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Journalists covering the external affairs ministry are left wondering whether it is time to write an elegy to one of the most sought after ‘beats’ on the Delhi media circuit. The great charm of tracking external affairs ministry, apart from writing on such esoteric subjects like diplomacy, is the opportunity it offers to visit exotic places on public money with no less than the Prime Minister of India for company.
It has been usual for prime ministers to take with them on their foreign visits a large contingent of journalists. The PM travels in a Boeing 747-400 drawn from the Air India pool, which is given the call sign ‘Air India One’. The specially configured aircraft accommodates a large number of bureaucrats, security officials and 34 journalists. These journalists are drawn from both print and electronic media. Large majority are from privately owned media outlets. Nearly a dozen represent news agencies and government owned outlets like Doordarshan, All India Radio, Films Division, etc.
Recent prime ministers have continued the tradition of taking this large media entourage with them on their foreign visits. The cost of air travel is borne by the exchequer while journalists bear the hotel expenses. The foreign tour also offers a rare opportunity to question the PM from close quarters during the customary on board press conference.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi isn’t keen to take forward this tradition, or so sources atop Raisina Hill believe. They point to how the PM didn’t take any private media representatives on his first foreign visit to Bhutan in June. Only eight media representatives found place in the aircraft, all from either agencies or government owned outlets. There was no on board press interaction either. That, however, was explained away by the fact that Modi had to travel to Bhutan in a smaller aircraft as the airstrip at Paro is short.
But the buzz is that the PMO under Modi isn’t keen that journalists from private media houses accompany him on his visit to Brazil. The PM will land in Brazil in mid-July, just after the conclusion of the FIFA World Cup, to attend the Brics Summit. Sources said the PMO would rather take an empty aircraft to Brazil than allow representatives of private media houses on the plane.
Journalists are left wondering whether this would become a template for all of Modi’s visits abroad. Some in the journalistic fraternity are hopeful that the PM might be tempted to take a larger media entourage on his visits to Japan and later to attend the UN General Assembly in New York and a bilateral visit to the US.