New Delhi: “It smells terrible here,” says Dutch journalist Jos van Dongen in his documentary on Indian medicines, broadcast in 2018. Red in the face, coughing and sneezing, he narrates what he is experiencing and says, “The stench is unbelievable. It affects your airways as well as your eyes.”
The real price of cheap medicines was broadcast in April 2018, by the independent Dutch media organisation BNNVARA on their documentary programme, Zembla. The 36-minute film show’s BNNVARA’s journalist Jos van Dongen travel to Telangana. He visits a number of sites around the manufacturing unit of the Indian pharmaceutical company Aurobindo.
The early shots of the video show Dongen walking along a gushing river, reportedly foaming from all the pharmaceutical pollutants being let into it by surrounding drug companies.
In 2018, after the documentary was broadcast, Aurobindo Pharma BV and APL Healthcare Limited complained to the Dutch Council for Journalism. Aurobindo’s director, V. Muralidharan, travelled to the Netherlands to speak before the journalism council in November 2018.
Now, in a 6,000 word reasoning, the council has said that “Zembla (BNNVARA) has handled journalism carefully,” without finding fault in the facts reported by this documentary, on the environment and health impacts of Aurobindo Pharma’s manufacturing sites.
Aurobindo in the Netherlands
According to the film, Aurobindo is one of the four largest manufacturers of drugs sold in the Netherlands, after Teva, Sandoz and Mylan. This episode of Zembla focusses on Aurobindo and is one of several episodes done on the global drug industry.
Zembla’s on-ground investigation showed Aurobindo’s manufacturing units and alleged damage to the environment nearby. It also showed local villagers alleging that they had to give up their land to the company and that the company reneged on its promises of jobs, among other things.
The journalism council has found no merit in Aurobindo’s objections to the documentary. This council is an independent and self-regulatory body that passes reasonings on complaints raised about Dutch media coverage. It neither issue sanctions, prohibitions nor imposes damages.
What did the documentary say about Aurobindo?
Zembla had reportedly contacted Aurobindo in February and March 2018, with several questions. They asked the pharmaceutical company why they were refusing permanent contracts to workers, why workers were being paid just Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 per month and why they were not being allowed to unionise.
They also asked Aurobindo about the complaints from local fisher people who said their fishing was suffering due to the polluted water. Aurobindo was also asked why promises of jobs to farmers who gave up their land for the factory in 2007 have not been kept.
Aurobindo replied in April and denied many of the claims made by the documentary.
In general, they said they are a fully compliant company: “Aurobindo produces according to strict legal guidelines as applicable in India, the United States and Europe. The production units are certified and controlled by the regulatory authorities in these markets.”
They also said their workers receive health and safety facilities and that their “factories are equipped to neutralise and prevent any harmful discharges.”
The company claims it does not discharge its wastewater into the Musi River and that “topographically it is impossible for waste water from Aurobindo to end up in the water in question.”
On the question of land rights, Aurobindo says that it was the local government that had acquired the land and the company entered the picture much later, dealing only with the government and not with villagers.
It added that “Zembla has acted carelessly without reporting any factual basis and sufficient research about Aurobindo in the way it has done”.
In a reply to The Wire, Aurobindo said “Zembla made a number of untrue allegations in the documentary.” The company also said they are considering appealing the council’s decision and they have also complained to the Changing Markets Foundation which contributed some of the information in the documentary.
Zembla responded that their reporting was sound and the result of “extensive, lengthy and careful research.”
What did the council say about the credibility of the documentary?
The council’s reasoning began by saying that there was a social and journalistic responsibility to report on the practices of drug manufacturers.
It also says it “does not share” pharmaceutical company’s view that the documentary’s “combination of image and text” makes people believe that Aurobindo is guilty of something it is not.
The council noted that Aurobindo’s disagreement’s were also given adequate space in the documentary and their entire response was also published in full on Zembla’s website.
“This leads to the conclusion that Zembla journalism has acted carefully,” said the reasoning.
The Wire has reached out to both BNNVARA and will update this report if and when either replies.