Cellphones, YouTube expose government abuse

Police abuse of young woman captured on cell, spread by email, posted to YouTube forces Malaysian government to clean up its act.

YouTube is about more than exploding bottles of Pepsi, political gotcha video and segments from The Daily Show. Among the videos being shared are documentary evidence of police and other official misconduct and the speed with which Internet services like YouTube enable the dissemination of such evidence is providing an unheard of level of scrutiny of governments.

Exhibit No. 1 is a now-infamous video of Malaysian police forcing a young woman, arrested on a first-time drug bust, to do stand naked, holding on to her earlobes and repeatedly perform deep squats. The "interrogation" was secretly taped by another officer. The Washington Post reports on the video's spread:

A male officer was secretly holding his cellphone and its tiny camera between the bars on the window, making a video clip that would ultimately expose more than Hemy's nakedness.

The clip began circulating phone to phone, e-mail to e-mail. Eventually it was posted on YouTube and other Internet sites, to be viewed by millions. What started as cheap voyeurism escalated into an unstoppable cyberspace phenomenon, which forced the prime minister to establish an official inquiry that led to changes in police practice. The episode also underscored the growing power of amateur video, shot on cellphones and ever-tinier digital cameras, to hold the powerful to account.

One video is changing decades of abusive police practices in Malaysia, when years of complaints by human rights groups failed to do so. The problem was that the government controlled the media. But they don't control the Internet.

One group dedicated to using the power of the image to combat human rights abuses has already sprung up.

"Images have more resonance," said Gillian Caldwell, executive director of Witness, a New York-based human rights group whose credo is "See it. Film It. Change it." Her group has already gathered almost 3,000 hours of footage of human rights abuses from people in more than 75 countries. It is getting ready to launch a YouTube-like Web site for human rights. Caldwell said rights groups are increasingly harnessing the "power of images and human stories to motivate change."

(Witness presents their new forthcoming video hub tonight at 7 pm in New York.)

And the network effect is impacting other Malaysian government ministries, too.

Now, as more criticism of the government and more homemade videos of police misconduct are posted online, authorities are contending with a new force. Earlier this year, for example, there was a news blackout in the mainstream newspapers and TV stations of protests over oil price increases, said Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini.com, an increasingly popular independent online news service. But photos and video of police smashing protesters with red batons appeared almost instantly online.

"The government can't collect everyone's phone" said Gan, who posted the nude squat video and graphic pictures of a bloodied demonstrator on his Web site. "This has opened more democratic space."

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