Money-laundering causes huge loss to economy: B.G. Varghese

Even as Cobrapost, an online media platform, was screening its ‘expose’ on money laundering, ICICI Bank, implicated in the scandal, put out a statement.

The bank was ‘deeply concerned’, and had set up a high-level committee to probe the matter. It, however, did not question the method adopted by Cobrapost — an undercover reporter masquerading as the relative of a politician, using a hidden camera, to capture footage of bankers talking of managing illegal wealth.

The episode, in the opinion of many media-watchers, illustrates the evolution of sting journalism, and an emerging consensus that the method is acceptable, if in the ‘larger public interest’. Veteran journalist B.G. Verghese says, “If a journalist goes to a bank and asks if they engage in money-laundering, no manager is going to say yes. But the practice is causing a huge loss to the economy. I don’t see any other way of unearthing some of these things.”

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, author of a book on media ethics, agrees. “Sting journalism will be controversial. The undercover reporter is practising some kind of deception. It can also be construed as an invasion of privacy.” But the core question was if these ‘smaller transgressions’ were worth it for the ‘larger public good’.

Mr. Thakurta says, “Over the years, it has come to be recognised that a particular kind of information will not enter the public domain if such methods are not used.”

Widely used

In the past decade, the use of sting journalism has spread rapidly.

Tehelka, then a portal, pioneered the trend with its use of the hidden camera to expose cricket match-fixing in 2000 and defence kickbacks in 2001. Since then, the tool has been used for a range of issues — catching criminals seeking to influence witnesses on camera; exposing MPs asking parliamentary questions in return for cash; implicating cricket umpires willing to fix matches; and recording Gujarat Hindutva leaders confessing to their involvement in the 2002 riots. Recently, a corporate house recorded a conversation with editors of a television channel and alleged that they were seeking Rs. 100 crore to drop a story.

But there have been incidents where people have been falsely implicated. A Delhi schoolteacher was accused — it later turned out to be baseless — of running a prostitution racket. Politicians and corporates are alleged to have used it to undermine rivals.

When asked who defines the ‘public interest’, Mr. Thakurta said, “There is a court of civil society. But ultimately, the court of law must decide and determine the yardstick.” Last year, the former BJP president, Bangaru Laxman, who was caught on camera by Tehelka, was sentenced by a court for accepting a bribe.

Cobrapost editor Aniruddha Bahal defended his operation. “All we have done is go and ask managers about the nature of their work. This is in complete public interest.”

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