The Foreign Correspondent – a vanishing breed?

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Veteran foreign correspondents (l to r) Madeleine O\'Dea, Luke Harding, Suhasini Haider, Mark Tully and Mei Fong discuss the staus and travails of foreign correspondents at the Jaipur LitFest-17

By Vikas Datta

Jaipur– With social media, intended to bring people around the world closer, ironically serving as instrument of the backlash against globalisation, one prominent casualty is the foreign correspondent who is needed more than ever at a time when there are multiple sources of news, but most scarcely reliable, a panel of top journalists said on Thursday.

Veteran foreign correspondents (l to r) Madeleine O\’Dea, Luke Harding, Suhasini Haider, Mark Tully and Mei Fong discuss the staus and travails of foreign correspondents at the Jaipur LitFest-17

“There is more variety now, but scarcely quality. Social media cannot ask hard questions,” Malaysian Chinese-American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Mei Fong said at a session entitled “The Foreign Correspondent’s Club” at the opening day of the 10th Jaipur Literature Festival here.

Noting that there is a situation when even US President-elect Donald Trump is tweeting, she said tweets are not the best source of news, and can even be fake.

But the panel which also included Guardian journalist Luke Harding, veteran BBC correspondent in India Mark Tully, long-time China correspondent Madeleine O’Dea, while The Hindu correspondent Suhasini Haider was moderator, also identified other reasons for the growing obsolescence of foreign correspondents, including the lack of interest, space and resources, in newspapers.

They cited the challenges they and their ilk face, especially in authoritarian polities, including being thought to be spies, seen more as a representative of their nation than that of their profession and denied access to sites where news breaks. Then, journalists are longer seen an inviolable, impartial narrators or even collateral damage but as “actual targets”.

While Tully recounted some of his potentially fatal moments including in Ayodhya after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, Harding, who had reported from India before moving to Moscow where he soon ran afoul of Russian authorities “due to writing stories that were not welcome”, said his experiences, “resembled those found in popular spy thrillers”. Noting he came to know surveillance devices, both audio and video, were planted in even his bedroom, he said the security services proved to have a strange sense of humour for they also left him a sex manual with directions to read a particular page.

Fong, who had reported from China for the Wall Street Journal, said it was foolish for any foreign correspondent to assume that they were not under surveillance and China was no different. But quipping that journalists were sneaky who even reached places they were not supposed to, she had a word of advice for those needing to stay in such a place overnight.

“Don’t check into a hotel for authorities will come to know of your presence, but into a sauna bath. I used to go and sleep in a sauna for a few hours. Hotels are the first places they check for your details are registered, but who is going to check who was no 435 in the sauna.” (IANS)

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