Under the lens: ‘Right’ vs ‘rights’

Jan 2006 | Comments Off on Under the lens: ‘Right’ vs ‘rights’

The New York Civil Liberties Union has challenged curbs on people’s right to photograph public places

Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma has sued New York City for being `detained and harassed’ by its police while making a documentary about ordinary folks in a post-9/11 world. Backing Sharma’s suit, the New York Civil Liberties Union has challenged curbs on people’s right to photograph public places. Police offi cers confronted Sharma in May 2005 for allegedly fi lming a “sensitive building”. They interrogated him for three hours. Despite “cooperating with them, they treated me like a criminal,” the maker of Final Solution, a documentary on the Gujarat riots, said. Mr Sharma was told he needed a permit to fi lm on city streets and then was denied one without explanation when he applied to the Mayor’s Offi ce of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, the lawsuit said. (Hindustan Times, January 12, 2006, New Delhi).

How to interprete this? Is it a scar of terror or a scare of terrorism? Is photography of a public place in New York illegal? I was surprised. Had such an incident occurred in any of the many countries that practice strict information regime, I would have not reacted. But when such incident happens in a country that champions all kind of ‘rights’ and ‘rights’ and at times does not mind going to any extent to enforce its ‘rightful’ prescriptions, it raises many questions. Instead of dealing with the issues raised by Mr Rakesh Sharma about harassment and humiliation in US, my concern is the law itself that supposedly prohibits taking pictures of public places. Existence of such laws in a mighty country like US further strengthens the arguments that advocate the restriction on the fl ow of the nature of information in public domain mostly in the name of national security. Worse, it does dampen and weaken the spirit of those who favour a liberal policy of information sharing. These people contest the basic logic of restriction on the ground that in most of the cases what we try to hide is already available in public domain.

In fact, the pace of technological changes in the fi eld of data capturing and its dissemination is forcing the concerned authorities to redefi ne their perception, approach and strategies. It was not long ago that clicking a photograph in an airport in India was prohibited. This rule was termed as “silly and ridiculous” by Lt Gen Ranjit Singh, SM, Engineer-inchief and Senior Col Comdt, the Corps of Engineers, Indian Army. On one hand, when a country like India is making efforts to make available spatial data for civilian and developmental purposes through landmark initiatives like the National Map Policy and National Spatial Data Infrastructure, such events taking place in other parts of the world indicate a very different trend. Anyway, in an era of ‘multiple standards’ when different yardsticks are applied to different people in similar situations, it is a challenge to explore and evolve innovative responses in dealing with security needs and civil liberties.


Bal Krishna, Editor

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