NEW DELHI (Reuters) - At first sight it was a classic sting operation by a crusading journalist exposing an underworld in India involving prostitutes, pornographic CDs and a Delhi schoolteacher.
But on Wednesday police charged the journalist with inventing the accusations against the teacher, saying it was probably a debt vendetta, in a case that has raised questions about control and the quality of India’s powerful and increasingly competitive media.
A growing number of private TV channels in the country are in a ferocious competition for viewers after a decade of liberalisation in the media sector - all in contrast to when Indians could only watch state-controlled broadcasters.
On Aug 30, a channel called Live India aired a report in which a girl claiming to be a student at a New Delhi school accused the teacher of blackmailing female students into prostitution by drugging them and making pornographic CDs.
The report led to hundreds of angry parents and residents flocking to the school premises, throwing stones and damaging nearby cars and buses.
The teacher, Uma Khurana, was attacked by the mob, who ripped off her clothes. She was arrested by police and sacked from her job based on the news report.
“The whole thing was a set-up,” said Rajan Bhagat, a Delhi police spokesman.
“The reporter, Prakash Singh, appeared before court yesterday and has been charged with cheating, fabricating false evidence and conspiracy,” he said.
The TV “sting” showed a girl sitting in a car with Singh, who posed as a client. She told him how students at the school were scared to talk about the sex racket.
But police said the girl was neither a student at the school nor a prostitute. Some reports said she was herself an aspiring journalist.
“Uma Khurana has nothing to do with organising any such prostitute racket,” Bhagat said, adding it appeared to be a conspiracy against the middle-aged teacher, and that Singh was working with someone whom Khurana owed money to.
Singh or his lawyers were not immediately available for comment.
The scandal has brought into focus a controversial new broadcasting bill, which the government says will help regulate content of television news.
It will permit sting operations only if they are “warranted” to be in the public interest.
Critics say the bill is draconian and gives sweeping powers to the government to cripple the media through pre-censorship.
They point to the expulsion of 12 members of parliament in 2005 after they were shown on television taking or demanding cash bribes from undercover reporters.
Many journalists fear the recent fake sting operation could give more armour to the government to push through the bill.
“Before the government uses the exception to thrust its own set of motivated rules on us, let us in the industry admit that we need a code of conduct that we can all agree upon, and one that we draft ourselves,” wrote Barkha Dutt, managing editor of NDTV 24X7 news channel, in a column in the Hindustan Times.
“We must be ready for the scrutiny we subject others to. Because when the reporter becomes the story, the news takes a backseat.”
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