When the Malaysian police started accepting crime reports sent in by members of the public from their cellphones, little did they expect that their own misdemeanours would one day be caught in the frame.
Malaysians have had to put up with police corruption and misconduct as a part of everyday life. But now blogs and video cellphones have given Malaysians who are exasperated by the lack of action against the police a new and very public outlet. A new Malaysian blog – Polis Raja Di Malaysia (or “Royal Malaysian Police”) – aims to pull together footage documenting police misconduct from video-sharing sites like YouTube and GoogleVideo. The blog promotes itself with the strapline “Police should fight crime, not fight the people”. Cellphone videos on YouTube range, for example, from footage and photomontages of the police breaking up protests to a police officer firing into the air unprovoked while breaking up a fight – as seen below.
One recent video that hasn't made it onto Polis Raja Di Malaysia yet, but has been on other blogs, appears to show police officers beating and humiliating two youths in a police cell. It has caused controversy in Malaysia and human rights organisation Suaram calls it “the tip of the iceberg”. The video, which shows a youth being forced to lick his saliva off the floor, was apparently filmed by one of the police officers on his cellphone, and only came to light when he sent the phone in for repairs. A technician uploaded the clip onto the internet, and one viewer sent it in to Malaysia TV3's Utama Bulletin news programme, which aired it last week.
It's just one of many alleged cases of police brutality that remain either uninvestigated or unpunished, and this one has only stoked up a controversy because video evidence surfaced – in this case, unwittingly released by the police officer himself. As a result, it seems that Malaysian police officers are now banned from carrying cameraphones.
In November 2005, a debate flared up around the so-called Squatgate video, in which a young woman was forced to strip naked and perform squats in a police cell. The 70-second clip – also filmed by a police officer – was circulated via MMS (Multimedia Messaging Sevice, or photos and videos sent like text messages via a phone) under the title “Gadis Lokap”, until it was eventually sent to opposition MP Teresa Kok on VCD (Video CD). Kok showed the video on her laptop to fellow MPs, and soon after a body was set up to investigate the incident. She later blogged extensively about the flak she received for exposing the scandal, including being accused of encouraging voyeurism.
We were originally planning to link to an edited version of the clip, which cuts out the frontal nudity from the original clip, but decided not to link to it at all, because Hemy Hamisa Abu Hassan Saari, the victim in the SquatGate case, issued a statement asking that people stop circulating the video.
Cellphone footage can obviously be problematic – it's often poor quality, grainy, shaky, and the sound is sometimes difficult to hear. Using it as evidence is even more sensitive. In the Squatgate case, the clip originally caused confusion because – as the blog Politics 101 Malaysia highlighted – some media put 2 and 2 together and came up with 8, confusing the woman in the clip with another case in which three Chinese nationals had been forced to strip in a Kuala Lumpur police station in November 2005. The Squatgate clip surfaced at the same time as the Malaysian Prime Minister dispatched the Home Minister to Beijing to deliver an official apology to China. When it was later established that the victim in the Squatgate video had in fact been a Malay woman, malaysiakini, a citizen media site, even suggested that, as a result of the media error, there would be a backlash against media freedom.
Now, in the same week as the new police brutality video, Hemy Hamisa Abu Hassan Saari has launched a compensation claim, demanding 250,000 RM from the Malaysian government in damages.
Human rights organisations have repeatedly criticised the Royal Malaysian Police for mistreating detainees and heavy-handedness, and in 2003 Amnesty International called for a move to human rights-based policing. On the Malaysian Bar Council website, by far the most popular download is a document called “Know Your Rights”, giving ordinary Malaysians a checklist of what to expect as acceptable police conduct and what their rights are under arrest.
In response to pressure, three years ago, the Malaysian Prime Minister promised to set up a body called the IPCMC – the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission – and three years later, it's still not up-and-running. malaysiakini leaked a police memo in June 2006 showing police opposition to the body, and Aliran, a Malaysian human rights organisation claimed earlier this year that the mainstream media had been ignoring its demands for the IPCMC to be set up, and Suaram and Amnesty International Malaysia responded to the latest incident by calling for the IPCMC to be implemented immediately. Despite this, it seems that the foot-dragging continues.
Today it was announced that Tan Sri Mohd Bakri Omar, the Inspector-General of Police, would be replaced by UK law graduate Tan Sri Musa Hassan on Monday. With the clamour growing for the Commission to be set up without further delay, how Musa Hassan responds to the latest video scandal, and how the government handles Hemy Hamisa Abu Hassan Saari's compensation claim is going to be crucial. MP Teresa Kok publicised an online petition internet users can sign to pressure the government into establishing the IPCMC. Until that happens, however, the role of ordinary citizens and police whistleblowers in recording and exposing police misconduct using cellphones and blogs looks like the only course for justice.