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Media 'Stings' Create Scandal in India

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A political scandal has erupted in India over allegations of corruption in Parliament. Secretly filmed video shows legislators accepting bribes. The politicians were caught by a sting operation jointly organized by one of India's 24-hour television news networks, and a Web site. Using undercover reporters, equipped with concealed cameras, is becoming more common in India. From New Delhi, NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the controversial practice.

(Soundbite of Indian newscast)

Unidentified Man #1: Hello and welcome to the News at Noon. Let's just take a look at our top story. Most of us have, at some time or the other, been asked to pay a bribe for things ranging from a passport to a gas connection but imagine having to pay the police to get back a body of your own relative.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

This is what every corrupt official dreads most, being caught on camera brazenly demanding a bribe, and then seeing the footage broadcast on the hour, every hour, all day long, on TV.

(Soundbite of Indian newscast)

Unidentified Man #2: NDTV caught an inspector of the Delhi police on tape, who demanded, and took, 26,000 rupees for returning the body of Mancha Sharma(ph) to his family.

REEVES: Police Inspector Sacha Rod(ph) was secretly filmed by one of India's TV news channels as he extorted the equivalent of some $600 to release the corpse of a man who committed suicide. Later, with the camera openly rolling, the reporter confronted the inspector.

(Soundbite of accusation)

Unidentified Man #3: Have you taken money?

Mr. SACHA ROD (New Delhi Police Inspector): Oh, no.

Unidentified Man #3: You are denying that you have taken money to also change the report or make any adjustments in the report?

Mr. ROD: Yes.

Unidentified Man #3: Have you taken the family...

REEVES: A few years ago, such a scene would have been unimaginable. Indian TV was government-run, censored and very tame. But the authorities have opened up the airwaves, producing an explosion of privately owned 24-hour TV news channels.

(Soundbite of Indian newscasts)

REEVES: A bank of television sets stretches along the wall in the Mumbai bureau of the TV Today network, operator of three news channels, including the popular Aaj Tak TV. It's top of the hour: bulletin time. And the newsroom is scrutinizing the work of its rivals. Competition is fierce. And that, says bureau chief Sisha Joshi(ph), is why stings matter so much.

Mr. SISHA JOSHI (Bureau Chief): At any given point, every news channel is planning a sting operation. It's that frequent now. If you have 15 channels, the manner to survive is to hard-sell your news network. You can't really do it through routine news, which everybody has. You need to have exclusivity.

REEVES: Joshi says most TV stings seek to expose official corruption.

Mr. JOSHI: What other crimes can sting operation be all about? When you see a sting operation, what am I trying to prove? I'm trying to expose some kind of evil somewhere, and evil largely is the root of ...(unintelligible) corruption. It could be bribery or it could be sex or it could be crime-induced sex, sex at the cost of something, a favor for a favor.

Mr. TARUN TEJPAL (Tehelka): There is a clear sense among the news channels that the viewer wants the sensation of the sting, the idea of catching someone with their pants down, someone doing wrong, caught with their pants down.

REEVES: Tarun Tejpal, editor in chief of the newspaper Tehelka, is widely acknowledged as the mastermind of India's most famous sting. Five years ago, Tehelka, which was then an Internet site, made international headlines by secretly filming government officials accepting bribes from journalists posing as defense contractors. Officials responded by turning on Tejpal and nearly driving Tehelka out of business. If this was meant to deter India's media from mounting stings, it failed.

(Soundbite of Indian newscast)

Unidentified Man #4: Operation ...(unintelligible) special investigation reveals how MPs take money to ask questions in Parliament.

REEVES: Yesterday brought another TV sting, this time an expose of skulduggery within Parliament.

(Soundbite of Indian newscast)

Unidentified Man #5: ...(Unintelligible) crack the whip. BJP Congress take action against their MPs caught on camera taking money. ...(Unintelligible) MPs from the house.

REEVES: Eleven legislators from a variety of parties were caught on spy cameras. They were shown accepting bribes from undercover journalists as payoffs for promising to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of a fictitious trade association. The sting was by India's TV Today network and Cobrapost.com, and it made an instant impact. In the lower house of Parliament, the locksabar(ph), Speaker Sumner Chattegy(ph), promised an inquiry.

Mr. SUMNER CHATTEGY (Speaker): Anybody is guilty should be punished and because nobody would be spared, and we shall certainly respond to it in a manner which behooves us. Thank you very much.

REEVES: Rooting out corruption is the job of the authorities. But India's law enforcement agencies have a poor record. The TV companies are beginning to fill the gap as self-appointed anti-corruption cops. They are, of course, more interested in ratings than ethics. But Tarun Tejpal says their stings still play a useful role.

Mr. TEJPAL: I think there is a lot of virtue in that. I mean, something like this begins to create a kind of a ...(unintelligible). `Is it possible that someone's stinging me? You know, do I need to be more careful?' And that's what you want. You want people to actually be afraid of being corrupt.

REEVES: But there's more to this issue. When, for instance, does an expose of corruption cross the line and turn into unfair entrapment or an invasion of privacy? Thomas Abraham is managing editor of Indiantelevision.com, a Web site covering the country's TV industry. He says at the moment the answers to these questions are unclear.

Mr. THOMAS ABRAHAM (Indiantelevision.com): New standards today are pretty much open--it's like open season for them to do what they want. There is no codification, as such, in terms of what you can cover, how you can cover it, how you can present what is reasonable, what is salacious.

REEVES: The question of how far sting operations should go arose a few months ago with a sting by India TV, a new 24-hour channel. It ran covertly filmed footage of a Bollywood actor demanding sex in return for promising to promote the career of a young woman posing as an actress. Tarun Tejpal is among those who feel that that particular expose crossed the line.

Mr. TEJPAL: News organizations need to understand the rules of the game. And for us in Tehelka, the rules are very clear. The rules now are and have always been no private lives. Only--it is only about abuse of public office, abuse of public money. Stay out of everyone's private lives. I think that's a line some channels have begun to cross and that's worrying.

REEVES: Yet India's airwaves are getting more crowded, and as competition grows, ratings may matter more to broadcasters than rules. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.