NEWS
31/07/2020 11:33 AM IST | Updated 31/07/2020 12:00 PM IST

Green Activist Demands ‘Equal Space’ To Respond After Business Standard Publishes Advertorial Accusing Her Of 'Peddling Half Truths'

Kavitha Kuruganti says the publication’s response to the controversial advertorial has been ‘inadequate’, demands it payback the revenue earned to ‘set a high bar of media ethics’.

https://www.facebook.com/kavitha.kuruganti.7
Activist Kavitha Kuruganti.

NEW DELHI— Environment activist Kavitha Kuruganti said she was considering legal options against Business Standard after the financial daily carried a full-page advertisement accusing her and other activists of “peddling” “half-truths” and calling for “strong action” against them by the government.

The advertisement was paid for by the Crop Care Federation of India, a lobby group representing the agrochemical industry. Business Standard carried a “Correction”, rather than an apology, the following day, adding that the paper regretted publishing the advertisement.

Kuruganti said the Business Standard’s response was “inadequate” and added that she was exploring all options including legal ones. She has written to T.N. Ninan, Chairman of the publication, and Shailesh Dobhal, Digital Editor, seeking, among other things, equal space to publish her “counter-view to the industry’s advertorial” in the publication. 

Kuruganti, who is associated with many informal activist groups working on gender and agriculture, said she “appreciated” the brief  “correction” published on the front page but it was “not enough”. 

“It is not enough that you state that you dissociate yourself from the allegations, apart from saying that you regret the publication of the allegations. The allegations and other misinformation are themselves not acceptable, and you providing space for the same is not acceptable,” Kuruganti wrote in a blog post.

In their advertisement carried on page 11 of the Business Standard’s Delhi edition, the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI) levelled a wide range of specific accusations against individual activists and environmental not-for-profit groups. 

Kuruganti also asked the Business Standard to do three things: a) publish a front-page statement that admits that the advertorial went against the newspaper’s own Code of Conduct, b) return the revenue earned from the advertisement to set a high bar of media ethics, and c) give all those who were accused in the advertorial an equal space to publish their counter-view. 

Kuruganti also emphasised that she was considering her “all legal and other options available” to ensure that “ones who can throw money do not occupy public debate spaces through slander and misinformation just by virtue of paying for such spaces”.

Kuruganti also emphasised that she was considering her “all legal and other options available” to ensure that “ones who can throw money do not occupy public debate spaces through slander and misinformation just by virtue of paying for such spaces”. 

HuffPost India has written to Ninan and a representative of the Crop Care Federation of India. This report will be updated if a response is received. 

What did the advertorial say?

CCFI, which says on its website that its members include “most of the leading pesticides manufacturers and formulators” in India, published the advertorial with the headline ‘Beware of foreign-funded environmental NGOs’. Apart from Kuruganti, several academics and activists including Sunita Narain, Dr. Rashmi Sanghi and others were also mentioned, with the federation alleging that their academic research was sponsored through foreign funds.

The sum and substance of the accusations levelled by the federation and their intended goal was captured in the advertorial’s final paragraph: “In view of the above data and information we request our policymakers to immediately take strong action to ensure that foreign funded environmental activist NGOs are kept away from playing any role—overtly or covertly—in moulding our environmental/economic/agricultural policies.”

It further demanded, “These environmental activist NGOs must be disqualified from receiving foreign funds by the Ministry of Home Affairs.” 

Interestingly, while the advertorial could be found in the print edition of the paper on Wednesday, its official epaper edition does not have it as on today.  Some versions of the epaper, though, are said to be circulating on social media with the advertisement in place. HuffPost India could not independently verify the veracity of these epaper editions. 

Potential legal consequences

According to senior lawyer Nisha Bhambhani, who has an expertise in media laws, the advertisement violates the Norms of Journalistic Conduct 2019 designed by the Press Council of India.

“It’s an advertorial which violates the norms of the Press Council to the extent that they say that newspapers should not publish an advertisement containing anything unlawful or illegal or is contrary to public decency or good taste, or even to journalistic ethics and propriety. And journalistic ethics and propriety require a certain fairness in an advertisement,” said Bhambhani while speaking with HuffPost India

If people mentioned decide to file a case, they could file for defamation under section 499 of the IPC or perhaps even civil defamation.Advocate Nisha Bhambhani

She said said that both the Business Standard and the lobby group are liable here. 

Advocate Bhambhani also pointed out that, in their declaration of fundamental principles and code of self-regulation, the Advertising Standards Council of India says that advertisers should safeguard against misleading advertisements and ensure that there is truthful and honest representation. The federation’s advertorial appears to be in clash with the code and fundamental principles. 

“So the point is that there seems to be a certain agenda but there are also certain allegations made. Specific with names, organisations that kind of thing. I don’t think it is an ethical advertisement. It doesn’t stick to that responsibility of an ethical or moral plane and it has a legal problem,” said Advocate Bhambhani. 

“If people mentioned decide to file a case, they could file for defamation under section 499 of the IPC or perhaps even civil defamation.” 

Speaking with HuffPost India on Thursday, Kuruganti said that she was exploring her legal options and had not yet taken a final decision.

On Thursday night, the Business Standard editor Shyamal Majumdar responded to Kuruganti’s email with an offer to publish her response. She responded with a few questions. The issue remained unresolved at the time time of publication of this report.

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