'Vietnam changed the concept of media coverage & I think Tsunami has changed the concept of covering disasters'


CNN’s New Delhi bureau chief Satinder Bindra was in Colombo on vacation when the Tsunami struck on 26 December 2004. For the next few weeks Bindra spent his days and nights covering the disaster. Though it was one of the biggest stories out of Asia in recent memory, Bindra strongly believes in underplaying his and the team’s achievements. After all, it’s all in a day’s work.

Bindra, who came to Delhi as a single-man bureau, has covered some major stories like the Kargil war, Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack and the most recently the December 2004 Tsunami. Interestingly, this disaster also brought out the author in him. Despite being a passionate squash and tennis player, apart from his official duties, Bindra found ti me to pen down his experiences in the form of a book Tsunami: Seven Hours That Shook The World.

According to Bindra, his journey as a journalist has restored his faith in humanity seeing the milk of human kindness overflow when the Tsunami disaster struck. As a highpoint he cites the emotional scene where a nine-year-old boy, who had to identify his mother through the clothes that she was wearing, said that he wanted to excel in his studies so that he qualified to become a scientist and, maybe, be able to offer warnings against such disasters--- in honour of “the memory of my mother.” It’s such incidents that Bindra can never forget.

In this interview with Indiantelevision.com’s Manisha Bhattacharjee, Bindra, who’s of Indian origin, talks of his Tsunami experiences and much more related to media.


What really made you venture into writing a book on the Tsunami?

Simply because I was so moved and touched by what I saw. Normally, whenever you cover a story like this, you tell yourself that it’s part of work. And, I’ve been in so many situations like this. But this time I wanted to do something extra. I wanted to tell the world what the people who have been affected have actually gone through. I wanted to go beyond a story and I wanted to write a book simply because this story just couldn’t fit the television screen. It was so big and so large in scale and scope. So, I decided to write the book and to donate all the proceeds to charity. This would be a small way of sharing with those affected their grief and pathos.

Were there some particular incidents that really shook you?

Well, the Tsunami itself was an earth shattering incident. I was right on the beach when the waves came in. The scene of destruction… the Tsunami-swamped shores… the waves as they threateningly cascaded into a swimming-pool really shook me. Let me tell you it was a very scary sight! I was numb with disbelief.

I could just not make out where I was and then suddenly the reporting instincts took over. And there I was working away at the biggest story of my career.

In the first two days itself I had decided to write a book. I was in the southern part of Colombo (among the worst affected areas).

Journalists face difficulties while covering such incidents and sometimes even put themselves at danger. Did you also face such situations?

The biggest difficulty is to cope with the human side of an incident like this. There are moments when one stops being a reporter. But, nonetheless, some tools of the trade, like being objective, always comes first. As a reporter, sometimes it was difficult to keep one’s senses when people told me most painful stories. They would just break down and cry and after talking to them, I would just walk away. It looks easy, but believe me, it’s not.

Immediately after walking away, I used to feel terrible. But as a trained journalist, one learns to maintain a sense of aloofness from the story. But then I quickly realized that in a story with such catastrophic effects, it was time to give up being just a journalist. I couldn’t help being a human. I went through this turmoil and, thankfully, the human in me won over. That’s how I decided to deal with it.

Could you elaborate on the technology that was at your disposal while covering this disaster?

In this case we had very lightweight equipment. CNN has been developing (technologies) and the Delhi bureau had stayed prepared for this technology. In our company, we call it digital news gear. It is more of a lightweight video phone. You can just take your camera, plug it to your laptop and satellite phone and get the pictures out (to the broadcast centre).

But what happened in this case, there was some really frightening eyewitness video (footage) that was captured. There was this video shot by a tourist from the hotel balcony in Galle where the waves could be seen coming in and sweeping away children. We could just hear their last screams.

This eyewitness-shot video got on really fast within hours of the story. What it did was globalise grief. It took the grief and suffering of these people across the world and that generated a second wave --- what I call a wave of compassion.

I was at Colombo airport where hundreds of planes, sometimes 15 at a time, were coming in all sent as part of the relief measures. I do believe that a lot of relief that came in was also the result of technology helping in transferring horrific images the world over.

Vietnam changed the concept of media coverage and I think Tsunami has changed the concept of covering disasters. News teams are recognized to really get to the story quickly. It has to be a small team carrying lightweight gear.

Let me give you and example. On 26 December 2004, at 7:30 pm a Dornier aircraft landed at Ratmalana airbase at Colombo from India with supplies. Next day, Indian naval ships were deployed and I took my small lightweight gear, loaded it onto an Indian vessel and was broadcasting live from Indian ships.

It was, by far, the largest ever humanitarian relief operations outside Indian shores and CNN was telling the world what was happening. The response that countries gave to this disaster must have been facilitated by technology that helped in broadcasting the images and tales of grief and horror.

'The media had been very careful about reporting. It was not just CNN'

How would you rate the coverage by Indian TV channels, especially the news channels?

I was on the field all the time. I barely got to see the coverage given by other channels. I was just completely floored under the enormity of reporting my story.

Besides the passion for coverage and aiming at delivering news, what actually kept you going?

You condition yourself through the situation. And you learn how to preserve your energy. And, at that juncture your discomforts are so minuscule, so trivial, compared to what the people (affected by Tsunami) were going through, that it some way gives you strength. The human desire and the motivation to help in whatever way --- in our case it would be to widely publicize such disasters so that relief could come in thick and fast --- kept us going.

Could you comment on the kind difference between the Indian news channels and other world news channels on Tsunami coverage?

The kind of reporting done was very humane and compassionate no matter which channel did it --- a mother who is searching for four children, the forensic pathologists who are to identify 700-800 bodies working and working day and night to give dignity to death, the hospital workers, the surgeons and the policemen some of whom gave up their lives trying to save other people.

Every journalist, I think, focused on human stories because they realized that these stories connect to grief. The media had been very careful about reporting. It was not just CNN.

You have shared your Tsunami experiences in just one language, English. Any plans for a Hindi version?

Well, yes. With the kind of popularity it (the book) is gaining, the readers should soon find the Hindi version in the market.

To digress a bit from Tsunami, what are your viewpoints on the Indian print industry that is witnessing a surge of activity?

I think the print medium in India is really good and is a thriving business. Both print and television have matured as an industry. Both are extremely competitive and professional.

Any expansion plans in India like having bureaus in other cities apart from Delhi?

I think CNN is very well positioned and whenever the need arises we travel.

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