A hostage-taking situation just like what happened in Manila last Monday (23 August 2010) is one of the scenarios that was used to justify the Public Order Act, Section 38 of which empowers the police to prohibit photography and videography. At the second reading of the bill on 13 April 2009, Second Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said,
There are also specific situations where recording an on-going incident can potentially jeopardise the success of security operations or the safety of officers. The recent Mumbai terrorist incident is a case in point, where journalists and private individuals were able to film the operations of security forces as the events unfolded. Potentially, indiscriminate filming could give information to the terrorists about what security forces were doing or planning to do, jeopardise rescue operations, and harm the lives of the victims and the officers conducting the rescue.
He was referring to the standoff at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai in November 2008, one of several simultaneous attacks around the city mounted by gunmen with alleged links to Islamist organisations.
In the Manila incident, in which 8 hostages were killed, television cameramen and reporters were on scene providing live coverage through almost all the eleven hours it took to end the crisis. It was reported that these broadcasts could be received on board the bus held by hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, and through them, he could see where security officers were as they surrounded the vehicle. This severely compromised police operations. Here’s an example of the live coverage from one of the many TV stations:
Let me isolate one scene (at 3 min 52 sec) from the above which shows policemen trying to sneak up close to the bus, but this would have been defeated when, via television, Mendoza himself could see them approaching.
The same thing had happened in Mumbai, and again, it was said to have been a huge hindrance to security personnel.
In fact, in Manila, the ubiquity of cameras and reporters reached incredible heights. Here’s a video grab (at 07 min 37 sec) from another I found on Youtube showing the hostage-taker’s brother, Gregorio Mendoza, negotiating over the phone with him.
Was every word uttered in the negotiation process broadcast live?
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Should such a crisis occur in Singapore, Section 38 of the Public Order Act would surely be invoked. For the benefit of the public, I will provide the text of subsections 1 to 4 of Section 38:
Seizure of films of law enforcement activities
38. —(1) Any police officer of or above the rank of sergeant, or any CPIB officer, narcotics officer, intelligence officer or immigration officer, if satisfied upon information and after such further inquiry as he thinks necessary, that any person —
(a) is making, has made or is about to make;
(b) is exhibiting or communicating or is about to exhibit or communicate; or
(c) has in his possession,
any film or picture containing a record of any law enforcement activities, and he reasonably believes that the film or picture, if exhibited or communicated (whether to the public or any section thereof or otherwise) —
(i) prejudices the effective conduct of an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation, or any intelligence operation; or
(ii) endangers or will endanger the safety of any law enforcement officer in an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation, or any intelligence operation,
he may exercise any of the powers specified in subsection (2).
(2) A police officer of or above the rank of sergeant, a CPIB officer, a narcotics officer, an intelligence officer or an immigration officer may —
(a) direct the person reasonably believed to be making, exhibiting or communicating a film or picture or about to do so to immediately cease making, exhibiting or communicating the film, and either to immediately delete, erase or otherwise destroy the film or picture or to surrender the film or picture to the police officer, CPIB officer, narcotics officer, intelligence officer or immigration officer, as the case may be;
(b) without warrant, search any person whom he has reason to believe is in possession of a film or picture referred to in subsection (1);
(c) without warrant, and with such assistance and by such force as is necessary, by night or by day, enter and search any place where he has reason to believe any film or picture referred to in subsection (1) is kept; or
(d) without warrant, and with such assistance and by such force as is necessary, seize any film or picture referred to in subsection (1) and any copy thereof, and any equipment (including a handphone) used or about to be used in the making, exhibition or communication of the film or picture,
and take into custody any person reasonably believed to be in possession thereof.
(3) Any film, picture and any equipment (including a handphone) used in the making, exhibition or communication of the film or picture may be forfeited and shall be destroyed or otherwise disposed of in such manner as the Commissioner may direct.
(4) Where a person to whom a direction under subsection (2)(a) is given fails to comply with the direction, he shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.
I would emphasise this: For a police officer, etc, to order you to stop filming and delete your pictures, he must have reason to believe that it would prejudice a law enforcement operation. He cannot do it capriciously.
Shanmugam himself said this when moving the bill:
These powers are not intended to be used to prohibit the filming of routine Police work or events. These powers are only intended to provide protection to officers and preserve the integrity of sensitive operations. If a police officer is misconducting himself, our approach is that the public can film such acts of misconduct. The film will be relied upon for investigation and disciplinary action if warranted.
Are these assurances good enough? I will come back to this later.
* * * * *
The biggest fallout from the coverage of the Manila incident is, arguably, not that the police operation was compromised, though I’m sure it was. The chief fallout was how the world could see the incompetence of the police in handling the situation. Officers were poorly equipped. Some had neither bullet-proof vests nor helmets. They had the wrong weapons — apparently short-barrelled firearms should have been issued. The excruciatingly ineffective attempt to break down the door with a sledgehammer was nearly farcical.
There were also plenty of missed opportunities for snipers to act, for example, as seen in the first of two videos attached to this New York Times blog. Rolando Mendoza, armed with an M16 rifle, appears at the door for at least six seconds starting at the 12th second of the video, and is seen again at a window for at least another four seconds at the 48th second.
So there is something to be said about filming, for we might not have known how poor the performance of the Manila police was without the footage. Surely the competence of police officers is a matter of public interest.
And this is where there would be difference if a hostage crisis occurred in Singapore. No, not over competency. I will not assert that there will be a difference in competency; we have no recent experience to go by and hence we cannot know how capable our police officers are. They may do a better job than the Filipinos, or they may not. The difference will be that filming will surely not be allowed. We may well have hostage-taking and we may well have bumbling police officers, but as the title of this essay suggests, there’ll be no “drama” to watch.
Without a publicly available video record of operations, how will we know whether they have done their best? How will we know if they are any better than their cousins in Manila?
Therefore: Is a blanket ban on filming really in the public interest?
I would suggest this: Filming should be allowed, but broadcast should be delayed till the operation is over. The law actually allows this distinction to be made. Section 38(2)(a) empowers an officer to order the cameraman “to immediately cease making, exhibiting or communicating the film”. Thus, photos and videos can be allowed to be taken, but barred from being exhibited or communicated till later. As for private individuals capturing events on their cellphone, they should be warned that if they sent the pictures to the hostage taker, they could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting.
The above suggestion would better fulfill Shanmugam’s statement that films of police misconduct are useful.
* * * * *
Yet, the average person knows that Shanmugam’s words are already meaningless. As anybody who has attempted to take a picture of a government building on any peaceful day will know, police officers, often well below the rank of sergeant — sometimes even auxiliary police officers — quite frequently come up to you and demand that you stop filming and delete your pictures on the spot. Nobody actually knows what law they are acting under, but the officers seem to operate on the assumption that the public must not be allowed to do that, and that they have a right to so throw their weight around.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fear that you are a terrorist casing a joint for future bombing. But this is clearly going way overboard. There are plenty of other, better targets for terrorists if they really set their minds to it, and anyway, one does not need a photo of a building to decide to bomb it.
But what such police actions show is that on the one hand we have the government saying to Parliament that there is no intention “to prohibit the filming of routine Police work”, on the other hand, there are in fact orders issued to do just that. Guarding a government building surely must be routine.
Shanmugam should be called upon to explain why his words in Parliament are contradicted by the actual behaviour of the officers under him. Even if different laws apply, why is the spirit of one contradicted by another? What are the secret instructions that he has given to those officers that are so at variance from the soothing assurances he gave the public?