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Journalism in New Iraq

Aired January 11, 2004 - 21:00:00   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, a media circus followed her every move in life and the frenzy continues six years after Diana Princess of Wales died in a Paris car crash. And we begin with a look at the state of journalism in the new Iraq. A good description of Iraq entering the new year might be tenuous. Things are working, but in many cases, only just. There seems to be tenuous military control, a fledgling democracy, the beginnings of an economy and journalism too is making inroads, to an extent.

Joining me now to talk more about the challenges facing both international and Iraqi journalists in the new Iraq are Jane Arraf, CNN's Baghdad bureau chief, who is here in London today, and Maggie Zanger, country head of Iraq for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.

Jane, first of all, you have been covering Iraq for many years. What changes have you noticed in covering journalism stories in Iraq in the last six, seven, eight months or so?

JANE ARRAF, CNN Baghdad BUREAU CHIEF: It's probably gotten a lot harder, Fionnuala.

I remember thinking after the war, when we had this incredible situation where here was a country that was one of the most closed countries in the world, extremely difficult to cover, we could go anywhere, talk to anybody, go into virtually any building and I remember thinking that was a window of opportunity that was not going to last, and it didn't.

There are much more military controls now. There are much more controls by the governing coalition. People get more upset. It's getting really quite a bit more difficult.

SWEENEY: Maggie, let me ask you a question about the Iraqi journalists that you are dealing with and trying to educate in the norms and standards of international journalism. What has struck you?

MAGGIE Zanger, INSTITUTE OF WAR AND PEACE REPORTING: Well, there's just -- Iraqi journalists are facing enormous problems here, of course. The largest problem being that there was absolutely no culture of free media in this country whatsoever and people are just, they're unmoored. They have no idea where to begin to practice journalism.

All journalism before was very propagandistic. It was all in service of the state. And so people really have no experience whatsoever. So we're facing structural problems, such as the legal system. We're facing the mindset of people. Iraqi journalists are really trying to find their place and trying to figure out how to maneuver in a free environment, and it's very difficult for them.

SWEENEY: And can you give us a specific example of that which you're talking about?

ZANGER: There's many examples. I mean, from a structural standpoint, the legal system has got laws that do absolutely nothing to assist journalists. The libel law is extremely broad. You can be charged with libel for almost anything. Now this hasn't been enforced that I know of of late, although Kurdish journalists in the north, who have been operating under the legal system freely for 12 years, have faced a lot of problems with this.

On the ground, they're faced with problems of having no history of really reporting. Journalists were always told what to do, what to write, so there's little culture of going out and reporting. And as Jane said, double checking sources, double checking information, using multiple sources. This is a very new environment.

And we have found the best luck in training journalists actually is with people who have no experience whatsoever and training them from the very beginning to be good and hard digging journalists.

SWEENEY: Jane, Maggie there mentions the legal system. Now, how is that evolving for journalists in the new Iraq?

ARRAF: Well, the legal system is something that eventually is presumably going to be a problem once it does develop. Right now, it is essentially fairly lawless. You basically do, to be perfectly honest, whatever it is you can do within the confines of the situation there. If there are soldiers telling you you can't do something, you have no real recourse. You can't go to a lawyer and say, "Well, yes we can."

Essentially, it is considered still a war zone. Legal issues don't have a lot of bearing on what we're doing at the moment anyway, but presumably they will.

SWEENEY: So is it better or worse since the war?

ARRAF: I would say it's better in the sense that people have learned how to operate in that system. The coalition authorities are getting a tiny bit better at organizing things. The military has learned a lot better how to deal with the media.

But worse in the sense that the security constraints are so rigorous that it is extremely hard for Western journalists, particularly television journalists, to get out there and get those stories.

SWEENEY: And, Maggie, in relation specifically to Iraqi journalists who have perhaps a history of self-censorship under the old regime, how difficult is it for them to operate in the new regime, where we have seen instances of the coalition authorities closing down some newspapers, for example, that they consider to be writing articles that are an incitement to violence?

ZANGER: Well, there are papers who are inciting violence and there are television stations who are doing the same and it's a very delicate situation right here.

And it's very hard to find any kind of balance between gross censorship and kind of protecting a difficult situation. I mean, I'm certainly not apologizing for the kinds of censorship that we've seen at the hands of the CPA and the military, but people need to learn also I think a sense of responsibility and journalists do face problems in getting access, not only -- I mean, if foreign journalists have a problem, certainly local journalists have a far worse problem trying to get access to the U.S. military, to spokespeople, also to local governing council and ministers.

There is, again, there is no culture here among government officials of working with the media, and so journalists say it's a much more difficult time, really, Iraqi journalists on the ground and foreign journalists even.

SWEENEY: And, Maggie, in your efforts to foster an independent and fledgling journalism profession in Iraq, how does that differ from the experiences of your organizations in other countries, for example the Balkans, I'm thinking of.

ZANGER: Well, I haven't worked specifically in the Balkans or in other countries, but from other trainers I've talked to, it's a very similar kind of situation.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting always works in post- conflict societies, and so a lot of the problems we are facing here today, coming out of an authoritarian regime, coming out of a very long and difficult conflict, a lot of the problems are the same. They really aren't that much different, which is why I think this organization is quiet well- placed to deal with and to try to maneuver through these kinds of problems that we're seeing here.

SWEENEY: Now, Jane, you've talked about international or Western journalists and the difficulty they face with access, particularly television journalists. Can you give us a specific example or give us a sense, really, of how difficult it might be to cover a story where you know something important has happened and yet you can't get to it?

ARRAF: Well, on the most basic level, that's essentially what happens every time there is a large explosion or an attack. For example, the downing of a helicopter in Fallujah that we went to.

When we arrived on the scene, and we were some of the first to arrive on that scene, we were told by the military that there was no way we could be in that area. We had to clear out. We had to go back. Otherwise we would be in danger of -- they didn't say it, but essentially what they meant was we would be in danger of being caught in a crossfire, and that has happened in cases, because when something first happens, they really don't know who has attacked them and they are extremely tense.

In that case, you really have to make an effort to stay. I mean, you determine that it's relatively safe, but you have to try to make an effort to stay, and that involves negotiating with the soldiers or figuring out exactly where you can be physically, figuring out how dangerous it is. There are just so many factors now that come into play when you're trying to cover something like that because it is so volatile.

SWEENEY: And of course, because the situation is so volatile, as you say, the danger is that you end up covering the violence continuously rather than other stories, and this is a point that the United States was making quite loudly, specifically Paul Wolfowitz earlier, a few months ago, when he was saying that the media in general weren't focusing enough on the success stories.

Is that something that has changed or indeed has the situation itself changed there?

ARRAF: I think a little bit of both, because they were very persistent in hammering home that message in what is really quite a heavy- handed way. From the White House to the Pentagon, they will call up, they will tell you every day you're not doing the good news stories.

Now, a good news story might be the opening of a school versus three soldiers dying in an explosion and the American public particularly I think would be ill-served if we were focusing on exclusively or focusing largely on the opening of the school that may have opened but may not have students in it because they can't get there because of the security situation.

On the other hand, things have gotten better. Security has improved. Crime is down a little bit. There are some things that are getting better, and it's reflected in the stories.

SWEENEY: Maggie, I saw you nodding your head there during Jane's answer. Do you have any thoughts on that?

ZANGER: Well, I'd just like to say I do think that the Western press by and large focuses on the violence and isn't focusing enough on the smaller stories, on the daily -- there's a zillion stories out there, which is what our trainees are very good at getting at. They're not very good at covering breaking violence. They don't have the kind of access that, say, CNN would, but they really are very good. They're very close to the ground, and they're covering very well more local stories, the stories that really are of interest to the Iraqi people and should be of interest to people in the United States and in Europe that I think by and large are not getting to them.

SWEENEY: Maggie Zanger, in Baghdad, Jane Arraf, here in London, thank you both very much for joining us.

ARRAF: Thank you.

SWEENEY: And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, it is an elite club: Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Diana, Princess of Wales seems to have joined the ranks of celebrity whose media profile only rises with every year after their death. We'll examine the continuing media fascination with Diana after this short break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

A British coroner this week opened an inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, sparking an intense media blitz.

It wasn't the first media uproar since the princess died in a Paris car crash in 1997 and it surely won't be the last.

London's "Daily Mirror" newspaper caused a stir by releasing an extract from one of Diana's letters in which she speculates her former husband Prince Charles might try to kill her.

Most authorities think that and all the other conspiracy theories are rubbish. And the very next day, the "Mirror" joined them with a banner headline, "Stop the Lies," which gave them another chance to spell out what all the lies are.

Joining me now are Robert Jobson, royal correspondent for London's "Evening Standard," and Ross Benson of "The Daily Mail."

Ross, this inquest caught many in the British media by surprise even though we all knew it was coming.

ROSS BENSON, "THE DAILY MAIL": We all thought it was going to be an open and shut case, that the coroner was just going to give the verdict. The next thing we know, he is inviting the British police to reopen the investigation into the causes of Diana's death with the inevitable consequence that this ends up on the front page of every newspaper in the United Kingdom.

SWEENEY: Between now and when the inquest resumes, presumably.

ROBERT JOBSON, "EVENING STANDARD": Well, inevitably there's going to obviously leaks coming out. Everyone is going to be speculating what the report is going to be saying, but the fact that Scotland Yard are actually going to have to investigate it, spend millions of pounds, has already been criticized by former Scotland Yard protection chiefs. There's going to be criticism of that.

And, frankly, I don't know what else the coroner could actually do. If he had actually just said -- open and shut it and said we're going to read the report and effectively regurgitate what the French inquiry did, he'd be accused of a whitewash, so he couldn't really win one way or the other.

SWEENEY: And is he going to win even now, because a coroner's inquest isn't exactly a trial. No one is on trial. No one is going to be found guilty or such.

JOBSON: Inevitably it's going to come back with a verdict of accidental death. I can't really see the point of the whole thing.

BENSON: I'll tell you who the loser is in this, it's the royal family, because anytime any statement that the coroner takes from any member of the royal family is inevitably going to get people saying, "Ah, there must be something in this." And there are a lot of people out there who genuinely believe that there was a conspiracy and, like Robert, I think it's absolutely nonsense. She was killed by a drunken driver. But that's not going to change people's minds.

SWEENEY: And what does it say about Britain as a nation that almost seemed to be getting over Diana's death and seemed to have sort of put it away, almost, and now it seems to have come right back on the front pages.

BENSON: Well, she has a remarkable ability to disrupt the lives of many people, including, of course, most significantly, the royal family, from beyond the grave, and will, I imagine, continue to do so for many years to come.

SWEENEY: When we say that the royal family is the loser, specifically we're talking about Charles, really, whose had a very rough week in the press.

JOBSON: He said himself, it's been very difficult time when he was on a public engagement. But if your ex-wife is writing notes saying that he's behind a plan to kill her in a car crash, it's bound to come out eventually, it's inevitable that he's going to have a very bad time.

I think it is really quite appalling that you've got Paul Burrell on the one hand, going around and saying I never wanted this note to come out, after he actually showed it to "The Daily Mirror." I think it gives hypocrisy a bad name. All he wants is to cash in on his book.

SWEENEY: But if he had come to you, for example, and the "Evening Standard," would you have been able to turn that letter down?

JOBSON: Absolutely note. It's a wonderful letter. But for him to complain about "The Daily Mirror's" actions is the hypocrisy, I think. I mean, the mere fact that Pearce Morgan (ph) printed it, why not. It's been asked for in the inquest by the coroner. It's relevant to the whole thing. Why not? I think it's a good story.

SWEENEY: OK. So, Ross Benson, you're saying that this isn't going away and that she isn't going away, Diana herself, but at the same time, the media isn't really doing very much about it either.

BENSON: There is a public fascination with Diana. There is a public fascination with the manner of her death. All the newspapers do is reflect that interest.

SWEENEY: But if both of you journalists who are very experienced journalists and are very well-known in this country believe that she did die in a car cash, why would other people in the media continue to brood on it?

BENSON: We have tried, not just myself, but everyone else involved in this kind of business, have actually tried to put the case that she was indeed -- there was nothing peculiar about the manner of her death, tragic as it was. People just don't want to believe it.

There is something -- there is a fascination which Diana exerts, and I think a lot of people are finding it very difficult to come to terms with the idea that she may have actually just died a mundane death. She was far too riveting, far too fascinating, for people to accept that something so ordinary could happen to her.

SWEENEY: And it's been said time and again that if they had been wearing seatbelts, they may not have died.

BENSON: If she had been wearing a seatbelt, she'd be alive today. If she hadn't got into the car with a drunken driver, she'd be alive today.

SWEENEY: How much has Mohammad Al-Fayed had to do with continuing and keeping this story in the headlines?

JOBSON: 100 percent I would think. His camp has been spinning stories about conspiracy theories from the very beginning. He's the one who has effectively profligated these theories continually. I have every sympathy for Mohammad Al-Fayed for losing his son, but the reality is that continually putting these stories out in the public domain and raising these questions, all it's doing is having a very damaging effect upon, I would have thought, the royal family and would be quite hurtful for Princes William and Harry.

SWEENEY: Does he believe in the independence of the coroner?

JOBSON: I think Mohammad Al-Fayed is, to be fair to him, has obviously had a lot of conversations with Diana before she died, and it's bound to be the case that if she was writing these notes to herself or to Paul Burrell or to whoever, she would have been expounding these things to him, and he probably believes in his heart that they were murdered, but that doesn't mean it's true, and I don't think it's helpful in any way.

SWEENEY: Does he have any further recourse legally in this country should the inquest not go the way he would like it?

JOBSON: He's got very deep pockets and you know how lawyers like to spend other people's money, and I'm sure if he has any possible legal recourse, he'll continue to spend that money and do so after the inquest.

SWEENEY: OK, Ross Benson, let's go back to something else that was very notable in the media. We had, you know, one eminent professional talking about how Diana could not have been pregnant. He had, quote, "seen into her womb." I mean, this must be quite unprecedented for the royal family to stomach and to read over their newspapers. Is this in any way a new departure?

BENSON: I think it's very wounding for the royal family, but it's also very damaging not only in the immediate short term but in the long- term. If you speak to anyone in this country under the age of 35, the royal family is now either irrelevant or a joke, and that has been achieved primarily, I think, by Diana in the space of the last 10 or 15 years.

They have -- she succeeded in turning a venerable institution into a joke.

SWEENEY: But the media has played a hand in this. I mean, there would have been a time, maybe 40 or 50 years ago, not even so long, perhaps, when the media would not have printed stories that might have been unfavorable.

BENSON: But 40 or 50 years ago, someone like Diana could not have existed. She is a reflection of the times. She is a creature of these times. And I suppose we reflect our times.

SWEENEY: Reflect them or promulgate them?

BENSON: No. If the public were not interested in Diana, we wouldn't be writing about her. We are only in the marketplace to reflect what our readers want to read about.

JOBSON: I would say -- I agree with Ross on a lot of that, but I would say that the royal family did their best to cause their catastrophe themselves. If they had actually -- if Prince Charles had behaved slightly differently, if he hadn't had these affairs with Camilla Parker Bowles, if he'd actually tried harder in his marriage with Diana, if Diana had been embraced by the royal family instead of rejected, perhaps they wouldn't be in this position now.

BENSON: I think that's absolute rubbish. I think that here is a woman who behaved in a totally irresponsible way almost from the offset, that had an uncanny ability to convince millions of people that it wasn't her fault. If she had behaved properly, none of this would have happened.

JOBSON: Equal if Prince Charles had behaved properly, it might not have happened either.

BENSON: And thee is the fascination of Diana. We can even have an argument about it now.

SWEENEY: Well, it almost goes back to the whole thing, the separating conspiracy from fact, and certainly given the circumstances of this car crash, the conspiracy theories I mean are really quite outlandish. How difficult is it for a journalist, particularly in the British media, to separate fiction from truth?

BENSON: Well, I have my view about what happened. I think Robert has his view. In fact, if you listen to us quite carefully, we probably are actually talking along the same track.

I don't think in this particular case, when we're talking about her death, that there is a particular problem in trying to separate fact from fiction. I think the facts speak for themselves.

It was a very unfortunate tragedy, but there's nothing sinister behind it.

SWEENEY: And what about parts of the world where, I mean, there are certain parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, that will refuse to believe anything other than that she and Dodi Fayed were murdered.

JOBSON: I think that's all coming down to Mohammad Al-Fayed initially spinning these stories. We've had obviously the relationship between the Western world and Middle Eastern world is difficult at the moment. The reality is I think that if you look at the facts, if somebody was actually trying to assassinate the princess, surely they wouldn't do it in a car crash in a tunnel on a journey that only a few people knew they were going to take anyway. If you're going to kill someone, surely it's a point of entry or a point of departure. And, after all, there was a survivor in the crash. If they had been wearing seatbelts, probably both Dodi and Diana would have survived too.

SWEENEY: Did you ever have any doubts, particularly after the crash, as to what might have happened?

JOBSON: None whatsoever. I feel if -- I've driven through that tunnel at speed, actually, in a convoy. And it's on a bend. There's those concrete pillars. If you're driving at 60 miles an hour -- and they're saying he was driving at 100 miles an hour -- but 60 miles an hour on those and you lose control, and you're drunk, it's not surprising they died in that crash.


BENSON: I absolutely agree. It was a tragic accident. She should never have got into the car. If she hadn't dismissed her royal protection officers, who were Scotland Yard trained, they would not have allowed her to get into that car. It was her decision to get rid of the royal protection squad officers and the consequences were the tragedy that unfolded six years ago.

SWEENEY: And finally, gentlemen, do you believe that this inquest will put an end to the matter once and for all?


JOBSON: I think it will go a long way towards doing it, hopefully anyway.

SWEENEY: All right. Both of you, thank you very much indeed.

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

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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