Tuesday, August 29, 2006

“It Stings"

"Sting operation" - a comparatively recent phenomenon to the Indian audience, but one that has nonetheless caught the imagination. Politicians, police and other government employees are also very interested, though for all together different reasons and in different ways.

A ‘sting operation’ is a complicated confidence game designed to catch a person, normally sadly committing a crime, by means of deception. In any sting operation "deception" is at the core and is used to gain the target’s trust and confidence.

The Indian version of a sting operation was first publicly demonstrated by Tehelka.com, a news portal now publishing a newspaper in the same name. Tehelka is credited with carrying out 3 major sting operations. The most recent was Operation 'Duryodhana', carried out to expose irresponsible members of parliament demanding and accepting money for raising questions in parliament. This resulted in the suspension of 11 MPs from various parties.

The most infamous sting which has struck in the public mind is the operation carried out by Tehelka.com that caught many senior politicians, including the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman, accepting bribes in return for helping an armaments company secure a contract with the Indian army. Many army officials were also caught on camera promising the fictitious arms dealer the contract in return for money, liquor and in some cases call girls.

Another major Tehelka sting operation exposed the bookies and cricketer's nexus. The operation showed many players free from any guilt, talking and deciding about fixing matches in return for monetary favour.

After a series of 'Tehelkas' the Indian media woke up to this new method of making news, and soon we had many such 'Tehelkas'. Popular news channels were among the most devout students - Star news, Zee news and of course India TV (who some say should change its name to "Sting TV") have all run successful operations.

Unfortunately the popular media gave more importance to quantity rather than quality. So even a "Baba" practiced in ancient herb lore and claiming to be able to cure impotency was projected as a person practicing castration. The whole of UP’s Health Ministry was said to be protecting the Baba. The channel claimed that it had exposed a Baba-health ministry nexus. Similarly a police traffic constable became a national villain when one of the channels caught him asking for Rs. 50 bribe from a bus driver. The whole police system and even the home minister suddenly found themselves in line of fire. Viewers were asked to call and register and rant their voice against this "horrible" incident that the channel was able to record.

India TV became the national 'hero' when it aired how a bollywood actor defined in full view the term "Casting couch". Though voices of protest were heard against the actor, one viewer called up and touched on a more relevant issue; is the media morally right to enter into someone's bedroom?

Important questions need to be answered. To what extent can the media sting? Can it go to any length? Is there a need to draw a line somewhere? Rather than correctly expose wrong doing are fictious conspiracies being sought out and private life wrongfully invaded? These constant sting operations have now become a daily thing, and perhaps even passé?

India is yet to codify effective laws governing media sting operations. After Duryodhana, members of Lok Sabha demanded that a law should be formulated to work as a guideline for any future media stings. Some members wanted that there should be a provision of punishment if the media transgress its boundaries.

Abscam (sometimes ABSCAM) is regarded as the first modern sting operation undertook by any organization. It was an FBI operation, initially targeted at trafficking in stolen property and later widened into a public corruption investigation. It ultimately led to the conviction of a United States Senator, six members of the House of Representatives, the Mayor of New Jersey and members of the Philadelphia City Council. After the sting operation Congress in US expressed its concern and created numerous guidelines like the Civiletti Guidelines (1980-1981), The Smith Guidelines (1983), The Thornburgh Guidelines (1989) and more recently The Reno Guidelines (2001). These guidelines were formulated to serve as a tool to define the extent to which public bodies and the media could go.

The press is seen as the fourth estate of a democracy. It is expected to play the role of watchdog, not just entertainer. The press justifies sting operations on the grounds of having a moral duty to bring out the truth. On the other hand critics argue that the press transgresses its boundaries when it uses hidden cameras to record artificial situations and the offer of hard to resist temptations to entrap an unsuspecting person.

Anirudh Bahl, the man behind Tehelka considers the use of a hidden camera as intrusive and says that it should only be utilized where the public interest quotient is high. According to him it should be left with the media to define what constitutes 'public interest'.

Another important issue in the Indian context is that in India 'entrapment' is undefined, unlike many other countries. In India we don't have a case law which defines 'entrapment'. The law is silent and the media can see a grey area that, according to them, provides an opportunity to conduct such operations.

One should also not forget the risk of the media losing credibility and trust. MPs, politicians and journalists have gone on record to say that sting operations will surely sow mistrust, potentially creating a wall between the media and other sections of society hampering the ultimate mission of publishing said truths and stimulating debate.

It's up to the media to decide that how much liberty it can exercise and where it should stop. The issue in question is not perhaps to sting or not to sting, but rather how to best serve the overall public interest?

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