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Media Coverage in Iraq and Russia

Aired October 17, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


CHRISTINE OCKRENT, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Christine Ockrent, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
Are we telling the wrong story in Iraq? Many in the Bush administration think so. Some U.S. officials say there is much good news coming out of the country and that the international press ar doing nothing to show it. Now they have ramped up efforts to disseminate their own message.

This week, President Bush granted five interviews aiming to speak to the American people directly. A series of the same letter is also making its round in U.S. newspapers. They're all signed by different American soldiers in Iraq and pain a positive picture about events in the country.

Joining me now, in Washington, D.C., Dana Millbank, reporter with "The Washington Post," and also, in Baghdad, Philippe Grangereau, correspondent with the French newspaper, "Liberation," and Simon Robinson, "Time" magazine Baghdad bureau chief.

Simon, let us please start with you.

President Bush eluded to the filter, which I guess is a polite word to say that the media which are reporting from Iraq are filtering the real picture with their own prejudice. How do you react to that argument?

SIMON ROBINSON, "TIME": Well, first of all, I think that of course the media are filtering the news. It's our job to filer news. All the news coming out of Iraq everyday would be impossible for the American public, or any public, to comprehend, to digest. It's just too much.

I do think also if you read newspapers and magazines, like "Time" magazine, there is a fairly broad picture being painted. Recently we did a story, for instance, on some of the good things that have happened over the last couple of months in Iraq.

So I don't think that it's fair to say that it's only negative news coming out of Iraq.

OCKRENT: It's interesting, though, that "Time" magazine has decided, together with ABC NEWS, I believe, to do more and more in depth stories about the daily life in Iraq, but what can be the yardstick? Because the American people, and, you know, that goes for Europeans as well, know so little about what life in that part of the world really is. So how are you going to actually tell that story?

ROBINSON: Well, the project, I guess, tries to get away from the daily and weekly news cycle and look at ordinary Iraqis and compare them before the war and compare them now -- how their lives are, if it's improved, maybe security is worse but education is better, things like this.

But as you point out, you know, it's difficult for someone sitting in New York or someone sitting in Paris to understand what the life of an ordinary Iraqi was like before the war, although having said that, like people around the world, Iraqis have the same hopes and dreams and expectations as anyone.

So this will be talking to ordinary Iraqis and finding out how life has changed since the downfall of Saddam.

This project, incidentally, was thought about a long time ago, well before President Bush made his recent comments.

OCKRENT: Philippe, you are now back in Baghdad. You were there several weeks before. Do you personally find that the situation has changed in the city and that it has improved? That the daily life of ordinary citizens has been improving?

PHILIPPE GRANGEREAU, "LIBERATION": In Baghdad, in cities, definitely, you see fridges, TVs, in the streets, everywhere, you see people buying stuff. People do have lots of -- business is coming back. Police is back. Life is definitely going on.

And if you didn't hear of the casualties, you certainly, just by driving in the streets of Baghdad, of course, you see American military here and there, but yet it looks like a bit of a normal life coming back, definitely.

OCKRENT: Dana, as seen from Washington, D.C., how do you explain this need for a huge P.R. campaign which the Bush administration seems to be conducting?

DANA MILLBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, the campaign is based on the fact that American public support for the war is dropping somewhere around the 50 percent level now.

The idea of reaching out beyond what the president calls the filter is nothing really new. He has spoken about this before as relates to the economy. And his general view is that the media dwell on bad news, which is correct to a certain extent. We don't spend a lot of time writing stories, saying that no buildings burned down yesterday and the planes landed safely.

On the other hand, the administration has been really -- views anything but its own version of the news going out to be something that is being filtered. The Pentagon has been putting a great deal of pressure on the troops in Iraq to spread good news about what is occuring there, but not to spread the bad news. In fact, some troops have been punished for complaining about morale or the situation in Iraq.

So the administration obviously would say that the media is the one doing the filtering. In fact, the administration is just as eager to filter out bad news and present the good news.

OCKRENT: Of course, that's part of any politicians job, but Philippe, you were just imbedded with some American military. Would you subscribe to what we've just heard? The American military you've been able to talk to, do you feel that they're rather negative or are they more optimistic about their own job in Iraq?

GRANGEREAU: Well, the thing is, I was imbedded for two days, and they let me go on patrol with them. Obviously, when you ask them questions about did you have casualties recently, did you have wounded people, they say we have less and less. But then when you ask them can you give figures, they always refuse to give any figures.

And then they say why do you talk about casualties? Why don't you talk about the good things that are happening? They definitely want us to talk about that.

Of course, there are good things happening. First of all, the casualties apparently really are going down in Ramadi. That is the very small picture that I saw in Ramadi. You have -- they are building schools. They are restarting the electricity. You know, the police are all over, so you don't have looters anymore. This is the good side of the picture.

But still, the yardstick by which you should really judge the situation is how many casualties do the U.S. military -- is the coalition taking, because that is really the issue here.

OCKRENT: OK. Simon, quickly, if I may, do you feel more constrained and more reluctant on behalf of all the Americans you can talk to, you know, military or civilian? Are they more sort of eager to tell you only about the good news? Do you think that they are under pressure from their own authorities?

ROBINSON: Of course, they do want to always point out the good news, and perhaps they get frustrated when journalists come and want to follow the stories of the casualties.

But as my colleague, Philippe, says, the yardstick is the number of deaths, and the fact is that American soldiers are still dying here, and Iraqis are still dying here from attacks by people who don't want this to work. And that's an important story.

OCKRENT: Dana, precisely, do you believe that the number of casualties is definitely now much more important to American public opinion than it was, say, three or four weeks ago, where there seemed to be some sort of acceptance, which has sort of disappeared?

MILLBANK: No. I don't think there's been an acceptance previously. I don't see a change in that. And that's always been the main yardstick in terms of American public opinion -- not necessarily in terms of the media, but that is what is seen here. The number is constantly used, of how many people have died in combat since the president declared on May 1 that major combat was over. I think that has now hit 101 as it in fact exceeded the amount from during the actual combat phase itself.

So part of this is the president had set expectations in saying that we've declared victory in the battle of Baghdad, which has elevated the significance of American troops continuing to die there.

OCKRENT: And you think that in the political mood setting in the country with the presidential campaign slowly gaining speed, do you think it will be more and more difficult for this administration to actually sell its message to the public?

MILLBANK: Well, the interesting thing about this is it's really not a communications problem that the Bush administration has. It's based on what's actually occuring there in Iraq.

If the casualties and fatalities are reduced, if there is a more demonstrable sign of progress, more foreign support in terms of troops, in terms of money, if in general the overall situation improves in Iraq, then the American public, through the filter of the media, will perceive that that has improved, and it won't matter what the president says or what the opposition says, because people will see the truth.

So if things turn out to improve in Iraq over the next year, then the president has nothing to worry about. If things stay at this level, then it will be quite a big concern for him in the election.

OCKRENT: OK. Dana Millbank, thank you very much for your contributions. Philippe Grangereau, of "Liberation," Simon Robinson, "Time" magazine, both in Baghdad, thank you to you both.

Up next on the program, risking life and limb to tell Russia's stories. We look at the dangers facing journalists in Russia.

Don't go away.


OCKRENT: Is the story in Russia becoming too tough to tell? And can reporting it mean risking your life?

Over a week ago, a Russian journalist was stabbed to death. Alexei Sidorov was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper that reported on corruption and organized crime.

Freedom of the press is a thorn in the side of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) all the independent radio and television stations have been or taken over. Many of these are owned or were owned by Russia's oligarchs, whose power Putin wants to restrain.

This week, oligarch and media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky was released by a Greek court, the court refusing to extradite him back to Russia at the request of Russian authorities. They're accusing him of fraud and money laundering.

Joining me now, from Moscow, Marsha Lipman, from the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Chrystia Freeland, who is the deputy editor of "The Financial Times" in London. She is also the author of the book "Sale of the Century."

Welcome to you both.

Marsha, would you say that the freedom of the press is more and more of a fallacy in President Putin's Russia?


The assassination of Alexei Sidorov was a hideous crime, especially so because he was the second editor of the same paper in the city of Tolyatti to be assassinated.

However, this instance is a case in which criminals who Alexei Sidorov and his predecessor were trying to reveal and to investigate their dealings, are taking revenge.

But another problem that Russian press and Russian press freedom are facing today is consistent effort by the Russian government to take press under control, especially national television. We used to have privately owned television networks in Russia that were not dependent on the state. Now we don't have them anymore.

In a matter of 2-1/2 years, three national television networks that used to be privately owned and not controlled by the government were either shutdown or taken over by government structures. Today all national television in Russia is under state control.

OCKRENT: Yes indeed, and Chrystia, there was a very interesting piece in "The Financial Times" today about the man who now runs the biggest television network in Russia, and he says, you know, quite opening, "Oh, but I judge as a citizen what is newsworthy and what is now."

Would you say that we in the free press in our Western countries, we do not tell enough of what is happening in Russia on that score?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, AUTHOR: I do think that when Putin first came to power, there was a lot of sympathy for his perceived efforts to make Russia less anarchic and less chaotic. And there was a view that under Yeltsin, Russia had become a very wild place and that Putin was restoring order.

And I think in the West, and to some extent in Russia, there is a view that Putin was bringing stability, and that that was a good thing. And maybe to some extent that was true.

Having said that, the price has been very, very high, and I think that we do have to start talking about Russia as a country which is going backwards in terms of civil society, in terms of an open society, and there is a real risk that Russia is moving towards a quiet authoritarianism.

OCKRENT: Marsha, would you say that it would help you, in Russia, if the Western media were indeed dwelling more on your working conditions, on the threat of your lives, and indeed just your freedom of expression? Would it help or would it make your situation worse?

LIPMAN: I think to begin with it is really important that more is written about my country. I think any person of any country wants his country to be written more about, and I think it is important for the world to know more and for the world leaders to know more, to be more informed, to take better decisions.

Talking about my own situation, talking about the situation of journalists here in Russia, I wouldn't say frankly that it would help their cause very much if more is written about the situation with press freedom in Russia.

The thing is that unless the Russian society really cares about press freedom, there will never be press freedom, whether or not it is written about in the Western press. And today what we see in Russia is a lot of indifference and apathy regarding liberal values, freedom of the press in particular.

When the Russian government has taken television under control, what we have today is not fear on the part of the TV managers. It is a ready and eager compliance and cooperation with the authorities. They regard themselves as partners of the Kremlin, eager to cooperate and to cover things the way Kremlin sees fit, or not cover things that Kremlin does not want to be covered.

OCKRENT: And I guess it will get worse and worse as the elections are coming about, December and then next year, presidential election.

One last question to you, Chrystia. The fact that most newspapers would belong to the oligarchs, who of course had understood that it was a way to impact public opinion. With the ongoing fight between President Putin and these people, does that mean that there is less and less of a chance for Russian public opinion to indeed be able to exist as such?

FREELAND: Yes, I do think that's the case. I think that what we've seen in Russia really is a question of what kind of a society does Russia want to be. Does it want to be a society where the public space is dominated by the state? And that is very much the direction in which Putin and the Kremlin seem to want to push it. Or does it want to be a society in which, yes, the reality is, you do have these oligarchs. You have a very small group of people who are extremely wealthy and absent the state role, they will play a very powerful role as well.

OCKRENT: Except that the question is not put to the Russians the way you are putting it. They're just not being asked that very question.

FREELAND: Absolutely not, and the one opportunity they have to voice their views, elections, is precisely the moment when we are seeing in preparation for those elections that the opportunity to express opinions is being limited, and so these press freedoms, you know, sometimes when we speak about them, they can seem very abstract. You know, it's just intellectuals talking about intellectual things, but in Russia, press freedoms are very real and they are fights about economic power, and right now as we approach parliamentary and presidential elections, the press is being controlled and is being restricted because Putin and his people want to make sure they remain in power.

OCKRENT: Chrystia Freeland, Marsha Lipman, thank you very much to you both.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Christine Ockrent, in London, thanks for joining us.



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