Friday, August 7, 2009

Police Misconduct and the Mainstream Media's Response to it: Malaysia and India

An Indian police officer beats a demonstrator near an August 2008 procession in Jammu (© 2008 Reuters, taken from page 2 of photo feature accompanying HRW report).

Kuala Krai MP Dr Hatta Ramli's shirt gets ripped in a scuffle outside the National Mosque during the anti-ISA rally on 1/8/09 (taken from the Malaysian Insider).

Malaysian policeman during anti-PPSMI demonstration on 7/3/09 (taken from here).

Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, has released a report on the state of the Indian Police Service. The report, titled "Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police, is based on interviews with more than 80 police officers of varying ranks, 60 victims of police abuses, and numerous discussions with experts and civil society activists. You can read the press release and download the report itself from this webpage.

While it makes compelling reading for anyone interested in human rights and justice, reading the report as a Malaysian is heartbreaking; in so many ways it describes the trouble with our own PDRM in Malaysia. Some 'highlights' from the report:

The Indian Police Service practices arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. They break the laws they are supposed to protect, and believe that unlawful methods, including illegal detention and torture, are necessary tactics of crime investigation and law enforcement. Therefore, they use "short-cuts" and their old methods - abuse and threats, hold suspects illegally and coerce them to confess, frequently using torture and ill-treatment. Sound familiar?

Here is an example from the report, how a fruit vendor in Varanasi described how police tortured him to extract confessions to multiple, unrelated false charges: :
"[M]y hands and legs were tied; a wooden stick was passed through my legs. They started beating me badly on the legs with lathis (batons) and kicking me. They were saying, ‘You must name all the members of the 13-person gang.' They beat me until I was crying and shouting for help. When I was almost fainting, they stopped the beating. A constable said, ‘With this kind of a beating, a ghost would run away. Why won't you tell me what I want to know?' Then they turned me upside down... They poured water from a plastic jug into my mouth and nose, and I fainted."
Underlying Causes
The Indian Police Service, hence it's ethos, laws and regulations originated from the Imperial Police, the colonial-era police force whose primary objective was to help the British control and oppress the population with impunity, not protect their human rights. As the report states "[t]he institutional culture of police practically discourages officers from acting otherwise, failing to give them the resources, training, ethical environment and encouragement to develop professional police tactics".

Colonial-era police laws enable state and local politicians to interfere routinely in police operations, sometimes directing police officers to drop investigations against people with political connections, including known criminals, and to harass or file false charges against political opponents.

Other contributing factors are overwhelming workloads, insufficient resources, abysmal conditions for police officers, lack of sufficient ethical and professional standards and appreciation of modern criminology. Overall, the report seems to identify the system rather than individual officers or commanders as the main underlying cause.

Other Similarities
In 2006, a landmark Indian Supreme Court judgment mandated the reform of police laws. But the central government and most state governments have either significantly or completely failed to implement the court's order, suggesting that officials have yet to accept the urgency of comprehensive police reform, including the need to hold police accountable for human rights violations. Shades of our IPCMC?

It's not surprising that the Indian police are overstretched and outmatched by criminal elements, and unable to cope with increasing demands and public expectations. When faced with real terrorists during the Mumbai attacks, their immediate response did not prevent substantial loss of life.

HRW's Conclusions and Recommendations
The report concludes that the system of policing in India facilitates and even encourages human rights violations, and that successive governments have failed to deliver on promises to hold the police accountable for abuses and to build professional, rights-respecting police force.

The report then recommends two main thrusts: First, renewed commitment by national and state officials to discipline or prosecute as appropriate police officers who commit human rights violations is essential, with benchmarks to measure progress in implementing the commitment, and second, an overhaul of police laws and regulations, and institutional structures and practices that facilitate the abuses.

According to Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, "conditions and incentives for police officers need to change," and, "Officers should not be put into a position where they think they have to turn to abuse to meet superiors' demands, or obey orders to abuse. Instead they should be given the resources, training, equipment, and encouragement to act professionally and ethically." He added that "it's time for the government to stop talking about reform and fix the system."

For the detailed recommendations, see this section of the report.

If you are not convinced that our PDRM and India's notorious police have similar problems, just read this account below, fellow Malaysian, then we can cry tears of shame together:

[P]olice arrested Gita Pasi in August 2006 in relation to an alleged kidnapping of a Yadav caste woman by a member of the local Dalit community. She died at the station and police claimed it was a suicide. According to Pasi’s brother-in-law, the police claim was implausible:

"She was kept in the police station all night. In the morning, when we went to meet her, they said she had killed herself. They showed us her body, where she was hanging from a tree inside the police station. The branch was so low, it is impossible that she hanged herself from it. Her feet were clean, although there was wet mud all around and she would have walked through it to reach the tree. It is obvious that the police killed her and then pretended she had committed suicide."

Mainstream Media Response
It is unfortunate that the similarities between Malaysian and Indian police forces are not complemented by similarities between our news media. I found the way in which the Indian mainstream media covered the story very different to how our own would have treated it. While the story naturally got international coverage from the likes of CNN and the BBC, the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle and news portals such as not only carried the story in detail and without spin, but also provided a forum for active debate on the issue. There were no Indian MSM denunciations (that i could find) of Human Rights Watch as anti-Indian, anti-religious, imperialist, neo-colonialist, western or zionist.

However serious the challenges that democracy, human rights and justice face in India, their news media seems prepared to play their part, by upholding a journalists duty. As long as our MSM are owned by interested parties, and (more importantly) willing to sacrifice their journalistic integrity to spin stories and spread propaganda for their poilitical masters, we cannot reasonably expect the same from any of them. They will keep on plying their trade quite profitably, so long as we Malaysians keep availing ourselves of their services - Hartal MSM!

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