Was India Today's Mathura sting ethical?

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 14/06/2016
By naming and showing two policemen who exposed the UP government’s lies, India Today’s sting operation put the men at risk of retribution,


Last week (June 9) India Today Television put out a video of a sting operation called “Operation Mathura” and trumpeted it as evidence that the Uttar Pradesh government could not escape responsibility for the horrific carnage in Mathura’s Jawahar Bagh on June 2 that claimed 29 lives.

The video shows two policeman - an inspector who is the chief of the local intelligence unit and a sub-inspector - declaring that the government was aware that the followers of the little-known Azad Bharat Vidhik Vaicharik Kranti Satyagrahi cult who had been squatting in a public park for two years, had been stockpiling arms. 

Both the policemen are named in the video and their faces shown. The inspector says that he sent as many as 80 reports consisting of 250-300 pages over several months 2014 onwards, on the trouble brewing at Jawahar Bagh. Still, the state government took no action. The sub-inspector complains, “We knew there were criminals sitting there. But we had no power to arrest. We were not allowed to act.”

Needless to say, the statements are damning for Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government. They squarely contradict its assertion that the police’s effort to evict the cult members from the park unraveled into an orgy of violence because of an “intelligence failure” - because no one knew how armed and battle-ready they were.

The policemen’s statements suggest that the government was negligent at best, and complicit at worst. Indeed, the sting video does seem to lend credence to the Opposition’s charge that the cult and its leader (who was killed in the mayhem of June 2) had been getting political protection which is why no one took any action against them for two years.

However, there is a deeply disturbing aspect to this dramatic exposé by India Today TV. Though we are repeatedly told that  the policemen were speaking to the India Today team, were they speaking on or off the record? Since the channel claims that it is a sting operation, they were  obviously being filmed without their knowledge or consent.

"What if a sting ends up hurting conscientious policemen?"

Under the circumstances, and in light of the revelations they made, it was grossly unethical of the channel to expose their faces and names. Their assertion that the powers-that-be ignored intelligence warnings and chose not to act against the cult is unlikely to endear them to the state government. The least the channel could have done was to have blurred their faces and omitted their names. Exposing them is an act of terrible irresponsibility as it immediately lays these two men open to vengeful retribution both from the government and from members of the cult.

When contacted, Rahul Kanwal, Managing Editor of India Today Television, declined to comment on the ethics or otherwise of its Mathura sting operation, citing company policy against speaking to external media.

There has, of course, been an ongoing debate on whether or not sting journalism itself is entirely ethical. Britain’s Lord Justice Leveson in his report on the “culture, practices and ethics of the press” uses the term “journalistic dark arts” to describe some of the dubious methods employed by the British tabloids to get information.

Sting journalism, or investigative journalism by deceit and hidden camera, is without doubt one of the profession’s darker arts. Indeed, many media experts have argued that sting operations often boil down to entrapment: a person is lured into committing a crime and then nailed for it. Essentially, the debate is on whether the end justifies the means, i.e. whether the information elicited for the public good justifies the deception employed to obtain it.

The Indian media has seen some sensational sting operations in recent years. Starting from Tehelka magazine’s famous exposé of cricket match fixing in 2000 and defence kickbacks in 2001, there have been many others, such as the cash-for-queries scandal in 2005, where MPs were seen accepting bribes for putting up questions in Parliament and online portal Cobrapost’s exposé of alleged money laundering by a major bank in 2013.

This year, web portal Narada aired a sting video that seemed to show some of Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s top ministers accepting bribes. And earlier this month, another sting operation by India Today Television caught on camera a group of Karnataka MLAs demanding crores of rupees for supporting a candidate in the just-concluded Rajya Sabha elections.

However, it is one thing to show the face of a greedy public servant caught with his hands in the till. Indeed, the whole object of a sting is that. But it is quite another thing to expose the names and faces of those who are whistle blowers and have no idea that they have been tricked into playing that role. What if a sting ends up hurting conscientious policemen?

The Mathura policemen who feature in the India Today video were, in effect, whistle blowers. They were giving the lie to the state government’s claim that it was in the dark about the cult’s murderous arsenal. By exposing them, the channel has put their careers and personal safety at grave risk. 

There is really no ethical dilemma regarding this particular sting operation. While one applauds India Today Television’s efforts at investigative journalism, this video is tantamount to outing - and endangering - a source. Few things in journalism are more unethical and reprehensible than that.


Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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