On 30 August, 2007 Live India, a news channel conducted a sting operation on a Delhi government school teacher forcing a girl student into prostitution. Subsequent to the media exposé, the teacher Uma Khurana was attacked by a mob and was suspended by the Directorate of Education, Government of Delhi. Later investigation and reports by the media exposed that there was no truth to the sting operation. The girl student who was allegedly being forced into prostitution was a journalist. The sting operation was a stage managed operation. The police found no evidence against the teacher to support allegations made by the sting operation of child prostitution. In this case, the High Court of Delhi charged the journalist with impersonation, criminal conspiracy and creating false evidence. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sent a show cause notice to TV-Live India, alleging the telecast of the sting operation by channel was “defamatory, deliberate, containing false and suggestive innuendos and half truths."
Section 5 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and the Cable Television Network Rules (hereafter the Cable Television Networks Act), stipulates that no programme can be transmitted or retransmitted on any cable service which contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths. The Rules prescribes a programming code to be followed by channels responsible for transmission/re-transmission of any programme.
The programme code restricts airing of programmes that offend decency or good taste, incite violence, contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths, criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country and affects the integrity of India, the President and the judiciary. The programme code provided by the Rules is exhaustive. The Act empowers the government to restrict operation of any cable network it thinks is necessary or expedient to do so in public interest.
The court observed that false and fabricated sting operations violate a person’s right to privacy. It further, observed, "Giving inducement to a person to commit an offence, which he is otherwise not likely and inclined to commit, so as to make the same part of the sting operation is deplorable and must be deprecated by all concerned including the media.” It commented that while “…sting operations showing acts and facts as they are truly and actually happening may be necessary in public interest and as a tool for justice, but a hidden camera cannot be allowed to depict something which is not true, correct and is not happening but has happened because of inducement by entrapping a person."
The court criticised the role of the media in creating situations of entrapment and using the ‘inducement test’. It remarked that such inducement tests infringe upon the individual's right to privacy. It directed news channels to take steps to prohibit “reporters from producing or airing any programme which are based on entrapment and which are fabricated, intrusive and sensitive.
The court proposed a set of guidelines to be followed by news channels and electronic media in carrying out sting operations. The guidelines direct a channel proposing to telecast a sting operation to obtain a certificate from the person who recorded or produced the same certifying that the operation is genuine to his knowledge. The guidelines propose that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should set up a committee which would have the powers to grant permission for telecasting sting operations. The permission to telecast a sting operation should be granted by the committee only if it is satisfied about the overriding public interest to telecast the sting operation. The guidelines mandate that, in addition, to ensuring accuracy, the operation should not violate a person’s right to privacy, "unless there is an identifiable large public interest” for broadcasting or publishing the material. However, the court failed to define what constitutes 'larger public interest'.
The PCI norms also lay down similar guidelines which require a newspaper reporting a sting operation to obtain a certificate from the person involved in the sting to certify that the operation is genuine and record in writing the various stages of the sting. The decision to report the sting vests with the editor who merely needs to satisfy himself that the sting operation is of public interest.
In addition, to the Cable Television Networks Act and the PCI norms, the News Broadcasting Standard Authority (NBSA) was set up in 2008 as a self-regulatory body by News Broadcasters Association. The primary objective of the NBSA is to receive complaints on broadcasts. The NBSA has drafted a Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards governing broadcasters and television journalists. The Code of Ethics provides guiding principles relating to privacy and sting operations that broadcasters should follow.
With respect to privacy, the Code directs channels not to intrude into the private lives of individuals unless there is a “clearly established larger and identifiable public interest for such a broadcast.” Any information on private lives of persons should be “warranted in public interest.” Similarly, for sting operations, the Code directs that they should be used as “a last resort” by news channels and should be guided by larger public interest. They should be used to gather conclusive evidence of criminality and should not edit/alter visuals to misrepresent truth.
In a recent judgement on a supposed sting operation conducted by M/s. Associated Broadcasting Company Pvt. Limited on TV9 on ‘Gay culture rampant in Hyderabad’, the NBA took suo motu notice of the violation of privacy of individuals with alternate sexual orientation and misuse of the tool of sting operation. NBA in its judgement held that the Broadcaster had violated clauses on privacy, sting operations and sex and nudity of the Code of Ethics. It further, observed, that the Broadcaster and the story did not reveal any justifiable public interest in using the sting operation and violating the privacy of individuals. In this particular case, the Broadcaster had revealed the personal information and faces of supposedly gay men in Hyderabad to report on the ‘underbelly’ of gay culture and life. However, the news report, as NBSA observed, did not prove any criminality and was merely a sensational report of gay culture allegedly prevalent in Hyderabad.
The PCI norms provide that the press should not tape-record conversations without the person’s express consent or knowledge, except where it is necessary to protect a journalist in a legal action or for “other compelling reason.” What constitutes a compelling reason is left to the discretion of the journalist.
It was in the 1980s, that the first sting operation on how women were being trafficked was carried out by the Indian Express reporter Ashwin Sarin. As part of the sting, the Express purchased a tribal girl called Kamla. Subsequently, in 2001, the sting operation conducted by Tehelka exposed corruption in defence contracts using spy cams and journalists posing as arms dealers. The exposé on defence contracts led to the resignation of the then defence minister George Fernandes. Sting operations gained legitimacy in India, especially in the aftermath of the Tehelka operation, exposing corruption within the government. The original purpose of a sting operation or an undercover operation was to expose corruption. Stings were justifiable only when it served a public interest. Subsequent to the Tehelka exposé, stings have assumed the status of investigative journalism, much of which has been questioned in recent times, especially, with respect to ethics involved in conducting sting operations and the methods of entrapment used by the media. Further, stings by Tehelka, where the newspaper used sex workers to entrap politicians have brought to question the manner in which stings are operated. Although, the overriding concern surrounding sting operations has been its authenticity, as opposed to, the issue of personal privacy.
For instance, in March 2005 a television news channel carried out a sting operation involving Bollywood actor Shakti Kapoor to expose the casting couch phenomenon in the movie industry. The video showing Shakti Kapoor asking for sexual favours from an aspiring actress, who was an undercover reporter, was received with public outrage. Nonetheless, prominent members of the media questioned the manner in which the sting was conducted. The sting was set up as an entrapment. The court has taken a strong view against the use of entrapment in sting operations. In the case of the Shakti Kapoor sting, privacy of the actor was clearly violated. The manner in which the sting was conducted casts serious doubt on who was the victim.
Additionally, the sting violated the PCI norms. It failed to provide a record of the various stages of how the sting operation was conducted. In United Kingdom, the media when violating privacy of a person has to demonstrate that it is in the interest of the public.