December 14, 2007

Fox Guarding the Henhouse

The Delhi High Court has pronounced its judgment on the high-profile case of the fake sting operation by private TV news channel Live India against the school teacher, Uma Khurana, that showed her forcing a girl student into prostitution. Ms. Khurana was later found innocent by the police. While allowing the plaintiff to take action against the channel or claim compensation, the bench did not mince its words in coming down heavily on the television channel operator. Terming it a "stinking operation", the justices observed,

Such incidents should not happen. False and fabricated sting operations directly infringing upon a person's right to privacy should not recur because of desire to earn more and to have higher TRP ratings. Right to freedom of press is a valuable right but the right carries with it responsibility and duty to be truthful and to protect rights of others.

That the press and the media have obligations commensurate with their privileged position in a democracy, was nowhere more starkly evident than in the case of the outing of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA officer, in the United States. If the media and the journalists were reduced to the ranks of any another business or profession with their eyes only on the bottom-line, then they do not deserve any special privilege. I do not have access to the details of the case or the judgment, but if Live India were found guilty, then the punishment must be exemplary. Breach of public trust ought not be taken lightly.

Cautioning the media against entrapment of any person, the Court went on to suggest that the government appoint a three member committee to scrutinize the results of sting operations, before the media is permitted to air them. With all due respect to the justices, I contend that such a move is ill-advised. Imagine the fate of another high-profile sting operation by Anirudh Bahal and Suhasini Raj of the Cobrapost against 11 MP's, showing them taking bribes for raising questions in the Parliament, were it audited by such a committee. I have little doubt that it would languish for ever on the dusty shelves of a government office, never to see the light of the day. In India, where most sting operations in recent years have aimed to expose corruption in government, a screening committee of bureaucrats will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, which is still in its infancy in the country. As Mr. Bahal had observed in a recent interview,

... if our democracy can absorb this kind of aggression from the media, it's a sign of our strength. It's something we should be proud of. As for our MPs, they are public servants. A certain code of conduct is expected from them. It destroys the basis of our democracy if they take bribes to do something they are supposed to do as the people's representatives in Parliament.

It is not wise to let the fox guard the henhouse.

2 comments :
  1. Good commentary and apt title. The honorable judge should realize that fake stings are as bad for TRP ratings as authentic stings are good for them. As long as there is a fair and unforgiving judiciary in place, there would be little motivation for conducting stings like these.

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  2. I agree absolutely, though I would not have been able to put it as pithily as you have. You have been very kind to the judgment. I have very little respect for this ruling to submit a sting op to Government oversight. It is too ridiculous and sinister to imagine. Where are we going, I wonder?

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