Below is an interview with Aibek Baratov of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Aibek has been working for approximately two years to fight petty corruption on the streets of Bishkek using a combination of online video (recorded on his phone), Twitter, and CD drop offs at the local police station.
He has had his work cut out for him. As is the case with neighboring countries, political competition and participation in Kyrgyzstan are low. A combination of fear and apathy deters most people from standing up to requests for bribes from local officials, much less from prominent advocacy for better delivery of basic government services.
I asked Aibek some questions about his project, which he has named Active Citizenship.
1. What is your vision for “Active Citizenship”?
My goal is to be an effective middleman between citizens and government. I want to build bridges between traffic police on the one hand and regular drivers on the other. They don’t understand each other, hate each other, aren’t willing to communicate or collaborate. From one side, it’s because they are always trying to take money out of you. From the other side, it’s because people are used and willing to pay bribes.
I want to live in a country where there is a rule of law. By focusing only on traffic police, playing middle man between these two groups on one issue, I address this larger challenge.
3. What are your activities?
When a traffic policeman asks me for a bribe I record it as it’s happening. I upload it to local video hosting platforms so people will see, I burn it onto a CD and type up a report of what is in it and then send it to officials or take it directly to the police department. When I go there, I find the head and I say “I made this report, I want you to do something about it, and a copy of this is going to the ministry and the mass media” (which I also say in the typed report).
Sometimes it worked. They would call me back in and say they spoke to the policeman, he was wrong and I don’t have to pay anything. This was okay for a while, but I understood later that I had solved my problem, but this is everybody’s problem – and no one knows about what is happening. They don’t protect themselves because they don’t believe anything is going to change. Secondly, they are afraid of creating a report like this.
Now I try to do more than record it if I am asked for a bribe. I say something like “my name is Aibek, I am from a civil watch organization,” and I carry the book with rules in my car and try to explain – as a regular driver – the rules to traffic policeman. People get surprised because they see someone tralking to a cop and beign pushy – this isn’t natural in Kyrgyzstan.
2. Are you providing a service/information that the government should be?
The government should be educating police properly, as well as drivers. The government isn’t paying enough attention to educating people before they begin driving, so the driving culture is poor.
3. How long have you been doing this for?
Over three years.
4. What have the biggest obstacles been?
The biggest obstacle was the lack of response from officials in the government. As a result, nothing happens to solve the problem.
5. Has your project resulted in offline change?
After more than two years of me doing this, the police began to see for them selves that this was a real issue – because everyone was talking about it. They began an effort to reform the traffic police. The government is now saying: “We will start from scratch, we will have an academy for the traffic police.”
There is now someone in the police department who supports what I do. Before, I had no way to know if they were doing anything about my reports actually or just saying they were. One day, I got a call from the new head of the traffic police – a guy that didn’t come up the rank so was not shaped by the system – he asked me to come in and meet with him. I was surprised, and thought he was going to reprimand me. Instead he said “what you’re doing is a good thing – I have seen your videos, and as a citizen and a driver I also want to address these problems. I asked him: ‘why don’t you make a Twitter account to talk to people. Then they can communicate with you, see that you are replying to requests.”
The next day he called me about the most recent video I had made and said that the police officer had been punished and that it was the first time ever in Kyrgistan
5. How do you attract new participants/supporters?
I now better understand what internet users want: if you are addressing your issue in a different, creative and short way, people share it and like it and this gives a lot more distribution for your problem and issue. Now, a lot of people recognize me on the street. People call me when they have problems – to say they’re chatting with a policeman and ask what they should do or say. l tell them things like don’t argue, don’t be rude, try to record everything – you can use your recording in court proceedings afterwards.
Also how consistently I do it helps. I am trying to do it as often as possible…I’m calling for people to actively, not passively, protect their rights: not to wait until their rights are being violated but to try and prevent it. For example, if you see a policeman breaching the law, go up to him and tell him – this shows everybody that you are engaged and want your country to be better.
6. What’s next?
Now that this is creating results it motivates me to do more – like now im creating not videos made of mobile phones but using a proper video camera.I want to create a series of short video tutorials, with something like role playing, to explain all these potential situations and how people can protect their rights during them. I want to make it in three languages – Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek. I want to distribute them through the internet but there is also really slow speed or people just don’t have internet access, so I want to burn them onto DVDs and distribute them throughout the country. Hopefully they would start copying me or at least have more awareness. In rural areas, people dont understand their basic rights, and they get scared so they pay bribes and do whatever cops say.
7. Has anyone replicated your work?
Yes, and I wasn’t the first to do it. I’m just the one who does it on a regular basis. Some people – those who were the first – when they started were very famous. When I first uploaded videos people got in contact and made suggestions for how I could improve them, which I did, and kept making more, then people started saying you are doing a good job. I met with the guys who first did this, and suggested we create a community of “rights protecters”- provide consultations and trainings to drivers. They said they didnt want to be so public about it, that they knew how to make videos and underline violations but that was it – so they stopped and I continued. Now, a lot of people recognize me and invite me to local forums to share my views and my experience. And yes there are followers who do the same, but not with the same regularity.
8. What resources would be most helpful?
What I need is more supporters – both in the system and among average citizens. If someone within the system is supporting your activities that makes a huge impact.