As India’s #metoo movement takes off, with women publicly outing cases of sexual harassment and assault, one of the biggest names in the dock is Union minister MJ Akbar. Akbar has had a long, successful career in journalism and is widely seen as one of India’s most pioneering editors. He launched India’s first weekly magazine on politics, Sunday, in 1976 and two daily newspapers, the Telegraph and the Asian Age, in 1989 and 1994. Currently, Akbar is Minister of State for External Affairs in the Modi government.
Akbar was first named in a tweet by senior journalist Priya Ramani on Monday, who identified Akbar as the unnamed editor whose inappropriate behaviour she had written about in an article in October 2017. Since then, seven more women have come forward to accuse Akbar of sexual harassment.
In spite of the gravity and breadth of the charges and the fact that he is a Union minister, however, the Indian press has not given the Akbar story the space it deserves.
All this might change, however, with more serious allegations emerging in a detailed story of “sexual assault and harassment” that was published on Wednesday, where a journalist described her harrowing ordeal and how her “last six months as a journalist at Asian Age, the newspaper he edited, were pure hell with repeated physical advances.”
Burying the story
The Times of India, India’s largest English language newspaper, did not carry the allegations against Akbar on its front page on Wednesday. It did run with Akbar in a story which had actor Alok Nath in its headline but only reported on the fact that the Union government had not responded to the allegations – without any details on the allegations themselves. The Hindustan Times followed a similar template: it did not think of the wide-ranging allegations of sexual harassment against a Union minister newsworthy enough for its Wednesday front page but did carry the political mudslinging that this is resulting in.
The Hindu’s Delhi edition had a small piece on its front page, below the fold, on Wednesday, again on the lack of reaction from the Union government.
The Telegraph, however, was the first newspaper to run with the story in Akbar, carrying it as its front page main story on Tuesday itself: “#MeToo finger at Union minister”. On Wednesday, the Indian Express ran Akbar as its lead story on page 1, detailing the allegations against the minister.
The Telegraph ran the story on its front page again on Wednesday, pointing to the silence with respect to the charges from the Union government.
In newspapers other English, the prominence given to the grave allegations against Akbar was mixed. Dainik Jagran, India’s largest Hindi newspaper did not have any mention of #MeToo on its front page at all. The front pages of Amar Ujala and Hindustan did but chose to focus on the rape allegations against actor Alok Nath. There was no mention of Akbar.
India’s largest selling Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika ran it on page 6. One of Assam’s premier dailies, Amar Asom, however, carried the Akbar story in its front page. “Me too hurts Narendra Modi’s cabinet too,” the headline announced. The story spilled over into one of the inside pages of the paper, detailing the allegations leveled against him so far. The paper also pointed out the silence of the Union government, referring to foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s refusal to answer a reporter’s query on the matter on Tuesday. The Asomiya Pratidin, another popular newspaper in the state, also carried the story in its nation page, albeit with less details. Asomiya Pratidin cited Swaraj’s refusal to address questions on the accusations against her deputy, as well.
In Kerala, the spotlight was largely on an accused in #MeToo from the state, Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator from Kerala and leading actor M Mukesh. However, Akbar featured too. Malayala Manorama, the largest Malayalam newspaper, covered the story prominently and displayed it on the front page with the headline: “Actor Mukesh too in controversy”. The story also mentioned allegations against MJ Akbar. Mathrubhumi, the second largest newspaper, wrapped up the #MeToo campaign and carried it on the base of its front page. The headline read: “Union Minister MJ Akbar, actor Mukesh in ‘Me Too’ net”.
Tamil newspapers chose to report the accusations of sexual harassment against MJ Akbar on their inside pages. Hindu Tamizh carried a story on page 10 with a headline, “Minister sexually harassed me, alleges woman journalist”. Another Tamil daily Dinamani had a story on page 13 with a headline “Sexual harassment complaint against Central Minister MJ Akbar”. Dina Thanthi had carried a briefly on page 11 with a headline “Central Minister - Sexual harassment charges against MJ Akbar” while Dinakaran newspaper had a four column story titled “Celebrities caught in #Metoo - Sexual harassment charges against Central Minister MJ Akbar, Hindi actor”.