Sting Operations: How Ethical Are they?

Posted on June 16, 2010

Oviya Govindan:

There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here,” said Mark Twain.

Investigative journalists today seem to have taken this statement to a whole new level. Indeed, sting operations have become the most favored tool for journalists, the recent spate of such operations, especially the ‘string of string operations’ by Tehelka bear witness to this fact.

Dubbed the fourth estate or the fourth pillar of democracy, media has taken upon itself the right to carry out operations that are carefully scripted to apprehend defaulters as they take the bait offered. In an era of sensational reporting, news channels have a field day covering the expose in the name of working in the interest of the public. The public too, deprived of transparency about the working of public servants in office, save the lone RTI act, are ever willing to absorb the news they are fed.

The question that looms in the background however is whether such methods amount to deliberate entrapment and are an invasion of privacy; or are they justified?

Most sting operations are carried out against public servants in the system. Media Houses claim that they are in such cases, acting out of interest for Truth and Justice. They argue that in cases where the whole society is at stake, like corruption, cash for votes, et cetera, they are justified in carrying out deliberate operations, as this is probably the only way the defaulters can be caught red handed. That too in a situation where there is conscious concealment of information, there seems to be no better way than this. In fact, in the police department this is a time tested method to nab criminals.

However in the hands of media, this power raises serious questions of privacy. Assuming it is alright to cover the actions of a public servant, one wonders to what extent such coverage is warranted. Does it stop in the course of his office hours; is it justified to venture into his private sphere as well to ‘nail the evidence’? Just because he is a public servant, does that grant access to his private life to, of course in the name of ‘public interest’? Questions remain.

This apart, even the fundamental logic behind such media trials seems debatable and several pertinent questions have come up. Each of these views is worth considering.

The method used in any entrapment is to undertake decoy tactics and try to induce the person to commit the offence; thereby trapping him ‘red handed’. Doesn’t this amount to deliberately inducing the person concerned to commit a crime?

If this is indeed a case of encouraging a wrong doing, is it not unethical, ask many critics. One probable answer to them might be that most cases of media sting operations are undertaken only when there have already been reported instances of deliberate concealment of information.

When this is the case, there seems to be some justification allowed. However as one columnist in The Hindu argues, extending this argument, how long can it be before governments and authorities commit excesses by placing general public under surveillance. ‘Public Interest’ can be a powerful tool in the hands of the unworthy. No wonder Samuel Johnson said ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’.

This argument has its merits in the cases like the Delhi School Teacher case where a sting operation falsely framed a teacher of exploiting and harassing students. Cases such as these victimize the innocent and leave them traumatized for life. The poor teacher had to face the wrath of the mob before it was uncovered that the report was false.

It is also worth considering that had there not been voice recorders and cam corders, wouldn’t reporters have come up with other ways to achieve the same. Are they even considering all other possible ways to extract information before jumping up to assume the role of Sleuths?

Media has assumed the all powerful role of controlling and regulating the democracy, but is not beyond faults itself. As Dan Brown writes in his thriller ‘Digital Fortress’, Who will guard the guards is the question we need to ask.

Motivation for news channels quite naturally comes not just out of the need to give people the Truth. Sometimes, news is just what the media creates; and a market driven sector like any other, media is also liable to get carried away in the clamor for primacy in providing ‘The News’. Remember the Pierce Brosnan starrer, ‘Tomorrow never dies’? We don’t have a suave Mr. Bond to save the world from media conspiracies…

Hope lies only in rational thought and acting without violating our ethical codes of conduct. I believe in Captain Planet, “THE POWER IS YOURS”!!!

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