Sting or stink operations?

Heres how private tragedies become a public one too.


The apparent ‘sting operation’ which facilitated the expose comes at a time when the Supreme Court has heaped praises on the media for serving a public purpose. It has also turned down a suggestion that the electronic media should seek clearance from court before telecasting any sting operation concerning a pending case.
“Such a course would not be an exercise in journalism but in that case the media would be acting as some sort of special vigilance agency for the court,” the SC said.
The court, however, cautioned that a sting operation was more risky and dangerous. “A sting is based on deception and, therefore, it would attract the legal restrictions with far greater stringency and any infraction would invite more severe punishment,” it said.  
The Supreme Court has also raised concerns over freelance sting operators hawking their ‘exposés’ to the highest bidder. There is also the potential to “sell” the so-called proof of misdemeanour in high places to the accused themselves and burying the hatchet. “Whether it (sting operation) is in public interest or to make money will have to be examined one day,” the judges said.

Sting auctions
“By giving 40,000 rupees you can get a judicial order. If this is the state of affairs only God knows what will happen to the country,” Chief Justice V N Khare said on arrest warrants issued against former President Abdul Kalam and two top judges, including him, by a Gujarat magistrate, who was filmed on videotape by a TV journalist when allegedly accepting a bribe for issuing the warrants after a fraud case was filed against them.
Questions are now being raised on sting operations as they are also animated by spite, spicy details, vanity, revenge, bitter comedy and bawdy excess.
The sting season has been never-ending on television news. In 2001 India was hit by an arms scandal after a website secretly filmed senior military and defence officials apparently accepting cash from journalists posing as arms dealers.
The scandal forced the resignation of the then BJP president, Bangaru Laxman, and former defence minister George Fernandes.

In December 2004, another ‘sting’ involved a politician bribing a key witness in the Best Bakery Gujarat riot case. The accused claimed the voice on tape was doctored while the witness denied the exchange of money. Parliamentarians have been caught on camera seeking cash for questions  and their share of constituency funds; officials have been caught taking bribes; doctors  filmed selling infants from hospitals; clerics shown issuing fatwas for money. A policeman was caught demanding bribes to hand over the body of a man to his family.

If the 2005 cash-for-query sting led to 10 MPs being thrown out of the lower house and one from the upper house, in 2007 a Delhi school teacher was cleared after a sting accusing her of forcing students into prostitution led to violent clashes and her suspension. The High Court stepped in and ordered her reinstatement.

Fodder in news mix
Now, with more than 40 news channels vying for viewership and cheap secret cameras flooding the grey market, sting operations have become essential fodder in the news mix. Not surprisingly, politicians and authorities who have been at the receiving end of the stings are demanding some sort of legislation to rein in the news channels.
But the sting operators argue that there’s no thriving freelance sting journalism industry in India as the judges seem to think. Stings are serious business and not everybody’s cup of tea, they claim.

But India is a country where victims of defamation have slim hopes of any redress because of its painfully slow justice system. For that reason critics say, the news channels do have a moral duty to be more responsible carrying out a sting, no matter how big or small the target of the sting is.

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