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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Aired July 11, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET

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

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
Reading the British newspapers, you might think Prime Minister Tony Blair had lost the war in Iraq. This month it's an ongoing row with the BBC that continues to plague him. Now it's the Niger connection.

The British government is standing by its claim that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from the West African country, this despite the White House admitting this past week that it should not have included this so- called evidence in Mr. Bush's State of the Union Address.

The Bush administration says too much is being made of this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECY. OF STATE: The president wasn't in any way trying to mislead. It was information that got into the speech. Whether it should or should not have been in the speech is something we can certainly discuss and debate, but it wasn't a deliberate attempt on the part of the president to either mislead or exaggerate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MACVICAR: The British and American media are reacting quite differently to these developments.

To tell us why that is, we're joined now, in Washington, D.C., by Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor to "Vanity Fair," and here in the studio, Justin Webb, Washington correspondent for the BBC.

Justin, let me begin with you. You wrote a piece that appeared a couple of weeks ago in which you suggested that perhaps the American media were a pretty timid and spineless lot. Is that what we're seeing now?

JUSTIN WEBB, BBC: Yes. I think there is a real difference of perception in America and Britain, and it's a fascinating difference.

Within Britain, the media regard themselves -- it isn't just the BBC - - most of the rest of the media as well regard their job as that of harassing the government. It's not just criticism. It's not just skepticism. It's one step further than that.

And yet in America it seems to me -- and I've lived in America for a year or so, so I'm quite new to this -- it just strikes me that there is a timidity when it comes to actually putting in a forensic matter, in a matter that needs to be addressed and followed up, any set of difficult questions to anyone in genuine power.

What you don't have is a forum, a daily forum, as we have in Britain, where senior ministers, the equivalent of President Bush's top advisers, Donald Rumsfeld and the others, are actually hauled over the coals, are called to account.

(CROSSTALK)

WEBB: . occasionally even savage. And it's a fascinating difference. That's the point I was making.

MACVICAR: Christopher Hitchens, I mean, this story this week, this Niger connection thing, this press release that was sort of dropped from the sky as Air Force I winged its way towards Africa -- it does seem to me rather extraordinary that the American media are just sort of saying, well, accepting what the president has said, which was he still believes that it was right to wage war, and moving on. Is that, do you think, an appropriate response?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": Well, I'm reluctant to differ with Justin about this. And it may be that we have a different opinion of what constitutes harassment or tough questioning.

But I agree with him that there is an absence of a parliamentary forum here, and that is reflected in the way the media behave and in the morphology of the press and the television.

But the front page of "The Washington Post" this morning has as its lead story the claim now being made by the CIA that it always wanted the Niger stuff left out. An attempt obviously to shift the blame to the British in this case, but a pretty stern disavow.

Every cartoon that I see -- I always watch or view the cartoon page of the American press -- lampoons the president for apparently inventing weapons of mass destruction.

I don't get the sense he's getting away with it at all, no.

MACVICAR: But there was a sense -- I mean this Niger story has been out there since before the war, frankly. We knew before the war that the central documents.

HITCHENS: Certainly, yes.

MACVICAR: . had been found by the IAEA to be forgeries. So my question is, why was there so little.

HITCHENS: Not that that's -- not that that in itself shows that there was no Saddam Hussein attempt to acquire uranium from Niger.

MACVICAR: No, but it was a critical piece of evidence which was.

HITCHENS: I mean, remember, as with atrocity stories, for example, during the invasion of Kuwait, if you recall, there was false testimony given to Congress about the Iraqi theft of the baby incubators from Kuwait, taking the incubators on the floor.

It was all made up out of whole cloth, but it was nothing like as bad as what the Saddam forces actually were doing in Kuwait. The invention of an atrocity may be coals (ph) to Newcastle, if you like.

MACVICAR: My question, though, is why -- why the American press, maybe perhaps in your view rightly, didn't put more heat on both the Bush administration and maybe even the Blair government before the war, when there clearly were questions which could be asked.

HITCHENS: Well, again, I mean, I was one who argued for the war on television and in print before it began, and I still defend the position that I took.

My impression was that I was always under -- anyone who supported the administration -- was always under intense pressure to show that there was a real case for the removal of Saddam Hussein. That -- none of this was spared us at all.

I'm sorry not to share -- I'm (AUDIO GAP) I just remember different -- remember (AUDIO GAP) of stuff about, "Are you sure he's got weapons? Is he really a danger? Surely he's a rational guy even if he's a bad guy." All of this.

WEBB: I think the point is, though, that these kind of debates that Christopher was getting involved in certainly take place. Nobody is suggesting the American press isn't free. There's a huge divergence of opinion and to and fro and comment pieces and all the rest of it, and people read it, which is much more than they do in Britain. I think genuinely people are rather informed certainly in their reading material in America.

But what there isn't is Donald Rumsfeld on the radio in the morning with someone poking him in the eye, metaphorically -- possibly, occasionally, close to literally -- and saying, you know, "On this date you said that, and yet on this date you said something that seems to be rather different -- how do you explain that difference"?

And instead of him being able to say, "Oh, get lost," and make fun of it, which is what he does at his daily press conferences, actually being forced to answer. That's the point I'm making.

MACVICAR: So, Justin, from your point of view.

HUTCHENS: I want to say the fact that CSPAN a few years ago started transmitting parliamentary question time from West Minister live did for a brief while make a difference. There was a big demand in the United States. There was even a bill in Congress at one point to have a presidential question time in Congress, but of course no president.

MACVICAR: Would ever submit to it.

HUTCHENS: . would dream of conceding to such a thing.

MACVICAR: Justin, from your point of view, as someone, as you said, has lived in the states for a relatively short period of time, what is it about this deferential attitude? Why is there not that kind of, as you said, forensic questioning?

WEBB: I think it's partly cultural. I have been here, as I said, just over a year, so I'm not pretending to be any great expert, but just from an outside observers point of view, having arrived in the states as if from Mars and seeing it all for the first time, it seems to me that one of the big differences between the states and the Britons, certainly, possibly the states and the whole of Europe, is that there is still -- it's still a young country. People are genuinely enthusiastic about it, and they're enthusiastic about it through the autumns of the state, if you like.

They regard the presidency as a marvelous thing. You see American tourists coming to Washington, D.C., they hold that house, the White House, in awe, and here in Britain we don't really have that sense. Certainly the organs of state are regarded -- such as they're regarded at all -- are regarded as sort of rather hopeless and not necessarily to be trusted, and there is that sort of fundamental cultural difference, and I think in a way it might explain to a great extent the unwillingness in American journalists about having the opportunity to question these people.

MACVICAR: And, Christopher, in theory, given the history of the Washington press corps, the Watergate story, the Washington press corps should be one of the most cynical and skeptical press corps on the face of the planet, where, you know, the question of Watergate -- what did the president know and when did he know it -- may not be the right question in this case, but surely it should be something that plays a greater role in the life of the American media.

HUTCHENS: Well, I, you know, I really am beginning to suspect myself now of becoming habituated or having lived here too long, not too little a time, and perhaps having got too used to a laxer standard. I'm feeling very self-critical, but mostly reviewing the situation.

WEBB: Never.

HUTCHENS: For example, I mean, take -- I'm not sure which media we're talking about now. If you take the Washington press corps, an influential magazine within the beltway, and it has been for a long time, is "The New Republic," which is actually published in Washington. Most magazines are published actually in New York, but this one's published in Washington, D.C. itself.

Well, they led with a cover story and a 20-page article about three weeks ago now, having taken a pro-war position editorially, absolutely piteously accusing the administration of having fabricated the case for war. I don't know a single reporter in Washington who didn't both read and report on that story. It got also an awful lot of play on the TV and in what I sometimes think of as the informal media, the Web logs, the Web sites, the online magazines and so on, which is something I follow. This is a permanent very, very bitter argument indeed. I'm exposed to it several times every day.

MACVICAR: Gentlemen, we must leave it there, thank you both very much, Justin Webb, here in London, Christopher Hitchens, in Washington. Thank you both.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, its something the Laotian authorities prefer to deny exists, but that didn't stop these journalists from trying to get the story -- when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MACVICAR: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

It's a story that's prompted an international outcry. Two European journalists and an American interpreter were sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Laotian court. It was in connection with the death of a village official.

Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud were filming a story on the ethnic Hmong, a guerilla group trained by the CIA during the Vietnam War, when they were caught in a firefight between rebels and villagers.

Caving under international pressure, the Laos authorities released the three men on Wednesday. The affair has proved counterproductive for Laos, one of the world's last surviving Communist regimes, and turned the spotlight on a conflict that remains largely hidden.

Joining me now from Bangkok, Vincent Reynaud and Andrew Perrin, "Time" correspondents. Andrew has also been reporting on the Hmong rebels, and managed to get his report out of the country.

Vincent, let me begin with you. You were held for a number of days by the Laotian authorities. What were the conditions like that you found? Were you able to get to these people? Obviously, your material has been taken by the authorities. What were the conditions that you found amongst these people?

VINCENT REYNAUD, JOURNALIST: Of course the conditions of these people were extremely difficult and we faced really serious humanitarian crisis there, you know.

We were expecting to find guerilla groups, fighters, and actually we found just starving people, you know.

MACVICAR: Andrew, that's very much -- you published a very dramatic report in "Time" magazine not too long ago, and your description of what you found there, if I may say, in reading your account, I felt that I could feel your shock.

ANDREW PERRIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Yes, indeed. I don't think myself -- and I was talking to Vincent earlier, we both went to the same camp -- were prepared for what we found once we got into the mountains.

I mean, these people, you know, had not seen foreigners for decades, and they think that you are Americans come to rescue them and take them away from their misery. But it's not just fighters that you find in there. I mean, it's the majority of women and children, even older people.

All of them suffer from -- have shrapnel wounds of some description and many are suffering from starvation. So a very grim, bleak place to be. "The heart of darkness," I think I refer to it in my story and, indeed, it is.

MACVICAR: And when you try to talk to the Laotian authorities, to Laotian government officials, how do they justify their treatment? I mean, they clearly say they're fighting an insurgency. It's a guerilla insurgency. But how do they justify this ongoing treatment of these people?

PERRIN: That's a good question. The Laotian officials won't talk to me about this issue. It's actually an issue that the Lao government denies exists. They deny that these people exist or that there's any type of insurgency going on in the country at all.

They claim they are bandits and will be treated as bandits. That's far from the case, and it's going to be an ongoing issue if the Lao government doesn't address it. Maybe now after hearing of Vincent's case, they will.

MACVICAR: Vincent, when you went in there, you said that you went in as a freelancer, that you went in on spec, basically, that nobody had agreed to finance the film that you had hoped to make.

Why was it so difficult to persuade backers or persuade television channels in Europe or in the United States that there should be an interest in this story?

REYNAUD: Well, the thing is, you know, we didn't know if we would be able to get there and to actually shoot the story until this was really happening, you know. Things were really difficult to organize, and there was no way we could sell the story that we are not even sure to be able to shoot in combat, you know.

MACVICAR: And obviously, your material has been seized by the authorities there, you don't have any of your film or your tape. Was there -- would there have been a market for this story, do you think? Or do you think this is just one of those conflicts that has gone on for so long that we just don't care about?

REYNAUD: No, no. Again, it's, you know, it was definitely an extraordinary story. Just because it's not about conflict and fighting and guerilla, but really it's about people are dying out there in the jungle, and, you know, dying of hunger, really.

MACVICAR: Andrew, if I can ask you -- you cover this region. Obviously, you can look next door and sort of, you know, see the kind of coverage that an equally repressive regime, the government of Burma, gets at the hands of the Western media. We are -- there's a lot of stuff that's written about that, perhaps because there is a charismatic figure who heads the opposition.

Why is it, do you think, that this story of what is happening in Laos, is so untold?

PERRIN: Well, I think there's a number of reasons for that.

I think the story in Burma, as you say, has a charismatic opposition figure in Aung San Suu Kyi. There's also -- the guerilla groups also on the Thai border and very accessible, albeit difficult, to get access, but much easier than it is to get into Laos.

Laos is a very difficult country to work in in the sense that it's very easy to go and travel there and have a find time, but to actually find stories that you're allowed to report on is very difficult. The government won't give you a journalist's visa to go and cover the Hmong.

Find the Hmong -- they live four days from the road, you know. It's a long trek through the jungle. So, obviously, you have to do this on tourist's visas. There's a lot of risk taken, and for that reason alone -- these people have very little communication with the outside world, so it's difficult to find them. So, for that reason alone, this story hasn't been covered.

MACVICAR: And amongst your colleagues, other members of the foreign press corps who are based in Bangkok or other places in Southeast Asia, do you think that your work and the story of what happened to Vincent and Thierry is going to renew interest in trying to make that difficult journey to tell that story?

PERRIN: I think there's very little doubt that Thierry and Vincent's case has really put this story on the map. I don't think I can claim credit for putting this story on the map. I think it actually took something like the arrest of these two French journalists to put the story on the map.

And suddenly there's all this interest around the story. I wonder how much longer it will last. I mean, you know, certainly I feel great sympathy for those people in the mountains and I believe that it's an issue that actually can be resolved, and it probably wouldn't take too much to resolve that issue, but whether governments, foreign powers, are willing to step in and play the part of a neutral role as a peacemaker, I don't know.

MACVICAR: Vincent, let me ask you, for all those days that you were held by the Laotian authorities, when you were imprisoned, were you aware - - before the period of time when diplomats and others were permitted to see you, were you aware that there was basically a campaign, a pressure campaign being run internationally to try to get you out? That there was an international outcry about your imprisonment?

REYNAUD: No. We knew very little about this, you know. Of course we expected people to get mobilized and try and, you know, to help us to get out of this, but we were completely surprised by this care, by this mobilization, and the number of people that really took this case, you know, and worked for us, was, you know, we were completely, completely surprised, and it was mind-blowing for us, just when we came out, you know.

MACVICAR: You know, as Andrew has said, the irony here is, this story that you went to tell, you were not able to tell, because your footage has been taken, but by being imprisoned, in fact, you may have brought more publicity to this story than perhaps anything else you could have done.

REYNAUD: Oh, yes, certainly, certainly. I mean, you know, if we had walked out with our footage, well, we might have had a great documentary but with very little notice, you know. And today, the story is so big and I see the Hmong are, you know, in a way they're glad.

But what I would like to say is, we were released, you know, three of us, but in front of the courts, five people were standing, and today there are still two Laotians staying in prison, and of course we have very little way of pressure, you know, in the Laotian government, to get these people out, and we're really fearing for their fate and, you know, any time they could disappear and be tortured, and this would be very, very difficult for us to help.

But we want to. You know, we're doing everything we can to try to monitor their fate and pressure the Laotian government so nothing really bad happens to them.

MACVICAR: Well, Vincent Reynaud, freelancer, and Andrew Perrin, of "Time" magazine, thank you both for staying up late in Bangkok and talking to us.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues. I'm Sheila MacVicar. Thanks for joining us.

END

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