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Monday, 6 January 2014

An Italian Experience : When Journalists Were Mistaken As Terrorists.

While looking back at 2013, my trip to Italy in the month of March turns out to be most unforgettable, both in its positive & negative senses. It was also one of my most challenging & arduous foreign tours so far. However, in the hindsight, I look at it as a good learning experience & cherish the memories of that tour & make me smile when I remember what I had undergone. I had gone to Italy to cover Pope’s election & diplomatic crisis between India & Italy caused due to 2 Italian marines who were charged by Indian police for killing 2 fishermen.

After much hiccups & satisfying numerous queries of Italian consulate in Mumbai, me & my cameraman Ajit Kadam were granted visas. Our problems began as soon as we landed at Rome’s International Airport. When we went on the baggage belt to pick up our luggage, we were shocked to find that our equipment bag was ripped open & all our batteries, cables, lapel mikes, data card etc were scattered on the belt. We collected all the belongings except a data card. We had total 3 data cards & had recovered 2, but third one was missing. This card is put in camera to record & store whatever video we shoot. We started searching for the third card. After sometime all the passengers left after collecting their luggage & the belt also stopped moving. We peeped inside the belt track after removing the upper layer to check if the card has fallen inside, but it didn’t help. Thankfully, we kept camera in our hand baggage & it was safe, but recovering the card was important. After an hour’s search we decided to report the matter to lost & found department of the airlines. When we reached the lost & found dept, which was located at another part of the airport, there was another shock waiting for us. The baggage handling staff at Frankfurt airport had goofed up & the luggage of several passengers was not loaded on the Frankfurt-Rome flight. They were around 20 of them & they all queued up at the lost & found counter manned by just 2 staffers. Each complainant took around 10 minutes to complete the formalities. Finally, after around an hour our turn came. We left the airport hurriedly for Vatican City after registering our complaint.

While travelling from Rome airport to Vatican City, we chatted with the taxi driver who knew little English. He informed that it was a heavy rains day in Rome & it was causing chaos in the city. Anyhow, we reached Vatican City & collected our media accreditation from the Church’s media centre. After dropping our personal luggage at hotel, we returned at St,Peters Square at Vatican. We had brought 2 umbrellas en route but those didn’t help considering the heavy rains. We were carrying camerabag, tripod & TVU unit which weighed around 10 kilograms. We used umbrellas to protect these equipments but couldn’t prevent ourselves from getting wet. There was no place to keep our heavy equipments safe. Our taxi driver had warned us to be cautious as the area was infested with thieves & thugs. Around 9pm the white smoke came out from the chimney at St.Peters Square & Mario Borgiglio was announced as the new Pope of Catholic community worldwide. He soon assumed his new name as Pope Francis. I was delighted to witness the historic event. I did a walkthrough describing the mood at Vatican City & showing the white smoke coming out from the chimney amidst the slogans of “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope)

We started our TVU unit to send to our studio in Noida, India, whatever we had shot…but….to our shock…it stopped working. We restarted it again & again, but every time it lost power after few seconds. We struggled to repair it for an hour, but our efforts went futile. It was urgent to send the feed so we rushed to our hotel, so that we could send it through laptop by using the wifi network. Ajit dumped whole feed in a Mac laptop which was used to transfer video files. However, when he tried to connect the computer with Hotel’s wifi network, it failed. For next two hours, we struggled to connect with the network. We called up office at Mumbai & IT guys guided us for the solution, but the problem was not resolved. Fortunately, I had brought my personal laptop with me & when I tried to connect it with Hotel’s wifi network, it got connected. We felt bit relieved. Ajit edited small clips of the whole shoot in low resolution & I forwarded them to Noida as email attachments. Finally, we were able to send our work, although, it got delayed. TVU became useless & it became an unnecessary burden to carry it. However, we were to face worse in coming days.

After covering Pope’s election, the next agenda of my Italian tour was to follow the story of Italian Marines. Masimiliano Latorre & Salvatore Girone were charged by Indian cops for killing 2 Indian fishermen off Kerala coast mistaking them as pirates. Court gave them conditional bail & allowed them to visit their homes in Italy provided they will return to India. However, Italian government refused to send them back to India. This enraged the Supreme Court of India & it ordered that Italian Ambassador to India will not be allowed to leave India till both the marines are back. This led to a diplomatic tension between the two countries. To cover this story, I had to travel to small towns like Bari & Taranto & Italian military base at Brindsi which were at a distance of around 4 to 5 hrs travel by high speed trains from Rome. My target was to reach out to the homes of both the marines and take their interviews. This turned out be very difficult and trouble some. We found homes of both the marines who resided in 2 different cities locked and were unable to locate them. Language was a big problem as rarely people spoke in English. Meanwhile, bad incidents continued happening with us. Once while travelling from Bari to Taranto, we were penalised by a ticket collector for not punching the ticket after purchasing it. We were not aware of the rules & were unable to comprehend instructions printed on the tickets in Italian language. Next day the adaptor of our Apple’s laptop got burnt due to power fluctuations in the hotel. One of the marines Masemiliano Latorre was residing at his official residence in the cantonment area of Brindsi near Bari. I reached the entrance of the military colony & introduced myself to the commandos posted their. I told them that I am a journalist from India & wished to speak to Latorre over the fishermen killing incident. Commandos called up their superior, who in turn asked to see our passports. He took our passports & went to a nearby cabin. I thought that after verifying our identities they will allow us to meet Latorre. The officer came out after 10 minutes and told us that he is unable to allow us access to Latorre’s residence & I need a permission from Italian defence ministry to enter the military premises. We left the place disappointed. While travelling back to Bari, Ajit told me that he sensed something wrong when the officer took our passports in his cabin. Ajit feared that something has been planned to put us into trouble. Ajit also informed me that he had clandestinely taken some shots of the gate & signboard of the cantonment area while sitting in the taxi when I was talking with the commandos. He did this without my permission as a proactive effort. Ajit was right in assuming that such shots will be required while airing the story on the channel. I agreed with him that everything was happening wrong since the time we landed in Italy, but told him not to worry as we were rescued by God everytime we met with troubles. Although, I was myself feeling very low and disappointed, I asked him to believe that all such incidents are happening to make us strong & better experienced.

While I was returning to Bari, I got to know that Mayor of Taranto town Steffiano has written a letter to Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in which he regretted te killing of 2 fishermen & offered that Taranto city will bear the expenses of the higher studies of children of the deceased fishermen. Taranto was the homecity of Masemiliano Latorre, one of the 2 marines. We decided to base ourselves at Taranto so that we could get Steffiano’s interview & could also try to meet Latorre’s parents at his private residence.

We first went to Mayor’s office for the interview, but were disappointed to know that he had gone to Milan for some official work. His secretary gave us appointment for next day at 3pm. Then we went to search for Latorre’s parents who lived in a private colony where majority of the houses were owned by military families. Here too the luck didn’t seem to work for us. His parents were not in the town.

Next day, I decided to do a couple of PTCs (Piece to Camera) at town’s main square which were to be used for a special programme on the diplomatic tensions between the two countries. It was around 11 am in the morning & the area was full of people out for work. While I was doing a PTC, a tall white man wearing a blue jacket in his forties approached me –“Are you Mr.Jitendra Dixit?”
His question shocked me. How come he recognises my name? Do Italians also watch a Hindi channel like ABP News?
“Yes” I replied.
“Ok…and is he Mr.Ajit Kadam? He asked me pointing at cameraman Ajit.
“Yes…but how do you know our names?” I asked him expressing surprise.
“We know more about you.” While replying to me he displayed an identity card which read- “Secret Police Service, Taranto
“Both of you have to come with me to our police headquarters.”
“I have no problem coming to your headquarters but we have an appointment with Mayor Steffiano in the afternoon and I also want to meet parents of marine Masemiliano Latorre.”
“Sorry Sir. The issue is very delicate. A nationwide alert has been issued against your names & now you cannot do anything here. Please come. Headquarters is just 5 minutes walk from here.”
I didn’t thought it prudent to argue more with him & co-operated. We started walking towards police headquarters.
We walked silently for 5 minutes & then the cop started a conversation with us.
“I like Indian people. I have seen their hospitality.” His tone was polite and he spoke fluent English. Infact, he was one of the few people I met in Italy, who spoke & understood English well.
“Have you ever been to India?” I asked.
 “No. But when I was on a UN mission in Africa, I had many batchmates from India. I liked their hospitality.”
“Why are you taking us to police headquarters? Why has been the alert issued against us?”
“Well…you were seen moving suspiciously around military areas since yesterday. You also visited military base at Brindsi. Right?”
“Yes. That’s true…but we were searching for Masemiliano Latorre. We want to talk to him. There is no other intention.”
“Ok…but you are not aware how sensitive this issue has been here.”
“So…shall we believe that you have arrested us?”
“No. I haven’t.”
“So will we be arrested at police headquarters?”
“I have no idea. That’s the call of my superiors.”
“All the policemen in the city were told that there has been an alert against you & ordered to get you to the headquarters. I found you so I am taking you there.”

Shortly, we reached the police headquarters. We were asked to sit in a small room near the reception which had a sofa. The English speaking officer who brought us here disappeared after we reached. Very soon groups of 3-4 police officers came outside our room and started staring at us like we were some terrorists or animals caught from forest. They whispered something into each others ears while looking at us. After being approached by the English speaking officer and while coming to the police headquarters, I didn’t feel worried and afraid…but the ambience around me at police headquarters made me feel uncomfortable and it raised my heart beats. Ajit told me- “I was fearing about this. Remember I told you that officer who took our passports in Brindsi had bad intentions.”
“Don’t worry. God is deliberately giving us this experience.” I told this to myself and asked Ajit to be calm.
I called up my input head Rajnish Ahuja in Noida and apprised him about the situation. I requested him not to do anything for next 2 hours & if after 2 hours, he is not able to reach me on phone then he should assume that we are in trouble and efforts to rescue us should start. I also didn’t want the news of our detention to be flashed on our news channel as it would have panicked our family members.

After around 10 minutes, the English speaking officer reappeared & led us to a grand cabin occupied by the city police chief. We were asked to sit on the chairs facing him. The police chief was accompanied by 2 other senior officers in uniforms. There was another officer in civil clothes & was looking youngest among all. He was a cyber expert and sat with a laptop in a corner beside us & his screen was visible to me. The English speaking officer sat next to the police chief. For around 2 minutes, the police chief who was in his 50s kept looking at us without any expression on his face. After sipping a glass of water he started interrogating us in Italian and the English speaking officer acted as a translator between us.

“What brings you to Taranto gentlemen?” he began.

“We are here to interview Mayor Steffiano and meet the family of marine Masimiliano Latorre.”

“Ok. Can you tell us in detail when did you arrive in Italy and on which date you visited which place, which hotel you stayed & which persons did you meet?”

“We reached Italy on March 12 to cover Pope’s election…” As I started to speak, he interrupted me.

“Please tell you cameraman Mr.Ajit to remove battery from the camera.” pointing towards our camera which Ajit was carrying. He feared that we might record the interrogation. At that time another thought struck my mind & got me worried. Ajit had shot few exterior frames of the board of military colony. If these guys will check the footage we shot, then it might put us in more trouble. Ajit removed the battery. I replied to police chief’s questions in detail about my arrival, hotel bookings and meetings with people in Italy.

“Ok. Can we check your passport, bag & note book please?”

They scanned our passports & all the pages of my notebook. Our bag was also checked in which camera equipments were kept. I assumed that some cops might have gone to our hotel rooms also to check our personal bags. The English speaking officer began explaining the notes which I had made in English to the police chief. Meanwhile, I looked at the young cop sitting beside me with a laptop. He typed “Jitendra Dixit ABP News” in the search engine & few page links with my pictures popped up. The pages were in Italian language. After glancing through those pages, he logged onto facebook & checked my profile. He took the laptop at the desk of police chief & murmured something in his ears. The police chief looked at me and said- “You seem to be a known man in India.”  On this comment, I sarcastically told myself, now I am going to be a known man in Italy too. I suspected that Italian government has conspired to arrest 2 Indian newsmen to avenge the prosecution of their 2 marines.

The police chief continued- “You seem to be a known man in India, but why you have so less friends on Facebook?”

“Sir, you are looking at my second profile. I have exhausted the limit of 5000 friends in my first profile and so I have made a second profile few days back. So you see fewer friends in that.”

“Ok…then let me see your first profile.”

After checking my first profile, he responded- “You are right. You have so many friends.”

“Ok. You wait now. We will come back.” The police chief left his cabin with all other officers. Both of us were left alone. That was a very tense time for us. We were anxious to know what was going to happen next. Is Italian government taking revenge by arresting us? Are we going to be booked for spying in their military areas? They had not checked Ajit’s camera yet. If they see it then what will happen?

After around 10 minutes, all the officers re-appeared in the room. The police chief occupied the chair and looked directly into my eyes.

“I have good news and a bad news for you.”

“What?” I asked impatiently.

“The good news is that both of you are free now. We have nothing against you. You are not accused persons for us. We have sent our report and the alert issued against you has been withdrawn.”

“Thank you…and what is the bad news?”

“The bad news is that your appointment with Mayor Steffiano is cancelled. We checked with Mayor’s office and were told that he will be coming to Taranto after few more days.”

“That’s a big disappointment for me. Shall we leave now?” I asked with a slight anger in my tone.

“No. You cant.”, he paused for a moment and then continued- “My colleague told me about the good hospitality of Indian people. We also want to extend some hospitality to you. Please join me for tea.”

The police chief took us to his ante chamber where we shared cups of tea and biscuits.

“This city is not very safe for foreigners. Please be careful while travelling. Your belongings can be snatched or stolen away.” He advised us.

“Ok. I will take care of that…but I want to you to reassure that the alert against us has been withdrawn. We don’t want to get detained again when we reach Rome or at the airport while leaving Italy.”

“Trust me. Alert has been withdrawn. Nobody will trouble you.”

He added- "We regret that you had to face this...but you know how the times are. We dont have any problems with journalists, but we had to ensure that there was no movements of terrorists around our cantonment areas." 

The English speaking officer came to see us off till the gates of the headquarters. He told us that he wanted to visit India with family, but his low income and high airfare doesn’t allow him to travel out of Europe. I assured him not to loose hope and he will visit India one day. I will be his host. We parted on a friendly note.
After getting out of the police headquarters, the first thing I did was to call up my boss Rajnish Ahuja. I informed him that cops have let us off and now there was no need to worry. We were detained for about 1 and half hours. The series of bad events happening with us since the time we landed in Italy culminated with us getting detained by cops.

Next day we flew back to Mumbai from Rome with the experiences we never anticipated.