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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 1, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
In this edition, we're going to gaze into a journalistic crystal ball and predict the future. What will the big stories of 2004 be? You may be surprised.

But first, we begin with a look back at the hard facts from 2003. And some of them are just that, very hard facts indeed. According to the watchdog group Reporters with Borders, 42 journalists died in the line of duty last year. The Committee To Protect Journalists, using slightly different criteria, puts the number at 36. But both organizations agree it was the deadliest year for the profession since 1995 and the war in Iraq was the most dangerous assignment.

Well, joining me now, from Paris, Jean-Michel Boissier with Reporters Sans Frontieres, and from New York, Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee To Protect Journalists.

Ann, my first question to you: Iraq really did count for the really high number of journalistic deaths in the past year.

ANN COOPER, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: Absolutely. Of the 30 deaths that we counted, 13 of them were in Iraq. Most of those were foreign correspondents, you know, who were there to cover the conflict. They, you know, ran afoul of combat situations, suicide bombings and the like.

There was one, though, Iraqi editor who was killed at his office and, ironically, this was after finally decades of stifling censorship, his newspaper had been freed. Somebody didn't like what he wrote and came and killed him as a result.

SWEENEY: Jean-Michel, in Paris, is, generally speaking, reporting getting more dangerous given the exception of the Iraq war?

JEAN-MICHEL BOISSIER, REPORTERS SANS FRONTIERES: Well, actually, this year has been a black year. This is exactly the title we put in our roundup today or two days ago and actually we were more or less hopeful in the last years, because the figures of journalists killed were going down, and this year -- and I'm not counting only the Iraq war. The situation has worsened, not only because the journalists have been killed in the Iraq war or elsewhere but because there's been a high level of physical attacks and threats on journalists.

We counted more than 400 journalists attacked and threatened in the whole world. This means that the situation is getting worse, war excluded, if you can understand.

SWEENEY: And in the work that you do, I mean, do you believe that you're getting your message across to the relevant authorities about journalists internationally?

BOISSIER: Yes, it depends. Yesterday or today a journalist has been released, Ali Al-Morabat (ph) in Morocco. He was a correspondent and he was in jail for the last six months. He was condemned to four years in jail. He has been released along with five or six other journalists. So we have good news, sometimes, and this is good news. But we have bad news, especially in Asia, especially of course in Iraq and elsewhere in this region.

But sometimes when we scream, when we holler against people putting journalists in prison or threatening them, something happens and along with CPJ (ph), we have good results in that field.

SWEENEY: And, Ann, do you believe that you have good results, as Jean-Michel says, in this uphill battle?

COOPER: Yes. The pace that he just mentioned, Ali Al-Morabat (ph) in Morocco. Many press freedom organizations worked very hard on that case and the cases of other Moroccan journalists who were in prison last year. When we do concentrated advocacy, it can certainly pay off.

I would say that the difference that we see over the last couple of years is not just, you know, things like war and conflict in Iraq but a general change in the atmosphere since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since the conflict in Afghanistan. Since the war in Iraq.

We see more repressive governments finding it easier to crackdown in the name of fighting terrorism or citing national security, saying, you know, we must crackdown on this, we must restrict you for these reasons.

So it's really created a different atmosphere in many parts of the world that is not only making it easier for the repressive governments to act against press freedom, but also seems to be silencing some great defenders of human rights who are not speaking out in the way that they used to to defend press freedom.

SWEENEY: And, Ann, let me ask you, on that note, how difficult is it then for you to get justice done as you would see it for those journalists who are killed or injured?

COOPER: Well, in the cases of the journalists killed, you were noting at the beginning the difference in the numbers on the list that we and Reporters Sans Frontieres put out. You know, one of the major factors in why we come to slightly different conclusions is because when journalists are murdered, and I'm not talking about, you know, the combat deaths in Iraq, but when journalists are hunted down and murdered in the Philippines or Russia or Colombia, there's almost never a police investigation, so we're investigating on our own, from Paris or from New York. And, you know, people are not brought to justice in these killings. We've got to put together the information in what are often very murky cases and in the absence of any real official investigation.

SWEENEY: Jean-Michel, let me ask you, who is most at risk in your view?

BOISSIER: Today I would say it would be journalists in the Philippines. It's a very risky business. Being a cyber-journalist in China is very risky business. Being, of course, a journalist in a war wherever is a very risky business. So there's only some countries where being a journalist is not a risky business, like in Scandinavia or, of course, in France.

We published last October some ranking of press freedom in the world and it's funny to see that, for instance, France is the 26th ranked. The United States are in the 41st or 42nd rank. That means -- it's exactly what Mrs. Cooper said. The situation in the last two years made the situation worse, that is including the free countries are getting worse in this field because of the threat. I mean, they use the threats to put pressure on the freedom of the press.

SWEENEY: And, generally speaking, Jean-Michel, would you say that it's harder to see justice done?

BOISSIER: Oh, yes. That of course is our point and is very important for us. That's why we try to help the lawyers in countries where journalists have been, you know, killed or put in jail, but this is very important for us. To help justice to be done in countries where it is not done. And so we do all we can along with the other organizations to have justice in these countries.

You know, you can't do that in North Korea, of course, but you can do that in Ivory Coast or in other countries.

SWEENEY: Last year, Jean-Michel, according to your statistics, 42 journalists were killed, many as a result of the war in Iraq. Now without seeing an immediate war like that on the horizon in 2004, do you expect it to be more or less dangerous for journalists?

BOISSIER: Well, actually, what you can say today is that more than 120 journalists are (AUDIO GAP) today, which is a bad figure. 61 Saudi dissidents are in jail today and threats are continuing against journalists in all these countries, like Colombia, like Philippines, like China, like all these countries. So what we can say is that we don't see any reason for these countries to be fairer to journalists.

You know, there's an anecdote now, the Tonga king in Tonga closed the last independent paper on their tiny island. There are three Saudi dissidents in jail in the Maldives islands. Can you imagine that? So, for example, we (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for the freedom of the press. We are trying to get people released, but, you know, it's a never-ending struggle.

SWEENEY: All right, and on that note, Jean-Michel Boissier, in Paris, thank you very much for joining us.

BOISSIER: Thank you.

SWEENEY: And Ann Cooper, in New York.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, we'll turn out attention forward. What are the big stories? Where are the dangers? And what are the rewards in 2004?

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Will it be a Michael Jackson trial, the summer Olympic games, a terror attack or something completely unexpected? What will be the biggest story of 2004?

Joining me now are some people in a position to make an educated guess. Mike Jeremy is managing director of ITN International, based in London, and Nick Wrenn is managing editor of CNN, also here in London.

Mike Jeremy, when you look ahead at the beginning of the year to what is going to unfold over the next 12 months, how do you begin to plan?

MIKE JEREMY, ITN: I think often the biggest stories of the year are the completely unexpected ones, but nonetheless you can pick out some major events this coming year -- the American presidential elections, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the expected beginning of transfer of power in Iraq -- and you can begin to pick up some of those as the big stories that you're going to have to apply resources to.

SWEENEY: And, Nick, what about the unexpected story that pops up out of nowhere and you've already spent your budget for the year?

NIC WRENN, CNN: Well, hopefully, you keep some back for a rainy day. You can always look in the diary (ph) and look at the big events and plan accordingly.

Last year, it was a strange situation in that we knew at some stage during the year that there was going to be war, and you know, how many times can you say that. This year, who knows where the story is going to be. We're certainly not going to keep people back because of budgets, but we need to plan accordingly and you certainly need to have something back for a rainy day.

SWEENEY: And what about the fun stories? And I say that knowing that the Michael Jackson trial is going to be a very serious trial, should it come to that, but it will be a story that the public will be very much interested in. How would you plan on covering that, for example?

JEREMY: I think you have to cover a broad agenda. You have to serve the interests of people and the Michael Jackson story, as you say, will be an enormous story. There will be a lot of interest in that. We'll have correspondents at the trial and we'll cover it in that broad agenda balanced alongside other stories.

SWEENEY: Now, as Nick was saying, Mike, last year you were able to say we know the war in Iraq is coming and you were able to plan accordingly. Looking specifically at Iraq now, what do you see the resources that a company like yourself will need?

JEREMY: It's interesting that you say that, that we knew the war was coming, and indeed that looked highly likely. But we didn't know if it was going to be a short war or a very long war or quite what level of resources would need to be applied.

Equally, we don't know whether by the end of this year will there be peace in Iraq or more internal strife and internal conflict. So making those judgments ahead of time is difficult, which is why when you structure a budget for news gathering, you have to be flexible. You have to be prepared to move resources to fit the changing news agenda.

SWEENEY: And, Nick, does that mean that there's more moving around at the beginning -- towards the end of the year, rather, than at the beginning of the year?

WRENN: I'm not sure it works like that, but in the case of Iraq, you obviously know that it's going to be such a huge story, the country is so finely balanced, it could go either way. We obviously need to be committed to covering that story throughout the year and beyond, so, you know, just because -- we're not going to say we're going to withdraw our people because the money has run out. You know, it's a story that CNN has to cover. It's a question of just looking at news priorities throughout the year.

SWEENEY: And how does it effect how CNN covers the entire region, because it's not just Iraq, it's also the story of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and in terms of deploying resources, how often does the story on the ground and its longevity, as you might see it, predict how you're going to cover the entire region?

WRENN: I think flexibility, again, is the key, that reporters know that they need to be able to pull up stick and leave and go to the next story at the drop of a hat, and that could be somewhere else in the Middle East, it could be somewhere else in the world. We just need reporters and producers and camera crews who are able to do that and are professional and experienced enough to do that.

SWEENEY: And what are the challenges, Mike, that a company like ITN faces from other broadcasters, other print media, for example. I'm thinking specifically here of the "Independent" journalist who (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

JEREMY: Right. I don't think that that really is a threat to traditional broadcasters, if you like. I think the competition is more from between the major broadcasters.

I think the "Independent" has sent up their own Web sites, a valuable extra voice in the media marketplace for people to choose from. I think people have to treat them with caution. I think you have to be able to make a judgment as to whether people are reporting with a bias or not, if the information they've got is accurate.

But the fact of the matter is with new technology people can reach a very wide audience on their own. I think it is in principle a positive thing. There will be good journalism and bad journalism amongst that, but it does democratize the process and I think that should be encouraged.

WRENN: I'm delighted that there are more and more people out there who are using the Internet and expressing their views and that people have such a wide variety of sources to draw their news from. I think people are very intelligent and know when a story might be rubbish and when it might not be.

One of the most interesting things for Iraq last year in my point of view was reading the Web log of Salaam Pax, the guy in Baghdad who was writing on his computer while everything around him was exploding and falling down. Fascinating insight into life in war zone which we couldn't have got from anywhere else.

On the other hand, a lot of these blogs, Web logs, people's own sort of insights or diaries, leave me cold. To be honest, I find them very, very boring. That's not to say that they're not important. I think they are an important source of gauging public opinion and also in some cases an important source of news.

SWEENEY: All right. So let me ask you both to look into your crystal ball and see where the stories are going to be in 2004.

JEREMY: That's always difficult. I think the most interesting stories often come out of the blue, but I think the areas we'll look at closely will be an exciting presidential election. They often turn out to be closer and more interesting than people expect. I think we'll be looking at the changing situation in Iraq, which I suspect will look very different, for better or worse, in 12 months time from now, and the Middle East peace process. We all hope that we'll be closer to a peace settlement then than we are now, although perhaps the evidence of recent months doesn't suggest we'll be there.

I think those three areas will be fascinating.

WRENN: I think those are important areas for CNN as well. Personally, I'm also looking forward to the Olympics. I think that's a terrific circus and the example of Sydney 2000 has left us all anticipating Athens 2004 and there are so many different angles you can use for the Olympics. It's security, it's the business of the Olympic games, it's the big media circus that goes along with it. It's even, you know, will the thing be ready on time, and that's before you even get down to the sport.

SWEENEY: And another topic that we've touched on on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS has been the recent opening of the inquest into Diana Princess of Wales. Now, Nick, you mentioned the word rubbish and that you were glad that people were able to discern between what would be good journalism and bad journalism, but there are many people who will remain convinced no matter what that Diana and Dodi Fayed were murdered. How will you begin will cover that? What is expected to happen over the next year or so is that there'll be leaks into the inquiry, into the investigation.

WRENN: Again, that's an extremely difficult one to predict. You know, who could have foreseen last year what would have happened with the royal family. You know, it's such a crazy situation at the moment and the stories that are coming out of St. James's Palace and Buckingham Palace, fueled by the tabloids, are just really, really hard to second guess.

The royal family for me is an enigma, really. I can see that people are very, very interested in what they do and I have no doubt that we'll have some great big banner headlines as well to follow up on and some stories of our own to break, hopefully, with them, in 2004.

SWEENEY: And, Mike, how do you think people in Britain care about that story?

JEREMY: I think some people care a great deal and some people don't care at all. We get letters and calls about the royal family and people wanting to see more coverage of the royal family. Other people treat it as a little bit of a turn-off. We treat it as we see it on news values. We report their activities a lot and we'll be following the Diana inquest as it moves on very closely indeed.


SWEENEY: Go ahead -- Nick.

WRENN: I mean, for CNN, there is an enormous international interest in the Diana story and the royal family as a whole. It's not a story we're going to ignore.

SWEENEY: And speaking of news values, we might mention, Nick, are there stories sometimes that one feels that must be covered that perhaps aren't -- because the public wants them, rather than because of perhaps their intrinsic news value?

WRENN: Again, it's about striking a balance of news, information and entertainment, and you know, there are always some stories -- for CNN, because we have such a wide, diverse audience in so many countries, some of whom for whom English is not their first language, the challenge is always to get a broad base of stories and explain why they're important to an international audience.

And it's very hard to get a run down which will meet the taste of every single viewer. It's about getting a good balance of important stories, interesting stories, and something a bit fun as well.

SWEENEY: And Mike Jeremy, finally, when you look at the Michael Jackson saga developing on the West Coast, do you look at it and say we'd better cover this or, gosh, we really want to cover this?

JEREMY: I think we really want to cover it. It's a story that is of interest to our viewers, that they think matters, and I think we want to meet that interest and do a good job on a story like that.

SWEENEY: All right, Mike Jeremy, Nick Wrenn, thank you both very much.

And that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next week for another look at how the media are handling the big stories.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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