Should men accused of sexual harassment get platforms to continue expressing their professional views? Should the media provide such a platform to them?
Hindustan Times triggered this controversy on Thursday by publishing an opinion column by MJ Akbar, the former union minister accused of sexually harassing at least 16 women during his three decades as newspaper editor starting from the 1980s. Akbar’s alleged sexual misconduct ranges from rape and molestation to predatory sexual advances towards young women journalists working in his offices.
On October 17, Akbar resigned from his post as minister of state for external affairs. He denied all the allegations against him and filed a criminal defamation suit against senior journalist Priya Ramani, the first woman to accuse Akbar of sexually harassment. In response, 20 women who had worked under Akbar at the Asian Age issued a joint statement pledging to testify against him in court.
The case is still under trial at a Delhi court. Barely six weeks since it began, the Hindustan Times published Akbar’s column in its editorial page. The column is about how finance minister Arun Jaitley has “restored the equilibrium” between the government and the Reserve Bank of India, and Akbar’s profile description at the end of the column makes no reference to the allegations against him.
Hindustan Times editors did not respond to Scroll.in’s questions about the editorial considerations for giving Akbar column space. However, as the paper faced criticism on social media for its decision, senior journalists and editors debated the complex questions that arise in cases of this kind.
Is it unethical to publish the work of someone accused of sexual harassment? What about people accused of other kinds of crimes? Does the nature and severity of the crime make a difference? Should an accused person’s work be boycotted while they are under trial? Who makes decisions about this form of justice? Would it amount to a media trial?
Rehabilitating the accused?
Many veteran journalists said that Hindustan Times’ decision to publish Akbar’s column was in bad taste. According to journalist Geeta Seshu, Akbar could misuse his position to influence public opinion at a time when the court case is still underway. In this context, she said, the message that Hindustan Times seems to send out to readers is that it supports Akbar and condones his behaviour.
“It is really shocking that HT exercised its editorial judgement in this absolutely erroneous way,” said Seshu, who fears that the paper might have been operating from external considerations. “In almost all sexual harassment cases, the most disturbing thing is that after the initial furore, shock and anger, things calm down and become business as usual, and the accused men end up rehabilitating themselves and finding ways to continue to be in circulation and power. I really would like to ask HT if they were under some kind of external pressure to publish this.”
Sevanti Ninan, a columnist and founding editor of the erstwhile media watchdog website The Hoot, also believes that publishing Akbar’s column ends up legitimising him. “Giving editorial space to a person who stands publicly accused of serious misconduct – sexual harassment in this case – certainly amounts to re-legitimising him, before he has been cleared of the accusations made,” said Ninan.
Other editors suggested that the dynamic was more complex than apparent.
“HT’s political editor, Prashant Jha, ‘stepped down’ in the wake of #MeToo. His byline has not appeared in the paper since then,” said Krishna Prasad, a senior journalist and member of the Editors’ Guild of India. “That the same publication carries a piece by MJ Akbar, whose name figured in the accounts of over a dozen women, conveys the games people play in Lutyens Delhi.”
What about other crimes?
While some editors do find it distasteful that a former journalist appears to be using journalism to try and rehabilitate himself, others questioned whether a person accused of sexual harassment – and sexual harassment alone – completely forfeits the right to express himself. In cases of other crimes, the media sometimes tends to apply different standards. For instance, Communist leader Kobad Ghandy, who is currently under trial for alleged links with Maoist groups, has written opinion columns on political topics for various news publications over the years.
“Akbar’s case is in court,” said Prasad. “He has not been pronounced guilty or innocent. His political career is done and dusted. Surely, as an acclaimed author, Akbar is free to pursue his writing career just like Shashi Tharoor and P Chidambaram, who too are facing litigation in other cases?” Congress parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor is under trial for allegedly abetting his wife’s suicide, while former finance minister P Chidambaram is accused under various charges of corruption.
Independent journalist Ammu Joseph acknowledges that the question of whether to boycott an accused person’s professional work is a complicated issue, especially in a country like India, where legal procedures can drag on for years. She believes editors may be justified in publishing a column by such people if they happen to be the best available authority on a topical matter of public interest.
“But in this case, there is nothing unique in Akbar’s column,” said Joseph. “It is essentially a paean from a BJP MP [Akbar] to a minister in the BJP government [Arun Jaitley]. It’s not even a topic he is known to have special expertise in. So on what editorial grounds did [Hindustan Times] think this article was worth publishing? It is difficult not to see this as a deliberate attempt to send out a message about continuing impunity.”