Wednesday, 7 April 2010

President Like No Other

A head of state is always a bit of a pain to interview. Technically speaking that is, particularly if there are TV cameras involved. There's always the strict protocol involved, which is more often than not on the excessive side, especially if the protocol staff enjoy their little power and jump at every opportunity to wield it. To be sure a leader of a country has a full agenda and every second of his or her time is precious and cannot be wasted on little things such as answering questions from the media.

Often questions have to be submitted and reviewed before hand, just in case there are topics that are out of bounds, and there is a question of language. In my experience, even if the president or prime minister speaks English fluently, protocol demands that they speak in their vernacular, presumably so the official translator could gloss over errors in data or information and the head of state sticks to the scripted answers - hence the need for the list of questions in advance.

By the way our own current president is usually more than happy to answer the foreign media in English most likely because it gives him an opportunity to show off his English language skills seeing he's so concerned with looking smart. Former president Soeharto on the other hand, wouldn't dream of using any other language than Bahasa in foreign settings, but then again he never gave interviews to anybody both at home and abroad anyway and one could not be sure how good his English was.

Going back to our topic of interviewing big wigs, there's also the question of where the interview takes place and the necessary preparation beforehand: the security check and the placement of the chairs as well as the entire setting that should preferably reflect his Excellency's elevated status.

Then again it's rather exciting, these little rituals that my camera crew and I have to undergo when we are in the presence of a very important person, whether it's the president, prime minister or the Dalai Lama. (The king of computers, Bill Gates, exact similar strict procedures. When I interviewed him in a hotel, the whole corridor outside the interview room had to be sterilized of other humans at his moment of passing. May be so he wouldn't catch their germs).

This rigmarole is a pain that one expects and gets used to after a while and it would certainly be unusual to encounter otherwise.

So it was quite surprising, even refreshing, when I met none of these procedures when I had the good fortune to interview the newly elected President of Croatia, Ivo Josipovic, in Zagreb. Granted the man was not yet officially sworn in at the time of the interview, though in all aspects he was already president of the country, and he is not as politically powerful as the prime minister. But he is still the head of state and the country's international face. He comes under the heading of a very important person, and as such no longer the ordinary man in the street.

I knew the interview was to take place not at the presidential palace, as he was not yet inaugurated, but I didn't expect it to be above a busy mall in the centre of Zagreb, which was where the president's political party, the Social Democrat, had its election centre. The place was a no nonsense office-cum-meeting room where the only colours and decorations came from Josipovic's campaign posters, banners and stickers.

The only protocol we had to observe was ringing the door bell to be let in by friendly young faces. The rest was left up to us to set up the equipment in the room, which in itself was a challenge as the place was a bit of a victorious after-party mess.

Normally, the arrival of my interview subject would be the climax of the preparation, done under watchful eyes of the security who would alert us when our guest was coming, with a full entourage of course.

I certainly didn't expect to see my interview subject while rearranging furniture to make room for our television cameras. That would take away some of the anticipation that makes up the fun aspect of this job. Besides, I want our first encounter to be under the bright glare of the camera lights.

But there we were, bumping into one another, he in a casual cardigan, extending his hand to welcome us when he realised we were in his office, and I failing to cherish the relaxed spontaneity of the situation, inwardly hoping he would put on a suit by the time our interview started.

His spokesperson, an energetic young woman who was a former journalist, perhaps seeing my face, reassured me that she had reminded to have his suit sent. It being a Saturday he had forgotten all about looking smart. Besides, they were still not used to handling so many requests for official meetings and interviews. Indeed there were so many already for the day, she explained.

As we set up the camera lights I saw two fourteen year old boys greeted warmly by the president. I thought, how sweet to bring his sons to work when I vaguely remembered he didn't actually have any son.

They're young journalists, explained the spokeswoman. They sent him a request for an interview via his Facebook account and he agreed, online.

The Croatian president has a Facebook account? I was by then suitably impressed. I was even more impressed when he agreed to bang out a tune on the piano in the corner of the room.

Yes, he is also a professional musician. And a lawyer. And a university professor...

(Desi Anwar: first published in Tempo English)

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