Two years after a leading Marathi daily of the Indian Express group, Loksatta, published fake news about the Statue of Unity, the Press Council of India (PCI), the self-regulatory watchdog of the press, has found the newspaper guilty of malice. In an order dated on September 30, the PCI accepted the report of the Inquiry Committee, which was constituted to examine the complaint, and has decided to censure the paper.
Activist Sadanand Ghodgerikar had filed a complaint against Loksatta and its Editor-in-Chief Girish Kuber for publishing a fake editorial dated November 3, 2018, about the Statue of Unity. The matter eventually came up before the Inquiry Committee of the Press Council of India on February 25 this year. While complainant Ghodgerikar appeared in person, the respondent Loksatta was represented by Abhijeet Negi and Mahesh.
Loksatta claimed massive contribution by PSUs for Statue of Unity
In the contentious editorial on November 3, 2018 in Loksatta by Editor-in-Chief Girish Kuber, he alleged that several Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) had contributed ‘immensely’ for the construction of the Statue of Unity. The basis of his claims was supposedly a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report from August 2018.
The editorial claimed, “Indian Oil, Oil & Natural Gas Commission, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum, Oil India, Gas Authority of India, Power Grid, Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation, Engineer India, Petronet India and Balmer Lawrie has contributed a sum of Rs. 900 crore, Rs. 450 crore, Rs. 450 Crore, Rs. 250 Crore, Rs. 250 Crore, Rs. 250 Crore, Rs. 125 Crore, Rs. 100 Crore, Rs. 50 Crore, Rs. 50 Crore and Rs. 6 Crore respectively for the construction of Statue of Unity of Sardar Patel.”
No money should have been spent by PSUs, Loksatta alleged
Later, in a rejoinder to the Inquiry Committee, Loksatta presented a purported extract of the same CAG report and alleged that not a ‘single rupee’ ought to have been provided by the PSUs for the construction of the Sardar Patel statue. “Contribution towards this project (Sardar Patel Statue) did not qualify as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activity as per Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013, as it was not a heritage asset,” Loksatta claimed, citing the CAG report.
In its defence, the Marathi daily stated that the figures presented in the editorial were ‘not disputed’ by any of the PSUs and that no objections were raised even by the Government of India. It further claimed that the complainant Sadanand Ghodgerikar had ‘no personal knowledge’ about the funds contributed by the PSUs and that he has no locus standi in the matter. Loksatta also reiterated that the editorial was published in ‘good faith’ and ‘public interest’ without ‘malice.’
Complainant rubbishes exaggerated claims of Loksatta
The complainant had rubbished the claims of the Marathi daily as ‘false’ and ‘concocted’. He disputed the figures published in the editorial and pointed out that the said CAG report was also presented in the Parliament. Sadanand Ghodgerikar emphasised that the contribution of the PSUs were far lesser than what was alleged by Loksatta in its editorial. “Indian oil, Oil & Natural Gas Commission, Bharat Petroleum Hindustan Petroleum had contributed only Rs. 21.83 crore, Rs. 50 crore, Rs.25 crore and Rs.25 Crore respectively, ” the complainant reiterated.
Dear Friends as promised my fight and complaint against mighty @LoksattaLive @girishkuber on fake/misleading editorial about Statute of Unity written with full of lies has been upheld by Press Council of India and PCI has passed CENSURED order against @LoksattaLive— Sadanand Ghodgerikar (@SGhodgerikar) October 16, 2020
सत्यमेव जयते pic.twitter.com/W3kPWakRDj
Findings of the Inquiry Committee reveal factual incorrectness of the editorial
The Inquiry Committee of the Press Council of India noted that despite several requests to Loksatta to produce material, other than the CAG report, which they took into consideration before publishing the editorial, the Marathi daily had turned down the request citing confidentiality of sources.
While the Committee upheld the decision to not reveal the name of its sources, it emphasised, “The respondent cannot refuse to place the material, which has formed the basis of the story, particularly when the respondent newspaper in the story itself has disclosed the source and that is the report of the CAG.” The Inquiry Committee found that the claims made in the Loksatta editorial are ‘absolutely incorrect’ and ‘figment of imagination by the newspaper’. It emphasised, “The conduct of the respondent newspaper in publishing such a story and referring to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India to give the story credence aggravates the misconduct.”
When Loksatta claimed that the editorial was based on external sources, the Inquiry Committee dismissed it by saying, “This submission of the counsel has only been noted to be rejected. The story itself had disclosed the source and hence this submission of the learned counsel that the newspaper relied on some other source is really beyond the comprehension of the Inquiry Committee.” It further reprimanded the newspaper and forwarded a copy of the report to the Mumbai Police Commissioner and the Director of Information and Public Relation of the Maharashtra government for legal 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 (Loksatta) with above-recommended directions”, the order read.
Press Council scolds Loksatta over fake claims about RSS Chief
This is not the first time when Loksatta drew the ire of the Press Council of India. Last year, the PCI had slammed the media group for spreading fake news after it had published a hit job article written by journalist Karan Thapar, one of the oldest members of the Congress-backed Lutyens media, against RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat by attributing fake quotes to him. Along with Karan Thapar, the editor of the Loksatta Girish Kuber wrote an editorial containing a fake quote of the RSS chief.
In the article, Girish Kuber had written that Mohan Bhagwat had said that, “The Vedas order the killing of the sinner who kills a cow,” in reaction to the death of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was allegedly killed on suspicion of consumption and storing beef. Loksatta later issued an apology, albeit in small fonts. In another article titled “Has the RSS ground shifted?” in Indian Express, Karan Thapar wrote, “In fact, Bhagwat himself is not averse to making inflammatory statements. In 2015, when Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched on suspicion of consumption and storing beef, he’s reported to have said: “the Vedas order the killing of the sinner who kills a cow.”
However, In reality, there is no reference of any such statements made by RSS chief Bhagwat. In fact, RSS chief had strongly condemned the violence and mob lynching.
Loksatta editor Girish Kuber found guilty of plagiarism
Earlier in May, netizens promptly called out Loksatta editor Girish Kuber for a highly plagiarised article. Several social media users pointed out how Mr Kuber blatantly lifted the entire article from a blog run by one Andrew Lilico, a PhD expert in economic modelling and policy impact simulations, and reproduced it in the Marathi language for vernacular consumption, without providing any credits to the source from where he shamelessly copied the article.
The blog titled as “A sense of proportion“, shares a perspective on how the approach embraced by the UK government in bringing down the mortality rate of the country in 2019 by instituting strict and exacting restrictions involved an apathetic indifference towards the relative importance of human happiness and flourishing that is being sacrificed in the country’s battle against the coronavirus.
This pithy observation about how human thinking is shaped by a pandemic was brazenly duplicated by Loksatta editor in his Op-ed titled ‘Covidscope‘, thinking his treachery of replicating a blogpost in the Marathi language will not be called out. Mr Kuber provided no provenance of the article in his Op-ed, misleading readers to believe that it was his wisdom and insight and not that of a foreign PhD expert.