Below is an item about the big media news out of India, an undercover sting investigation by Tehelka into what it calls "the most important story of our time." The focus of this post, by Arthur Dudney, is on the various journalistic issues raised. Please take a look and post your comments below.
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"We have heard the victims, the government, the police, the judiciary, and the civil rights groups. Now for the first time hear the story of the killings from the men who did it. Put to rest your doubts about the foetus that was pulled out from its womb; about the systematic slicing of Ehsan Jafri’s limbs and torso; of the raping and chopping and burning of women and children; of law officers who turned on the victims; of the collusion of the police and the government." --Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka
On October 25, Tehelka, an Indian investigative magazine, published a special feature devoted to the Hindu-Muslim riots* that took place in Gujarat in 2002, and the state government's active role in fomenting the violence against Muslims. It refers to the gruesome events, which some have labeled genocide, as “the most important story of our time," and in the last week it has in fact generated headlines in India and abroad (see links to coverage at the bottom). How ever, while the magazine’s editors boldly defend their sting journalism, some question the ethics of such reporting.
Tehelka has broken 30 to 40 major stories over its seven year existence, according to Tarun Tejpal, the magazine’s editor-in-chief and one of India’s most famous investigative journalists. The magazine has had a troubled existence because from its first year, when it was just a website, it was under investigation for two years for allegedly breaking the law in the course of tricking government officials into accepting bribes for fake arms deals. The fallout from Tehelka’s reporting, which was known as Operation West End, resulted in the resignation of the Defence Minister, George Fernandes. Despite its incredible influence, the magazine almost went bankrupt and finally relaunched in 2003 as weekly. Now, according to Tehelka’s website, it is the fastest growing weekly in India.
The magazine became famous for the necktie and handbag hidden cameras it uses for stings, but how does the magazine justify the subterfuge? “We do not like to induce, we do not like to trap, we do not like to pay. … It is a superbly clean operation,” said Harinder Baweja, Tehelka’s Editor for News and Investigations in an interview after the Gujarat story broke. “Extraordinary stories need extraordinary methods.”
Tehelka’s reporter, Ashish Khetan, was sent to Gujarat in May to investigate an act of vandalism, according to Baweja, but Khetan discovered that Hindu chauvinists involved in some of the events of 2002 were willing to talk about what happened. Posing as a scholar writing a book about “Hindu resurgence,” he secretly filmed interviews, some of which appear on Tehelka’s website, and promised subjects that he would not quote them.
From the perspective of squeaky-clean journalism, Khetan has broken two rules: Firstly, misrepresenting his identity as a journalist and secondly, making false promises about confidentiality. When a subject hesitated during an interview, Khetan said: “I won’t quote it anywhere…For that matter… I am not even going to quote you” and immediately after the reporter promised that, the interviewee made a chilling admission: Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat (picture from Tehelka), had given the Hindu chauvinists three days to do whatever they wanted without government interference. Obviously the fact that the sitting Chief Minister of a state participated in communal violence is a matter that the public must know about, but I can see no way that the story would have come out had Khetan not bent the rules.
Tejpal refers to the government’s handling of the Gujarat events as “the biggest slap in the face of the idea of India” and insists that government and society both must come to terms with what really happened. Although some accuse Tehelka of having a pro-Congress, anti-BJP bias, Tejpal sees it as working for the public, forcing all political parties to act on the accusations. (He is quick to cite the stories Tehelka has run that indict Congress politicians.)
Recently many Indian news channels have been following Tehelka’s lead by staging taped sting operations — many of them involving sex — and showing the footage, but some people question where the line between the public interest and prurient voyeurism has been drawn. It is worth considering Indian sting journalism in light of the case of former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, whose December 2005 expose on Justin Berry, a boy selling pornographic images of himself, basically ended the reporter’s career. Whatever public service Eichenwald considered he was doing, questions of ethics overwhelmed the story itself.
The Tehelka story will certainly have repercussions. Activists have already filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that the Tehelka expose be entered as evidence. The Gujarat government, which is being accused of complicity in the events of 2002 and blacked out TV channels that broadcast the Tehelka piece last week, finds itself in the odd position — and it’s not clear why — of submitting the expose on CD to the commission investigating the riots. Lastly, a broad coalition of Indian-American groups has demanded that action be taken against government officials and others implicated by the expose.
Tehelka and other news outlets like it bring out a paradox in journalistic ethics: If getting the truth is paramount then don’t reporters sometimes need to bend the truth to get the story?
[*We've used the term "riots" with some hesitation. Although it is the default term that's been used for several years, and is still used by the BBC and others, it suggests a level of spontaneity that Tehelka's coverage contradicts]
- AFP: "Gujarat state head supported 'Muslim massacre'"
- AP: "Report: Hindu extremists say they killed Muslims with consent of top Indian officials"
- Reuters: "Hindu activists accuse their leader in India riots" ('accuse'?)
- The Hindustan Times: "Top RSS, VHP men planned post-Godhra riots: Tehelka"
- Independent, UK: "State minister 'encouraged massacre of 2500 Muslims'"
- BBC: "BJP dismisses Gujarat riot claims"
- PTI: "TV Blackout: Collector says his orders misinterpreted"
- CNN-IBN: "Narendra Modi can't black out 2002 riots"
- NDTV: "After sting, Modi takes on media"
- SepiaMutiny: "Cut, Kill, Burn: Tehelka Gujarat Expose"
What do you think? Post your comments below.