Digital Watchdogs

Promoting digital media as a watchdog.

Introduction

Journalists face many ethical decisions when reporting on stories that are not easily reported.  They must decide under which circumstances a story is so important that it justifies using any means necessary to get the information.  While this type of ethical dilemma is traditionally faced by print and broadcast journalists, online reporters are increasingly encountering tough situations.

Tehelka is a weekly Indian news magazine. It started as a news website, and is noted for its sensational coverage of institutional corruption in India. In 2000, under the editorship of Tarun Tejpal, the then-news website undertook a sting operation called Operation West End, which laid bare the nexus between top-ranking politicians in the ruling coalition party and defense contractors. Footage captured from spy cameras showed several ministers and government officials, including the treasurer of the erstwhile defense minister, George Fernandes, talking about receiving bribes in exchange for awarding huge defense contracts.

The reporter for Tehelka was Aniruddha Balal, who posed as a representative of the fictitious arms firm, West End. The Tehelka footage was aired on all national news networks, and clips appeared on almost all newspapers. It created a huge uproar in India. Fernandes resigned but was later reinstated. Future investigations absolved him of all charges, and Tehelka was accused of proving false evidence, fabrication and duplicity.

tehelkaTehelka closed shop temporarily after this incident and was relaunched in 2003 as a weekly newspaper and again in 2007 as a magazine. Currently, Tehelka is a weekly news magazine. This incident shook the government and the nation. It launched a new debate on the issue of freedom of the press. In October 2007, the magazine brought out a series of stories, The Truth: Gujarat 2002, as part of another sting operation, Operation Kalank, which proved the active involvement and systematic support of the state government in aiding the rioters. About 1,500 people were killed and about 200,000 people were displaced in Gujarat, India as a result of communal riots in February and March 2002. In the story, Hindu extremists openly acknowledged their crimes, which included killing, raping, looting, burning and injuring. The stories vindicated critics’ claims that such widespread communal violence could not have happened without the backing of the government.

Sting operations like the one above have given rise to the question of whether they constitute ethical journalism. Many journalists believe such actions are not ethical because a subject needs to be informed explicitly when he or she is being interviewed or filmed. But proponents of sting operations argue that no one would give the go-ahead to be filmed while in the act of committing a misdeed, so the only way to document such actions is secretly.