Reporting India16 min read . Updated: 05 Sep 2010, 01:03 PM IST
American journalist Jeremy Kahn pegs the deference he gets as a foreigner in India, especially as a foreigner with white skin, as “interesting"—a great advantage at times and sometimes highly disconcerting.
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Kahn has been Newsweek’s India correspondent since October 2007, and he comes to India with reporting experience in the UK, Western Europe, Venezuela, Ivory Coast and Iraq. But these were relatively short-term assignments and India is the first place he’s lived full-time as a foreign correspondent. “I didn’t really call those places home the way I’ve called India home for the past three years," says Kahn.
Social concessions aside, there is the professional privilege of being a foreign correspondent in India. A stint here is a bright spot on the resume. The cost of living is low and one can use India as a base for covering South Asia.
Over the last two years, the global recession and its impact on the media houses of the West has sent clusters of journalists, especially freelancers, to India where the journalism industry continues to expand. Membership records of the New Delhi-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) reflect this. Its membership was close to 200 in 2008; it was 240 in 2009; and it is upwards of 300 today. These numbers are only a percentage of the total number of foreign correspondents, not all of whom are based in the Capital, and not all of whom are members of the club. This influx—largely of American, British, Chinese, Japanese and French—is skewed towards the visual media, with television journalists and photographers now assuming the majority.
The New York-based South Asian Journalists Association (Saja) has been helping foreign correspondents and freelancers heading to South Asia for 16 years now. “But it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a real upswing in the number of new folks headed that way. Everything from full-time correspondents to stringers to journalism students going on internships," says its co-founder Sree Sreenivasan. Noticing an increase in outflow in May 2008, Saja even set up a tips forum on Sajaforum.org to serve journalists headed to the region.
On The New York Times (NYT) website, “India" is almost always in the top 10 searched terms. “It is often at No. 2 or 3 in fact," says Lydia Polgreen, one of the three journalists from NYT to move to India in 2009. Polgreen was the West Africa bureau chief for NYT before her India posting. In a webcast with Saja just before her move, she spoke of how she’d been thinking of moving here midway through her Senegal posting. “Foreign correspondent postings are always competitive. And India is a much coveted assignment," she said, pointing out that a posting in the New Delhi bureau had been an important stepping stone for previous NYT veterans such as A.M. Rosenthal and Barbara Crossette.
Twenty-two-year-old Henry James Foy joined the Reuters bureau in New Delhi a little more than a month ago. He first came to India as a backpacker in 2006, when he walked into the Businessworld office and ended up spending his year off after high school with a paid position with the news magazine. “There’s no way I could have landed something like this in London," he says, fittingly pleased, sipping champagne at a midday press conference at The Imperial in New Delhi. Foy is still figuring out his beat but it’s been good so far: He’s already had a dinner meeting with officials of the Japanese foreign ministry, is filing copy to the wire and getting to grips with the Indian political scene.
The first full-time foreign correspondent to India was 22-year-old Henry Collins of Reuters, who arrived shortly after the telegraph lines between Europe and India were set up in 1865. His dispatches were limited to 77 words a day.
A book of essays called Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia, compiled by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (Penguin India, 2008), chronicles how significant numbers of foreign correspondents only began to come to India after 1947. Business papers such as the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal opened bureaus in the 1980s, and foreign photographers began to be based here around the same time. In the anthology’s introduction, the editors—foreign correspondents themselves—write of how they have the “awesome task of covering a ‘beat’ that includes nearly a quarter of the world’s population…and as V.S. Naipaul put it, ‘a million mutinies’".
Foy is here chasing the belief that India offers the best opportunities for young journalists to learn the ropes. Though he is at one end of the spectrum, he is emblematic of a new battery of foreign correspondents who’re ready for the new India stories. Unlike the celebrity journalists of the past—BBC’s Mark Tully or Der Spiegel’s Tiziano Terzani—who stayed for years to become regional storytellers, Foy belongs to a breed that is here to document the growth story of the decade.
In terms of foreign correspondent currency, Kahn suggests that India is to the noughties what Kenya was to the 1990s. “Brazil is the ‘other’ country of the moment but a knowledge of Portugese is essential to report from Rio," he says.
Though language is not as big a hurdle for foreign correspondents here, reporting India doesn’t come without its own challenges. “It lies in trying to explain to American editors what a diverse county India is and how full of contradiction," says Kahn, adding, “They tend to either think of India in terms of the Infosys campus in Bangalore or the slums of Calcutta or Mumbai. (The challenge) is in trying to get them to understand that it is not only both, but also the jungles of Orissa and the high Himalayan desert of Ladakh, and that all are equally true stories of India and equally deserving of coverage." But no matter how hard the correspondents push for them, some stories, such as the Naxal crisis or the Telangana issue, don’t translate across borders.
Kahn lists other setbacks: The difficulty in reaching government officials for comment; the red tape involved in reporting from the North-East and the Andamans. Minders reportedly follow foreign journalists around Manipur and Pakistan’s so-called “Azad Kashmir" and violence is not uncommon—Most recently, on 7 July, Mark Magnier, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief, was roughed up by the police while reporting in Srinagar. And though one thinks English, or even Hindi, will suffice, Kahn has often found himself wanting to wrap his head around Bengali, Marathi and Tamil for ground-level reporting.
But there is the good that emerges from chaos. A Latin American television journalist, who did not wish to be named, observes that the relative flexibility in Indian systems can have its advantages. In Germany, where she was posted before this, one has to fix appointments weeks in advance. “In India, it’s easy to reach officials through casual channels…nowhere else in the world do government officials share their cellphone numbers," she says.
There are other admirers. For Nestor Marin, the South Asia correspondent of the Cuban wire service Prensa Latina, India is extremely organized. Having worked in Cuba, Nicaragua and Barbados, Marin believes India is essentially hospitable to foreign correspondents. “People are sometimes confused why I’m here and I need to explain that but I think it’s a cultural trait that makes people more helpful..." he trails off. Marin, who doesn’t speak Hindi, says he gets by without hiring translators because people are willing to help foreigners.
Vanessa Dougnac, the South Asia correspondent for the French news magazine Le Point, came to India in 1998, also as a backpacker. At 26, she was at the right age to be struck by impulse and inspiration. She pushed her pending PhD at the University of Bordeaux a year at a time but didn’t quite end up going back to her home country. Twelve years later, she is researching a profile of the Ambani brothers and the economic model of Gujarat. A full-sized map of India frames her desk at her office-in-residence in New Delhi. And she speaks of a time when it wasn’t fashionable to be a foreign correspondent in India. “In the 90s, we were far fewer in number. It was difficult to get about things…even to make a long-distance phone call," she says.
Dougnac is a gratified member of the Indian Women’s Press Corps. She speaks Hindi, has largely Indian friends, and evinces a deep-rooted love for the country she has adopted as home. “People still have a high sense of respect for the press here. Even when you’re in a small village to report, everyone mobilizes around you to help, they really believe you can make a difference by telling their stories to the world," she says. Visas are a non-issue for Dougnac, who got a person of Indian origin (PIO) card since she was married to an Indian. “Nobody asks me anything," she says, suddenly bright-eyed, “And I can actually work on my stories instead of doing the rounds of government offices."
While the new arrivals might not necessarily espouse Dougnac’s nativized views, a scratch chat with journalists at the FCC makes it evident that no one is here on a punishment posting.
The new India story is the contrast: the flash floods and fashion shows, the conundrum of the growing middle class, the economic boom on the one hand and food shortage on the other. This customarily gives rise to two kinds of stories.
There are, however, a handful of cases that illustrate how it is getting difficult for foreign correspondents to report the “other" story. A number of cases highlight a backlash against foreign correspondents who’re suspected of reporting the unsavoury.
An American journalist, who did not wish to be identified, says that a cover story he did for a weekly in 2008 earned the displeasure of the Congress party. The magazine’s top editor got the phone call from party bigwigs who strong-armed the publication into printing a retraction for a descriptor used for Sonia Gandhi. They threatened to ban the publication from circulating in India if the retraction was not carried.
Vishnu Prakash lets out a laugh when asked about the complaint made by Susumu Arai of the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s nationally televised press conference in May. Prakash is the joint secretary and spokesperson of the external publicity division (also called the XP division) of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and his department works as the liaison office for foreign correspondents in India.
The infamous incident entailed Arai pointing out the tedious procedure for foreign correspondents to get accredited by the government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB). Singh said he would look into it. And as of 1 August, following a directive from the Prime Minister’s office, the PIB has initiated steps to simplify the accreditation procedures for foreign journalists. Like their Indian counterparts, they can now apply online at the time of applying for a journalist’s visa.
Prakash is quick to point out that Arai’s case was purely one of organizational delays, ruling out any intentional malice. “The journalist you’re talking about is doing very well. He is a senior journalist from a reputed newspaper and there is no question of him facing any problems," he says.
But Arai’s fellow Japanese colleague did not enjoy the same goodwill. A few weeks after the press conference, the Union government refused to extend the visa of Shogo Takahashi, the New Delhi bureau chief of Japanese state broadcaster NHK since 2008. Takahashi, who had helped produced a documentary series titled Indo no Shogeki (The Impact of India), had to leave the country. An Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) report said government officials had disclosed that his reporting during the general election in 2009 dwelt overtly on the caste system and was “too negative".
Prakash, however, doesn’t agree that there is any system of control in place. “Look at how critical our own media is," he says, adding that in a democratic country such as India the media is free to be critical as long as it is balanced. In the same vein, he concedes that on the rare (1%, according to him) occasion that a foreign correspondent is doing “consistently negative stories", the MEA office might call him over for a chat. His office tracks foreign media reports with the help of Indian embassies and consulates—around 160 in all—who follow news reports in their home countries and alert the MEA if material is found to be offensive or erroneous.
“We are gratified about the manner in which an overwhelming number of foreign journalists are reporting," says Prakash, adding that it is only an isolated case every now and then that displays purposeful negativity. “In that case, we feel the need to sensitize the journalist," he says.
Several journalists recall these “meetings" with amusement. A journalist with a reputed French daily was surprised to find a translated file of his stories on an MEA official’s desk when he was called in. It had his name on it. Another British photojournalist was asked why he was focusing on snake charmers and cows when India had so much more to offer in terms of stories.
Whether or not there is a policy to tackle foreign correspondents who don’t toe the official line, it is evident that they are subject to laborious visa and accreditation procedures. In all likelihood, some of this irritation gives way to allegations of malice. Foreign correspondents first come into the country on a three-month temporary journalist visa. Nearing the expiration of this, they can go to the MEA to get a letter that allows the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO) to grant them a one-year multiple entry journalist’s visa. Journalists describe the cumbersome paperwork, endless waits and multiple meetings as Kafkaesque.
But certain cases of visa denials have sown tangible fear in the community. Twelve journalists contacted for this story refused to go on record. “I don’t want to be singled out by the MEA" was the standard response.
Last year, the Indian government turned down a visa request by journalist Hasnain Kazim of the German weekly Der Spiegel, ostensibly because he covered the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai without a valid journalist’s visa. Kazim has another version of the story: Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders took up the case and learnt that Indian diplomats in Germany had told German officials that Kazim’s visa request had been denied because his articles were “overly critical and biased". Kazim claims he had verbal authorization from the Indian consulate in Hamburg to report from India but has no written record to back his claim.
Kazim, whose reporting of the terror attacks won him a nomination for the CNN Journalists Award in 2009, had planned to move to New Delhi in April 2009 to head Der Spiegel’s South Asian bureau—a container with all his belongings was already in India. He is miffed that not only did the Indian authorities hold his passport from January 2009 to May 2009 (when it was finally returned without a visa), but that customs officials also held back his container of belongings. He finally gave up and set up the German weekly’s bureau in Islamabad in July 2009.
Raised in Germany, Kazim is of half-Indian and half-Pakistani origin. “The Indian government would never admit this but I am pretty sure now that my Pakistani connection is one of the reasons I was denied a permanent media residency in Delhi," says Kazim over the phone from Pakistan.
In both Takahashi and Kazim’s cases, government authorities cite visa violations as the reason for visa denial. In Takahashi’s case, they say he often filmed his documentaries without taking permission or misused permissions to shoot something other than what permission had been taken for, and also that he shot high-security defence installations. Likewise for Kazim, Indian government sources told Reporters Without Borders that he was guilty of gross violation of visa norms.
Other cases of visa denials include that of French photojournalist Viviane Dalles, for her trip to the north of Assam, and Swedish journalist Ulrika Nandra, who was denied a visa extension in 2008 because of her stories on sex trafficking in Mumbai and a series of articles about changing gender roles in India.
Karan Singh, the vice-president of FCC and a correspondent for Russia Today, dismisses these instances as isolated cases. He says that the FCC will take up the issue if a significant number of journalists are affected. According to Singh, FCC members haven’t brought up these issues at their board meetings. “A handful of cases don’t reflect an anti-foreign correspondent wave," he maintains.
On the one hand, allegations might seem exaggerated when one considers that foreign correspondents have had relatively free reign to critically cover internal crises such as the recent spate of violence in Kashmir.
But a degree of censorship, direct or tangential, isn’t a newfangled phenomenon. At his office-in-residence in Nizamuddin, Mark Tully, a BBC veteran of 30 years, points to a window where protesters threw stones in 1984 because the channel had carried an interview with a Sikh extremist. “The mob had a free reign because police protection had been withdrawn," he says. Tully speaks of how he and other foreign correspondents made a mass exodus during the Emergency because they weren’t willing to cow down. Before Tully’s term, the BBC correspondent from India had been expelled because the Indian government was displeased with a series of Louis Malle documentaries that the channel had broadcast: L’Inde fantôme (Phantom India) had attracted the ire of the authorities because of its fascination with the pre-modern.
Tully might be one of the only foreign correspondents to have been awarded the prestigious civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan (2005). Though he and his peers faced their share of checks—they were warned to cover the anti-Sikh riots with caution, for instance—they elicited a rare reverence from Indian citizens and Indian authorities. “The criticism came mostly from Indian journalists posted abroad," says Tully. In times of pre-global connectivity, Indians in their home country rarely read or saw the reportage of the foreign correspondents on a daily basis.
With the Internet and increasing global travel, criticism by Indian journalists and bloggers is a rising phenomenon, revealing a country of particularly thin-skinned citizens. The Indian blogosphere tends to react to critical pieces in the foreign press with allegations of elitism. Foreign correspondents are often accused of “missing the point" or subverting nuance. Consider this statement against former NYT bureau chief Somini Sengupta’s articles right after the 2006 train blasts in Mumbai. A blogger called Bongo Pondit wrote: “Anybody who has actually been on a Mumbai train won’t make a statement like Ms Sengupta’s."
Over an email exchange, Sengupta, who is currently on leave from the paper, says that she’s never felt victimized by the blogosphere.
“In general, I take feedback seriously and if there are corrections to be made, we make them," she says. “Sometimes, I point out to readers that I write what I see and hear. That’s my job as a journalist."
Sengupta recalls writing a story about driving on Delhi roads in which she referred to an elephant marching slowly. “A few readers criticized the mention of elephants on the road—one asked when I last lived in Delhi. The truth is, I have lived in Delhi for five years. And at the time I wrote the article and now, I see elephants on the road, along with Mercs and an occasional Porsche. That’s the richness of life here, and they are part of why I choose to live here," she says.