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Questions about Indian Media Company Ethics - 2001-08-24

Indian authorities say they are looking into filing possible criminal charges against an internet media company which carried out an expose of corruption in the Indian military earlier this year. Recent news reports allege that journalists from the company procured prostitutes for senior army officers while conducting an undercover operation on corruption.

In March of this year, a small internet company called rocked India's military and political establishment with sensational disclosures of senior army officers and politicians taking bribes.

The methods they used to uncover their story on corruption were as sensational as the story. Posing as arms dealers, the journalists secretly video taped officers and politicians eagerly soliciting and accepting bribes to push a fictitious arms deal.

It now turns out the journalists paid more than just bribes. They also provided prostitutes and bought condoms for three army officers. They even videotaped one officer with a prostitute. The procuring of prostitutes has set off an angry debate on how far the media can go to investigate a story.

Angry politicians are demanding strict action against the journalists. The most strident criticism has come from the party hit worst by the scandal, the Samata Party, whose senior leader George Fernandes had to resign as Defense Minister after the story broke. The party's general secretary Shimbu Srivastsava has called the journalists "criminals, blackmailers and pimps", and demanded their arrest.

But the editor of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, dismisses the charges. He says the extraordinary methods used were in the larger public and national interest. He says prostitutes were procured because the officers demanded it and since use of women is an essential part of winning defense contracts, the reporters had to comply to retain credibility as arms dealers.

"The reporters made a judgement call at that point to go ahead with this strategem or derail the story," Mr. Tejpal says. "In hindsight the sheer extent of corruption they have unearthed probably justified the decision they took. We are not terribly comfortable about it, we were not comfortable about it when it happened, but we did what was the most honorable thing. We did not exploit the tapes."

After angry members of Parliament raised a storm of protest on the issue, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said journalists are not above the law, and an investigation will be conducted.

Most Indian editors have also joined the chorus of protest against the internet company's methods. Many of them had earlier brushed aside questions on the ethics of journalists using fake identities and secret video cameras but they now say arranging for prostitutes is going too far.

The Pioneer newspaper says, "neither morally, nor legally can laudable ends justify criminal means." The Indian Express newspaper has called the methods used "despicable and indefensible."

Tarun Tejpal says politicians are focusing on the use of prostitutes in his investigation to divert attention away from the main story which he says remains about corruption and not about sex.