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Power of one, and a camera

/ 12:10 AM September 13, 2014

A very important point should be made about the Edsa robbery-kidnapping incident that occurred on Sept. 1 in which eight current police officers and one dismissed policeman were involved. And that is: that the whole episode would have gone unnoticed by the public except that it was caught on camera by an alert passerby who then uploaded it on Twitter, whereupon it went viral, catching the attention of the police authorities and the conventional media, and thus the rest of us.

The citizen’s photograph was key to identifying the perpetrators, through the license plates of the cars that were used to box in the victims of what has to be considered a “hulidap”—one of those cars being traced to the deputy station commander of the La Loma police station. I think the license plate of the boxed vehicle was identified from the Metro Manila Development Authority’s closed-circuit television cameras along Edsa before the incident.

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He/she deserves a medal or some sort of public commendation for her help in uncovering the crime. The power of one. And her camera. No organization behind her, just her trusty phone.

We are aware of the power of CCTV and of its use both to deter and to solve crimes committed in particular areas. But what about the power of the citizenry, equipped with only the simplest of information and communication technology—her cell phone with a camera—to help in the country’s war against corruption, or for good governance? People power, metamorphosed.

How to harness this, the details of it, I leave to others. But think of it. As of 2010, 80 percent of households in the Philippines had a mobile phone, covering 99 percent of the population. There are 101 mobile subscribers for every 100 population. Citizen engagement, big-time. How many of those phones have cameras as a feature, I don’t know, but certainly we have that information, and it should be quite a number. But even without the cameras, so much can be done to help in anticorruption, good-governance drives.

The power of a camera in governance was felt way back in the 1983 elections, when Namfrel (National Movement for Free Elections) volunteers were urged to bring cameras to the precincts to which they were assigned.  For the most part, the presence of a camera made people behave, although it also, in some cases, brought out the worst—in that the camera was forcibly taken away, or destroyed, by goons. Its power lies in its ability to identify, without fear of contradiction, offenders of various kinds.

But now, even that danger is minimized, with a little bit of dexterity on the part of the photographer, I understand, so that the camera is unobtrusive. So many pictures uploaded on YouTube and other sites bear witness to that.

Armed with her trusty camera phone, the citizen can capture scenes like the vacant desks at noontime in a government office, or an employee asleep at the job. Or, with a video component, she can record the manner and voice of a discourteous employee, etc. Or maybe even capture a bribery on the make. There can be no denials or mistaken identities. How is that for stimulating citizen involvement? And what is the payoff? Greater empowerment of the citizen, definitely, but also more efficient delivery of services, as employees go on their best behavior, because they don’t know who is taking a picture.

Mobile phones have been used for helping farmers (price information), and helping motorists (traffic data). They have been used in health information access, and even in education, to provide parents and teachers a venue for expressing their concerns about local schools, textbooks, even budgets. If there is already a website for monitoring government performance on the part of the public through mobile phones, I don’t know of it. But if we have it, let’s expand it, and make people aware.

It will take a little time before the citizen realizes the potential of her phone to help in the government’s drive for good governance, and how easy it will be for her to participate in that drive. But once the citizen is in harness, watch her go, as in people power.

Vinay Bhargava, who, after years as an international civil servant (he was Philippine country director for the World Bank in 1995-2001), is now an anticorruption advocate (Partnership for Transparency Fund), said in a recent forum at the Asian Development Bank that wider citizen-led support for anticorruption programs is needed. Tony Kwok, the tiger who tamed Hong Kong’s corruption almost 40 years ago, told a similar audience that it takes more than 10 years to stamp out corruption. Well, with citizen engagement and support on the scale that is envisioned, maybe it will take less than 10 years for us.

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And though it seems politically incorrect at this point to commend the government, I will do so, anyway. In 2011 the Philippines joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative that aims to secure commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. It is a founding member, in fact.

This requires the Philippines to submit national action plans, which are assessed biannually by an independent local researcher appointed by the OGP.

P-Noy also created, through Executive Order No. 53, a Good Governance and Anticorruption Cabinet Cluster, which is tasked to institutionalize open, transparent, accountable and participatory governance.

It would seem to me that these actions indicate that the government means business. Things are looking up.

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TAGS: Camera, Camera phone, crime, Edsa robbery-kidnapping, Get Real, netizens, opinion, Police, social media, Solita Collas-Monsod
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