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21-min read

IBNlive chat: How Sting Ops sting

VK Shashikumar, Editor, Special Investigations of CNN-IBN, fielded readers' queries on IBNLive chatroom.

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Updated:June 1, 2007, 10:53 PM IST
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IBNlive chat: How Sting Ops sting
VK Shashikumar, Editor, Special Investigations of CNN-IBN, fielded readers' queries on IBNLive chatroom.

Sting operation and investigative journalism were the topics of discussion on the IBNLive chatroom on Friday, June 1, when VK Shashikumar, Editor, Special Investigations of CNN-IBN, fielded readers' queries.

Here we reproduce the entire chat with no editorial touch at all:-

Deepak: With the latest sting operation covering judiciary, don't you think the system will come with a law, making it illegal to conduct sting operations or at least requiring permission from the court before telecasting such things?

VK Shashikumar: There is no way that the press will ever allow itself to get muzzled. We live in a democracy.

Srini: Does the fact that India doesn't have a witness protection system hamper the results of your investigative journalism? Increasingly, the rate of scams being unearthed has not changed the number of those convicted.

V K Shashikumar: India urgently needs a witness protection programme.

Peerzada Ashiq: Your Goa story was brilliant? Goa has always been your baby. I remember your paedophile story two years back. Hope you remember my name.

V K Shashikumar: Of course, Peerzada, hope you are doing fine.

Kaartz: Hi Shashi, do you think that these sting operations will be effective in fighting against corruption? Can you tell me any one incident that corruption is eradicated because of a sting operation.

V K Shashikumar: Have given many such instances. Just scroll down to read my earlier responses.

Veritas: Dear Shashi, congratulations on some of your stupendous stories. Have you considered doing stings on either journalists who use their power to indulge in political blackmailing like --- etc or on corruption in corporate houses, which is a holy cow and till date no one has dared to go near it due to the advertising implications involved?

VK Shashikumar: Hey...I responded to a similar question much earlier. It’s been widely speculated that there is corruption in the media and the day is not far off when this too will be exposed.

DJ: But why don’t news channels cover positive stories. There are quite a few nice ministers in my state of Rajasthan, who are working towards the development of the state and have a great reputation. But never ever has anyone covered them?

V K Shashikumar: Who? Look at the caste conflict spreading in your state and the government’s utter failure to intervene and stop it.

Rajju: Your urban-oriented journalism is commendable, but don’t you think you have left 95 per cent of India uncovered/unreported, thereby confining yourselves to urban elite issue-based newsmaking limitations? Please broaden your mindset and expand your 'covering' area. Go and do some home (rural) oriented work!

VK Shashikumar: Yes. If you begin a channel that does that you can be sure that I will come to you for a job. And for your information, we have done superb investigations and exposes in rural areas. Haven't you seen our investigation, A question of land out of Orissa or our investigative series on child labour. Media is a favourite punching bag for armchair critics.

DJ: Hi, I have a weird question for you. It’s nice that you all cover sting operations etc and catch all corrupt politicians and officers, but how about giving the devil his due? There sure are many honest and educated politicians, why not show them on news? It sure will motivate others, won’t it?

VK Shashikumar: Yes, it’s always a good idea to do positive stories as well.

Tufail Shaikh: Sir, is it true that most of the sting operations are politically motivated?

V K Shashikumar: No, as far as CNN-IBN is concerned. I can't vouch for other channels.

Vicky: Narco-analysis and video sting operation are both questionable in the court of law? Courts say in narco-analysis, a person is drugged to reveal the truth, hence not enough strong evidence. On your stings, lawyers say the video is morphed? What is the other way to get the actual facts?

VK Shashikumar: Scientific evidence gathering. Most crimes in the West are solved by superb forensics.

Kumar: In your investigation, ‘Red Corridor’ when you guys can walk up to the jungle and talk to the Naxals scot-free. Why don’t you guys help our police and facilitate the police in finding the hideouts and bringing them to justice.

VK Shashikumar: We are a mirror that reflects the reality on the ground. We aren’t a substitute for the official law-and-order machinery.

A: OK up to some extent if I agree with you, then tell me what about legal laws. Because in recent days, we have seen that courts say that they don't believe on those evidences which are publicly known. Then what's the point of making all evidences weaker. I’m not against sting operations. I'm just saying that you people present these operation CDs directly to the honourable court, so that they can take fast decisions and after the decision you can claim that this proof was shown by so and so channel. What do u think?

VK Shashikumar: Media investigations are not admissible in the court as evidence. On the basis of the content generated by a media investigation, the court can order an enquiry.

Priya: Don't you think that overdose of sting operations among all media today is making people forget what good old real investigations were all about?

VK Shashikumar: Could be. But we live in extraordinary times. These are times of rampant corruption, where every citizen-government interface has been corrupted beyond repair. And so these are perhaps not the best times for good old investigative journalism. A whole lot of that still happens. But in extraordinary times, extraordinary methods must be employed to ensure the media continues to be the voice of the people.

Seshadri: It is true that sting operation is the best way to expose the so-called social activists or true politicians. Why do you limit yourself to the northern part of India and the southern side of our country. There is so much sting operation required in Tamil Nadu to expose the so-called rationalist and dirty politicians. Are you afraid of South politicians? .

VK Shashikumar: Our investigations will travel to South as well.

Sunny: What was investigative journalism in days when there was no hidden camera?

VK Shashikumar: There was superb investigative journalism in the days when there was no hidden camera and the tradition still continues.

Vishal K:Hello Shashi, nowadays media is somehow stuck to breaking news and some hot investigations, but whenever media has exposed something, after that it’s become an issue only for the two or three days. After that the media itself start ignoring the issue and later on it goes to the dustbin. Is expose the only duty of media? Why don’t you follow up all such things?

VK Shashikumar: Sometimes followup happens and sometimes they don’t. That’s one area that we are trying to improve upon.

Deepak Manoor: Is investigative journalism all about sting operations? Are there any other facets to it?

VK Shashikumar: Sting is only one minor facet. We do a range of investigations. And I have written about them in details earlier.

Peerzada Ashiq: Shashi, don't you think the sting operation which exposes personal life/sex life of a person should be avoided. That ways, every individual on earth has a story and a “bad back ground”? Do you agree?

V K Shashikumar: I don’t support stings on anybody’s personal life.

Rasa: Why did you not make sure that there are results out of sting operations? Still people go scot-free after sting operations. What has been done by your team to make sure that the purpose of the sting operation is achieved?

VK Shashikumar: Have answered this earlier. In some cases, we have achieved spectacular success in terms of impact. In some cases, we have been influential in changing policy. For instance, the withdrawal of subsidy to the tobacco industry in the Northeast in this year’s Budget was the result of our investigation, which was then filed as a PIL by Consumer Voice and the Delhi High Court gave a verdict striking down this policy.

A: What do you think about NDTV’s recent sting operation?I am asking you today in India everyone knows that our legal system is corrupt. So don't you think instead of applying your power on sting operations, you guys should help the victims by generating awareness in public?

VK Shashikumar: It was a fantastic investigation and will go a long way in keeping the spotlight on the need to clean up the criminal justice system.

Irshad: After the expose, nobody is punished. What’s the point?

VK Shashikumar: Stop being cynical.

Karthik: Like the one report in our open water along the Bay of Bengal wherein you guys exposed the way the waterfront is left unprotected and how boats used by the Navy are so outdated. But the true value of your investigation is only rewarded when you can take this to a logical conclusion.

PAGE_BREAK

VK Shashikumar: Of course. It went to the logical conclusion. It shows you have not read newspapers for a year. Operation Water led to the following: 1. Creation of a coastal police system on the West and East coasts 2. Sanctioning of more fast patrol boats for the Coast Guard and many other small and large impact. A report prepared by me was submitted to a few select National Security Council members and it was discussed by the NSC. A presentation was also made at the Coast Guard Headquarters.

Peerzada Ashiq: Why many sting operations are conducted just before polls or elections? To what extent is your sting operation politically motivated? Is it so?

VK Shashikumar: There is no political motivation. Good journalism is about setting the agenda.

Paritosh: Is it possible to carry out sting operations at PM's residence and Rashtrapati Bhawan given the strict security restrictions?

V K Shashikumar: You must be joking. I am sure it’s time for your evening walk!

Vicky: Hi Shashi, Why don't you undertake a sting operation on the Hurriyat guys in Kashmir and see their real motives. What they actually want, freedom/ or to form government in Kashmir or Pakistan? This will be best in the interest of all Kashmiri Muslims/

V K Shashikumar: :)

Mani: Why the TV channels do not telecast unedited version of sting video? Do they moderate the video to lessen the implications or do they do it to add masala to the tape?

VK Shashikumar: Why don't you watch unedited version of a movie? Why don't you watch the rushes of a movie (raw footage) instead of watching the movie? Lot of people have this misperception that 'editing' refers to choosing what is convenient and deleting what is not. It’s like saying I will read an author's original typed manuscript rather than a well-produced book.

Naveen: Which is the most challenging job till date you have under taken?

V K Shashikumar: Covering the Taliban Vs Northern Alliance War and covering the Iraq War as a non-embedded reporter.

Hitesh Nayyar: There are certain journalists who use their pen as a tool to help their masters for their personal gains. How can we stop such people from misusing ‘sting operations’?

VK Shashikumar: As I said in an earlier post, viewers or readers will increasingly chose to stay away from media platforms that appear to be one-sided and unethical.

Hmmmm: Hello VK Shashikumar, the media investigation carried out are good, but how far they are good, God knows. Is it not a fact that you guys cook up stories just to get the TRP ratings up and get good revenue? Is it somewhere killing the truth somewhere? Don't you feel you guys glamourise news? What’s your take on these things?

V K Shashikumar: Your views are cynical

Mani: Do TV channels carry out sting operation with the objective of exposing corrupt public servants/politicians or they carry out such operation to improve the TRP rating?

V K Shashikumar: To do both.

PAGE_BREAK

Mrugan Majmudar: Where do you draw a line for these investigations? Don’t you think that somewhere down the line, it becomes too much for the viewers to digest? I mean, somethings are better kept under the proximity of who needs the information rather than to the national public out of which more than half of them just watch rather than understand what’s behind it and half knowledge is an evil which is better kept away. What do you think?

VK Shashikumar: Who decides who should watch what?

Mossad: What happens when a whistleblower passes a story to you which is authentic and someone within the confines of the media reports this to the affected party? Do you think there should be a law to protect the interests of the whistleblower who is dealing with the media?

V K Shashikumar: Yes, the whistleblower must be protected by a legislation.

Vicky: NDTV claims to have a video recording of BMW case which policemen recorded after the accident and the same was submitted to the court after 4 years. Is that still valid in the court of law?

VK Shashikumar: You will have to ask a lawyer. If a police video was submitted to the court 4 years ago, why wouldn't it be valid. The evidentiary value of the evidence has no relevance to the years gone by.

Hemender S: Are sting operations being used as a tool to blackmail. The BMW sting that exposed the prosecution-defence nexus was what? Was it not unleashed only after the required money could not be extracted? What else was the reason behind changing statements? What happens to investigative journalism without stings?

V K Shashikumar: I don't know anything about this. However, we do hear that there are some practices indulged in by some journalists that are not desirable. Stings are just one element of investigative journalism. Operation Water Rat, broadcast last year, was a solid example of conventional investigative journalism. If you have seen our environment and wildlife investigations, then they too are classic examples of conventional investigative journalism. CNN-IBN SIT has also done huge field investigations, like the Red Corridor (on naxals) and Hidden Wars (on the insurgent groups in north east India).

Raj: What’s the main qualities of a investigative reporter? Is it different from other reporting our beat?

V K Shashikumar: Yes. Beat reporting is vastly different from investigative reporting. A beat reporter covers an issue as it happens. Investigations either uncover (go behind the story) issues as it happens or brings multi-dimensional insights and uncovers the issue in depth.

NT: Hi Shashi, just tell us the approximate percentage of people who were caught during sting operations doing a wrong act and were convicted/sentenced by the law? The answer will not be more than 10 to 15%. As long as you have a poor judicial/legal system (weak laws), no sting can be deterrent. Your sting operations are opening a can of worms which is shaking a common man's belief in our system (the recent NDTV expose as example).

V K Shashikumar: Couldn't agree with you more.

Piyush Bhargava: Hi Mr Shashikumar, I am a student of IIT Bombay. I want to ask is investigative journalism legal? No doubt it is looking beneficial to improve the present corrupt system, but at times a small thief is being charged with big litigation. So is it correct to do such sting operations without informing any legal authority?

V K Shashikumar: Depending on the kind of investigations, we do inform the authorities well in advance. We have shared information with the police, CBI and the intelligence agencies whenever our investigations have unearthed evidence that are required to be shared.

Murali: Do you think that these investigations will completely erase corruption in our country?

V K Shashikumar: No, investigative journalism only challenges the system. It is a change agent. But it cannot bring change by itself.

Dhiren: What are the basic books, which one should go through to become an IJ?

V K Shashikumar: I don't know of any book that can teach or train anybody to become an investigative journalist. You must have the fire in your belly to go after issues that concern the citizenry.

Jeetender: Do you appreciate stings like the ones on Shakti Kapoor, Aman Verma?

V K Shashikumar: No.

Ajit Kanwar: Is it correct to sting an unsuspecting victim with a hidden camera? Do courts accept sting as evidence?

V K Shashikumar: Have replied to this question earlier in response to a similar query.

Jyotsna: Is sting journalism an Indian phenomena? Do CNN, BBC do stings?

V K Shashikumar: Yes.

Murali: Hello Mr Sashikumar, I agree with investigative journalism, but some of the channels to increase their TRP's show sleaze and also enter the bedrooms of the people in the name of the sting operation, how is that justified? There should be a media watch by group of eminent journalists not controlled by government.

V K Shashikumar: I do not support sleazy sting journalism. I strongly object to the use of hidden cameras within the confines of somebody's privacy or private moments. Investigative journalism is only concerned with public interest issues.

Vineet Menon: Hi Sashikumar, congrats for all the accolades you have got. Coming back to my question, I would like your opinion on the cold war in Sri Lanka and do you think that LTTE is justified with their demand?

V K Shashikumar: There are two sides to the conflict and both are powerful. At the same time it’s not easy for either of them to get past each other. So, both parties must find a way of ending their differences and the journey towards a federal arrangement within an unified Sri Lanka seems to be the most feasible way out.

PAGE_BREAK

Rohit: Do you think the common man needs to get worried about being exposed to the dangers of letting the cat out of the bag through the media which is approached to expose the scam.

V K Shashikumar: Civil society gets strengthened only when whistleblowers let the cat out of the bag. It gives more power to the people.

Seshadri: Are you planning any big level sting operation.

V K Shashikumar: :)

Sundar: Sir don’t you think today news channel are just concerned about the TRP?

V K Shashikumar: Yes they are. But what’s wrong with that? At the moment TRP determines viewership and every channel wants to increase its viewership. And viewers view a channel to increase the viewership. So don’t watch channels that show you trash.

Sukhdeep Singh: Don’t you think sometimes media people take too much advantage of the freedom?

V K Shashikumar: In a democracy nobody can take too much advantage of anything including freedom. Freedom is like fresh air and it can't be caged.

Irshad: Everytime the media does some expose, the politicians say that it’s a conspiracy by the opposition and no action is taken. Do u think that it can change and does this ever demotivate you to do sting operations?

V K Shashikumar: Yes, the usual suspects. The politicians do squeal when caught. No, it does not demotivate us.

Nish: How valid are the evidences that come out of a sting operation by a TV channel when it comes to the table of a judge?

V K Shashikumar: The documentary evidence and the footage of the sting operation are not admissible in court. But the court can call for it and ask the government to investigate its contents. For instance, evidence generated by CNN-IBN's investigation 'Baby Snatchers' was used to file a PIL in the Bombay High Court and the Court asked the CBI to undertake an investigation. The case continues to be heard in the High Court.

Abhi: Don’t you think people in India have a habit to overdo everything? Same for sting operations. They are not taken very seriously now. Morality and truth are so scarce nowadays that even the morality and motives of TV news channels are not beyond doubt. What do you think?

V K Shashikumar: Yes, ethics of sting operations have been diluted by many TV news channels. And yes, there is corruption in media as well. And it’s not too far down the line when this would also get exposed.

KudosMedia: The most powerful cabal in the administrative setup are the bureaucrats. They are the brains behind scandal and scams happening in this country. However, by highlighting the ministers too much these obscure yet powerful people escape the dragnet. Do you keep in mind the need to expose the ‘real brain’ when you do sting operations?

V K Shashikumar: Yes, we are not doing enough of that. We have to focus more on exposing the real brains behind the corruption. You are right. If you have any leads email us at ibnsit@tv18online.com.

Anupam Chakraborty: I really admire the sting operation of NDTV ,What you feel about it.

V K Shashikumar: It’s a fantastic investigation and squarely brings the spotlight on the dangerous degradation of India's criminal justice system.

Mani: Can carrying out sting operation be taken as breach of trust?

V K Shashikumar: No, a sting operation is not carried out to expose an 'individual' in his 'individual capacity'. A sting operation is carried out in the public interest where the 'individual' concerned performs a 'public' function or is vested with the protection of public interest. So, a lawyer helping the mafia to grab land is a legitimate subject for a sting. Because we are exposing an aspect about him that is detrimental to the community. But I completely detest stings that invade an individual's privacy.

Siva: Sir, do you thing that media is stronger than newspaper that will reach people as quickly about the things that are happening around the world?

V K Shashikumar: Incidentally, latest circulation figures for newspapers show that India is the only country in the world that has seen a huge rise in readership and circulation figures, whereas in most other countries it is on the decline. However, having said this let me also stress the fact that newspapers are not going to go out of fashion. And yes, wherever newspapers have declined it is because of the proliferation of TV news channels.

Saji: Hi, sometime we see that news that deserve minimal coverage is given prime spot importance. Example the Bajran Dal foolishness during Valentine’s Day which should be ignored all together. The media coverage they get encourages them further.

V K Shashikumar: I completely agree with you and in my own way do not support such editorial decisions. I feel that media organisations should desist from covering Bajrang Dal vandalism. In my personal capacity I also feel that it emboldens them and many stage protests to get visibility. And on TV even a handful can look like a mob.

KudosMedia: What is the long term impact of sting operations apart from immediate impact of raising the lid on issues? Is there any instance where a sting operation can be credited with behavioral changes on part of those exposed?

PAGE_BREAK

V K Shashikumar: Of course, the Tehelka defence expose brought in a slew of reforms in the procurement of defence equipment. Again the same organisation's expose of paedophilia in Goa resulted in fine-tuning of child protection policies in the state. It also made the civil society more aware and ever since apart from one, not a single case of paedophilia has been reported.

CNN-IBN SIT investigations have led to an array of responses and won the channel four awards in recognition of the significant impact these investigations have had. But yes, there is an area that needs huge improvement and that is the area of follow-ups. You hit the bulls eye on the issue of follow ups. More often than not we raise the lid and then forget to lead a sustained campaign to clean up the mess. But that raises another debate. Is it the journalist's job to lead a campaign to clean up the mess or isn't a journalist just supposed to uncover the truth?

K Manoj: Great job for exposing corrupt people, why don't you guys target top bureaucrats?

V K Shashikumar: Yes, we do expose bureaucrats and police officials. Like we recently did in our investigation of why witnesses in the Professor Sabharwal case had turned hostile. In many of our environment and wildlife investigations we have not shied away from holding the bureaucracy responsible. And if you have any leads on corrupt bureaucrats do share them with us at ibnsit@tv18online.com

Divyanshi: Hello sir, I surely appreciate the findings that come by way of these sting operations, but surely the line between interference and finding out a wrong deed is very thin. Is there a way to ensure that this line is not crossed and also, in spite of these discoveries the things stay in media for sometime and then vanish away, most of the time without any effect on the activity so exposed, so is the usability justified?

V K Shashikumar: Sting operations have come to stay in India. It has been around in US and Europe for quite some time now. It is a legitimate way to unearth the truth. However, you are absolutely right when you say that there is a thin line between the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of trash. CNN-IBN Special Investigation Team has a protocol that guides our sting operations. First the issue must necessarily be of public interest. And second there should be enough documentation or substantiation to justify the sting.

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