Does India's Media Go Too Far?

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Sex, lies and videotape — the story had all the elements of a successful TV sting operation. There was a public-school teacher accused of forcing her students into prostitution. There was the innocent victim, and the astute and fearless reporter exposing the racket. When it aired, the story provoked predictable public outrage, and the accused teacher, Uma Khurana, was set upon by an enraged mob. Within 24 hours, she had been dismissed by the Education Department, arrested and charged under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act. All based on the "facts" uncovered by the sting operation.

It turns out, though, that the story was more lies than sex or videotape. A simple investigation and viewing of the unedited tapes led the police to declare the "scandal" a hoax: Khurana had been framed by a businessman who claimed she owed him money. The ambitious young reporter, the "victim" and the businessman were arrested on charges including fabricating evidence, impersonation and cheating. The case is now in the Delhi High Court, which has granted bail to Khurana, whose case must proceed until she's formally cleared, and sought explanation from the red-faced law-enforcement and educational authorities.

The episode has revived debate on broadcast media regulation in India at a time when TV channels are proliferating. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting counts 300 channels in India today, and expects that number to reach 400 by next year. The mushrooming of channels in what had once been a government monopoly market has raised issues of foreign ownership, competition and content regulation, for which the existing legal framework is inadequate. Content regulation has been an especially hot topic in the wake of a series of sting operations by news channels, starting with the 2001 Tehelka expose of an arms procurement kickback scandal involving leading political figures and army top brass. Since then, many news channels have mimicked Tehelka's method — in that instance, reporters posed as arms dealers offering bribes — to tackle everything from corruption in the judiciary to the Bollywood casting couch. But the ethics and legality of such entrapment is increasingly under scrutiny.

Aniruddha Bahal, a veteran of Tehelka's arms-procurement expose and also of a similar investigation of match-fixing in international cricket, says sting operations are justified when the issue is of overwhelming public interest. However, he says, prior information and research are a must, and hidden cameras should be used only if they are the only way to get information. "The basic task of a journalist in a developing country is to expose corruption to ensure that resources go in the right direction," Bahal says. "Corruption is such a huge issue in India, and there are so many stories out there. That is why there have been so many sting operations lately."

Critics of the practice point out that media stings are not always so public-spirited. "Often sting operations are used as a relatively low-cost way to win attention and viewership," says Sevanthi Ninan, who heads a media watch website called "And if a channel uses outsourced stings from a regional journalist, it works out even cheaper."

The Uma Khurana hoax "sting" came as the government has presented the industry with a Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, which it says is aimed at maintaining a level playing field and ensuring quality content. Broadcasters and journalists have been up in arms against the "content regulation" clause, which they see as a tool to gag the media, and have instead demanded that content regulation be left to the industry. Episodes like the schoolteacher sting operation don't help their case. Barkha Dutt, the managing editor of news channel NDTV 24x7, in an op-ed piece in the Hindustan Times, called the story Indian media's "own moment of shame and ignominy," which could give the government an excuse to go ahead with the "imperious and inane" bill.

Thus far, the public has been given little say in the debate. "Civil society in India has not chosen to be proactive on the media yet," says Ninan. Last week, the Editors' Guild of India, while opposing the broadcast bill in its present form, suggested a role for civil society in media monitoring. Akhila Sivadas, executive director of the New Delhi-based Center for Advocacy and Research, believes the common person cherishes freedom of the press, and "when it comes to choosing between regulation by the government or by the media, people will be on the side of the media." Ninan adds, "Mandatory licensing is a must, accompanied by a system of taking complaints from the public. The complaints that are upheld should accumulate until the offending channel loses its license."

Criminals certainly appear to understand the power of the media over corrupt politicians — even as the debate over regulation rages, three people have reportedly been arrested for impersonating journalists and attempting to extort money by threatening to run a sting operation on a Member of Parliament from the eastern state of Jharkhand.