Sting operations are operations that are conducted to unfold malpractices such as corruption, prostitution, selling of drugs by illegal means, etc, and to trap the criminals existing in our society who sometimes easily pave their way out and are not clenched. It is sought to be the easiest method to catch the culprit red-handed. This type of operation is mostly conducted by law enforcement agencies, authorized persons, or media. In recent times sting operations are widely carried out by the journalists of various media houses, which they later broadcast on television channels or the internet. At times sting operations can help uncover the evil practices that may have been concealed, distorted, or suppressed. In some cases, it was found that the string operation helps in convicting the main accused contrary to a normal investigation.
The term “Sting Operation” was used for the first time in 1973 in a film named “Sting” in which a man was trapped while accepting money. Sting operations can also be called as investigative or undercover journalism. It can be both vigorous and lethal for the public at large, vigorous by unfolding the evils of an individual and lethal by hindering the right to privacy which is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution, or trapping an innocent to do a wrongful act which he/she might not have done in a normal course.
In countries like the US, UK, Canada a sting operation is considered legal which is conducted by the law enforcement body for collecting evidence. In India, neither any laws govern sting operations nor is any legality of such operations defined. Therefore, in the name of sting operation journalists try to gain TRPs and go ahead with sensationa journalism or sometimes conduct these operations to serve their purpose.
TYPES OF STING OPERATIONS
Sting operations are classified into 2 types:
Positive sting operation– is conducted for the benefit of the society with the motive to bring out the crime and breach of trust of the elected representatives of people. They are conducted in the light of public interest and for matters that are in the public domain.
Negative sting operation– such operations do not serve any interest to the public and at the same time violates the right to privacy. The main motive behind such operations is to gain TRPs for the channel and harming the reputation of an individual. Sting operation done to bring out the private life of a know personality or celebrities are termed as negative sting operation because they do not serve the public interest.
Examples of a negative sting operation– India TV carried out the sting operation in which they captured the photographs of Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor sharing an intimate scene that was later used in print media. Such operation was performed to gain sensationalism but not to unfold the malpractices in the society. Another such case was talk of the town when a sting operation was conducted by the lady journalist in name of a casting couch where she went to the actor named Shakti Kapoor to ask for a role in a film and in turn Kapoor was shown asking for sexual favors. All these cases are violations of the Right to privacy which is a part of the Right to life and Personal Liberty enriched under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
LEGAL ANALYSIS OF STING OPERATIONS IN INDIA
Before analyzing the legal aspects of sting operations the basic question is whether conducting such sting operations is legal? What is the legality of such operations? The main element of the sting operation is recording people without their knowledge, is it legal? Does it amount to a violation of the Right to Privacy? Are there any regulations that need to be followed by the journalists while recording, if so what are they?
Like other countries have specific laws governing such operations, India does not have specific laws that will govern the sting operations, however, a person can move to court under different laws to protect their rights and ensure their freedom.
- If there is an invasion of privacy on different grounds such as intrusion in private life the person can claim damages under tort.
- If through sting operations there is a malicious intent to harm the reputation of an innocent person then the culprit can be charged for defamation under Section 499 and 500 of Indian Penal Code, 1860.
- A person can move to courts for violation of the Right to Privacy guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and such violation is protected under Article 19(2) of the constitution (morality and decency).
Sadly, in India, there are only 2 specific laws that speak about sting operations, they are Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technique Act and Telegraph Act 1885 in which wiretapping plays a crucial part in a sting operation and later the Supreme Court in 1996 laid out certain guidelines specifying who can tap the phone and under what circumstances.
In the landmark case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) Vs. Union of India (2018) the Supreme Court upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right and pointed out that it is an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 guaranteed by part III of the constitution.
Now the biggest concern that arises is whether all sting operations are illegal and an invasion of privacy?
This concern was resolved through the case of R. Rajagopal vs. State of Tamil Nadu (1994) popularly known as “Auto Shankar Case”. The Supreme Court concluded that once a case becomes a matter of public record and is in the public domain the right to privacy no longer subsists and the media is free to comment upon it. Through this judgment, corrupt government officials can no longer take the remedy of the right to privacy while breaching their public duties.
Another case Aniruddha Bahal vs. State (2010) in which the Delhi HC considered the question of whether a citizen of India has the right to conduct such sting operations to expose the corruption by taking the help of their agents and unfolding the truth before a common man. The single-judge bench of Delhi HC held that such a right flowed from the fundamental duty to follow the noble ideals which inspired the freedom struggle as under Article 51A(b) of the constitution and therefore creating corruption-free and independent India is one such ideal. This makes it clear that sting operations will not lead to invasion of privacy if it tries to bring out the truth or if it is done concerning matters which impact the public or helping to serve them justice. However, if the sting is done with the purpose to bring out the private life of known personalities etc which in any way does not relate to the public interest or serve the benefit to the society and done with the motive to increase the viewership and popularity would amount to action under tort or defamation.
We notice that several TV channels are conducting sting operations in the matter of the suspicious death of Late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Now the question arises whether the sting operation carried out is legal Or there is an invasion to privacy? The answer is- it is legal because the case becomes the matter of public record and is in the public domain. As far as the motive behind such operation is to bring out the truth and collect evidence or to help the cause of justice, the journalist can carry out such operation.
SOME FAMOUS STING OPERATION CASES
OPERATION DURYODHANA BY AAJ TAK AND COBRAPOST.COM (2005)
The sting operation was conducted by the journalist of Aaj Tak who represented himself as the representative of the fictitious organization. The operation showed how the 11 members of parliaments taking cash in return for asking questions in the parliament, because of the pressure from the media the MPs had to resign from their position. This was considered as a legal sting operation because it was intended to bring out the truth of the public officials and it serves the public interest.
LIVE INDIA CASE (COURT ON ITS OWN MOTION V STATE 2007)
This sting operation created havoc in which live India showed that a teacher of Delhi Government School forcing a girl into prostitution, after the telecast the crowd assaulted the female teacher and compelled the police to put her behind bars. The court on its motion initiated an inquiry and ordered a proper investigation in which it was found that the sting operation was staged and fake. The Delhi HC held that it would be unjust to allow a hidden camera to depict something that is untrue and is happening only because of inducement by the person conducting such operation.
R.K. ANAND V. REGISTRAR, DELHI HIGH COURT (BMW HIT-AND-RUN CASE 2009)
After the accused had been under trial for eight years after the incident, NDTV did a sting operation in this hit-and-run case and telecasted that the senior advocate appearing on behalf of the accused was negotiating with the Public Prosecutor to give judgment in favor of the defense. As a result of such operation, the advocate was held of committing contempt of court and barred from practicing. The court held that the sting operation was considered legal as it was in the public interest.
JESSICA LAL STING OPERATION
This sting operation was carried out by Tehelka magazine; the undercover journalist exposed the fact that the actor Shayan Munshi who was the sole witness to the murder of model Jessica Lal made an incorrect statement because of which the main culprit Manu Sharma was held innocent. This case helped the police to arrest the main culprit which would otherwise have been difficult.
RAJAT PRASAD v. C.B.I (2014)
In this case, the prosecutor gave contrary judgment to that of the RK ANAND case. The prosecutor argued that the sting operation carried out, would itself amount to abetment to bribery and therefore the journalist would be held liable under the Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 107 of IPC as the operation was not carried out purely in the public interest. The Supreme Court held that the element of Mens Rea (bad intention) needs to be looked upon and secondly as public interest is missing it gave a wide possibility of incitement or conspiracy.
There is a need for a proper governing body to regulate sting operations. There is no specific law governing such operations so legality comes into question. Hence, the legislature needs to frame laws.The judgments of the court differ from case to case. Sting operations are now highly used for sensationalism and to increase the TRPs, leaving no room for privacy and creditability because of which innocent are defamed.