Days before President Pranab Mukherjee’s scheduled visit to Sweden, his interview to Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter— where he was quoted as saying that the Bofors controversy was a media trial — has led to an unsavoury row.
India’s ambassador to Sweden and Latvia, Banashri Bose Harrison, sent a strongly-worded letter to Dagens Nyheter’s editor, Peter Wolodarski, on May 25, conveying the “disappointment of our authorities in Delhi” and accusing him of “unprofessional and unethical” conduct in printing the “off-the-record” remarks of the President.
The newspaper today hit back through a statement on its website, where it alleged pressure to drop the contentious remarks made by Mukherjee. “In a telephone call prior to the publication, the ambassador expressly asked DN to remove parts of the interview that was about Bofors. She also warned that the planned state visit by the President was at risk of being cancelled… I told the ambassador that we could not meet her demands,” Wolodarski’s statement said.
“It is surprising that someone representing the world’s largest democracy is trying to micro-manage which questions we should ask a head of state, and which answers should be published,” Wolodarski said.
“The President got involved and upset when Bofors was mentioned in a question about how we avoid corruption today. Obviously, we have to account for his reaction,” said Wolodarski.
In her letter to Wolodarski, Harrison said, “It was both unprofessional and unethical on your part to include in the report an off-the-record correction made by the President after the interview had ended, about a slip of the tongue during the interview… I am told at that point you sympathised with him and said it can happen to anyone. After that, to include the same in your report in a most condescending manner as you have done does not befit the high standards normally expected from a leading newspaper or a professional journalist.”
She also accused the newspaper of not showing the “courtesy and respect” that Mukherjee deserves as a head of state. She pointed out that while the Bofors issue was raised in the third question, it was shown as the first question. “I hope you will forgive me for being frank enough to say that this is taking journalistic licence to a point of misleading the viewers,” she said.
South Block sources said the decision to convey displeasure with the concerned media organisation was taken at the “highest levels”. Sources said Rashtrapati Bhawan was concerned — and the Ministry of External Affairs agreed — that the statement was distracting from the “substance” of the President’s visit to Sweden.
“Normally, in such cases, a mid-level diplomat expresses the government’s point of view. The fact that the letter was sent by no less than the Indian ambassador clearly shows that the matter was taken very seriously by the President’s office,” said a government source.
Rashtrapati Bhawan, however, declined to comment on the interview or the latest row.
Meanwhile, Mukherjee received support from the Congress for his statement. “We feel what the President has said is absolutely correct. The ambassador can say something at the instance of the government. The government may want to politicise it. But what the President has said is correct. Courts have also ruled accordingly,” said Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmed.