Dr Jeevren Reddy vs The Sunday Times Extra

Complainant: Dr Jeevren Reddy

Lodged by: Dr Jeevren Reddy

Article: Swami to be probed over claims of abuse – Sexual misconduct allegations a malicious attack, says host.

Author of article: Santham Pillay

Date: 5 September 2014

Respondent: The Sunday Times Extra

Complaint

Reddy (Swami Vishwachakradharananda) is complaining about an article published in The Sunday Times Extra of 17 August 2014, headlined Swami to be probed over claims of abuse – Sexual misconduct allegations a malicious attack, says host.

He complains that the journalist:

  • based the story on internet (unverified) gossip and that it was factually incorrect;
  • “adjusted” his words; and
  • appeared to have wanted to defame and destroy the Bhakti Marga movement.

The text

The story, written by Santham Pillay, said that the SA Hindu Maha Sabha will be “investigating claims of alleged sexually deviant behaviour” by the founder of the Bhakti Marga movement, Swami (“spiritualist”) Vishwananda. The Mauritian will be visiting Johannesburg and Durban in September. However, a representative of the SA branch of the Bhakti Marga movement, which will be hosting Vishwananda, reportedly claimed that the allegations were a “malicious attack” created to discredit the leader.

The arguments

Smuts denies that the story was “recycled internet gossip”. She says (though) that the allegations against Vishwananda were made on various websites. Because he was expected to visit South Africa “we felt it was necessary to alert our readers to the fact that the allegations had been made and to seek comment from religious bodies about these”.

She also argues that, in recent history, stories about so-called leaders who took advantage of vulnerable people seeking guidance were rife. “Our interest was in making our readers aware of the allegations in order to protect themselves.”

She adds that the reporter did ask Reddy for comment and that this was reflected in the story.

Reddy replies that:

  • Vishwananda has never been charged with any crime in any country;
  • his comments to the reporter were immaterial and unnecessary, as the journalist had already pre-conceived how he was going to present his story;
  • while Smuts denies that the story was not reliant on the internet, she nevertheless admits that the source for the story were various internet sites where these allegations were made; and
  • the newspaper should also have accessed countless pro-Vishwananda sites.

He asks: “How is the paper justified in claiming it is protecting the citizens of the country when it attacks and denigrates others? … What determines that the paper is in a position to determine the worth of a person? How is it able to pronounce judgement (sic) without legal advice?”

Analysis

Based on internet (unverified) gossip; incorrect

I find it strange that Smuts denies that the story was “recycled internet gossip” – while the only foundation for the story to which she refers me is indeed various websites.

It is a weakness in the story that Pillay never referred his readers to his sources – he merely stated that there were allegations against Vishwananda, but omitted to inform the public about who had made these accusations and where they came from.

The only reference to some “source” is the statement that the most recent claims against the leader were made in Poland in February. This does not help much, as the reader is none the wiser, as it is.

I nevertheless asked the newspaper to list the websites it used – which it did.

Given the seriousness of the allegations, the leading role that Vishwananda plays in his movement and the public interest in this matter, I do believe that the newspaper was justified in publishing a story on his imminent visit – and to report the allegations against him.

I am also satisfied that the story was balanced: It started with a statement that the SA Hindu Maha Sabha would investigate claims of alleged sexually deviant behaviour by Vishwananda (I do not have any reason to disbelieve this statement), it reflected some accusations that are in the public domain, and it included Reddy’s views on this matter.

The only problem with the story is that it does not clarify the origins of the allegations. However, I put this down to sloppy journalism – which, as such, does not necessarily amount to a breach of the Press Code.

‘Adjusting’ Reddy’s words

I have compared Reddy’s letter to Pillay with the latter’s version as recorded in the story, taking into consideration that it is sound journalistic practice to focus on matters material to the story.

The parts omitted by Pillay dealt mostly with Vishwananda’s vision and mission and with a plea by Reddy that the journalist should not “denigrate one of the greatest souls of our era and to allow him to function without sanction and malicious attack”.

I am therefore satisfied that the journalist adequately reflected Reddy’s views on this matter.

Wanting to defame, destroy the Bhakti Marga movement

Based on all of the above, I do not believe that it was the newspaper’s intention to destroy the Bhakti Marga movement.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman