No blanket privilege to scribes doing sting operation, says SC

No blanket privilege to scribes doing sting operation, says SC

The Supreme Court on Thursday held that no blanket privilege can be provided to journalists carrying out sting operations for unearthing scams, though the “intention” behind the undercover exercise can be a factor to determine the culpability.

The innocence or criminal intent of undercover reporters can be established after a detailed probe during the trial, the court held, while refusing to quash the charges framed against two persons, who had in 2003 caught Union Minister Dalip Singh Judev on camera taking money.

A three-judge bench, presided over by Chief Justice P Sathasivam, passed the significant judgment at a time when two recent sting operations — one relating to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and another on the Sikh riots — invoked sharp political reactions, including against those carrying out such “journalistic” works through hidden cameras.

In the instant case, the petitioners, who faced charges for criminal conspiracy by the CBI, claimed that no criminal intent could be attributed to them since the sting operation was a journalistic exercise.

Sidestepping their contention, the court said that if the sting operation was really a journalistic exercise and the bribe was a mere sham or pretence or if it was for seeking some favours — were questions that can only be answered after holding a full-fledged trial.

“A crime does not stand obliterated or extinguished merely because its commission is claimed to be in public interest. Any such principle would be abhorrent to our criminal jurisprudence.

At the same time, the criminal intent behind the commission of the act which is alleged to have occasioned the crime will have to be established before the liability of the person charged with the commission of crime can be adjudged (in trial),” the bench also comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N V Ramana said.

The court also said that though the apex court had in R K Anand vs Registrar, Delhi High Court case approved of a sting operation in public interest, it will be difficult to understand the ratio in the said case as the approval of such a method as an acceptable principle of law enforcement valid in all cases.

The apex court affirmed the Delhi HC order of 2008 refusing to interfere with framing of charges against the petitioners.

Among other factors, the court said, “Why in the present case there was a long gap (nearly 12 days) between the operation and the circulation thereof to the public is another relevant facet of the case that would require examination.”

Judev, then Union minister of state for environment and forest, was caught on camera receiving illegal gratification. The CBI later claimed that the whole operation was carried out at the instance of Amit Jogi, son of then Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi to discredit him on the eve of the state assembly elections. The journalists, however, claimed that it was done to expose corruption in his ministry.

Judev, who died last year, reportedly said, “money is no less than God” in the sting operation.

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