THAKUR RANJIT SINGH AGAINSTNEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 3159
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2021
Decision: Not Upheld
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
1. On September 10, 2021 the New Zealand Herald published a story on its website headlined Massey University professor hit by right wing Hindu trolls.
2. The story, written by the Herald’s diversity reporter, described online attacks against Professor Mohan Dutta whose work critiqued Hindutva ideology and mapped the influence of Islamophobia in Indian groups associated with it.
3. The Collins dictionary defines Hindutva as “a political movement advocating Hindu nationalism and the establishment of a Hindu state”.
4. Hindutva has been associated with right wing political thinking since the term was first used (in literary form) in the 1870s.
5. In the story Professor Dutta says that “Hindutva trolls” flooded his social media accounts with abusive messages and calls for his employer to retract his work and fire him.
6. The professor, who also addressed hate and white supremacy in his work, said he was trolled by those groups too, but the scale of the Hindutva abuse was a first with up to 80 Twitter and Facebook messages and tags a day.
7. The story contained samples of the abuse in the form of tweets from various users including one from @Namastekiaora which was subsequently taken down.
8. The story details Professor Dutta’s experiences with the trolls and encapsulates his views of Hindutva, which he says is not Hinduism. He believes the attempts to silence criticism are an attack on academic freedoms across the globe, including New Zealand.
9. A spokesperson for the university said Professor Dutta became a target of Hindutva activists after he gave an online talk in August ahead of an international conference the university co-sponsored with 70 other institutions called “Dismantling Global Hindutva”.
10. More than 100 international academics, activists and civil society groups signed a letter of support for Professor Dutta and his Massey University research centre CARE - the Centre for Cultural-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation.
11. Thakur Ranjit Singh has made an extensive complaint across three Media Council principles; Accuracy Fairness and Balance, Headlines and Captions and Discrimination and Diversity.
12. Citing Principle 1: Accuracy Fairness and Balance, Mr Singh believes the article lacked “correct information” and was unfair because the reporter was unaware of a White paper Professor Dutta had written. This was the “core issue”.
13. The article was misleading because the professor “who maligns a community and a religion” has “projected himself as a victim by running to the press first” while the Herald denied the Hindu community an opportunity to “retort his claims” therefore the story was one sided.
14. In addition, the paper failed to contact Hindu organisations that had already written to the university to complain about Professor Dutta.
15. It was unfair to attribute the trolling to Hindus when the Herald was not sure of the sources of the abuse.
16. Under the Headlines and Captions principle, the heading was “misleading and failed to convey the substance of the report”.
17. The story says it was unclear who was behind the trolling yet it blames Hindus for the trolling.
18. Mr Singh believes that using the word Hindu in the heading was “insensitive and inappropriate” in the wake of the Christchurch massacre and would cause ill feeling in the community. The Herald would be “sensitive” to using the terms Muslim or Islam in a heading but not Hindu because Hindus are “easier to malign and not collectively united”.
19. Citing the Council’s Discrimination and Diversity principle, the complainant said the reference to Hindus was “unwarranted, unnecessary and unreasonable”.
20. “Especially when such use may cause ill-feelings or violence against certain communities”.
21. Reference to Muslims and Islamophobia “was intended” to show that Muslims are the victims and Hindus the oppressors.
22. “We especially find his reference and association of Hindutva to Islamophobia in NZ as extremely erroneous and a grave misrepresentation of Hindus in Aotearoa.”
23. Mr Singh supported his comment by saying all cases of anti-Islam sentiment in NZ have perpetrated by white supremacists and “none from non violent Hindus”.
24. For the New Zealand Herald, Andrew Laxon said that Mr Singh's complaint that the university did not reveal previous correspondence with himself was a matter he should take up with Massey.
25. He said the story contained several voices, including Dr Sapna Samant of the Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians.
26. “Dr Sapna and Professor Dutta may not represent the religious or political viewpoint which Mr Singh regards as true Hinduism, but they are also Hindu and Indian, which points to a wide diversity of opinion on this issue.”
27. “Like most great religious traditions, Hinduism has both conservative and liberal elements which do not always agree.”
28. A follow up story on September 27 also included comments from the New Zealand Hindu Council and Hindu Youth NZ. Both groups made arguments against Professor Dutta which Mr Laxon said were similar to the arguments raised in Mr Singh’s complaint.
29. It was reasonable to “suppose” that the anonymous trolls were Hindutva supporters. “While they hide their identities, the context makes it clear who they are likely to be.”
30. The story explained the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva but the latter would not be understood by “most of our audience”.
31. That was why the term “right wing Hindu trolls” was used in the headline to introduce the subject and a more detailed and nuanced explanation was carried in the story.
32. Mr Laxon said he found it remarkable that Mr Singh opened his response by “denigrating our reporter as a ‘foreigner’, non Hindu, non Indian, (who) possesses little or no knowledge of the issues involved”.
33. “The implication was that as a young ethnic Chinese woman she had no right to report on the issues and by implication only Hindu Indians should do so.”
34. In answer to Mr Singh’s question, the Herald had used terms such as Islamic terrorism or Christian hate when it would have otherwise been misleading to describe a hate-based crime or offence words or actions without reference to the underlying ideology.
35. Mr Laxon said he understood that the phrase “Right wing Hindu trolls” might seem offensive to Mr Singh, but it was accurate in the context of the story and other Hindus, like Professor Dutta and Dr Samant, and many others would likely not find it offensive.
36. Dr Samant and Professor Dutta “are deeply concerned about the use of the Hindu religion and culture as a vehicle for attacks on people of other religions”.
37. To illustrate his points Mr Laxon said many Christians in NZ would strongly disagree with Bishop Brian Tamaki’s “allegedly Christian-based public campaign against vaccination or his attacks on gay people” even though other Christians have publicly supported him. He pointed to a 2020 article for the Association of Asian Studies by Professor Arvind Sharma of Montreal, Canada, which suggested Hindutva can be compared to Islamic or Christian fundamentalism.
38. “A preliminary way of understanding the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva would be to recognise that Hinduism is a religion while Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, is a political ideology whose relation to the religion of Hindusim could be considered
analogous to the relationship between Christianity and Christian fundamentalism or Islam and Islamic fundamentalism.”
39. Responding to Mr Singh’s claim that all anti Muslim sentiment in NZ has come from white supremacists, Mr Laxon said the story included a self-identified Hindu tweet “that appears to be locally based and strongly anti-Muslim” which suggested that Mr Singh’s view was a generalisation “at best”.
40. “The criticism also missed the point of the story, which is that Professor Dutta, a NZ based Hindu academic of interest to a local audience, has been targeted by a wave of offensive social media attacks from Hindus who are angry that he has criticised the use of the Hindu religion as a cover for attacks on other religions (Hindutva).”
41. This complaint veers into areas that are outside of the Media Council’s jurisdiction. The Council has no role to play in adjudicating between rival factions over religious differences nor is it equipped to critique the content or quality of an academic paper.
42. The matters raised in this complaint will be strictly assessed under the Media Council’s principles.
43. The complainant states that the article was unfair because it lacked the “correct information”. The accusation has two components. The first is that the reporter was unaware that Professor Dutta had written a White paper titled Cultural Hindutva and Islamophobia and this is a “core issue” of his complaint. The second component is that the reporter did not speak to the Hindu organisations Mr Singh believes they should have. The Council’s view is that the White paper is irrelevant in this context. The crux of the news story was about social media trolling in the wake of Professor Dutta’s work around Hindutva in general. The fact that Hindu groups wrote complaints to the university about a paper authored by the professor is not pertinent to this complaint. The news story stands alone as a single entity and any issues around balance, fairness or accuracy are confined to the story and subsequent stories.
44. Turning to the second component, although the original story did include another voice - Dr Samant from the Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians - it is reasonable to assume that Dr Samant’s group is sympathetic to Professor Dutta’s perspective and therefore the story was unbalanced.
45. There was no voice from a group that represented Hindutva’s perspective and that was a concern, but that was corrected in a subsequent story in which two groups sympathetic to the Hindutva cause were quoted. The Media Council’s Principle 1 allows for balance to be achieved over time and the Council believes this is one such instance of this
46. The Council does not believe that the NZ Herald has been unfair or misleading by describing the trolls as “right-wing Hindu trolls”. It seems entirely reasonable that the anonymous authors of the tweets and messages are motivated supporters of Hindutva and to suggest otherwise on the basis of anonymity is a red herring. The complaint under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and balance is not upheld.
47. Principle 6 Headlines and Captions states that Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. In the Council’s view the heading does just that. Professor Dutta was targeted by right wing Hindu trolls. Based on the evidence before it, the Council believes there is little doubt that the people behind the trolling were Hindu nationalists. The topic and tenor of the tweets and messages presented in the story all point to that, as does the tweet from @Namastekiaora which was subsequently taken down. The complaint under Principle 6 is not upheld.
48. Principle 7 Discrimination and Diversity states: Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.
49. The story at the centre of this complaint is public interest journalism and clearly the subject of the Hindu religion and its various iterations is a legitimate subject of discussion under Principle 7.
50. In a free and open society any attack on academic freedom - be it coordinated or otherwise - is a concern. Media organisations must remain free and unimpeded in their pursuit of such stories. The Media Council believes this was one such story. Mr Singh believes the reference to Hindus in the story was “unwarranted, unnecessary and unreasonable” but the Media Council does not agree.
51. The story was written because Professor Dutta found the attacks on himself and his work unwarranted, unnecessary and unreasonable in a society that is pluralist, free and open.
52. Mr Singh argues using the word Hindu is unfair and discriminatory and in a world tainted by the Christchurch massacre it could lead to “ill feelings in the community”. He has produced no evidence of this and ignores the irony that the person who has been the subject of “ill feelings” is Professor Dutta who is himself, a Hindu.
The complaint under Principle 7 is not upheld.
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.