Union minister MJ Akbar on Sunday termed allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by several women as "false, fabricated and deeply distressing" and said he was taking appropriate legal action against them. The allegations against Akbar came as the Me Too movement swept through India's newsrooms and stand-up scene, and Bollywood.
At least 10 women have accused Akbar of molestation and forced advances. The women who have spoken out have given detailed accounts of encounters with the 67-year-old, spread across the duration of his career as a journalist.
Hours after returning from a trip to Africa, the Minister of State for External Affairs issued a statement, virtually rejecting calls for his resignation from the post and seeking to link the allegations against him to the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
"The allegations of misconduct made against me are false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice. I could not reply earlier as I was on an official tour abroad," he said in the statement.
"Accusation without evidence has become a viral fever among some sections. Whatever be the case, now that I have returned, my lawyers will look into these wild and baseless allegations in order to decide our future course of legal action," the BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh said.
Before Akbar issued the statement, the Congress, at a press conference, questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi's silence on the allegations against the junior minister and said as the head of the government he should speak on the issue.
"Lies do not have legs, but they do contain poison, which can be whipped into a frenzy. This is deeply distressing. As indicated above, I will be taking appropriate legal action," he said. The women who accused Akbar of sexual harassment included Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Shuma Raha, Anju Bharti and Shutapa Paul.
MeToo in India
The Me Too movement holds men, especially those in the public eye, responsible for actions that amount to sexual harassment by calling them out and showing solidarity with other women who have faced similar situations.
After several starts and stops, the campaign picked up pace in India over the past week, after actor Tanushree Dutta accused co-actor Nana Patekar of harassment and AIB co-founder Utsav Chakraborty got named by fellow comedian Mahima Kukreja for sending lewd messages on social media.
Akbar was one of the most prominent people among the slew of men who got called out for harassment. Currently the Minister of State for External Affairs, Akbar has been the editor and co-founder of several national dailies like The Asian Age and The Telegraph.
The Indian media has been studiously covering the movement, even as several other prominent journalists and former editors like DNA's Gautam Adhikari were named as sexual harassers. This is how Akbar's much-anticipated response to the accusations was covered by national newspapers.
English national dailies
All the newspapers carried the story front and centre on their front pages but largely the reports are to-the-point and factual. The Indian Express and Mumbai Mirror, however, broke from pattern.
In a boldly titled report 'Lies do have legs', Mumbai Mirror reported the reactions of a few anonymous BJP leaders to Akbar's statement. The report says, "Akbar’s response — and in particular, his questioning of the credibility of the Me Too movement — surprised a section in the BJP. “How can he discredit the veracity of the experiences of what the women have undergone? [So by his reasoning,] Only Akbar is speaking the truth and all the women are telling lies?” asked a surprised BJP leader."
The report also said that BJP leaders were "not comfortable" with the party or government being involved in the matter, especially since some feared that "Akbar’s continuation in office could affect the government’s pro-women image."
The report quoted another BJP leader anonymously who addressed a crucial question the Opposition is after — When will Prime Minister Narendra Modi respond? Speaking to Mumbai Mirror, the leader said, “We all know that PM Modi is not the kind of person who sticks his neck out or gets involved in matters of another person or leader. Has he ever commented on mob lynching or any crucial issue? He will speak only when it hits him or Amit Shah. Else, every minister has to fend for himself. Maybe Akbar has been given a chance to clear his name.”
The Indian Express carried two related stories on its front page, and also provided the context and background of the story. In the report titled, 'Akbar digs in heels, says allegations 'fabricated' threatens legal action', said, "Over the past week, as the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has spread like wildfire on Indian social media, more than 10 senior women journalists — many of them Akbar’s former colleagues — have come out with specific allegations against him."
In addition to giving adequately in-depth details about the issue, The Indian Express also made a note of the cases that were not addressed by Akbar in his statement. The report says, "Akbar did not address the allegations made by Suparna Sharma, Prerna Singh Bindra and Kanika Gahlaut, among others. Bindra had posted on Twitter, while Sharma and Gahlaut had said that they too had been asked by Akbar to come to his hotel rooms in separate instances."
The paper also carried an accompaniment report on the front page titled, 'Five women journalists respond: Stand by accusations, will fight', which said, "Two of them (of the five women) said they were disappointed by Akbar’s reaction, but they were not surprised", followed by a quote by Suparna Sharma, resident editor, The Asian Age.
The Indian Express quoted The Asian Age's resident editor as saying, "I stand by my testimony of the two incidents — one in which he plucked my bra strap, and the other when he stared at my breasts. I also stand by the fact that he did the same with other women in the office. I am disappointed with Akbar’s response but I am not surprised. This is going to be a longish battle, and the next step in many cases is a legal step."
Hindustan Times, in the report titled 'Political storm brews as Akbar refuses to resign', once again points out the conspicuous silence maintained by the BJP government and party, even in the face of the Opposition calling for a statement by Modi.
Even though a few cabinet members like Union minister Smriti Irani have spoken about the allegations, there has been no concrete response from the government. Hindustan Times' report says, "The Union government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have largely been silent since the allegations surfaced, and have maintained that the allegations do not concern the government or Akbar’s tenure as minister, and that it is up to him to clarify and take a stand." However, the report, which carries a video explaining the case, mentions the RSS' support for the movement.
The report also carries the Opposition's reaction to Akbar's statement, "The Congress responded soon after through spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, who tweeted: “I wonder how over a dozen women sharing their experiences can be claimed as political conspiracy? Bigger wonder is which constituency does his stepping down impact in elections?""
The Times of India, in an article titles 'Harassment charges false and fabricated, says Akbar', went into more detail in reporting Akbar's statement. The article quoted almost all of Akbar's statement in parts. DNA followed the same format in its article, 'Akbar stays put, mulls legal action'.
The Hindu, in an article titled 'Me Too allegations fabricated: MJ Akbar' reported yet another account of a woman who has spoken out accusing Akbar of sexual harassment. The report said, "Meanwhile, another woman journalist has made allegations against Mr. Akbar. London-based senior journalist Ruth David has shared her experience as an intern with the Asian Age in 1999 in post on social media."
In a report titled 'Akbar refuses to quit, will sue accusers', Deccan Chronicle mentioned the speculations that Akbar would 'quit' due to the furore around the allegations.
The report said, "Sources said Mr Akbar’s decision to not resign was taken after consulting the top BJP leadership and after he explained his side of the story on the sexual misconduct allegations levelled against him. There was a growing feeling within the BJP that the #MeToo campaign was turning into an effort to malign the party and if Akbar were to resign, it would have give ammunition to the Opposition ahead of the crucial polls."
None of the newspapers named carried an editorial specific to Akbar's statement.
Hindi national dailies
Dainik Jagran gave a detailed rundown of Akbar's statement, breaking it down part-by-part according to the allegations he has refuted. Navbharat Times specifically mentioned that the allegations against Akbar are from the time he was an editor and not since he took up a serious political career in 2014.
With inputs from PTI
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2018 17:24 PM