Decades of our work at ABVA, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (AIDS Anti-Discrimination Movement of India) was sought to be subverted and our reputation tarnished through an article published in The Hindu. We decided to fight back and filed a complaint at the Press Council of India (PCI). The decision on our complaint was passed on 29.05.2019 by the PCI whose present Chairman is Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India.
The decision in our complaint is being reproduced verbatim:
“This complaint dated 25.9.2018 has been filed by Ms Shobha Agarwal, Member, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), New Delhi against ‘The Hindu’ for allegedly publishing a factually incorrect and defamatory article against ABVA in its Sunday Magazine, Delhi Edition, issue dated July 15, 2018 captioned “It’s been a long, long time” by Vidya Krishnan, which the complainant alleges have subverted the collective work of the organization.
The alleged impugned news item gives an overview of the development of LGBTQ rights movement in India over the last 25 years and how it gained its momentum. The article under its sub-heading ‘Brave and Prescient’ states that Mr Siddarth Gautam, an LGBTQ right activist, played the pivotal role in filing of the PIL challenging the Constitutional validity of Section 377, IPC for LGBTQ rights for the first time in India and somehow gave all credits to Mr Gautam for giving momentum to the LGBTQ rights movement in India by calling him the first champion of gay rights in India and a co-founder of ABVA organisation. The article also published that Mr Gautam authored a ground breaking pamphlet titled ‘less than gay’ - a citizens report on the discrimination faced by the community in India. Further, the news article states that after the death of Mr Siddarth Gautam, which happened after few months of publication of the report, ABVA failed to follow through the PIL petition and it got dismissed in 2001.
The complainant alleges that the facts presented in the article are inaccurate and subverts the collective work of ABVA. The petition challenging the Constitutional validity of Section 377, IPC was filed by ABVA titled - AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan Vs. Union of India & Others through its Member Ms. Shobha Agarwal, Advocate, after the death of Mr Siddarth Gautam in 1992 and the petition was filed in 1994. Also, Siddarth Gautam's contribution to Gay Rights was only on account of him being one of the co-authors of the Report 'less than gay'. Therefore, Mr Gautam's contribution to the report Less Than Gay was not different from any other co-author of the Report. The Report being called as a pamphlet is again inaccurate as it is a 93 pages Report which cannot be termed as a pamphlet. The complainant further submitted that, the first protest on the issue of gay rights in India was organized by ABVA on August 1992 which the author/reporter of the article has referred to as ineffective and is reflected in the quote 'nothing came of it'. It undermines the work of ABVA and the day 11th August 1992 is still cherished by the LGBTQI groups in India.
The complainant states that the respondent newspaper has published an article that is factually inadequate and ABVA was never contacted before to verify the facts presented in the report. It also alleges that the reporter of the article Ms. Krishna was biased, prejudiced and uninformed about the correct facts of the LGBTQ rights movement in India and her conduct was in complete violation of journalistic ethics. The complainant submitted that a letter dated 10th September 2018 was sent to the Editor of The Hindu and a phone call was also made to the author/reporter of the alleged impugned article to which Ms. Krishnan has apologised but the newspaper has not published the clarification as yet. The complainant appeals that an independent inquiry be held in the matter and the guilty newspaper and journalist may be punished and The Hindu be directed to publish a rejoinder in full and with prominence in the matter.
A Show Cause Notice dated 15.10.2018 has been issued to the respondent. The respondent vide written statement dated December 26, 2018 submits that Ms. Krishnan the author/reporter of the impugned news item/article has ceased to be in the employees list by the Hindu as on October 5, 2018 and she was also not authorised to deal with such a complaint on her own. And soon after the receiving of the copy of the complaint which The Hindu found to be legitimate, action has been initiated in the matter and a clarification/ corrections as desired by the complainant has already been published by The Hindu and is up on its website acknowledging the crucial role ABVA played in the publication of the report Less than Gay. Other desired amendments to the article were also made. The editor of The Hindu also informed the same to the complainant. Therefore, the respondent newspaper has requested for the dismissal of the complaint.
A copy of the written statement received from the respondent was forwarded to the complainant on 31.12.2018.
Counter comments of the Complainant
In response to reply received from the respondent newspaper, the complainant, vide letter dated 10.01.2019, has filed its written statement stating that the written statement of the respondent is silent on many crucial issues and obfuscates the true position. The complainant states that irrespective of receiving letter asking for correction sent to the Readers' Editor of The Hindu, by the complainant, the respondent did not take any action until it received the show-cause notice of Press Council of India and after which the editor of The Hindu made a call to pressurise her to withdraw the complaint by saying that an online corrected version will be published. She further stated that even the corrected version does not do any justice and she feels that she has been harassed by the editor to withdraw the complaint. No apology has been published by The Hindu for the delay and damage it has done to the organisation’s name. The complainant further stated that the inaccurate report was published in both online and print version so the corrected version with an apology must be published in the same. Therefore, the complainant has requested the Council to take necessary action in the matter.
A copy of the counter comments was forwarded to the respondent on 16.1.2019 for information.
Report of the Inquiry Committee
The matter came up for hearing before the Inquiry Committee on 13.2.2019 at New Delhi. Ms. Shobha Aggarwal, complainant, along with Dr. P.S. Sahni, Member ABVA, appeared in person. S. Ramanujam, Regional Manager, The Hindu represented the respondent Editor.
The Inquiry Committee has heard Ms. Shobha Agarwal, the complainant and Mr. S. Ramanujam for the respondent. It is the allegation of the complainant that the petition challenging the Constitutional validity of Section 377, IPC was filed by ABVA through its member, Ms. Shobha Agarwal, Advocate. It has been pointed out that Mr. Siddarth Gautam died in the year 1992 and the petition was filed in the year 1994 and therefore, the impugned story stating that Mr. Gautam filed the PIL, is wrong. The complainant's grievance further is that, a report which consists of 93 pages has been described as pamphlet and further it is not the report by Mr. Gautam and he was only one of the co-authors amongst seven authors who contributed to the report. The complainant has termed the story by the reporter, Ms. Krishnan as biased, prejudiced and uninformed. It has been emphasised by the complainant that the author of the article, Ms. Krishnan has telephonically apologised but the newspaper has not published the clarification as yet.
Written statement has been filed by the respondent, inter alia, stating that soon after the receiving of the complaint, the respondent found the same to be legitimate. Action has been initiated and a clarification/ correction as desired by the complainant has been published by "the Hindu" and is up on its website acknowledging the crucial role that the ABVA played in the publication of the report and other desired amendment to the article was made. When the matter was heard on 13th February 2019, the only grievance that the complainant made was that, the corrections which have been made in the online edition be published in the print edition of the respondent newspaper with an expression of regret.
Mr. S. Ramanujam, who represented "the Hindu" on the said day pleaded for adjournment of the case so as to seek instructions from the editor of the newspaper. The Inquiry Committee acceded to the plea of the respondent and accordingly adjourned the case to 14th February 2019. When the matter was taken up on 14th February 2019, Mr. Ramanujam produced before the Inquiry Committee the written submission signed by the editor of the newspaper. In paragraph 9 of the said written submission, it has been stated as follows:
“With due respect, Sir, I feel the demand for an apology or a rejoinder is unjustified and I am not inclined to accept this, given the circumstances. However, I do apologise for the PCI's show cause notice having gotten misplaced, which led to the delay in submitting a reply to us (dated December 26, 2018)”
The Inquiry Committee has bestowed its consideration to the rival submission and is of the opinion that refusal to publish the correction in the print edition of the newspaper shows nothing but an act of arrogance of the Editor of the newspaper. It is an admitted position that the impugned news story was published in the print edition of the respondent "The Hindu". When the respondent has chosen to make corrections in the online edition, the Inquiry Committee does not find any justification not to do so in the print edition when the errors and omissions are one and the same. Clause 13 of Norms of Journalistic Conduct reads as follows:
“When any factual error or mistake is detected or confirmed, the newspaper should suo-motu publish the correction promptly with due prominence and with apology or expression of regrets in a case of serious lapse.”
The Norms of Journalistic Conduct provides for correction promptly with apology or expression of regret suo-motu.
What to talk about suo-motu, newspaper has refused to publish it even when it was brought to its notice.
All those, who write, are bound to make mistakes and for that purpose one keeps erasers but erasers are kept by those who are willing to correct their mistakes. In the opinion of the Inquiry Committee, the editor of "The Hindu" has forgotten this basic principle and without any justification is unwilling to publish the correction in the print edition of the newspaper. Those who say sorry, when they are wrong are honest, those who say sorry when in doubt are wise. In the opinion of the Inquiry Committee, the respondent editor is neither honest nor wise.
Accordingly, the Inquiry Committee has no option than to Censure the respondent newspaper. A copy of this order be forwarded to the Director General, DAVP, District Magistrate, Chennai, Director, Information & Public Relations Department, Chennai for information & appropriate action.
The Press Council on consideration of records of the case and report of the Inquiry Committee accepts reasons, findings and adopts the report of the Committee and decides to Censure the respondent newspaper with the above direction.”
Binu Mathew, editor, Countercurrents.org has constantly been asking readers: Are you fed up with the mainstream media? Need an alternative insight? The answer to both questions is always a yes!
Post Script: Mr. Mukund Padmanabhan was the editor of The Hindu during the relevant period.