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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Aired November 22, 2002 - 19:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ALEX THOMSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Alex Thomson, in London, and welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.
In this edition, the British government says one thing, the media another, so who should we believe?

Plus the splits in the public that's mirrored in the press. We look at what the Iranian media are making of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(voice-over): But first, back in Baghdad, U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and the International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Mohamed El-Baradei arrived in the Iraqi capital on Monday. They came to lay the groundwork for additional weapons inspectors who would be arriving in the coming weeks.

The two men expressed confidence in Iraq's promises.

HANS BLIX, CHIEF U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: We had good discussions with the representatives of the Iraq government and assured that they will fully implement the resolution and cooperate with us.

THOMSON: But how much cooperation can the media expect from the inspectors themselves?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Well, joining me now to discuss this issue are Rajiv Chandrasekaran, correspondent with "The Washington Post," who is in Baghdad, and in Lanikar (ph), in Cyprus, CNN Sr. International Correspondent Sheila MacVicar. And Rob Norland, who is correspondent-at-large with "Newsweek" joins me here in London.

Hello to all of you.

Rajiv, you're in position, ready to go, expecting, no doubt, full comprehensive access to the weapons inspectors and equal cooperation, no doubt, from the Iraqis. What's the reality?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, this is what we hope for. I think the reality will be something short of that.

The weapons inspectors, the first group, will arrive on Monday, supposed to start work on Wednesday, early in the morning. There is some talk among U.N. officials here that they might allow a small group of journalists, a pool in media lingo, to accompany them on that first inspection, which likely will be something of a non-confrontational affair. They're probably going to go to one of the sites that the previous group of inspectors looked at, back some time in the mid-90's.

What the Iraqis will do also remains a little unclear. They have said over the past few weeks that they would be willing to allow journalists to see the cooperation that they say that they'll be providing to the U.N. inspectors, but just how that will be worked out is still left to be revealed to those of us foreign journalists who are here in Baghdad now.

THOMSON: Let me ask you on that issue of foreign journalists, Rajiv, there seems to be, how can I put it, perhaps one rule for TV and another rule for newspaper correspondents, particularly from the United States. Would that be overstating it?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think that, you know, we're in a situation where lots and lots of news organizations are applying for visas and there is a big stack of papers on desks here, and I think they're going through them and, you know, trying to decide who they want in and who they don't.

You know, I think that they've historically had a familiarity with television networks, so a lot of the American TV networks are here now, and I know that a lot of the big papers are hoping to get in in the coming days.

THOMSON: Right. Well, Sheila MacVicar, over there in Lanikar (ph), in Cyprus -- Rajiv painting a picture of perhaps that if there is access, it might be for something of a cosmetic exercise, a non-confrontational weapons inspection. What's the sense that you're getting there, on your way, as you are?

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, we saw Dr. Hans Blix here today, the guy who's heading up the U.N. weapons inspectors, earlier this week, both coming on his way to and on his way back from Baghdad. And they have made very clear that they don't want to have any news coming out of Baghdad that the Security Council doesn't already know about.

That's part of the game here, sort of the posturing, if you will, is to try to reduce some of the atmosphere of confrontation that surrounded some of those very confrontational inspections of the mid-1990's.

So Dr. Blix has told his people, Dr. El-Baradei has told his people, that he doesn't want them talking to the press in Baghdad. He wants to be the one who goes to the Security Council and tells them what's going on on the ground, and that means in large measure that the inspectors have been told, listen, unless you have been specifically told that it's OK to talk to the press, you won't be talking to the press.

THOMSON: You can see their point -- here I am, a journalist, arguing perhaps for censorship, I don't know -- but you can see a situation where the slightest disagreement or spat on the roadside outside some factor might just be a misunderstanding. That gets into a press who are feeding on little tidbits, haven't got much to go on, not much of a story -- things can get really dangerously blown out of proportion, can they not?

MACVICAR: Well, that's exactly right. There can be a misunderstanding, there can be a negotiation which goes on.

Hans Blix has said it is not up for him or his team of inspectors to determine what they call a material breach, a breach or a failure to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions that could be serious enough to trigger a conflict. Their job is to report factually to the Security Council, and for the members of the Security Council to make up their minds what they should or should not do.

And clearly, there's a view that the weapons inspectors don't want to be in a situation of being pushed, either by the media, which may see something and choose to interpret it in such a way, or as was the case in the past, have the media become the vehicle for leaks of very secretive Iraqi documents.

That's been a big beef of Iraq's government in the past, that things that they gave to the weapons inspectors, because they were obliged to do so, have then ended up in the hands of newspapers or television networks, including, dare I say, this one, and that that's something that Iraq has really objected to and says they don't want to see happen again.

THOMSON: Rob Norland, here in London, I can see a case building up here that some journalists perhaps shouldn't be there.

ROB NORLAND, "NEWSWEEK": Well, this may be one of those odd cases where the Iraqis actually want press coverage more than the inspectors who are going in there. For once, the Iraqis want to show the world that they're cooperating and so on, and they want to manage that, which is why for the most part they've let television in, because television is easier to control that print people.

And neither Baradei or Hans Blix have any history of being very open with the press anyway in their history with the IAEA, and certainly in this situation, where in a sense they almost have their fingers on the trigger that may start a way, they certainly don't want to take any chances on doing that.

THOMSON: Let's the widen the perspective here, Rob, because you've actually got quite a few years experience working in and around Baghdad. You've seen perhaps how the Iraqis have changed over the years, perhaps, since the last Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, back in 1991. Has there been a change in the handling of the media, the Western media?

NORLAND: Well, I think there have been a lot of changes, and they have been trying to be more cooperative, and they recognize the importance of the media.

They also, though, have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot, and they've done that repeatedly, most recently with this release of prisoners that turned into a big fiasco, from their point of view. And I think it's quite possible they'll do that again, with their efforts to show how cooperative they are. It's quite possible that they may end up showing exactly the opposite.

THOMSON: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in Baghdad, Sheila MacVicar, in Cyprus, and Rob Norland, here in London, thank you all very much indeed for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, informing or reminding, is the media creating unnecessary hysteria for the possible terror attacks -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

THOMSON: Welcome back.

Now the world has been awash with renewed terrorist warnings over the past week, but it is Britain that has grabbed the international headlines with the uncovering with an alleged plot to attack the London underground system.

This plot, said to have been foiled by Britain's MI5 intelligence agency, has caused controversy between the media and the British government.

I'm joined now here in the studio by Hala Jaber, correspondent for the "London Sunday Times," who broke that story on the plot to attack the tube. And in Washington, D.C., Stuart Taylor, columnist with the "National Journal."

Hello to you both.

Jaber, let me ask you first, you -- I mean, you obviously broke the story. It was absolutely denied in the strongest possible terms by the government very, very quickly. They're clearly enormously alarmed at the fear factor involved in stories like that. Did that surprise you, the reaction you got from the British government?

HALA JABER, "SUNDAY TIMES": No. We were not expecting the government to confirm the story. There are also legal and technical issues that the government has to keep in consideration. The men that have been charged and continue to be remanded, there is a prosecution going on, and the government cannot be seen to be saying anything to confirm that these men were, for example, linked to the story.

I think the government did not deny the whole story. I think they denied the point about there being a plot against the tube in particular. So there's a difference. We didn't see it that they were denying the absolute entire story.

THOMSON: Do you get the sense, therefore, that actually what's going on, in Britain certainly, and perhaps elsewhere around the world, is that governments are to some extent suspicious of letting people have the full truth about what's going on, about the types of warnings?

We got very confused messages here in Britain. A press statement put out one minute, and actually retracted by a government agency the next. They don't seem to know quite whether to trust the public with the concept of fear or not.

JABER: That is the case, or seems to be the case. It appears to be as if they are saying that people cannot handle the truth about something.

I mean, we all know that they cannot tell us every single minute of the day what kind of information they're receiving on that, you know, on such a basis. But if you had gone out on a Sunday, following the breaking of the story, and the Monday, when people were still reading it on the front page of every other newspaper, and life was still going on. People were still dozing off in the tubes. There was no sort of mass hysteria about it. There was no paranoia.

I think people are able to assess or to understand that this possibility can happen, irrespective whether -- I think people have figured out that it can happen whether governments tell them or not. But it's important that they do know that sometimes there are these threats that are a bit more serious than others.

THOMSON: OK. Stuart Taylor, in Washington, do you get the sense out where you are that the press, the media, are being responsible in the way that they handle this issue of fear? After all, Osama bin Laden is on record as saying fear is a key element to al Qaeda's strategy. The more the media promulgate fears, the more they're doing his work: right or wrong?

STUART TAYLOR, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": I'd say wrong. I think the media and the government here are both in an impossible situation.

The government occasionally puts out non-specific warnings that something, some terrible act could happen, but we don't know what and we don't know where. And the media tends to criticize them for doing that, because it doesn't help us any.

At the same time, if the government didn't put out those warnings and then some bombing occurred, the media would criticize them for failing to have warned us.

I think the media have difficulty too. I think the best approach both can take is to give the public as much information as they can, consistent with security and intelligence sources being protected, as soon as they can, because nothing is going to panic us more than the terrorist acts, which we know will occur sooner or later.

I think the panic that's going to occur because of warnings, false or otherwise, is minimal compared to the panic that's going to occur when it happens.

THOMSON: Let's get into the issue of human rights. I mean, obviously, the media responded, quite rightly, too, to the kind of appalling attacks which we saw September 11 and before and since around the world. The net effect of that has been for governments around the world to pass a series of Draconian pieces of legislation. In a sense, that's actually playing into the hands of what the terrorists want. It's actually curtailing freedom, is it not?

TAYLOR: The legislation adopted in the United States so far has been fairly modest and incremental, nothing I would describe as Draconian.

The most Draconian actions that have taken place are unilateral actions by the Bush administration in detaining people without the usual protections of due process of law. I think there are dangers.

THOMSON: That's pretty Draconian, isn't it?

TAYLOR: It is Draconian. It has not reached large proportions yet. There were about 1,100 people detained after 9-11, most of them on immigration charges. Almost all of them have been released now.

So far, two people have been detained in the United States as so- called military -- enemy combatants. That would be very dangerous, if they continue to do it with no due process, no judge, no lawyer, and if they do it to a lot more people. So far, it's not a widespread phenomenon, but it's a worrisome one.

THOMSON: Right. Hala Jaber, here in London, let me put you on the spot here. You've got to tell the truth, if you get a good story, you're duty bound to publish it. But Osama bin Laden, as we know, wants to spread fear and is interested in curtailing freedoms that we typically enjoy in the West. The more you do your job, the more, actually, you're fulfilling his ends.

JABER: I don't agree with that. I think if, had people, for example -- I would go back to last week -- had people reacted in the hysterical and afraid manner, that the government seems to think that they would have or should have, then that's when people like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists have won the battle of not just carrying out an attack, but also instilling fear amongst the population.

I mean, people are not going to sit back at home and lock their doors and stop living because there has been a threat.

I mean -- one thing I'd like to go back to is like, for example, September 11. It was a horrendous act, but I think also the fact that the American people were never aware, or were not that aware that there was such a threat against them -- I mean, nobody knew how big that was, but there were groups, there were terrorists, that were planning or plotting against them. Maybe that's what's also taking people aback. It's the not knowing.

THOMSON: Hala Jaber, here in London, thanks very much indeed. Stu Taylor, in Washington, thanks for joining us.

Still ahead on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, could these protests spark political change in Iran and change the media too?

We'll discuss that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

THOMSON: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN.

It's been protest followed by counter-protest as clashes continue between hard-liners and reformist students in the Iranian capital of Tehran. These protests, sparked by the death sentence given to a prominent professor. Hashem Aghajari questioned the rule of the clerics in the Islamic Republic.

Well, this political split is being mirrored in the press as well, and joining me now to discuss this are Ali Reza Nourzadeh, from the Center for Arab Iranian Studies, here in London, and former political editor of the political newspaper "Et-Alat" (ph) and Majid Tafreshi, who's a freelance Iranian journalist.

Majid, first of all, let me ask you, there is almost a huge kind of friction in Iran, isn't there, between a process of gradual liberalization and absolute conservative block who want to stop that at all stages, wherever it is in Iranian society, and that is what is really at the heart of this.

MAJID TAFRESHI, JOURNALIST: The problem is the new generation of Iranians sometimes are not following the leaders anymore, and in this trend of uncertainty about their future and their political atmosphere, the Islamic republic can no longer control them.

THOMSON: There are lots of people watching this might say terrific, no bad thing. Young people going their own way, that's all about freedom, and if the Islamic republic can't control that, that's fine.

TAFRESHI: Yes, but the problem is, they're not take it easy.

The Iranian government thinks of this new generation as their product, the generation of revolution, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They're afraid. So that is all about the new generation in Iranian press. You can see many Iranian newspapers and journals against new trends of hard-liners, new pressure of hard-liners, and some of them are non-political, about art and entertainment, but they can say whatever they like.

THOMSON: So there's real press freedom, as you see it? There's an ability to cover this great friction that's going on in the country without any hindrance?

TAFRESHI: The problem is both sides, the hard-liners and the reformists, are not going to leave the new generation to do whatever they want. I mean, they have their own agenda, political agenda. They have power struggle and the new generation are either non-political or they have their own political agenda.

THOMSON: Right. Ali Reza, do you see that illustration of almost total freedom? I have to say, it doesn't square with newspapers being shut down.

ALI REZA NOURZADEH, JOURNALIST: Absolutely, and the reason 87 newspaper and magazine were banned, when you have several journalists in jail, and they are under continuous pressures. They've been summoned by the security authority.

The problem in Iran is, at the moment, look at the street, look at the Iranian intellectual plea to the authority to give them space in order to be able to talk to the young generation.

But unfortunately, in Iran, there are forces who consider Ayatollah Khomeini the leader, the spiritual leader, as someone who has been sent by God. So he's a holy man. You cannot criticize him. You cannot talk about him.

And on the other hand, you have people even within the reformists, inside the government, who believe that Mr. Khomeini is like any other Iranian.

THOMSON: Where do you stand on that, yourself?

NOURZADEH: Well, I don't believe in the idea of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I don't believe that we need a spiritual leader, someone to sit there and issue edicts and give us instruction what to do.

THOMSON: But the specific issue of the media, since you raise it, more than 80 newspapers are coming under pressure, being closed down, that doesn't square with what you were saying, Majid, about a picture of openness and freedom in the media.

TAFRESHI: I never said there is no pressure and there is no banning. The pressure is there, and sometimes the feeling is growing.

But the problem is the parallel with this pressure in the new generation of Iranian journalists are doing -- if they ban one newspapers, two newspapers come instead of that. I mean, no one can stop this new generation, and no one can stop the reformists to do what they want.

THOMSON: Right. Just briefly, because it's a critical point which Ali Reza raised, Iran is in many senses moving away from the idea that the Ayatollah Khomeini was infallible and was the word of God, and there's no going back. Is that the view that you take?

TAFRESHI: I mean, the main issue in political arena of Iran is whether the leader is above the law or within the law. This is very important issue. And many Iranians nowadays believe he must be within the law. That's a main struggle between the hard-liners and the reformists, and if he comes within the law, at least it's better than the current situation. At least it's controllable.

And the question is about limits on his power. This is the main question.

THOMSON: OK. Ali Reza, just on that issue, that the infallibility of the Ayatollah is in question, it's going to stay in question, and that's the way Iran is going?

NOURZADEH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I just wanted to add something.

Three years, three-and-a-half years ago, at the beginning of Mr. Khatami's presidency, we had such a great and beautiful media, newspaper, which everybody was reading 5, 10, even 15 newspapers a day. And most of the readers were youngsters, and the new generation of newspapers educated the youngsters to demand for freedom and freedom of speech.

Now, these days, because of the, you know, these newspapers are all banned, the people turn to you, CNN, to all the satellite channels of Farsi language, satellite channels in the United States, Voice of America, BBC and the others, to get the news, because the people are thirsty for the news. They want the information. And it's a pity. The information about Iran coming from outside.

THOMSON: Ali Reza Nourzadeh, thank you very much indeed, and Majid Tafreshi, thank you too.

Well, that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Join us again next week as we put the media in the spotlight.

I'm Alex Thomson. Thanks for joining us.

END

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