In Guyana’s history thus far, I can’t think of any Minister of Government with responsibility for law and order that has conveyed a commitment to transparency and honest assessment of his/her ministry’s performance than Minister Ramjattan.
Previous ministers with similar responsibilities tended to shy away from the press, issue brief statements when pressed, while struggling to defend initiatives that they were pursuing.
I suspect that it is Ramjattan’s readiness to share with the press and the nation, his thinking on crime fighting strategies that make it easy for opposition forces to criticize him.
Therefore, it was surprising to find little or no reaction to a comment he made as he outlined some of the initiatives being undertaken by his ministry and the criminal justice agencies that fall under his purview.
The comment I refer to was made when the Minister informed the nation of the focus on establishing surveillance cameras about the city, and the intent of expanding their use to other parts of the country. Then, conceding that this development will rise to privacy concerns, he said, “If you want to catch criminals, you will have to have some amount of privacy encroached upon.”
This is a blunt, but true observation. While we value both privacy and security, vigorous pursuit of either does undermine the presence of the other. Thus, there are at least two issues that confront citizens.
The first is – what should take precedence – freedom/privacy or security? When we consider this, we are forced to note that worldwide and at the national level, what takes precedence is decided by the philosophy that guides a specific government. Communist government chose security over freedom and privacy thus, giving the police great power that led (during the existence of the Soviet Union) to citizens experiencing a high level of protection from violent crimes. In capitalist USA, it is broadly perceived that emphasis was/is on freedom and privacy. The result is the USA experience a relatively higher crime rate.
At the individual level, fear tends to play an important role in influencing the value citizens hold in this matter. In the 1990s with escalation illegal drug use related crimes, Americans demanded that the police” get tough on crime,” and supported laws enacted that undermined individual freedom and privacy.
Then there are interest groups. One recalls that when Ramjattan moved to institute the closure of bars by 2am, religious organisations supported this move thus placing security before freedom (I suppose they also saw this curfew as reducing opportunities for citizens engaging in sinful behaviour).
On the other hand, the Private Sector Commission emphatically opposed the 2am closure, since, in their estimation, it would adversely affect businesses. Thus, they were placing a higher value on their ‘freedom’ to enhance opportunities to make money. Now, with the planned nationwide use of surveillance cameras coming on stream, this body is loud in its support (at least in principal, for they say they will meet with the minister to see how it will affect business).
The second issue for consideration is – since surveillance cameras do not discriminate, but capture all information in their scope, what safeguards can citizens demand to place some check on government hold on information gathered that are not crime related?
In this regard, I suggest that citizens should do the following: (A) Demand (as was done in the USA) that there is time limit set on how long government could keep such information; (B) That an independent body be created with oversight powers to monitor the storage and eventual destruction of the said information, on the agreed time limit, set for government to dispose of same.
Editor, one hopes that citizens do not take the suggested demands mentioned above lightly. While it is true that government can easily present a persuasive argument justifying the need of this level of surveillance. For example, it can cite, Atlanta /Georgia, the city in the USA in which the most surveillance cameras are located. Recently, Atlanta reported a 50% drop in crime and the authorities attribute this to the presence of these cameras.
However, libertarians are concerned about their usage, noting that governments are usually reluctant to give up this level of intrusion into citizens’ privacy, even when the reason for their initial use has been overcome.
Indeed here in the USA, some of the intrusive laws passed in the wake of 9/11 are still operational, even though there has been no major foreign directed terrorist act in the USA in recent years. Justifying their continued presence, government argues that it is there very presence that deters such acts.
Thus, even if at a particular time we agree that such surveillance is necessary, citizens would do well to demand certain protections before their implementation. Remember freedoms and privacy once surrendered are rarely fully regained.
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