Thursday, March 20, 2014

To sting or not, that is the question!

The reactions to media sting operations over time can be a barometer of their relevance. Consider this: In 2001, when Tehelka conducted one such operation on the BJP leader Bangaru Laxman by offering him a bribe; when caught, he was forced to step down as party secretary and was eventually sidelined. Such was the resultant embarrassment to the BJP that, as admitted by Laxman himself in an interview to The Indian Express, it consigned him forever to its margins. Circa 2014, two sting operations conducted in different parts of the nation under similar circumstances seemed to yield little result: while the one conducted by the news website on candidates of the Aam Aadmi Party, including Kumar Vishwas and Shazia Ilmi, showed them seeking cash donations in exchange for favours, the party firmly stood by them and discredited the operation. “Why not conduct this on BJP and Congress members?” asked one party member. Down south in Karnataka, when the Kannada news channel TV-9 attempted an encore on state energy minister D K Shivakumar of the Congress, the politico had them arrested and even filed a defamation suit against the media outlet. The journalists claimed they were assaulted and molested (one of whom was a woman) but if at all those from their fraternity had expressed outrage to the minister’s alleged ham-handed ways, it was least visible. (Remember, we journalists can be as cacophonous, if not more, as our politicians.)

What went wrong in between? Was it the omnipresent Indian thick-skinned mentality? Or, with the process becoming dime a dozen, has the Fourth Estate itself been complicit in reducing its effectivity?
It can be safely assumed that the success rate of media sting operations, in terms of corrective actions that it spurred, has dwindled. For every sting operation that attained success, such as turning the wheels of justice in the Jessica Lal murder trial (the protagonists being Star TV, Tehelka) or the NDTV sting in the hit-and-run case involving Sanjeev Nanda, there are countless examples where, after the initial uproar and frayed tempers, the dust simply settled down (case in point: the not-so-recent Cobrapost sting on 11 MPs).

Legal chinks in this regard could be a reason.

It may be pertinent to note that the phenomenon, although perfectly legal, does not have a law that recognises its validity or stipulates regulations that it will need to follow.

The legal perception becomes further nebulous when the fact that there are no guidelines to specify as to what comprises legal and illegal entrapment, is taken into account – that is, whether the giving of the bribe was entirely initiated by the scribe or whether the illegality was already on its set course and would have taken place whether the journalist videographed it or not. Here comes the caveat: while courts do not recognize illegal entrapment as evidence, wrongdoers have the avenue to seek a way out by claiming that they were coerced into committing the crime.

While the absence of a law means that journalists conducting the operation become sitting ducks to defamation suits, they can take heart at the fact that they cannot be charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, while offering a bribe to a politician during a sting operation.

Above all, the sentiment that stings are employed only to boost TRP ratings is impossible to miss. Its portrayal in popular culture – where it has been synonymous with getting the high and mighty in a ‘compromising’ position on camera – too hasn’t helped. How can anyone forget the Nityananda episode, in what can be described as one of India’s shameful incidents of public voyeurism, when Sun TV along with other channels chose to air his escapade with actress Ranjitha, round the clock?

All this lends the perception that sting operations need to be done away with for good. However, let us not forget that during an instance when the courts were confounded to no end, it was a sting operation that was able to secure the conviction of certain mass-murderers. Remember, here was a trial where no amount of interrogation, investigation or documentation failed to yield any result.  

It was then left to the footage of the sting operation by Tehelka that helped the long arm of the law in catching up with a horde of influential Gujarat unit BJP leaders, including Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani, for their complicity in the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots case.
Law or not, guidelines by the Press Council of India and National Broadcast Standards Authority in this regard are unequivocal when it comes to necessitating a sting operation: public interest.

Just ask the Zee News editors who were entrapped in a ‘reverse sting’ by the Jindal Group for seeking a Rs150 crore bribe to soft-pedal coverage on the group's alleged involvement in the coal scam.

Necessary evil? Certainly.

Reference – Press Laws Guide: Sting Operations,