Reporting Kashmir: a problem of versions

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 14/06/2009
Three newspapers published from Delhi and one TV channel make a telling case study of how those who are reporting the alleged rape in Shopian project very different versions.
SEVANTI NINAN finds that the language reflects the journalist’s sympathies.


  • "Kashmir reporting is a problem of versions. The official version has to be accommodated. It is up to a reporter how you put it."


  • "When I was sent to cover Amarnath, it was my second month in the profession. There was so much opinion in the news stories. They were trying to tell Ahmed Shah Geelani what he should do."


  • "I saw for myself what was happening. I knew the CRPF was lying. For the sake of balance I had to quote the officer: he said this. I had to get quote of SSP but he lied again and for sake of balance I have to report this."


  • " The local journalistic atmosphere is not exactly conducive to great work. If you work for Greater Kashmir, you have to be part of the separatists¿ struggle."


  • "Money comes from both the sides. Newspapers are also paid. First to exaggerate. If there is a molestation you are paid to call it a rape… now the dynamic has shifted. Media is a tool not just of propaganda but of counter insurgency."


And both the propagandists and the counter insurgents have their versions.


The quotes above are from Kashmiri journalists working within the state, describing how the conflict there affects their journalism. Shopian, still in turmoil after an alleged double murder and rape, is becoming a classic example of  the truth being shaped by the way it is narrated. After almost two weeks of agitation by local people and politicians, the reporting of  events has come under scrutiny. It is not difficult to make out from a story where the writer¿s sympathies lie. There are local and national versions of anything that happens there, and then there are different versions in the national media which are reported by Kashmiri correspondents.   


When two young women disappeared on May 29th after setting out for their familiy¿s apple orchard and were then found dead the next morning, there  was a suspicious that they might have been raped and murdered. An FIR saying as much, demanded by relatives, was not registered.  While  there was a post mortem and an autopsy the results were controversial, and have triggered continuing unrest.


Three newspapers published from Delhi and one TV channel  make a telling case study of how those who report project different versions of what is happening on the ground.


On Monday June 8 NDTV got what it said was exclusive access to the autopsy report:


"The doctors who were to conduct the post-mortem could not complete their report because of ¿hostile atmosphere¿.


The reports confirm the presence of semen on both bodies, but does not draw a firm conclusion on murder saying the probable cause of the deaths was haemorrhage and neurogenic shock."  (from the channel¿s website.)


 Their correspondent Nazir Masoodi  goes on to quote a member of the victim¿s family and wraps up by saying, "While the Opposition has been trying to outwit the government, the issue has become biggest challenge for Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and a test for whether he can deliver justice in such a sensitive and volatile situation in Kashmir."


Then we get versions of what Masoodi is supposed to have said with politicians seizing upon his language, presumably because it did not imply either rape or murder, and accusing him of insinuations which are not found in the web version of the story. One activist asked for his expulsion from the state.  Newspaper reports that followed the attacks upon him are interesting for what they choose to emphasize. On June 11 Praveen Swami writing in the Hindu focused on Masoodi¿s travails, described in detail what Asiya Andrabi leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat and  Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP had said about him. The article was titled, "Kashmir journalist discovers perils of plain speaking."


"He described the post-mortem findings as "inconclusive," adding that they raised "many unanswered questions"— a challenge to reports filed by most journalists for the region, who have claimed there is strong evidence the two women were raped and murdered."


Swami added,


"Based on the evidence, Mr. Masoodi¿s comments were measured. Recorded on single sheets of paper, which did not bear even cursory details of the injuries to the victims, the post-mortem reports did not arrive at an unequivocal finding on the cause of death."


The next day the Hindu had another story, on the front page by him: "Black flags and barricades greet Kashmir investigators." It described the arrival and getting down to work of a special investigation team. The story recaptured the sequence of events till then, quoting nobody from the family but quoting what the doctors said in the autopsy.


The story described a second set of post mortem reports, and then declared they had no value.


"Later, on June 8, the Pulwama CMO provided another set of post-mortem reports prepared by the doctors operating under his charge. In their reports, the Pulwama team stated that Ms. Jan had suffered "sexual assault" before dying of "haemorrhagic shock due to bleeding from multiple injuries." In Ms. Ahanger¿s case, though, the doctors were more cautious, stating only that she had been involved in "sexual intercourse." Ms. Ahanger, the report concluded, was assumed to have died of neurogenic shock "because of the absence of any other sign of death."


For the SIT, these findings are worthless. Investigators have no firm determination on how one of the victims died; no medical opinion on whether the injuries to Ms. Jan were caused by weapons or sharp stones in the river bed; no forensic finding on whether one or more perpetrators were involved in the rape — and all of the forensic evidence on record is vitiated by the doctors¿ admissions that the post-mortem was incomplete and carried out under pressure."


He goes to cite "claims" about the women making phone calls, and about sindoor found on their bodies, and then demolishes those. He ends with the following damning quote:


"Based on what evidence we have," a senior SIT official told The Hindu, "you could come to almost any conclusion you fancy. Take your pick."


On the 11th of June, when Swami wrote his first report, a story also appeared in the Indian Express. If Swami¿s manner of writing and the evidence he quotes makes it clear what he thinks of the rape and murder charge, and the evidence available, The Express reporter¿s language also reflects what she believes about the way the tragedy has been investigated.  


"The first reaction from the police officials was, many said, bizarre. Not only did the police want to make it an "open and shut" case by saying drowning could have been the possible cause, a press release ruled any kind of violence, in spite of the badly bruised state in which the bodies were found.


The police reaction circulated on May 30 said there were no marks of violence on the bodies. A badly worded press release, quoting Superintendent of Police of Shopian, said: "Post mortem conducted revealed no marks of violence on the dead bodies including pubic parts."


The press release said the two women, the pregnant Neelofar and her sister-in-law Asiya Jan, "went to an orchard at 4 pm on May 29 and did not return". It said the case was reported at midnight and the police recovered the bodies at 6 pm the next day. The post mortem was conducted that day itself, the press release added.


After sometime, however, another police press release cancelled the earlier release. But the police still did not want to admit anything wrong.


It was only on June 7, after a series of protests that only seemed to grow with each passing day, that the police for the first time admitted something was wrong. The admission this time came in a cautiously worded press release, saying "cognizable offence had taken place". "The interim medical report received indicated prima facie cognizable offence has taken place and a case has been registered," it said. However the release said medical opinion into the cause of the death was still awaited.


This is a somewhat different version of events from Praveen Swami¿s.


The reporter¿s sympathies seem to determine who is given the last word in a story. If it is an SIT official in Swami¿s version, it is the President of the Bar Association of Jammu and Kashmir, Mian Abdul Qayoom, in Toufiq Rashid¿s  Express version. He was one of those who hurled accusations at Nazir Masoodi for his reporting.   


On June 13 two other Express correspondents Muzamil Jaleel and Mir Ehsan recall the entire sequence of events over a fortnight. This report says, "it¿s becoming increasingly clear that authorities mishandled what should have been the subject of a thorough police investigation." 


"The initial claim by officials that the women had drowned was negated by the first medical examination — doctors didn¿t find either body in a condition that suggested drowning. Moreover, it was difficult to believe that the two women would have drowned in ankle-deep water.


The presence of SP Matoo in the hospital angered the crowd outside. Another woman doctor, Dr Bilqees, was called in but the situation seemed to be getting out of control. The doctors left without completing the postmortem. But the team had taken samples of the viscera.


Once the situation calmed down somewhat, a fresh postmortem was planned and a new team of doctors was called in from Pulwama. So great was local suspicion and anger that Nilofar¿s father Syed Abdul Hai made doctors promise there would be a fair examination. "After they came out, Dr Nighat Chiloo wept," Hai said.


In Srinagar, the J-K Police, meanwhile, issued a statement ruling out rape and murder and citing drowning as the cause of death. The statement claimed that "postmortem conducted revealed no marks of violence on the dead bodies, including private parts". This statement was retracted later.



When reporters use the word ¿claimed¿ you know what they think of the facts they are quoting.


On June 12 you have a report by the Mail Today correspondent, Parvaiz Bukhari which uses the following language about chief minister  Omar Abdullah¿s handling of the case. "He blindly chose to go with the initial police version describing it as death by drowning, invoking (sic) public anger and unrest." The story is titled, "Omar jumps the gun on Shopian."


If NDTV and the Hindu give credibility to the autopsy report they quote, the Express and Mail Today are inclined to question the  state¿s version of events.


Finally, it is interesting to contrast how the different writers describe the stream in which the women were found.


Praveen Swami  says,


"Local resident Ghulam Qadir Sheikh last saw the two women at about 7:30 p.m. Mr. Sheikh says the women told him they were planning to ford the Rambiara river, a fast-flowing mountain stream, as they were in a hurry to return home."


The June 13 Express report refers at one point to a dry patch in the middle of the stream where one body was found, and at another point says, "Moreover, it was difficult to believe that the two women would have drowned in ankle-deep water."


Parvaiz Bukhari refers in his report to "a shallow stream," and voices doubts later in the report about the women drowning in "shallow waters."


Whom do we believe?



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