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Here is what is going on with the fake article about emotional distress helplines that Free Press Journal. There are mixed messages galore.

After some attempt to fob off the fake reporting as the helplines giving quotes and then denying later, the reporter admitted that she had no proof of the interviews whatsoever. And it isn't just about the content of the interviews, she doesn't even have proof of contacting the helplines for quotes at all. Instead, they are asking for confidential call records of the helpline that would jeopardize the confidentiality of thousands of callers. One really has to wonder at the need for this needle and haystack process. If the reporter knows the time of call and number she called from, the records for that number will have the call. What is the point in demanding a vast swathe of helpline numbers as though the reporter doesn't know her own number?

fake journalism by Free Press journal
Fake article at Free Press Journal invents a trend, data to prove it and quotes by experts too!

The journalist did admit that she did not have any evidence of having asked for a quote from anyone in that article as per Paras Sharma. Yet the editors continue to call it a case where either party could be lying.

This is fairly serious, but astonishingly, the organization has gone into a cover up mode with bizarre replies from editors ranging from "she is young and just beginning her career" to "neither of you can prove". The article itself has been taken down from the website. However the iCall wants a formal retraction in print as well as at the url of the missing article, as the allegations of the article raise a doubt on their professionalism, not to mention creating a perception among readers that their anonymity may not be safe with helplines and thus prevent people from seeking help. This, the Free Press Journal refuses to retract its story.

Paras Sharma of iCall helpline is understandably livid. He insists that if the article was published in the print edition, a retraction in the print edition is required. After the evasions and denials and cover ups, even an admission of not having any evidence at all of having interviewed is being termed as having no proof that the article was fake. He intends to approach the Press Council in this matter as well as The Hoot, and will continue to press for a retraction.

I am perplexed by this seemingly adamant refusal to uphold journalistic standards by retracting reports that get proved unreliable. Is the Free Press Journal seriously saying that it does not retract articles known to be false for the sake of sympathy for the person who faked it? What is the integrity of the publication and why should anyone buy it? One wonders if it is indeed a junior reporter who made up the false story, or is she being shoved under the bus to protect some liar with power in the organization? I truly cannot imagine a news publishing organization trading its reputation for a new recruit. Should I downgrade my already low opinion of news "outlets" further?

Here is the latest email I received from Paras. I have not been in touch with anyone from the Free Press Journal.

Dear Vidyut,

I am writing to you to seek your help in bringing the Free Press Journal to justice. On Valentine's Day this year, the Free Press Journal published a story written by Swati Jha, which I have attached with this email.

As you can see, I have been quoted in this story in my professional capacity. Now what is the problem with this story, you ask? Well, the reporter never contacted me for any such story.

The whole quote, along with all the stats are completely made up. What's more, the other helpline which has been quoted in the story - Aasra, has also said that the reporter never called him up for the story. The three case studies as it stands, are absolutely fake.

I have written to the Editorial board and went through the entire hierarchy going from the DGM - Mr. TGP Krishnan, the city editor Mr. Anil Singh, right to the Editor-in-Chief Mr. Shailender Dhawan.

The paper was initially apologetic and cooperative. They took down the story from the website and as you can see now the page throws a 404 http://freepressjournal.in/helplines-flooded-with-desperate-calls-before-v-day/

After relentless pressure from my end, and after you wrote about this, the journalist personally wrote to me apologizing for her story and even admitting that she has no proof for her story!

We said that since our organization had been quoted publicly, a private takedown of the story and an email apology shall not suffice. Despite repeated assurances, the editor-in-chief today has refused to print a retraction saying that we have not provided clinching proof that the story was fake.

He essentially says that its our word against his reporter and if we question their journalistic ethics, they will question our ethics saying that we dont respect client confidentiality and freely share the information with the media.

He has told me 'Don't waste my time' and that 'I should pursue the matter in any way I deem fit'.

Some more facts in conjunction to this case:

1) The reporter did not have my personal number
2) She thought my name was Prashant as opposed to Paras
3) She has no call-log or audio transcript of the conversation
4) She has no proof to establish she spoke to ANY of the people mentioned in the story

While we are contemplating our future course of action, I would appreciate any support/guidance you can offer in fighting this unethical newspaper.


Update: The Free Press Journal did publish an apology and retraction on their front page.


icall emotional distress helpline
iCall Helpline for people in emotional distress as quoted fraudulently by Free Press Journal as betraying caller confidentiality.

Free Press Journal has published a story claiming that mental care helplines got increased calls in the week leading to Valentines Day. The article claims that mental health helplines are getting 20-25 calls per day from the heart broken and lonely and goes on to describe such calls and quote authoritative sources. The glitch? At least two of the sources are completely fake.

Paras Sharma, counselling psychologist and coordinator at iCall - a nationwide psycho-social helpline by TISS for people in emotional and psychological distress by Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who has been quoted in the article denies having spoken to any journalist from Free Press Journal.

Paras Sharma is described in the article as having disclosed confidential details about a phone call made to the helpline by a fourteen year old depressed girl in love with her friend's boyfriend:

“She said that her friend and friend’s boyfriend were celebrating each day of Valentine’s week which she can only dream of as she is not that pretty. She said that she can never fall for someone else and will die out of the envy that she has for her friend,” said Paras Sharma, co coordinator of icall, which is under Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

“It was shocking for me as this girl couldn’t see that she has all time in world for falling in love and that many Valentines like this will come and pass by,” said Sharma.

Paras completely denies having said any such thing or even having spoken with any reporter at all about such a call, which to his knowledge did not happen at all and is a story invented by the journalist. He categorically states that their helpline routinely gets calls of emotional distress and relationship problems and there is no special increase for Valentines Day.

Aasra suicide prevention helpline quoted in this story too denies having given such an interview. This entire part is invented:

AASRA has also been getting calls from married ladies and divorcees.

A lady in her late 40’s called up AASRA saying she is feeling ignored by her husband off lately. Now that it’s Valentine’s week she was feeling even more left out as her twin sister who was married one year after her was going out with her husband and celebrating Valentine’s Day.

“She said that whenever she checked her sisters’ Facebook profile, there were many pictures which made her envious. She felt that in the ten years of her marriage she has grown older. However, her sister was still young. That is why her husband was ignoring her,” said Thomas.

Thomas said that the calls in the days nearing Valentine’s Day have risen because many people are preferring late marriages due to which feeling of insecurity has dawned upon them due to ageing and loneliness.

“The only support left with these people is of their friends who on such days are busy with their spouses, fiancées or boyfriends and girlfriends. Besides, due to monotony that life endows on these souls, they feel more detached from the world and purpose of their life in the absence of love,” said Thomas.

Thomas also said that feeling of being worthless and unimportant endows on such people.

Paras Sharma of iCall Helpline says that calls made to a helpline are confidential and while their organization does publish anonymized statistical information or other studies, it is unlikely any professionals will divulge salacious personal details of an individual caller in this manner.

It is irresponsible to publish invented news pieces that create a perception that calls to helplines are not confidential and that cases can be casually discussed in this manner and demands that Free Press Journal takes appropriate action against the reporter and editor of this story, whose names were not told to Paras.

It is unclear if the other sources quoted in this story are true or false.

Update: After Paras Sharma publicly denied speaking with the Free Press Journal reporter and asked for action to be taken against her, a reporter called Swati Jha has called up iCall to speak with him, accusing him of lying and denying what he told her.

According to Paras, when asked to prove he gave her the quotes, she said, "This is the problem with us in the media. We don't record calls sometimes. Now I have no proof" on being asked to show her caller logs, "My cellphone only shows the last dialled number". What sort of a reporter is this?

It is unclear why Paras Sharma and Aasra both would deny giving this reporter quotes. Also unclear why she does not have his personal number and calls Paras Sharma "Prashant".