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The sting operation by Mangalam news channel has triggered a debate on media ethics

The recent dramatic incident of the launch of a news channel and the sleaze talk aired by it has resulted in the resignation of a Kerala minister. There are more than a dozen news channels in the state, among which four or five play very decisive role in shaping the state’s public opinion.

It was later revealed that the minister had been allegedly honey-trapped by a female reporter for the launch broadcast of the channel. The high-pitch drama culminated in the arrest of the CEO of the news channel and four other media persons.

The channel, owned by Mangalam Publications—an established media group since 1969—was launched on March 26th with sexually explicit conversation of the then Kerala Transport Minister AK Saseendran of the NCP in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet.

It was a recorded audio tape of around eight minutes in which the minister was heard talking to an unknown ‘housewife’. In the audio broadcast, which was an edited version, the voice of the woman had been removed. Even the panellists in the studio, who were listening to the conversation, acknowledged the conversation was too explicit. Dhanya Raman, a social activist, who was part of the panel, closed her eyes and covered her ears.

In no time the Chief Minister turned up before the media saying he had taken the matter very seriously, sending a clear message to the minister. As a result, the minister had to tender his resignation.

The channel made an eventful launch taking the second wicket of the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet. However, the developments thereafter were not in favour of the channel.

Many prominent journalists in Kerala condemned the channel for the unethical approach to grab eyeballs, with people arguing that it was nothing but a conversation between two consenting adults or at least that was how it appeared to be.

There was outrage on social media against Mangalam for indulging in unethical journalism, and other news channels used their prime time slot to discuss the issue threadbare and raise questions on media behaviour. Writers in Kerala came up with a joint statement against Mangalam denouncing the violation of basic tenets of journalism. The Kerala government responded promptly by declaring a judicial probe into the matter.

The CEO of the news channel, Ajithkumar, appeared in television debates and defended the news saying they had done nothing wrong except airing the grievances of a housewife who was harassed by the minister. But nobody knew who the housewife was. Everyone demanded Mangalam to come out with evidence, which Ajithkumar could not.

Complaints flooded the Chief Minister’s office demanding penal action against the news channel and those responsible for airing the sleaze talk.

Women journalists took the issue to the streets and protest marches were held across the state. A mass petition, signed by 136 women scribes, was submitted to the Chief Minister.

The police lodged an FIR against eight persons including Ajithkumar, and started investigating the case. On the third day, the CEO appeared on air and confessed that it was a sting operation done by a lady reporter. That there was no ‘housewife’ and the earlier version was a fabricated story.

The channel stuck to its claim that what they had done was right. They wanted to expose the fact that the minister was morally corrupt.

“What is the public interest in this? Where is the crime? Did the minister force a woman to give in to his desire? Did he abuse a woman? Did he misuse his public office? Did he spend a penny from the public exchequer? No. Then what is the public interest? A minister’s intimate talk with someone else doesn’t matter to us as long as it is consensual,” says Harish Vasudevan, a practicing lawyer and social activist.

What happened after the release of the controversial audio clip was beyond the expectation of the channel. A young sub editor, Al-Neema Ashraf, put in her papers and came out with an incriminating statement on her Facebook page. She expressed her dissatisfaction about the way the channel had trapped the minister. “An investigation team was formed with a few young journalists. I was also part of the team in the beginning. We were asked to do anything and to go to any extent to get exclusive stories, which was unacceptable to me. I expressed my disagreement after which they excluded me from the team, says Al-Neema.

Al-Neema’s bold decision was widely appreciated and more resignations followed with the Thrissur and Wayanadu reporters putting in their papers as well.

The police lodged an FIR against eight persons under 120 B of IPC and Section 67 A of IT Act, which is a non-bailable offence. The girl who was instrumental in laying the honey trap is at large.

In the latest twist, the girl has re-appeared and has filed a complaint of sexual harassment against the former minister A K Saseendran.

Renowned entrepreneur and media person who started Asianet says what the channel has done was completely unethical. He wrote on his Facebook page:

‘On the face of it, this is very distressing because it seems a gross misuse of media power. There can be no quarrel against the media acting as a check and balance against the political power. But if it sets a honey trap just to fabricate a story and in the process tramples the dignity, and ruins the reputation, of a private or public person, that act becomes indefensible. The media cannot enjoy moral high ground or impunity to do this.’

He further stated that this is nothing but an act of news pornography. ‘The channel is culpable on a more serious count. How can it telecast explicit graphic sex talk that took place in a personal private setting on a mass media open to family viewing? Hasn't it, metaphorically, violated the children or even young adults who may have been tuned in to the newscast? Isn't this an act of news pornography? Shame”.

Seeing that civil society and the media fraternity was against them, the channel was left with no option but to apologise.

“Even the apology appeared to be an attempt to shield themselves. They only disclosed that it was not recorded by a housewife as they had claimed earlier, but was a sting operation carried out by a female reporter. Still they try to defend themselves that this lady reporter was asked by the channel heads to record the conversation because the minister was making sexual advances to her. In such a scenario, she should have gone to the police with a complaint and not to encourage the minister and trap him,” says Harish Vasudevan, an advocate.

The CEO of the channel and a few other journalists in Mangalam tried to portray this as an attempt to give voice to the voiceless; but no one was ready to buy that argument. On Tuesday night, the CEO and six others were summoned to the police headquarters and five of them were subsequently arrested.

In addition to AjithKumar, R. Jayachandran alias S. Narayanan, the investigation team leader; M. B. Santhosh, news coordinating editor; and Firoz Sali Muhammad and S. V. Pradeep, both news editors and presenters were arrested. Lakshmi Mohan, the newscaster and Sajan Varghese, the Chairman of the channel were let off after the interrogation. They continued to be there in the list of the accused in the case.

The incident has triggered a debate on the ethics of sting operation and the standards of fair journalism, which will not go away anytime soon.