Thursday, March 03, 2011

Libya: Barkha Dutt and her NDTV team's dash to Libya and her twitterati

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There was a beautiful despatch by Barkha Dutt of NDTV from Cairo on March 1 as to how the Twitter had played a role in facilitating the evacuation of a group of stranded Indians from Eastern Libya through Egypt and the humanitarian assistance which they had received from the Pakistanis living in East Libya. One of the Indians from Kerala stranded in East Libya had tweeted the Foreign Minister, the Foreign Secretary, Shri Shashi Tharoor, MP, and Barkha seeking assistance. This set in motion the train of events that led to their crossing over into Egypt from East Libya and safe evacuation to India, thanks to the tremendous work put in by the Indian Embassy in Cairo ably headed by Shri Swaminathan, the Ambassador. Barkha and two of her technical crew from NDTV (Manoj and Ruby Dingra) were in Cairo to cover the event for NDTV.

2.After doing their reportage from Cairo, they decided to try their luck and make a 700-km, 15-hour dash to the Libyan border in order to enter the country with the help of one of Barkha’s contacts in the anti-Gaddafi rebel set-up in East Libya with its headquarters at Benghazi . The NDTV team, headed by Barkha, had two options---either enter Libya legally via Tripoli with valid visas or enter clandestinely via Egypt without visas despite the warning issued by the Libyan Government that anyone entering via East Libya without visas would be considered an “outlaw” .

3. The Libyan Government had initially banned all journalists from entering Libya. After some journalists belonging to the “Guardian” of London, the CNN and the BBC had clandestinely entered from Egypt, it relaxed the ban and decided to issue visas to journalists from the BBC, the CNN, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya only. Since Indian journalists were not covered by this relaxation, Barkha and her team decided to try their luck from the Egyptian border and enter without a visa with the help of Barkha’s contact in the rebel set-up.

4. Barkha and her NDTV team made their way through nearly 700 kms of beautiful desert made famous during the second World War by the epic tank battle at El Alamein between the allied forces commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery and the Nazi German forces commanded by FM Rommel. Barkha has over 200,000 followers in her Twitter site. I am one of them. I keep exchanging Tweets with her from time to time on current developments.

5. On March 1, as the whole of India was still engrossed in watching the TV coverage of the Central budget, I and many others were excitedly keeping track of the team of Barkha as it made its way through the desert. The Twitter enabled us to follow Barkha and her team for nearly seven hours of their 15-hour journey. We kept encouraging her through Tweets and E-mails and advising her and her team to take good care of themselves and not to walk into a trap. I was touched by the gesture of even some critics of Barkha in praying for the safety of the team. One of her critics tweeted her: “May not agree with her opinions on matters ..but safety is paramount ..I pray for her safety”. There were so many others who prayed for their safety.” I tweeted Barkha: “ U see how many well-wishers U have in the sub-continent.”

6. Even people in Pakistan tweeted her “good luck.” Ms. Munizae Jahangir, a journalist, who is the proud daughter of Mrs.Asma Jahangir, the famous Pakistani human rights activist, tweeted Barkha to say that she was E-mailing to her the telephone numbers of some Pakistanis in Libya whom she could contact if she needed any assistance.

7. One of the constant worries of Barkha’s Twitterati was about the reliability of their communication equipment. Was it reliable? Was it good? Was it strong enough for its signals to reach India. One of the Twitterati, probably based in the US, asked Barkha what communication set she was carrying. Barkha tweeted back: “vodaphone. Don't know how much longer phones will work.”

8. There were so many Tweeters who were wanting and willing to help in whatever way they can. I tried to collect some topographic data about East Libya from the Internet so that I could tweet it to her. I could not get much. I tweeted my exasperation. One of the tweeters, who saw my tweet to Barkha, asked me : “what kind of information you are looking for.” I tweeted to him: “Looking for alternate ways of reaching Benghazi from Egyptian border---distances involved etc.” After a few minutes, he tweeted back URL details of sites containing Libyan maps.

9.In the meanwhile, Barkha tweeted to all her friends: “Leaving behind last city of marsa matrouh.libyan border 100kms away.ravaged nation on other side.” I collected some details of this city from the Wikipedia and tweeted them to her. The person, who had collected details of sites carrying Libyan maps, tweeted to Barkha with copy to me: “Go to el salaum , its between Libya & Egypt, you will get a Bus for Benghazi from there . Still working , am told.” He subsequently tweeted the telephone number of a border post where Barkha could any assistance she wanted.

10. At around 10 PM on March 1, we lost all contact with her. I don’t know why. Before this communication black-out occurred, I managed to send two Tweets to Barkha. In the first Tweet, I told her she should remain in touch with the Indian Ambassador in Cairo. I tweeted: “ He is a nice guy, am told. People talk highly of him.” Barkha tweeted back: “yes he is very nice.”

11. An Indian lady living in Egypt, who had seen my Tweet to Barkha about the Ambassador, tweeted Barkha with copy to me: “Mr. Swaminathan is really a gem of a person , I agree. I live in Egypt , am constantly in touch with him.”

12. My last Tweet to Barkha read: “Conserve your battery.Good night.” She did not acknowledge it. I was not sure whether it reached her. I was very tense. I couldn’t sleep. Every 60 minutes or so, I would get out of bed, go online and check whether there was any message or Tweet from Barkha. Nothing. From around 10 PM to 5-40 AM, no communication with her. I really got worried. As I got out of bed at about 5.40 AM to check once again, I told myself that I would alert the Foreign Secretary and the Ambassador if there was still no communication from her.

13. As I went online, my heart jumped with joy. There was an E-mail from Barkha: “We made it. We have entered Libya.” I E-mailed her: “Am thrilled. And worried. Take good care of yourself .”
14. And, I went to sleep after remaining awake the whole night. (3-3-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.