why I was involved in a “national security” issue. I, sometimes, was pale-faced and trembled with fear at the thought of being convicted of so many serious crimes for which how long I would be sentenced in prison…

On those days, I never thought that I would be one of the people signing in Statement 258 of the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers four years later, demanding for the abrogation of Article 258 to demonstrate Vietnam’s Human Rights Council candidacy commitment.

However, there is one matter I have thought about over and over so far, that is, laws must be a tool to protect the right to freedoms of the citizen, not the regime; and, the citizen must understand the basics of laws, meaning understanding his/her own freedom rights or else he/she will be repressed, or in common speech, “bullied” by the State.

The more events in which the police and security officers abusing power for their benefits to put the society and citizens at a disadvantage I witness, the more I realize that background knowledge of politics, laws and concepts such as rule of law, human rights … have been becoming urgent needs for all of us. Know your rights. Know how to apply laws as a device for self-protection. And, know how to reject an defective law system.

To the extent of my knowledge, I have made my best effort to act beyond my ability, that is, to publicize simple writings on laws and human rights, attached to concrete situations in real life, so that we will altogether learn about a broad, complicated and extremely essential field in improving the society.

What I am writing here, for sure, is not a universal truth, so the question remains open for readers’ comments and conclusion.

The story today begins with a recent event in which I have been involved to some extent.

* * *

TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF A POLICE OFFICER

Situation

On Friday, 9 August, 2013, a police officer coming to my house as appointed with my mother on phone before. My mother did not know her, whereas I knew her but was not in Vietnam for I was staying in Bangkok to participate in handing Statement 258 to international organizations there.

Despite the rain, she arrived on time. Apart from my mother and her, there were some of my friends who are bloggers in my house. The conversation focused on me and my job. The atmosphere was calm. However, some time later, one more blogger, Nguyen Chi Duc, appeared. He held the camera and shot a picture of this police officer.

Then she got angry and insulted Duc as “being uneducated” for taking photo without any consent. To dissuade her action, my mother said, “Here we are in my house, so who prohibits him from taking a photo of his friends?” Still, the woman kept furious, scolding and eventually left my house. Later she called my mother and said, “If you continue to invite Doan Trang’s friends to your house like this time, you will cause bad problems to your daughter.”

Photo by Nguyen Chi Duc 
(aka. Dong Hai Long Vuong, the Dragon King of the East Sea)

Question

The question is: In this situation, is the behavior that Nguyen Chi Duc took a picture without consent considered as a wrongdoing or not?

My answer is as followed:

Nguyen Chi Duc did not need to ask for permission in advance before taking a picture of the police officer, because Duc was recording images of an officer of a civil authority which receives tax from citizens to perform an official duty, in details, to question a citizen.

Duc’s action lies within scope of supervising activities of a civil authority and an officer of that authority, which is legitimate (regulated in Article 53 of Constitution “The citizen has the right to participate in the administration of the State and management of society”) and in conformity with the spirit of laws “the citizen has the right to take any action which is not prohibited by laws”, “the citizen has the right to supervise the activities of authority officers.”

Supposedly, the police officer argues, “I go to Doan Trang’s house just to visit her family, not to be on my official duty. The action that Nguyen Chi Duc took a picture of me, hence, obviously violated Article 31 of the Civil Law in terms of the right of an individual to his/her own picture”.

My answer is: Security and police officers (referred to as police) have sought to circumvent the phrase “to undertake a mission” by using euphemisms such as “to have an informal meeting” or “to have a coffee and discuss”, meaning nothing serious. To clarify the meaning of “an informal meeting”, however, there are three points as below:

  • First, for an informal meeting, it is required to get agreement as well as goodwill from the citizen. In addition, the conversation must not be related to any information which caused disadvantage to either the citizen’s side or the third party.
  • Second, for an informal meeting, the police officer shall not introduce himself/herself as an authority officer. And, during the conversation, he/she absolutely does not have the right to exploit and use information collected (if any) for any purpose.
  • The last but most important is that, the citizen has the right to refuse such a kind of informal meeting offered by the police officer.

All the information clears up that the police officer’s visiting on that day aimed at conducting her mission; consequently, it is legal to take a picture of her without any consent.

Image courtesy of AFP.

Quotes

“The behavior of filming or taking pictures lies within scope of the citizen’s rights in terms of supervising the activities of the police. Accordingly, using camera to record images of the police is a completely legitimate action” (as per Senior Lieutenant-General Le The Tiem’s answer in an interview conducted by Tuoi Tre Newspapers, article dated 4 December, 2010, available at: http://tuoitre.vn/chinh-tri-xa-hoi/414203/quay-phim-chup-anh-la-quyen-cua-dan.html)

“Pressurizing/ Putting relatives and friends under psychological crisis is a basic and familiar tactic of the police, especially applied to people who are supposed to be political dissidents. Ironically, there are very few citizens who know how to cope with such “underworld” trickeries employed by forces under the green cloak. Sometimes, people are so fearful to be aware that they are not involved in the issue at all, so there’s no reason to report the police about their children or friends. As a matter of fact, the more they are nervous, the more information the police exploit from them” (as per jurist cum journalist Trinh Huu Long).