Ofcom raps Aastha TV for health claims

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UK media regulator, Ofcom has found Aastha TV in breach for certain health claims made on a show back in June 2016.

During routine monitoring, Ofcom identified Yog-Hindi Rishi Swami Ramdevji, which was a programme consisting of a lecture delivered to a live audience by a practitioner of yoga and ayurvedic medicine, Swami Ramdevji. The programme was in Hindi, with some Sanskrit. At the start and end of the programme, scrolling text written in English appeared under the heading “Disclaimer”.

During the programme, Swami Ramdevji made claims about the impact of yoga on a range of illnesses and ailments. He said, “Yoga could also lead to the discontinuation of intake of medicines. There are many brothers and sisters amongst you whose medicines for thyroid, blood pressure, sugar, arthritis, depression, insomnia, cholesterol, gas and acidity and hundreds of such other diseases have been discontinued. There are also millions of such examples”.

He added, “Firstly, yoga gives immediate relief. Secondly, yoga helps you to discontinue medicines. Eye operations for millions of people were not required due to yoga. Cataract and glaucoma were also treated. Millions were saved from eye operations. People who no longer required medication like pain killers or for blood pressure or sugar after regular practice of yoga please raise your hands. The numbers are in the hundreds. People never believed discontinuation of medications was possible. In allopathic medicine, it was believed that as long as there is life, the medicines have to continue.”

Swami Ramdevji made similar claims about a breathing exercise, kapalbhati. He also recommended herbal remedies, such as giloy. At one point, Swami Ramdevji said the following about mainstream medication:

“The side effects are very bad. When you take cholesterol medicine, the liver can be damaged. It can cause liver cirrhosis. I am not trying to scare you. I am telling you the truth.”

In response, Aastha TV said that it was “alarmed and distressed” at any suggestion that this programme could have caused harm to viewers, stressing that it was “a company of the highest principles”, which had broadcast the programme as “a benefit to the community” and “a service to assist viewers to enjoy optimum health”. Vedic argued that the content had to be seen in context, with reference to the demographic profile and likely expectations of its audience: “This programme is aimed at Hindi-speaking viewers in India, who are highly likely to be followers of Swami Ramdevji, a well-known populariser of yoga through his mass yoga camps. The broadcast was provided in the UK for the spiritual benefit of Swami Ramdevji’s followers who are unable to attend the yoga camp in India…[T]he programme is conducted in the Hindi language and we consider that the viewers had the expectation that the programme, being a lecture at a yoga camp given by Swami Ramdevji, would consist of his well-known views on the health benefits of yoga and herbal remedies.” In the Licensee’s view, Hindi-speaking viewers would have been “well versed in Indian culture and the generally accepted practices in the Indian community”, even if they were not followers of Swami Ramdevji. They were therefore highly likely to be familiar with yoga and herbal remedies, understanding that these are “complementary to [i.e. rather than a substitute for] mainstream medicine for serious conditions”, and that yoga in particular is “a spiritual discipline rooted in Hindu philosophy, not a fitness technique or a way to heal medical ailments”. Vedic emphasised that this programme was “not a lecture directed to unconverted viewers”, but rather “a documentary window” on a yoga camp attended by followers of Swami Ramdevji. The Licensee added: “However, we are aware that we must take into consideration any viewer of the broadcast rather than the targeted audience when considering the risk of potential harm”.

The Licensee made the following statement about the references in the programme to arthritis, depression, blood pressure and ovarian cysts: “The programme does not say that yoga or herbal medicine cure serious medical conditions as a standalone procedure. Swami Ramdevji says that where people have tried conventional medicine and it has failed them or they do not wish to have surgery, after they have turned to yoga or herbal remedies they have found relief from their symptoms and benefitted from treatment rather than obtained a “cure”.

Vedic accepted that a few of the statements made by Swami Ramdevji, if they were “taken in isolation”, could be seen as “deviating from generally accepted standards”. It had therefore responded to Ofcom’s investigation by drafting an additional disclaimer to be broadcast in Hindi and English around relevant programmes: “Any references to medical claims should be considered in context of the programme content. Viewers suffering from medical illnesses are advised to seek qualified medical advice”. The Licensee added that if a viewer with a serious medical condition had consulted a yoga or ayurvedic practitioner in the UK, then the established practice would be for that practitioner to refer the viewer to a mainstream specialist. Vedic also committed to review all its output in future, to assess whether there was any risk posed to vulnerable viewers by claims made in programmes, and to broadcast the disclaimer “a proportionate number of occasions”, including, where necessary, “on a scroll bar throughout the programme”. The broadcaster underlined that it was willing to take any action required by Ofcom to ensure compliance with the Code.

Ofcom carefully reviewed the programme as a whole, and has selected quotations from it for illustrative purposes. It is our view that, as a result of watching the programme, some viewers with potentially serious health issues and conditions – especially more vulnerable individuals – might use yoga and/or ayurvedic medicine to treat these conditions without seeking mainstream medical advice, with potentially harmful effects. There was also a risk that some viewers might stop an existing course of medical treatment, as a result of the promotion of yoga and/or ayurvedic medicine, taken together with the criticism of mainstream medicine in the programme. Finally, viewers who had taken the herbal remedies recommended in the programme might believe they were effectively protected against viruses and other diseases, without considering mainstream medical treatments.

In Ofcom’s view, all of these outcomes were potentially harmful, though we were particularly concerned about the advice relating to the most serious conditions. The fact that there were no complaints about this programme, alleging that actual harm had resulted from it, does not mean that there was no risk of harm.

Vedic argued that Swami Ramdevji did not attempt to promote specific products or request donations for a cause, in contrast to some previous breaches of the Code. However, in itself, the absence of such promotion or appeals did not provide protection to viewers from the potentially harmful content.

Ofcom took into account the Licensee’s intention to protect viewers from harm by broadcasting the disclaimer at the beginning and end of the programme. This on-screen message included statements in which the broadcaster: made clear that any views expressed by contributors to the programme were his own; denied the responsibility of the channel for those views; and advised viewer discretion. It is important to emphasise that, regardless of these statements, the channel remains responsible for all content broadcast on its service. Further, Ofcom did not consider that merely advising discretion on the part of viewers provided them with adequate protection given the nature and extent of the claims made.

Given Ofcom’s concerns in this case, it is requesting that Aastha TV attends a meeting to discuss its compliance in this area.

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