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Media perceptions vs law enforcement in Kashmir

By Muzamil Jaleel

Reality in Kashmir is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. There is a Kashmir reality, a national reality, and whether we like it or not, a Pakistani reality. All these realities jostle and militate against one another, often overlapping and mingling. The biggest tragedy is that there is no neutral space left in Kashmir. The journalist's biggest challenge is to retrieve this space from the debris of a conflict-devastated state

The term "media perceptions" is an anomaly, for it presupposes that the media perceives things, and perception is a subjective term. I am not arguing that the media is not, or cannot be, subjective and that it is not influenced by perceptions, sometimes collective and sometimes individual. My point is that perception is not part of the theoretical definition of media.

The role of the media, it is believed, is the pursuit of truth and objectivity. While perception falls in the realm of intellect, the media has to deal with practical reality. It predominantly belongs to the world of the senses, with physical objects as its reference points. Perception is definitely a part of the process, but a sustained effort is made to neutralise its influence.

I have included the word perception in the title of this piece for it truly represents the area of perennial tension between the government agencies and the media. There is an inherent and uneasy mutual ambivalence, if not prejudice. While government agencies dub the media inherently hostile and subjective, the media, for its part, never stops believing that it is always right.

When the setting is Kashmir, this tension becomes even more stark. For the reality here is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. We have a Kashmir reality, we have a national reality, and, of course, whether we like it or not we have a Pakistani reality. All these realities jostle and militate against one another, often overlapping and mingling. Diverse ideologies and their respective spheres of influence act on you, giving stories new meaning and interpretations. The biggest tragedy is that there is no neutral space left in Kashmir. It is also our biggest challenge: to retrieve this space from under the debris of a conflict-devastated state.

The challenge for the media is to respond to and report on this multi-hued reality and to emerge unscathed from it, which is like balancing on a razor's edge in a bitterly polarised state. The Kashmir media has been negotiating this challenge for the past two decades.

While all other agencies are accountable to their respective sides, the media is accountable to all of them simultaneously. A reporter's account of a particular event is studied by everyone. We get calls from the government, from ordinary people and, of course, from the militants.

I cannot purport to speak on behalf of the whole of the media, for the media itself is a complex universe of institutions, individuals and ideas. The media that I represent -- my existential position as a reporter in Kashmir, my perception of what responsible journalism means to me, my professional training as a reporter, being a Kashmiri who has been born and brought up in Kashmir, being a Kashmiri Muslim working for a national newspaper -- all these are indivisible and intertwined ingredients, conscious and unconscious internal forces that influence my pursuit of journalism. And therefore my view of law enforcement in Kashmir comes from this complexity as well. I am not an exception to the media demographic here.

For example, we were all enraged as members of this society over the expose, in 2007, of several fake encounters. We understood the situation from within. It was we who had to go to the doorsteps of these people first, and we understood the pain and total shock of the victims' families who couldn't begin to comprehend why their loved ones had died. A colleague and friend visited families in Kokernag after learning about the identities of the men killed in the fake encounters even before their families knew about their fate. He went to interview the families and didn't know what to tell them.

We are faced with a dilemma because whenever the law enforcement agencies overstep their brief or violate it, the common people are convinced that somehow we journalists have the key to unanswered questions and can alleviate their suffering. Often people get angry and disillusioned when we fail to meet their expectations.

It is critically important to understand two core dynamics of the situation we face here in Kashmir. Firstly, that the media's perception of law enforcement is itself shaped by the law enforcement agencies' perception of the media. And secondly, that the law enforcement agencies have, to a great extent, lost their credibility in the eyes of the public and the media because of their track record.

Regarding the first aspect, it is not our professional conduct or the facts that are under scrutiny but our identity. The message that gets across in the reportage is judged by the byline; the content of the story is seen through this superficial lens. Never mind that we may be writing for a newspaper that is published in New Delhi. Because we belong to this society and our lives are part of this story, we are seen as biased by all sides. Whenever ugly facts surface and we report them, we are immediately targeted in a misguided attempt to manage the crisis or divert attention. Accusing the media of "bias" is almost always the immediate reaction. Often, in the past, this has led to the persecution of reporters by both sides. And people have been killed.

This creates a challenging environment in which we try our best to uncover, investigate and report stories. Since we rely on the law enforcement agencies for information and confirmation, we often come up against attempts to stonewall or avoid. Without people coming on record to answer difficult questions, our task becomes even more complicated.

As regards the second aspect, media perceptions about any entity are eventually based on the facts that emerge. Anywhere in the world, the onus lies on the law enforcement agencies to establish and protect their credibility. This is the basis of the very concept of accountability. It is their conduct, their attitude, their professionalism and their overall track record that shapes or changes perceptions. For the last 18 years, the conventional opinion based on very real events has been that the law enforcement agencies in Kashmir are caught up in the inevitable anarchy that accompanies a state of impunity. We have repeatedly observed that even those who have committed the coldest of murders get off scot-free. This has brought the institutions of law enforcement into disrepute. The official mantra that these are the actions of a few rotten eggs becomes hard to digest. What concerns us most is a visible pattern and a regular cycle of commission and omission.

Many within law enforcement are in the unenviable position of having inherited this legacy of public mistrust, unaddressed issues, and unanswered questions. But the roots of this distrust must be explored and owned up to. Let me cite a few examples.

The 2007 expose of fake encounters - and even those of the past -- has not come as a surprise to reporters based here. (In fact, the fake encounters became news and received so much attention only because those killed and dubbed foreign militants were actually innocent civilians.) We know that there is an official categorisation of militants: those who fall in the 'A' category are never taken prisoner. This unwritten policy has made further misuse possible; many civilians too have been caught in its web. Then there is a premium on producing the dead body of a militant. Indeed, killings are linked to rewards, promotions and medals.

When the Pathribal fake encounter in March 2000 was first reported, it was billed as a genuine anti-militancy operation. Within hours of the encounter, then Union Home Secretary Kamal Panday and then Union Home Minister L K Advani went on record to say that the army and police had gunned down five Lashkar terrorists responsible for the massacre of 36 Sikhs in Chhatisinghpora. The action of the law enforcement agencies was described as swift and efficient. The facts of this fake encounter would never have been investigated had there not been a public agitation. The case was finally handed over to the CBI who not only concluded that the encounter was staged but also charge-sheeted five army officers.

Seven years later, there is still a debate on whether the CBI has the authority to probe the army. Meanwhile, the army officers have been promoted during the pendency of active investigation. The families of the five innocent villagers were given Rs 100,000 each as relief. In fact, justice to people whose loved ones have been killed in fake encounters has become equated with Rs 100,000 or more in ex-gratia. Such instances of injustice have become institutionalised in the state. In these 17 years, there have been many such cases where innocent people have been killed in similar circumstances; the details have never been investigated.

Then there is the instance of an officer from the Jammu and Kashmir (JK) police who was implicated in the killing of three innocent civilians in his custody during a police investigation, in 1999. He is still to be arrested. It has been eight years.

In 2005, JK police investigations exposed a fake surrender. Forty-one villagers from the Chrar-e-Sharief area were taken to Delhi and kept in army custody for six long months only to take part in a stage-managed 'surrender ceremony' in front of a corps commander and the DGP. The IGP, Kashmir, wrote letters to the army, clearly spelling out the involvement of two officers, including a brigadier, in the case. Nobody knows what happened later. Nobody told the villagers or their families what happened to the probe. There was not even an apology, let alone talk of compensation to people who had to go through hell during those six months of illegal confinement.

I would also like to mention the first major massacre in Kashmir which we believe changed the very dynamics of the problem here. I am talking of the January 20, 1990, massacre in Gowkadal that was followed by several months of curfew in Srinagar. We recently checked the status of the case and found it had been closed and marked "untraced", despite everybody knowing that the security forces were responsible for the massacre.

Then there is the January 6, 1993 massacre in Sopore in which members of the Border Security Force (BSF) killed 43 villagers and burnt down an entire market in reaction to the killing of one of their colleagues by militants. That massacre has also never been probed. The government did announce a CBI probe but nothing ever happened. The list goes on...

The handling of cases of people who have gone missing after being picked up by security forces or the police is a glaring example of how law enforcement has failed to establish any public trust or credibility. Indeed, the credibility of law enforcement in Kashmir has become so eroded that even if there is a genuine move to uphold the law, it is viewed with cynicism by everyone.

Recent action taken in the wake of fake encounters portended the possibility of change. One must acknowledge that visible efforts to bring the guilty to book brought a sense that things were about to change. However, the expectations were shortlived, for, during the probe, different yardsticks were applied to different people who had committed the crime. The police only took action against its own officers and was unable to pursue senior army officers who were named in the chargesheets. This inability has once again dampened expectations.

The rule of law cannot be sacrificed in the name of effective law enforcement. What is supposed to separate those who are entrusted with upholding the law from the forces of anarchy is meticulous adherence to a code and ethic which upholds the protection of individual rights above all. Unfortunately, the mistrust runs so deep that even when steps are taken in the right direction they are perceived to be an exception to the norm. The normal has become abnormal.

The key is to harness the tools and codes of law enforcement to pursue those who violate the law. If the media plays its part and critiques the track record of law enforcement agencies, it should be appreciated rather than questioned.

(Muzamil Jaleel is Bureau Chief of The Indian Express in Kashmir and has been working as a journalist for the past 15 years. He has won the Kurt Schork award, the International Federation of Journalists award for conflict reporting and the Sanskriti award for excellence in journalism in India)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009