Should citizens be allowed to record meetings with officials

January 11, 2019 - 09:00

Public discourse has taken off over Hà Nội’s recent decision to forbid citizens from making audio or video recordings without consent during meetings with officials.

Hà Nội’s recently decided to forbid citizens from making audio or video recordings without consent during meetings with officials.— Photo

Trọng Kiên

Public discourse has taken off over Hà Nội’s recent decision to forbid citizens from making audio or video recordings without consent during meetings with officials.

The policy, signed into effect this week, was criticised as a backward step amidst the Government’s push to promote transparency.

Lawyer Nguyễn Minh Long, a member of Hà Nội’s bar association, argued that the municipal government policy clearly abridges citizens’ rights to monitor public agencies and officials as they discharge their duties and citizens’ freedom to do anything not forbidden by law, both of which are rights protected by the Vietnamese Constitution.

It is clear what the Hà Nội authorities had in mind when they penned this policy. They were thinking not so much of the act of recording, but of what the citizens could do with the recordings. Officials worry they could be shared on social media, especially Facebook, for nefarious purposes.

Việt Nam has a smartphone penetration rate of 72 per cent, according to 2018 reports. Not unlike other countries, Vietnamese people are not immune to the modern habit of bringing their lives online for the world to see. Everything from the mundane to the significant, from a lively gathering with noisy fireworks to the inane airing of ones’ thoughts and of course, the latest vexing meeting with an uncooperative or bureaucratic Government official winds up on social media.

The Chairman of the Hà Nội People’s Committee Nguyễn Đức Chung defended the policy, saying surveillance cameras have already been installed in all citizens’ reception halls of State and local government agencies in the city, and people could request to use the video from the database.

However, there are a couple of issues with this reasoning.

Who can tell if the installed cameras are working and properly maintained? Back in August 2017, a story riled up the public when a woman went to Hà Nội’s Văn Miếu Ward office to get a death certificate for her departed father. Allegedly, the officials there purposefully stalled and asked for ‘tea money’ to quicken the process.

The whole thing turned into a ‘he said, she said’ squabble that could have been easily settled if the surveillance camera installed in the office was functioning.

And even if the cameras are fully working, how can authorities guarantee access to the video feed would be quick and painless? Would the person who requests such materials have to jump through so many hoops that halfway through, he or she would decide it would not be worth the effort?

There are also questions over whether recordings would be admissible in legal proceedings if they were obtained without consent, even if the recordings clearly prove Government officials are at fault.

It is argued that Hà Nội did not ban recording per se, but rather ensured one who wishes to record a meeting must obtain an agreement from the Government official first and then sign a release form. But honestly, under most circumstances, few would agree to let a stranger film them, especially as the video could end up on the internet.

The leader of the Hà Nội’s municipal government also said the decision was a way to prevent those ill-willed people who would videotape with the sole purpose of distorting the facts and inviting criticism of Government officials, which is a valid concern in my opinion. But that does not mean barring the activity is an appropriate course of action.

Those transgressing on this right should be dealt with through legal action – isn’t that how a civilised, rules-based system works?

The law regarding recording in the US, for example, recognises freedom of information and open meeting laws, but still leaves it up to each individual State to implement its own regulations.

The optics of policy are bad for Hà Nội’s municipal government, which, as the socio-economic centre of the northern region and the country, already has enough on its plate with trying to improve infamous snail’s pace of administrative processing.

Many have said that when officials know they are being recorded, they would conduct their work more professionally and no longer display the usual unfriendliness.

This prompted many opponents of the policy to run with the common – but problematic – ‘nothing to hide’ argument, but there is a truth in the retort that officials and workers alike should be considerate and helpful at all times, whether cameras are present or not.

Two sides

It should be said that as a camera-shy person myself, I can empathise with how public-facing officials, similar to those in customer services, might be upset or distracted by a recording device shoved in their face during an already tense encounter.

The internet can be ruthless, and even if the Government employee is doing everything by the book, they tend to not draw sympathy from social media users. Before they could be exonerated, the damage to their psyche and reputation would already be done.

The fact that they chose this profession, earn their salaries from taxpayer contributions and have been supposedly trained with necessary skills to deal with rowdy citizens, does not mean they should have to tolerate all sorts of unwarranted abuse.

Arguably, a citizen – legally present at a Government building for a public engagement – recording the events of their time there should be lawful, but – and there’s always a “but” – they still need to be mindful of common decency and abstain from abusing their freedom of speech by not being rude, obnoxious or disruptive.

On January 10, the Ministry of Justice told the media it would work with the Government Inspectorate, the Hà Nội People’s Committee and other related agencies to review the legality of the controversial policy.

But no matter what the result, these Government workers are not villains out to get poor hapless citizens. Sometimes citizens need to be reminded that these Government employees are people too and it always takes two – and a lot of good-willed co-operation – to tango without stepping on each other’s feet. — VNS