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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 24, 2004 - 03:30:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we exam how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
In this edition, a kinder, gentler George W. Bush in his State of the Union address. We'll look at the world's reaction to this speech. And we begin this week with concerns over a journalist missing in Pakistan.

Khawar Mehdi Rizvi was arrested December 16 along with two reporters for the French weekly "L'Express." Pressure from the French government eventually led to their release, but Khawar Mehdi, a Pakistani, has not been seen since.

CNN's Islamabad bureau chief Ash-har Quraishi picks up the story.


ASH-HAR QURAISHI, CNN ISLAMABAD BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): Earlier this month, a Karachi court suspended the six-month sentence for "L'Express" journalists Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau. Convicted of violating their visa restrictions, they paid a fine and were allowed to return to France.

But Khawar Mehdi, the Pakistani journalist working with them, who was also arrested, has been held incommunicado by unknown government agencies since mid-December. While authorities in court continue to deny Mehdi is in custody, government officials we spoke to have acknowledged his detention and say he has confessed to a more serious crime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was involved in certain activities which is against the law (UNINTELLIGIBLE), giving wrong impression, giving -- misleading the foreign journalists and getting money and damaging the country and damaging the country image. I think this is a very serious thing.

QURAISHI: Still, Mehdi's family says they want to know what has happened to him. They've filed a petition in court for the government to produce him, so far to no avail.

"We just want to know if he's alive," he says. "We don't know what condition he is in physically or mentally. Is he being tortured? To prove this story they have concocted, they arte playing with a man's life."

The story has been closely followed in the local media. Even Pakistan's president has offered an opinion in the case.

"Some French journalists were making a fake film on the Taliban with the help of a freelance journalist here," he says. "What were they paying him? $2,000? He should be ashamed of himself, ruining the country's image for $2,000. I would have given $3,000 not to do it."

Human rights activist Henna Jalani (ph) says what's happening to Mehdi is flat out harassment.

HENNA JALANI (ph), HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: The way that the government has used its tactics of intimidation as an example for others has silenced people. There is self-censorship. There are people who have changed their profession. There are people who have had to flee the country because of this type of harassment and intimidation.

QURAISHI: Mehdi's attorney says his guilt is not at issue for under Pakistan law, regardless of the accusation, citizens must be produced before a court within 24 hours of being arrested.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is being denied his basic rights without any reason, justification and evidence. He is being detained illegally and unlawfully.

QURAISHI: International human rights and media organizations have called for Mehdi's immediate release.

(on camera): Authorities maintain that Khawar Mehdi is not in their custody. For now, his exact whereabouts and condition remain a mystery. More than a month after his disappearance, Mehdi's family and colleagues are still demanding answers and justice from the government.

Ash-har Quraishi, CNN, Lahore, Pakistan.


AMANPOUR: I spoke earlier this morning before we recorded this program with the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. His opinion of Rizvi hasn't changed. He is angry about what the charges accuse him of doing, but he did say that he would ask his people to look into the case and find out where Rizvi is.

Joining me now, from Paris, Is Marc Epstein, correspondent with France's "L'Express," who was arrested along with Rizvi in December.

Marc, thank you very much for joining us.

So, what happened? We know the Pakistani government version of events. What happened, and why hasn't your Pakistani colleague been seen since?

MARC EPSTEIN, "L'EXPRESS": Well, the last time I saw Khawar Mehdi, he was sitting in the lobby of the hotel that we were in, in Karachi. He appeared to be talking with a friend of his. That was 45 minutes before our own arrests, on December 16. And he simply hasn't been seen since.

AMANPOUR: Have you specifically asked for his family to be notified or for him to see a lawyer? What representations have you made to the Pakistan government?

EPSTEIN: Well, I personally cannot make any kind of representation to the Pakistani government. I chair a committee of concerned international journalists who in the past have worked with Khawar Mehdi, but his family, his brother specifically, has filed a petition for what is called habeas corpus in the courts in Pakistan.

The law in Pakistan says that you cannot be detained beyond 48 hours without being charged, and our belief is that Khawar Mehdi is being detained. The reason we think that is that he has been shown several times on television since December 16, so therefore we certainly think he is being detained, but the police authorities have told the courts repeatedly that they are not detaining him. So the mystery is complete.

AMANPOUR: What happened in terms of why were you guys arrested? I mean, obviously there's what you guys say and then the Pakistanis, who presumably are detaining him, say that he was involved in a sham documentary, paying actors, they told me today, to pretend they were Taliban. They say they have on tape, you know, instructions on how these actors were told to hold their guns and this, that and the other. How do you refute that? What do you say to that?

EPSTEIN: Well, you know, it's difficult for me to talk about this. My own personal opinion is that General Musharraf is one of the most remarkable leaders of Pakistan in recent history. But I think in this particular case, his information must be partial, because his description of Khawar Mehdi simply doesn't match the facts. It doesn't compute, if you like, with what I know of Khawar Mehdi.

Khawar Mehdi is a patriotic Pakistani. There was never any question that he and I would report from Pakistan. The reason that we went to this area is that there are increased operations that are being led by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan and in southeast Afghanistan, and I asked Khawar back in the spring or the summer of 2003 if he thought it would be possible to link up with the group of Taliban operating in that area.

My notebook, which is now in the hands of the Pakistani authorities, the video which -- the very short video that we made over there, all of that, I think, proves that I certainly was under the impression, and I think rightly so, that I was in Afghanistan. There is no mention of Pakistan. And Khawar Mehdi is not the sort of journalist who would dream of making up a report, especially a report to give a bad image of his country.

I remember in the fall of 2001, when hundreds and hundreds of Western journalists were flocking to Pakistan after 9-11. If anything, Khawar was actually quite upset with part of the reporting. He felt that a lot of Western journalists were giving a bad image of Pakistan, that because they were in Pakistan at that time, they were just using this time to put out reports.

It's not his style. Khawar is a first class journalist who's worked with "The New York Times," who's worked with the best French media. He's been a correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune." He's simply not the sort of journalist who would do this sort of thing.

AMANPOUR: So they have your notebook and they have your tape. Obviously, this tape is being used by the Pakistanis as well, because they quoted it to me. But when they had you under arrest for many weeks, what was the backbone of their accusation then? What do they say to you?

EPSTEIN: What we were told is that we were charged with a visa violation. The Pakistani authorities have been issuing for the past year now restrictive visas to visiting journalists. Journalists, in theory, are limited to visiting three towns that are in the east of the country. I say in theory, because in practice hundreds of Western journalists have been reporting and you only have to open a newspaper or to watch television to see that -- have been reporting from places in the west of the country, in places like Peshawar or sometimes the border areas themselves.

So I did actually try to obtain an extension to my visa. That was impossible. And that's what I was charged for, and ultimately that's why we were sentenced, my French colleague and myself, to six months in jail and a heavy fine. That was then converted into simply a fine two days later, and we left the country on January 16, if my memory is correct.

AMANPOUR: Well, Rizvi is still unseen certainly in terms of his family or lawyers. We have asked President Musharraf, there can be no higher authority in Pakistan, to see where he is, and he has said that he will do that, so we will certainly take him at his word.

Thank you very much for joining us.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the White House reaches our to foreign journalists covering the president's State of the Union address. We'll see if that made any difference to how the speech was received abroad next.

Stay with us.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

With the United States the only remaining superpower, the president's annual State of the Union speech is now scrutinized as America's agenda for the world. It traditionally deals largely with domestic issues, but September 11 changed all that. We've since had the declaration of an axis of evil and a more aggressive tone towards America's enemies. And, of course, last year it was the case for war with Iraq. But this year's speech was more measured.

CNN's senior international correspondent Walter Rodgers looks at some of the reaction.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): George W. Bush. A State of the Union address, talking about a dangerous world and making that world safer. It was the TV and radio news lead across much of Europe the morning after.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three years to the day since he took office, George Bush has used his State of the Union address to defiantly defend the invasion of Iraq.

RODGERS: Europe recognized the American president used this constitutionally-mandated speech to launch his reelection bid. They did not, however, buy into his claims of a strong economic recovery in America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would probably be putting my money outside of the U.S. economy and putting it right now into sterling or into euros.

RODGERS: European currency markets and stock exchanges did not react. There was little concrete in what the president said, at least on the economy.

He was, however, specific on Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day and conducting an average of 180 raids a week. We are dealing with these thugs in Iraq just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein's evil regime.

RODGERS: Still, skeptical European analysts responded reminding Mr. Bush he went to war to find weapons of mass destruction and found none and he has documented no links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda terrorists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the Europeans globally and the French in particular will be probably disappointed, hoping that they would have heard something else.

RODGERS: Also disappointing in Europe, the fact President Bush ignores the explosive Israeli-Palestinian issue. Too explosive, they say, in an election year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Perhaps the most important thing, really, is a sense of relief that we have no more talk of the axis of evil. There seem to be no more adventures that the world is going to be drawn into.

RODGERS: So however pleased Mr. Bush may have been with his own performance, Europe's only consolation seems to have been that he did not signal any new military action against Syria, Iran or North Korea.

Walter Rodgers, CNN, London.


AMANPOUR: And Walter joins me now from our London bureau, along with Christian Malar, who is the foreign affairs analyst for the French TV France-3, in Paris and also James Harding, the correspondent for the "Financial Times," who joins us from Manchester, New Hampshire, where he is covering the Democratic primary race.

First let's start with Walter. You have covered elections since the 1960's. How does this one in 2004 stack up?

RODGERS: It's going to be unusually divisive, very expensive, and it's not predictable at this point.

AMANPOUR: In terms of what we were discussing, the sort of reach out, if you like, from President Bush, how was that viewed? Did that go down well or were there still complaints from other parts of the world?

RODGERS: Well, you know, as I watched the president's speech and read it and studied it, there was something for everybody to dislike in Europe about that speech.

Look at how many times he referred to God and faith and God and faith. You could just feel the French flesh cringe every time that he did that.

You know, the one thing that both the American media by and large and the European media missed was the fact that this man is going to spend the United States into a $5 trillion budget deficit by the end of this decade. I mean, that has overwhelming implications, and all we talked about was foreign policy, Iraq War, patriotism and so forth.

But the American budget deficit -- when George W. Bush took office, there was no deficit. He got $125 billion surplus. At the end of this year, it's going to be $500 billion deficit. At the end of the decade, $5 trillion. We can't even think in terms of those figures, but the Americans can't sustain that.

AMANPOUR: James Harding, let me ask you. You work for the "Financial Times." Those are big financial numbers there. Was that something that you or your paper focused on? Or was it more of the international feel to the speech?

JAMES HARDING, "FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, to be fair, I think it is something we focused on and actually fed to the American press. I think people have been writing a lot about the deficit and George W. Bush's profligacy and the whole question of how come he inherited a government which was in the black and he's going to go to the polls with a government which is so severely in the red.

I think this has been an issue. What's curious about it, and I think on this front what is right, it hasn't captured the imagination of the American voters. I mean, out here in New Hampshire, I was just at a breakfast with Howard Dean this morning, and he comes straight on to the podium and wants to talk straight away about the budget deficit, and you can sort of feel that this may appeal to hardcore Democrats in New Hampshire, a fiscally conservative state, but it's not the kind of thing that is firing up the Democratic election. It still is Iraq. It still is the war on terrorism. And it clearly is jobs.

AMANPOUR: Let me move to Christian Malar, who's in Paris. Does a year make a big difference? I mean, this time last year, let's face it, Presidents Chirac and Bush were head to head, locking horns. This was a major problem between the countries relations. Did France get anything positive out of the State of the Union address? Did it read something different into Bush's tone?

CHRISTIAN MALAR, FRANCE-3 TV: Christiane, the answer is no. A lot of French high-ranking officials told me, did you see the reaction in the United States? It was not very well weighted, they told me.

It is the same here. I think the French authorities did get the impressions that there was a sort of real scorn for the Europeans, for the French, at a time when President Bush said again it's clear we are not going to ask permission of anybody when we have to defend our own security and we are not going to care about the reactions of a few number, a few countries.

And at the same time, the French were a bit surprised that there was such ignorance of the United Nations at a time when we saw recently Paul Bremer coming to see the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and telling him that they would like more involvement from the United Nations inside Iraq at different political and economic levels.

And so United Nations foreign allies, especially the Europeans, have been totally forgotten in this speech, which was, according to the French, dedicated to an American audience without caring about what was going on outside of the United States.

AMANPOUR: Wow, I'm surprised to hear you so categorical on that, Walter, because Christian is saying no, that they sort of got no reach-out from Bush there. And yet we heard from the White House that the tone this year was designed to be much less aggressive. Of course, there is no war to build a case for. That he was talking about diplomacy this time, where it was pretty much military last time.

RODGERS: Well, there's solace in this for the Europeans in the fact that he couldn't produce any weapons of mass destruction, he couldn't produce any hard links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

You know, Europe can take some consolation in all of this. Also on one other fact. No axis of evil, as two years ago; no war with Iraq, as last year in State of the Union, and you want to know why? The American military is so badly over-stretched, particularly because of its commitments in Iraq, the United States can't fight a war anywhere now.

So Europe can take some satisfaction in the fact that the American military is just over-extended. There isn't going to be any more war. The United States budget can't afford it. The taxpayers can't afford it and the military doesn't have the resources.

AMANPOUR: No more war, says Walter Rodgers. At least not this year.

RODGERS: Maybe after the election.

AMANPOUR: That's a pretty good prediction there.

James Harding, how do you see this -- yes, go ahead.

HARDING: I was just going to say, I frankly agree with Christian. I thought it was a good point.

There is something about this White House, that style is often the exact opposite of substance, and this year the style was we're reaching out to the international community, and it worked in this way: for the first time, foreign reporters were being invited into the White House to watch the president give the State of the Union speech on television with White House staff. They e-mailed out excerpts of the speech in advance so that the international community knew what was coming.

And this was because back in 2002, when the president stood up and made that axis of evil speech, many people felt blindsided. Not just the enemies of the United States, but the allies who then had to go out and defend this policy.

AMANPOUR: Just one last question to you, Christian, after this year of living acrimoniously, if you like, France has sent senior officials to meet with the Bush administration. Your defense minister, President Chirac's senior diplomatic advisor. Is there a thawing, despite the antagonism?

MALAR: It's clear the French want to make steps toward the United States and it's clear also that if there is no move before the 30th of June, before the transfer of power to Iraq, before the French (UNINTELLIGIBLE), that if there is a move, they will try probably to go with the United States and try to help, because President Chirac and the French authorities don't want a failure of American policy in Iraq. It will be a failure of the occidental world, and nobody wants to hear about that.

So I am sure that we can expect, and it's inconceivable that we don't have side by side on the D-day, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, on the 6th of June on the Normandy Beaches, President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, Chancellor Schroeder and President Chirac, and the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth. And I think it might be maybe before, but that day might be the start of a real reconciliation, because everybody is aware of the fact that we have so many common challenges to face and we have to be successful in a more and more difficult and unpredictable world. This is clear.

AMANPOUR: Well, there's an image to end with. Gentlemen, all, thank you very much -- Christian Malar, James Harding, and of course our own Walter Rodgers. Thank you very much.

And that is 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 Christian Amanpour. Thank you for joining us.



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