The New Zealand Media Council has upheld a complaint against The Indian News for offensive reporting about a Massey University academic and his research paper on Hindu nationalism.
The Council said in its ruling released last week that an article by the Auckland-based publication had breached the Council’s ethical standards, published opinion as facts and crossed the line into abusive personal attack, adding, “It is unsustainable to describe it as news.”
“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.”
The Indian News had published a news article on 16 September, with a photo of Massey University Professor Mohan Dutta, suggesting he was part of a “gang of some smelly rats” bringing an “anti-Hindu tirade” to New Zealand.
According to the Council, the article breached standards of accuracy, fairness and balance, public faith, and included offensive descriptions of Dutta.
“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).”
The point of contention was Professor Dutta’s research paper on Hindu nationalist ideology or Hindutva, published in May, following which the academic receive hundreds of abusive online messages by on line trolls.
“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,” the ruling said.
According to the decision, four out of seven relevant NZ Media Council principles were breached, including failing to correct errors, apologise and offer a right of reply; and take care in photograph selection and treatment.
Welcoming the decision, the complainants, Professor Dutta and the Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians (AAPI), said the decision was reassuring and showed that misinformation and hateful content are not tolerated in New Zealand.
“The communicative inversion crafted by Sarah Gates, and reproduced by the Hindu Youth and Hindu Council here in New Zealand, shaped the dehumanizing hate content passed off as news by The Indian News. It reflects the pernicious reach of Hindutva in diaspora Indian media here in New Zealand and more broadly in the region. This ruling sends an important message, you can’t follow the unethical practices of Hindutva media here in Aotearoa New Zealand and expect to go unchallenged. Civilised and open democracies have fundamental principles of journalistic ethics that diaspora media have the responsibility to educate themselves in.”, Professor Dutta told NRI Affairs.
A spokesperson for AAPI told NRI Affairs, “Robust democracies ensure ethical journalism with checks and balances in place. Ethnic Indian media in Aotearoa cannot reproduce and replicate the hateful Hindutva ideology perpetuated in India under the garb of community. It is divisive and harmful. AAPI is pleased with the Media Council ruling as it highlights not only the poor quality of journalism on these platforms but also shines a light on how mainstream political parties support these platforms by advertising on them as well as the lack of due diligence by government agencies that fund them.”
“For communities to be strong and empowered, their media platforms should be ethical”, AAPI added.
Responding to the Council’s decision, Yugal Parashar, Editor – The Indian News, told NRI Affairs, “I would only say that Media Council’s ruling is very unfortunate and unfair and doesn’t do justice with free press in New Zealand.”
“The people sitting in the Council are only happy to pick up a couple of words from my article, which according to them were a personal attack on a person who is responsible for creating all the problem.”, Mr Parashar said, adding, “It is a shame that the Media Council has completely ignored the real reasons of the dispute and that was the attempt made by My Dutta to spread venom against Hindu religion, practices, and Hindu organisations, under the garb of free speech. When someone in the ethnic media tried to correct him and put the facts right then all hell broke loose.”
“The Media Council’s decision has only proved us right that there are anti India anti Hindu sentiments in this country and Media Council supports such people. NZ Media Council seems to be least bothered about the freedom of the Press, rather they are being overprotective of a certain ideological people. Media Council’s decision is very disappointing and sets a wrong precedence for future.”, Mr Parashar said.
Complaint against NZ Herald dismissed
In another decision, the Council dismissed a complaint against New Zealand Herald for publishing a story on its website headlined “Massey University professor hit by right wing Hindu trolls”. 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. 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.
The complainant, Mr Singh has alleged that the article lacked “correct information” and was unfair because the reporter was unaware of a White paper Professor Dutta had written.
“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.”, the complaint read, adding, “the paper failed to contact Hindu organisations that had already written to the university to complain about Professor Dutta.”
“We especially find his reference and association of Hindutva to Islamophobia in NZ as extremely erroneous and a grave misrepresentation of Hindus in Aotearoa.”
The Council did not uphold the complaint saying that it did not agree with Mr Singh that the reference to Hindus in the story was “unwarranted, unnecessary and unreasonable”. Determining that the NZ Herald 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, the Council said in its verdict that 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.”