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In the line of fire

Foreign correspondents bring alive happenings from one country to their audiences in other nations. Vimal Chander Joshi talks about journalists who make up the crème de la crème of their breed

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:55 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi
Vimal Chander Joshi
Hindustan Times

When Rohit Gandhi, a foreign correspondent with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was moving with his crew in a car in Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan in 2001, they heard a man shouting. When the car didn’t stop, the man fired. Gandhi had a narrow escape, with the bullet just whizzing past him.

Such are the risks that a foreign correspondent has to often face.

Almost every assignment that Gandhi does comes with challenges, which involve learning the country’s local language, looking for a fixer (a local who helps you build contacts) and understanding the country through books and the Internet. Every country also has problems peculiar to it. Julia Arevalo, south Asia bureau chief of EFE, a Spanish news agency, says it took her a long time to understand India.

“For any European journalist, covering India is very difficult. Getting official sources to talk is another bugbear. The person you contact will refer another number to you. Now this second person will give one more number, and finally you won’t find any one on the last number you receive,” she says.

Arevalo’s problems were compounded by the fierce resistance of people while she moved around with a camera even if she had the requisite permission from authorities. “But you must learn to be flexible. You can’t be driven by stiff habits. You have to adjust according to the new place. One simple rule is:

‘While in Rome, do as the Romans do’,” she says.

In the past, she has successfully adapted to the societies of Russia and Yugoslavia, where, learning the local languages “was tough,” she admits. “It took me one whole year of intensive study to pick up Russian. It’s very important to learn about the country, its culture, and history to be able to report on it,” she says.

To ward off personal and professional problems, a foreign correspondent ought to stay detached from the conflict s/he covers. “You should never become a part of the story,” says Tinku Ray, south Asia news editor, BBC, New Delhi. She recalls a 2002 assignment during the Gujarat riots: “I met several Muslim kids who vowed that they would never make Hindu friends in their lives. Being a Hindu myself, I found it upsetting. But in the BBC, we are taught to be objective,” says Ray.

One must be well qualified to become a foreign correspondent. But your growth and success depends primarily on your performance. “Your qualification only helps you find the first job. Later, what matters is your work and performance,” says Jyoti Thottam, south Asia bureau chief, Time magazine, who is an alumna of Yale and Columbia University.

Ray landed a job at the BBC immediately after taking her degree in English literature but now the scenario has changed significantly. “It is now becoming increasingly difficult to become a foreign correspondent. And you can’t become one straightaway. You will have to work your way up,” she says.

Gandhi worked for more than a decade as a journalist before he was “prepared” for international journalism.

Reporting as a foreign correspondent not only involves international affairs, but it also entails local stories covered from an international perspective or with a human interest. Arevalo has covered the myriad facets of Indian society, from domestic violence to the celebration of its diverse cultures. “The clients of my agency are based in several parts of the world such as Bolivia and Argentina. They are not interested in Indian politics, but in the people.

It’s always interesting to know about different people,” says Arevalo.

The work can take a toll on the individual. While working for his Masters in broadcast journalism at Canada’s Carleton University, Gandhi researched on post-traumatic disorders among foreign correspondents who covered wars. He found that around one-third of a hundred foreign correspondents had such disorders and around 50 per cent of them were divorced.

Finally, how true are the fleeting rumours that one hears about media organisations shedding foreign correspondents from their rolls? Arevalo contends, “We (EFE) entered the Indian market seven years ago. And with the continuous reportage on the Indian subcontinent, the Spanish-speaking population is getting interested in south Asia. So much so, our clients (newspapers) have started sending their own correspondents to cover these areas. Even our workforce has increased in these years. Earlier, we had only one person covering south Asia. Now, we have six of them.”

What's it about?
A foreign correspondent is a journalist who covers news for a newspaper/ radio/ TV channel/ magazine/ website/ wire service in another country. He could be stationed in a foreign country working for a media outlet in his homeland or based in the latter working for a media outlet of another nation

Clock Work
. 9 am: Watch/read news at the log-in service (to access the newsroom) provided by the organisation
. 10 am: Follow the local media
. 10.30 am: Talk to contacts
. 11 am: Explore the day’s development
. Noon - 5 pm: Cover the day’s news
. 6 pm: Discuss the coverage with the editor and discuss the modalities of publication

One also goes for media briefings, mainly by the government/army authorities. Often, travel to other cities, towns or villages for stories

The Payoff
You can earn Rs1,00,000 per month as a foreign correspondent (for which you have to spend atleast five to 10 years in the industry). After that, compensation would rise depending on your experience

Curiosity — the essence of any form of journalism
. Open-minded approach where you don’t dismiss anything as futile
. Multi-tasking as convergence journalism is touted as the future of journalism
. Knowledge of a foreign language

How do i get there?
You must be a journalist first of all. After working for a few years, you can work your way up. There are few journalists who become foreign correspondents quite early in their careers, especially in news agencies. For that, one has to be extremely focused in one’s approach. Getting the right break is another uphill task

Institutes & urls
Though the basic qualification is a Bachelor’s in any discipline, it’s advisable to read subjects such as history, political science, international relations, economics, sociology and languages. Other options:
. Asian College of Journalism, Chennai,
. Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi/ Dhenkanal,
. Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

Pros & cons


Relatively better paying as compared to other areas of journalism


You get to explore the world. Though it’s not a thumb rule, usually you don’t stay in one country for a long time


Risky job. You may be sent to areas embroiled in civil, military or political unrest


Challenging, especially to win the trust of the locals

‘Technology has taken over’

A veteran talks about his life and times

Was your entry into journalism, as a trainee at The Statesman, New Delhi, by design or default?
It’s a funny story. People of your generation will probably not understand. When we were in final year at St Stephen’s in 1963, we started thinking, ‘After BA (in history) what?’ I did my MA but we were thinking what career we should get into. In our time, barely 20 years after the country’s independence, job opportunities were very limited. There were five or six options for boys: IAS, the Army, tea gardens, one of the British companies, medicine and law.

In the IAS, IFS was the first choice.

The Army was on the lines of the British Army. It was very attractive — there were tremendous perks, one did drills till 12, then went to the club, played polo; every day-to-day need was subsidised by the government. Being a manager of a tea garden also meant a good lifestyle. The British companies, called boxwallahs, too, provided an excellent lifestyle and very good salary.

People wanted to join one of these professions because you could then get a good-looking wife.

Most people in our class sat for the Civil Services exam. My father, too, wanted me, too, to take the exam. But around the time of the exam, I was away playing a friendly cricket match in Dehradun. My father was livid when I told him I wasn’t applying for the IAS. He didn’t talk to me for days.

One day, a friend of my father’s who was the editor of The Statesman in Delhi came home for dinner.
He asked me,
“What will you do?”
“I want to be a journalist.”

“I like writing.”
“This is not enough. Journalism is a profession. It’s a different thing.”
“I’ll learn.”
“Come to see me in my office.”

At their office, he called one his colleagues, Robert, to come and meet me. He introduced me to him and said, “Why don’t you take him to your office and see

How good he is?”
He gave me a test. I wrote a 300-word piece on cricket and was then asked to wait for their response.

A month later, I got a three-line letter saying, ‘We are pleased to offer you a post of journalist-trainee…’ for a princely sum of R500 including R175 for traveling.

I asked apa — a Muslim neighbour who used to visit our home (in Old Delhi) — to show the letter to dad, who threw it away. He was hurt and disappointed. He himself was a journalist but he became one before independence when journalism was an exalted pursuit, part of the freedom movement… By the time I became a household name after joining the BBC, he was no more.

How should aspiring foreign correspondents prepare for this profession? Which subjects are advisable?
Political science and history, and the third option could be sociology.

You have to know your subject. You can’t give an excuse that this is not my area. If a story is on finance, you have to know the basics of finance and the jargon.

What do you think is the future of foreign correspondents? Is the Globalpost model the way forward?
Zero. Foreign correspondents are a dying breed. Foreign correspondents were a very prestigious thing but a very expensive proposition for the establishment.

Now the internet has taken over. Earlier a crew used to go — there used to be a cameraman, producer, assistant producer, and reporter. Now the correspondent has to hold the camera, write and edit and send the stuff.

Only organisations like the BBC, CNN or those with deep pockets like ABC New York may continue because you don’t get the flavour unless your own correspondent is reporting from Afghanistan or Mogadishu.

Satish Jacob, former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Doordarshan and currently working part-time for ABC New York Interviewed by Rahat Bano

First Published: Sep 28, 2010 11:03 IST