By Khaled Diab
A Belgian far-right politician is in hot water for uploading a video of an attempted break-in. Was he right or should he have gone to the police?
22 April 2010
I'm beginning to suspect that Filip Dewinter, one of the faltering far-right Vlaams Belang's leading lights, sees Antwerp, where he has long been the mayor-in-waiting, as some kind of comic strip Gotham City, casting himself as its very own Batman.
The Joker in this Caped Crusader's pack is the cunningly villainous Mo and his evil army of bearded minions, with their hijabbed parodies of Catwoman whom Dewinter is battling to unmask. Not only is he on a crusade to foil their evil designs to make his beloved Flanders and the rest of Europe part of a global caliphate, he is also single-handedly keeping the streets safe for decent (white) citizens by fighting (brown) crime. To that end, he is one of the brains behind his party's controversial anti-crime website which critics fear will fuel vigilantism.
One of Dewinter's latest stunts was to post CCTV footage of an apparent attempted break-in – carried out unsuccessfully with comical incompetence by a young man who appeared to be an immigrant – on his website.
According to Belgium‘s privacy commission, this falls foul of privacy laws and only the police and the ministry of justice have the right to release video footage and images of alleged criminals and their crimes. The commission is now investigating whether to take legal action, especially as Dewinter enjoys parliamentary immunity.
Dewinter reacted in predictable fashion, saying that “criminals are clearly better protected than the victims of crime“. And judging by online reactions, many ordinary Belgians seem to approve of Dewinter's actions. “Now criminals enjoy a sort of parliamentary immunity, too,” commented one enraged reader. So, is this a case of “privacy gone mad”, or are there valid reasons for such legal protections, especially in our increasingly surveillance-oriented societies?
Well, in short, by releasing this video into the public domain, Filip Dewinter is effectively taking the law into his own hands. If Dewinter truly believes in the rule of law, as he claims, and wishes to make society safer for law-abiding citizens, then the responsible thing to have done, rather than this grandstanding, would've been to report the incident to the police, who can then decide whether to go public or not. Any information made public about the identity of an alleged criminal should be weighed up carefully against the severity of the crime, the chances of it leading to an arrest, and the risk posed to the public.
In the case of a gruesome murder, rape or an armed robbery, for instance, there is a strong imperative for the authorities to release information about the identity of the perpetrators. Also, when massive abuses of power, corruption or miscarriages of justice occur, the media can play a role in bringing them to light, as long as there is sufficient evidence. However, a young lad apparently trying and failing to jemmy open the window of a travel agent is not the same. Moreover, the release of such footage can do the young man in question – who may never have done anything illegal before – harm that is not proportional to the crime he has allegedly committed by stigmatising him in public.
Besides, when they deem it necessary, the authorities routinely release footage or photofits of criminals and make public appeals for information, and so these amateurish efforts are, at best, pointless, at worst, harmful and even dangerous.
If some citizens start usurping the role of the police, how much longer will it be before others appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner? What if a furious citizen takes the next logical step and decides to execute some summary justice by, say, attacking alleged criminals?
More fundamentally, even criminals have rights. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a competent authority, and no one should be allowed to prejudice the course of the legal process. But even convicted criminals – who have, in effect, paid their dues to society – have, and should enjoy, a right to have their privacy protected and respected, unless this puts others at great risk.
This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 13 April 2010. Read the full discussion here.