MOHAN DUTTA AGAINST THE INDIAN NEWS
Case Number: 3157
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2021
Publication: The Indian News
Balance, Lack Of
Apology and Correction Sought
1. On September 16, 2021, The Indian News, a publication describing itself as serving “the Indian and multicultural communities across New Zealand”, published a news article, headlined “Hindu Haterade (sic) reaches New Zealand shores!” The article was illustrated with photos, one of which was captioned “(Picture of Mohan Dutta below from National Communication Association)”.
2. Although Professor Dutta was not named in the text of article, the text situated immediately above his photograph read: (let) “us pray for those who spread animosity and spew venom against the most peaceful race on the planet, the Hindus.” Professor Dutta asked the editor to take down the article and picture. The photo was taken down, but the caption naming Professor Dutta, and the text of the article, remain accessible online. The immediate cause of the difference of views between The Indian News and Professor Dutta seems to be a research paper he published this year entitled “Cultural Hindutva and Islamophobia”, in his capacity as Dean’s Chair Professor and Director, Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), Massey University. Professor Dutta’s brief paper dealt with “the Hindutva ideology, asserting the supremacy of Hindu nationalism”.
3. The first complainant, Mohan Dutta is a Professor of Communications at Massey University. He complains that the article names him, publishes his picture, and places it alongside dehumanizing content. He says the news item “mischaracterizes my scholarship to create a message of hate”. He believes it is a “hate-filled opinion piece”; and is positioned as news without making it explicit that it is opinion, not news. He believes this incident has led him to receive threats to his security. Professor Dutta’s letter requesting the article and photo be removed, and for the publication to issue him with an apology, received a response from the editor which denied naming him and repeated some of the strong opinions against Professor Dutta from The Indian News article. Professor Dutta has also subsequently provided information which he says shows the editor is a personal supporter and promoter of the views about Hindutva expressed in his article and may therefore have a conflict of interest.
4. The second complainant, the Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians (AAPI), complains on grounds provided in the Media Council Principles: accuracy, fairness, and balance; privacy; comment and fact; and discrimination. AAPI is also concerned about failure by The Indian News to distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutva; the branding as anti-India of those who speak out about Hindutva; the failure to comply with the New Zealand media’s journalistic integrity and standards; and the potential personal impact of the strong criticisms on Professor Dutta, given the difficulties being faced by academics and journalists who criticise the Indian government and Hindutva extremism.
5. In his response to the Media Council the editor of The Indian News, Yugal Parashar, stands by what he has expressed. He says, “I have tried to cover the news as the opinion of 120 K Hindus of New Zealand.” He cites references in support of his opinions, including a petition against Mr Dutta’s research paper initiated by the Coalition of Hindus of New Zealand, and an article rebutting Mr Dutta’s views by a Professor at the University of Canberra. He believes Mr Dutta is spreading hatred and divisiveness in the community. He claims Mr Dutta is “using ‘complaint’ as an intimidation against anyone including the ethnic media who tries to put the record straight”. He repeats some of his arguments against the content and quality of Mr Dutta’s research paper including “using academic freedom to spread hatred against Hinduism and Hindutva”; trying to “malign Hindu scripts as fundamentalist in nature that promote extremism and terrorism”; and that his “baseless utterance only exposes his lack of understanding of Hindu religion”.
6. Views in the Indian community in New Zealand, and elsewhere, are sharply divided on the issue of the Hindutva movement. It has been described by some as an extremist, nationalistic manifestation; but is seen by many others as based on peaceful Hindu beliefs. The current Indian governing party has apparently expressed some support for the Hindutva movement and its views, which has provided a context in which overlap and conflation occurs between religious and party political arguments and motives on opposing sides of the debate. A further complication is that one side of the dispute separates critical comment on Hindutva from the Hindu religion; the other conflates critique of Hindutva with attack on the Hindu religion, and India itself. The Media Council refers to this religious and political debate only as necessary context for its opinion and does not take sides. Its opinion is strictly confined to matters covered by the Media Council Principles, which regulate appropriate news media conduct.
7. In its front-page website heading, The Indian News cites its adherence to the New Zealand Media Council Principles as a reason to claim it is the most trusted Indian media group in New Zealand. The Media Council Principles relevant to the complaint, or cited by complainants are: 1 Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; 2 Privacy; 4 Comment and Fact; 5 Columns Blogs, Opinion and Letters; 7 Discrimination and Diversity; 11 Photographs and Graphics; and 12 Corrections.
8. The article complained of contained various comments which were clearly linked to Professor Dutta by references to an academic and the captioned photo. A few examples are: “a left leaning bigot under the garb of an academician, abusing his institution to spread hatred against Hindus”; “this so-called Professor has spewed venom against Hindu community”; he is a “staunch Hindu hater”; “Hindus across the world need not to panic by a gang of smelly rats”. These comments are targeted to some extent at wider group of people than Professor Dutta, but the prominent use of his photo and the naming of him in the caption are clearly intended to link him closely to the critique of Hindutva which the article attacks.
9. It is useful to deal first with Comment and Fact; Media Council Principle 4 states that a “clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. This does not prevent a forthright stance being taken. The article complained of was headed “News”. In the Council’s view it is clearly an expression of the writer’s opinions rather than reporting of facts and is an attack on Professor Dutta (and others of like mind). It is unsustainable to describe it as news. The Council upholds the complaint as a breach of Principle 4 Comment and Fact.
10. Principle 1 and the preamble require the media and editors to maintain high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance, and public faith in those standards. This does not prevent a publication expressing strong opinions on issues of the day if they are clearly identified as opinion. Some of the statements by The Indian News in the article complained of are highly opinionated and some offensive (eg ‘so-called Professor’, ‘bigot’, ‘smelly rats’). The Council considers that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are inextricably bound. A free media plays a vital role in a democracy. However, in the Council’s view this freedom is also a privilege and must be exercised in an ethical way. Comment should not cross the line into personal abuse, nor should it undermine trust in a publication’s ability to distinguish fact from opinion, or robust debate from abusive personal attack. In this case the Council believes The Indian News has crossed that line and that “the responsibility to maintain high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance and public faith in those standards” has not been met. The Council considers a breach of Principle 1 and of its ethical standards has occurred.
11. Principle 2 states that everyone is entitled to privacy, but “this should not interfere with the publication of matters of significant public record or public interest”. Professor Dutta is a senior academic at Massey University who published an article on a controversial topic, Hindutva and Islamophobia, and could therefore expect this to be the subject of public interest and debate. In the Council’s view, the right to privacy is not relevant to this complaint, and the complaint on grounds of privacy is not upheld.
12. Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity says certain issues, including religion and race, are legitimate subjects for public discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest. Publications may report and express opinions in these areas if they do not amount to “gratuitous emphasis”. The article strongly defended the Hindu and Hindutva position and was an attack on Professor Dutta’s published analysis of Hindutva and Islamophobia. It included offensive descriptions of Professor Dutta. However, the Council upholds the complaint on other more relevant grounds and has not considered the discrimination principle, given the breaches found on other grounds.
13. Principle 5 relating to opinion and fact is relevant. The Council has above upheld the complaint (on Principle 4) on the grounds that the article expressed very strong opinions under the guise of news. Under Principle 5, balance is not essential where identifiable opinions are being expressed, but a foundation of fact should be maintained. The AAPI has raised a factual issue, that The Indian News claims Hindu civilisation is 50,000 years old, when current evidence suggests that human civilisation began around 10,000 years ago. They and Professor Dutta also complain The Indian News has no evidence to support their claim that it represents the opinions of 120,000 Indians in New Zealand, when it is clear there is a range of opinion on the issues at stake. These may be inaccurate claims, but the Council considers that they are debating points which are at least potentially arguable and are not essential to the dispute. The Council therefore makes no finding on a factual breach this case. Strong and sometimes offensive opinions are being expressed, and contested claims made, but in the Council’s view there is no clear indication of a crucial factual error. No breach is found of Principle 5.
14. The Photographs and Graphics Principle 11 requires that editors should “take care in photographs and image selection and treatment”. It seems that the editor, by not naming the complainant in the text but publishing a named photograph of him, thought to avoid the consequences of abuse of a named individual. It appears likely this was an attempt to avoid the Media Council standards and principles, since the editor claimed to Professor Dutta that he had not named him in the article. This problem is if anything made worse by the subsequent removal of the photograph at the complainant’s request, but retention of the caption giving the complainant’s name in the online article. The complaint is upheld under Principle 11.
15. Principle 12 Corrections says a publication’s willingness to correct errors, apologise and offer a right of reply enhances its credibility. The Indian News failed on all these criteria. The complaint is upheld on Principle 12.
16. In summary, the Media Council finds a breach of Media Council Principles on Principles 1, 4, 11 and 12.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.