How to research local laws around the Right to Record
When WITNESS says the Right to Record, we are referring to the ability to pick up a camera or cell phone and film the police or military without retaliation. We are also talking about the initiative, commitment, attitude, and courage that it takes to exercise that right, and the organizing communities do to make this possible. WITNESS’ Right to Record map includes information about the legal and actual status of the Right to Record around the globe. We are constantly updating our map, and we do not have information for every country. That’s why in this post, we want to outline how you can find that information yourself.
There are some types of laws, as well as regional trends, that may help you understand your rights in your country. Regardless of the law, for ethical reasons you should treat identifiable images of people who are not public officials with great caution. WITNESS has published quite a few ethical guidelines to help you work through this, but you can start with our short checklist.
When researching the legal basis for the right to record in your country, first you should look for legal analysis in your own language by lawyers and legal activists from your country. For example, the Right 2 Know Campaign in South Africa created a great guide to Standing Order 156. Sometimes these come in the form of news articles, such as this guide to recording police abuses which includes consultations with human rights attorneys and NGOs. Though WITNESS is trying to collect this type of information, we certainly have not done so for every place. In fact, if you find useful information, especially interpretations of the law from attorneys and legal workers, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you cannot find existing legal analysis, next look for laws relating to consent for photography. This Wikimedia article is a good place to start if you don’t know where else to look, but make sure to look at the references rather than just referring to the chart. Many countries, for example Germany and the United Arab Emirates, have strict laws about taking or sharing photos of people without their consent, which aren’t always relaxed for public officials, even though we believe they should be. After all, when they are performing their function, public officials represent the State, and they should be held accountable.
Third, data protection laws can affect your right to record, distribute, or store recordings. For example, the entire European Union falls under the General Data Protection Regulation, and some authorities have gone so far as to interpret those to prohibit sharing recordings that include police officers. Other places, like Brazil, also have data protection laws. Many of these laws have exceptions for public figures, as well as journalistic or public interest reasons. Try to find reliable legal analysis of data protection laws in your country.
Fourth, look for wiretapping or secret recording laws. Many countries have laws that prohibit recording images or sound without consent and knowledge of all parties. In the United States, where this is determined by state law, some states require consent of everyone in a conversation to record that conversation, whereas some require just one person in the conversation to consent. Again, you can start with Wikipedia articles, but look at the references, not the summaries!
Finally, if your country has a constitutional right to freedom of expression or a right to freedom of information this should theoretically support a right to record more directly than international human rights laws. The right to freedom of expression in the US Constitution is the basis on which its robust right to record has been built. Similarly, lawyers in many countries in Central and South America have made this argument, as noted in the links on our map. We hope that in coming months, we will be able to update our map with much more information!
last updated 29 April 2020
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