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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired December 6, 2003 - 03:30:00   ET

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

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
The story in Iraq is bleak. No matter which television you watch or paper you read. Whether it's the American or the Arab media, the impact of the daily attacks is taking a toll, eclipsing any positive stories to come out of the country.

For one television station, the job of bringing home the news is that much more challenging. Al-Iraqiya, the Pentagon funded TV station, reaches more than 85 percent of Iraqis, but while nearly all Iraqis can view it, does that mean that they value it?

Joining me now in Baghdad Shaken Assam (ph), general manager of Al- Iraqiya, and here in the studio, Mohamed Chiari, London bureau chief for Al-Arabiya.

Shaken Assam (ph), my first question to you. You reach about 85 percent of Iraqis, but let me put that question to you. Do they value you?

SHAKEN ASSAM (ph), AL-IRAQIYA: I'm sure they do. I mean, we are the Iraqi voice, the new voice and the new media. They do value us.

Also, you know, although if they criticize, that's fine. It's out of love, I think, and appreciation for what we do.

SWEENEY: And let me ask you, how did you cover the recent visit of President George W. Bush to Baghdad?

ASSAM (ph): Actually, that was coverage that was unexpected, because when they told us to cover the event, all they said was the event is planned for Ambassador Bremer with the troops. So we sent our team with a cameraman and a reporter, the regular thing. They went and then they called me around 8:35 Baghdad time, p.m., at night, and they said, "Guess what? President Bush was here and we got an exclusive because not many of the media agencies were there, so ours was exclusive. It's ours. We want to put it on air."

And, you know, due to the difficulties -- it's nighttime and to get to our broadcasting station, it took a while, so I worked with them on the phone, directed them to go to our broadcasting shed where the towers are where we have a studio, and we worked it out together.

They were so excited and they went on live to report what they saw and what was the message of President Bush to the troops here in Baghdad.

SWEENEY: Mohamed Chiari, Al-Arabiya probably was not there because your network has been shutdown for the time being. Is it still off the air in Baghdad?

MOHAMED CHIARI, AL-ARABIYA: It's still shut bureau, confiscated equipment. We're still in contact with the Iraqi authorities and other authorities to try and have our return, because all of the accusation addressed to us and on the basis of which our bureau was shut are unfounded and unreal. We're just another news organization running to make news as objective, as responsible as it could be in the situation that it exists.'

Until now, of course, news is not perfect. The news coming out of Iraq, if we say stabilizing Iraq was not an easy task for the occupation force and it's not easy as well to cover that situation as it has been proven, and many people are unhappy because of what they hear on the media. It's not the angle that they want. It's not the attitude they want.

However, we, like any other international or Arab organization are seeking to cover the story.

SWEENEY: Shaken Assam (ph), Al-Arabiya, by being shutdown, to a certain extent, it's likely to create more interest if not support for Al- Arabiya, and the problem for you, isn't it, that you have great difficulty winning the hearts and minds of Iraqi people while the conflict is ongoing and the occupation is still in force.

ASSAM (ph): Well, I don't think so. I think we don't have that difficulty. I think it's a challenge for us as Iraqis, trying to voice our own voice the way we see it, the way we can reflect the concerns of the Iraqi street.

With my due respect to my colleague, Mohamed, and others who are working with other media satellites, as he said, or as he claimed, that he wants to reflect what the concerns of the Iraqi street or the voice of Iraq, I only would like to ask all the media, all the Arabs, my colleagues, why can't you have both sources of information, incidents, when we have explosions on the streets of Baghdad or any city in Iraq. We are Iraqis who are being targeted, for heaven's sake. Iraqis, our children. Our brothers -- my brothers, my father, my whole family. Why can't we also shed the light on both what's happening?

We are -- we are not -- look, I said from the beginning, it's the greatest task in our lives. It's a challenge. We're only six months old, so we need the help and the support of everybody, but let the Iraqis speak their own voice and let them criticize their own voice.

SWEENEY: Shaken (ph), you say you need the help and support of everybody, but doesn't the perhaps temporary shutting down of Al-Arabiya in Baghdad really only play into the hands of hardliners who are already against you?

ASSAM (ph): Well, no, no, wait a minute. When I said they help - - and I meant it. And I again, I would like to repeat what I said. If my colleagues at the other Arab satellites, if they do tell me what is happening on the streets, exactly what's happening on the Iraqi street, that's what I mean when I say the help and the support of my colleagues in the other -- I'm not talking the shutdown of Al-Arabiya.

This was a decision taken by the authority here in Iraq. I'm not the authority, OK. And I think what we're aiming for in Iraq, yes, to have a free message, a freedom of expression. But we can do it together. Let's not be biased, for heaven's sake. Let's tell the truth. Let's tell the truth down the streets of Baghdad and Samara (ph) and Cut (ph) and everywhere.

Again, I say this is it. That's the way I see it. And that's why I came from the school of journalism telling me that I should be unbiased, I should have two sources, I should be credible. So give us a chance to prove that and support us by not being biased to one side.

SWEENEY: Mohamed Chiari.

CHIARI: I think the Iraqi people are clearly, according to the last census, watching us more. They watch us. We're No. 1 in Iraq, according to the Iraqis, according to research -- allow me, please, Shaken (ph).

But also we are professional. We have a track record. The two sources are, as Shaken (ph) knows, in certain situations, can be privy to some people and not to others. However, we have been reporting things and show me anytime where we didn't show both sides of the equation, where we didn't report only violence, we reported on suffering. We also reported on the government. What the government is doing, what their decisions are and how they are handling or tackling crises, be it security, be it economic or be it human interest.

I think our office work, covering Iraq as well as covering anywhere else, there are restrictions and problems. However, we are doing it to the best professional value that we know. Shaken (ph) knows and respects and works with. However, also we know that there is an issue that certain issues are not likely to please everybody, especially the authority. We never pleased Saddam Hussein's authority when he was there in power and I don't think we're going to please any other authority that is in place.

SWEENEY: Shaken (ph), briefly, how do you think your coverage of Al-Iraqiya differs from Al-Arabiya's coverage?

ASSAM (ph): Well, can I answer Mohamed? Mohamed, as I said, look, I respect every colleague at Al-Arabiya. I respect every Arab colleague I've worked with and I'm really always appreciative of the time we can spend together, for all my colleagues.

I know some circumstances, yes, that is true, as you admitted, but let me go back to the first, to the beginning of your answer. You said the census. What census? How many people have a satellite in Iraq? We don't have a survey. How many were sold in Kurdistan, that's a different thing. But let's go to Baghdad and the south. The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) around the city. I was down the other day in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I counted only nine dishes of an area that covers 400,000 people living, residents.

So again, I don't want to go into that, who comes No. 1. I think that.

(CROSSTALK)

CHIARI: It's the Iraqi people who decide, basically.

ASSAM (ph): Excuse me. Well, they are the ones who decide, exactly. But I'm just saying, we can again -- I would like to say, we are the new voice of the Iraqi voice, of journalism. We're six months old. Don't judge us yet. Don't criticize yet. I would like to hear some criticisms, but we have to work along with other colleagues at different media agencies.

SWEENEY: OK. Shaken Assam (ph), in Baghdad, Mohamed Chiari, here in London, thank you both very much for joining us.

And coming up on the program, Italy's most powerful man just became more powerful. We'll tell you how and why when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SWEENEY: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

Covering and chronicling al Qaeda is one of the toughest assignments for any journalist. The going's on of this murky group are inaccessible to most in the media.

In her new book, "Seeds of Terror," CNN's Jakarta bureau chief Maria Ressa gives an in-depth account of the terrorist cells that exist and operate in Southeast Asia.

She joins me now from our Washington studio.

Maria, first of all, briefly, what prompted you to write this book?

MARIA RESSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot, Finial. I mean, really, this book is a compilation of the 15, 16 years that I've been in Southeast Asia.

You know, when I saw the World Trade Center attack happen, it was a memory for me, and I tried to search back, and in a couple of minutes I realized it was a plot that was discovered in the Philippines. I had covered a bust up of a terrorist cell in 1995. We didn't call it al Qaeda then, but authorities had talked about three terrorist plots then. One was a plot to bomb 11 U.S. airplanes. That got very wide publicity. In fact, three al Qaeda members, including Ramzi Youssef, the 1993 mastermind of the bombing of the World Trade Center, was caught based on that information.

Another plot was to assassinate the pope. And then there was a third plot that no one reported, including myself, and that was a plot -- and this was according to the intelligence documents that I went back through -- it was a plot to hijack commercial planes and crash them into buildings. Among the buildings that were named were the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Sears Building in Chicago, the Trans-America building in San Francisco.

That was the start of it. As soon as I saw it happen, the next day I got on the phone with our desk in Atlanta and I said, you know, send me to the Philippines, because this is -- I remember this.

SWEENEY: Why is there such a high concentration of terrorist camps and cells still operating in Southeast Asia?

RESSA: I think part of the reason is that this part of the world over the last decade, we've seen a growth of democracy. It's moved from strongman rule to democracy and oftentimes what's happened is that that's also caused the breakdown of ordering many outlying places.

There was also a financial crisis in 1997 that hit many of these countries. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population. So it's a combination of an area of breakdowns of law and order, where the military and law enforcement agencies are relatively weak, weak government, weak civilian governments and a lot of Muslim armed groups.

SWEENEY: You also assert in your book, Maria, that capturing and killing hundreds or even thousands of terrorists leaders won't actually put an end to terrorism. Why is that?

RESSA: There have been more than 200 Jemmah Islamia -- this is al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia -- 200 operatives have been arrested since 9- 11, and yet the pipelines of terrorism, the schools, the madras' and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) continue to operate.

So the radical ideology of radical Islam, the ideology of radical Islam continues to be taught to boys of five or six years old, and they go on right up the line. These are the recruitment centers for Jemmah Islamia and al Qaeda and from the schools, what we've seen is that they pick them from the schools an send them on to training -- this was before 9-11 -- the would be sent to training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then they would be chosen -- there would be an elite group that would be chosen to be part of al Qaeda.

And what we've seen, at least in Southeast Asia, is that there have been very, very concrete links that that Southeast Asian arm has also contributed to things like the weapons of mass destruction program of al Qaeda. One of the key members of that is a Malaysian man who is now in custody in Malaysia.

SWEENEY: And ominously, you also say that a second wave of strikes which had been planned for shortly after 9-11 could still be very much in the planning stages.

RESSA: A lot of this information has not been published before. Most of it has been reported on CNN, but it all comes from intelligence documents that I've gotten from Southeast Asia as well as the United States, Canada and other Western countries.

What we know from the interrogation reports of men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Hambali is that they have actually authorized a second wave of attacks. Hambali had told his American interrogators that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad -- this was confirmed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was al Qaeda's No. 3 when he was arrested in March this year. He confirmed that KSM had asked him to recruit more suicide pilots from Southeast Asia after 9-11 and that he had successfully done so.

In addition to that, we also know from the interrogation reports of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad that even as he was planning 9-11 he had simultaneously one day before 9-11 sent an al Qaeda operative to Southeast Asia to activate sleeper cells there, to start the second wave of attacks.

SWEENEY: Maria Ressa, your new book, "Seeds of Terror," thanks very much for joining us on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS from our Washington bureau.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi makes the news in Italy, quite literally. He owns Italy's main private television networks, several daily newspapers and the country's largest publishing house. He also has influence over the country's public broadcasters. And now Italy's most powerful man has just become more powerful.

On Tuesday, the Italian Senate approved legislation that will allow Mr. Berlusconi's media empire to grow even further.

CNN's Rome bureau chief Alesse Vinci has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALESSE VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Retequattro Channel, the Canale 5 Channel and the Italia 1 Channel. They are Italy's three biggest private television stations, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's company, Mediaset, the largest media group in Italy, owns them all.

Mr. Berlusconi is also Italy's largest publisher and the biggest film distributor. As prime minister, he also influences the country's three state TV channels.

Critics say the prime minister today directly or indirectly controls 90 percent of the country's television and the new media law, they say, may give Italy's richest man even more. More leeway to expand his media empire, more influence over public opinion.

ROBERTO MASTROLANNI (ph), MEDIA ANALYST: What is bad about this law is it will keep this situation, as unconstitutional as it is, at the moment, that it will increase the concentration in the hands of these few players, and especially the enterprise of the Prime Minister Berlusconi.

VINCI: The new law allows unlimited ownership of TV networks by a single company and allow a single owner to control both television and newspapers. This means Mediaset, for example, can keep its three TV channels and increase its share of Italy's advertising revenue.

Supporters of the new legislation say the new media law will pave the way for new companies to enter and expand in the future television market. Still, the minister who drafted the law does not deny that under it large existing media companies will keep their advantage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Even the most important dailies in Italy have a great advantage. If you or I start a newspaper tomorrow, it will take time before we reach their level of circulation.

VINCI: What worries many media critics is what they say is the excessive control Prime Minister Berlusconi exercises over television news.

Since he became prime minister more than two years ago, at least two television programs often critical of him have been cancelled. Corrado Formigli, a journalist who used to report for one of them on state broadcaster Rai says many journalists in Italy today feel pressured when they cover stories involving the prime minister.

CORRADO FORMIGLI, JOURNALIST: You can understand what is the feeling of the public television journalist that has got to deal with crucial issues like, let's say, conflict of interest of Mr. Berlusconi or Mr. Berlusconi's trials or this new law on telecommunications, he tends to be very, very cautious, because he's worried about what can happen. And there is a risk of preventive self-censorship.

VINCI: But journalists who work for Mr. Berlusconi's publications say that's nonsense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am not effected at all, because Berlusconi never calls me, never tells me write this or write that. He didn't have any influence on the political line of my magazine. I am completely free of writing what I want. My journalists are completely free of writing what they want.

VINCI: That may be, but critics say pressure exists, and perhaps the most critical evidence of this was earlier this year when Prime Minister Berlusconi caused an uproar when he compared a German member of the European parliament to a Nazi prison guard. Most newscasts only partially reported the story without playing the actual sound of his comments.

Among those not afraid to speak up is political satirist Sabrina Guzzante, who for years has criticized political figures both on the right and left. This time, however, she may have gone too far. The state broadcaster Rai suspended her show after she asked how is it possible that Berlusconi's Mediaset Group kept its advertising revenues high while other media companies saw theirs plunge.

SABRINA GUZZANTE, POLITICAL SATIRIST: I said something that everybody knows is completely true, but that no one says on television, not even on the news.

VINCI: Berlusconi's allies branded the show as political propaganda and Rai, facing a defamation suit worth over $20 million from Berlusconi's Mediaset, pulled the plug.

Guzzante insists it was satire.

GUZZANTE: It was definitely satire, of course. It's normal that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or speak about reality and also give some information, satire has always been mixed with some information. Everyone I assume does, every good one, because you speak about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and you also give some information, especially if no one else does.

VINCI: To be fair, some Berlusconi TV channels do criticize him. In fact, this daily primetime show on one of his TV channels rarely spares him.

So what does Prime Minister Berlusconi say about all of this?

(on camera): Mr. Berlusconi says he is the most hands-off TV owner ever in Italy, but he stops there. He gives no explanation, for example, as to why he failed to solve this conflict of interest as promised within 100 days of his election, now more than two years ago. And it is a question that we have been unable to ask because Mr. Berlusconi virtually turns down all requests for television interviews, including several made by CNN.

(Voice-over): To become law, the bill needs the signature of President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who has the option of sending it back to parliament for further discussion, a measure rarely taken in Italy but not ruled out since the president himself has spoken about the need for diversity in the Italian media industry.

Alessio Vinci, CNN, Rome.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SWEENEY: That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Thank you for joining us. The news continues on CNN.

END

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