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Asia's Bird Flu Crisis

Aired February 8, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
And we begin this week with the latest animal-borne epidemic to strike fear around the world, Asia's bird flu crisis.

The human toll from the virus rose to 18 on Friday as two more deaths were reported in Vietnam. 10 countries across Asia are battling the disease. 50 million chickens and other fowl have been culled across the region.

The prime minister of Thailand, where the human death toll stands at five, acknowledges a problem but suggests the media isn't reporting the information responsibly.

So just how big is the threat to humans? And where does one draw the line between responsible reporting and fear-mongering?

Well, joining me now from Bangkok is Jakrapob Penkair, a Thai government spokesman, and Clive Cookson, science editor at the "Financial Times."

First of all, Mr. Penkair, what is the state of Asian bird flu in your country at the moment?

JAKRAPOB PENKAIR, THAI GOVT. SPOKESMAN: Right now it is pretty much in control, I'm glad to report. Among the 76 provinces in Thailand, 75 provinces have been more or less contained, meaning that the first round of examinations have been completed, leaving one province, which is a major one, Bangkok, for one more (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to examine.

We're going to finish all of that this weekend, and at the start of the next week the second round of examinations will be conducted. And after the period of 21 days, in which everyone knows now is the estimated incubation period for the virus that causes bird flu, we are going to declare Thailand either way.

SWEENEY: All right. Clive Cookson, let me ask you, do you believe the Thai government is responsible for brushing this whole matter under the carpet?

CLIVE COOKSON, "FINANCIAL TIMES": I think there's a tendency of all governments, not just in Asia though it's happened in Asia recently because of SARS and bird flu arising in that region, all governments tend to brush diseases under the carpet. African governments did it with AIDS.

And yes, I think in the early stages the Thai government did try to over-calm people and misled, I would say, people in that country and in the world about how serious things were. But I think it's just something I'm afraid that governments do, and I wish they wouldn't.

SWEENEY: Mr. Penkair, is that a charge that you accept?

PENKAIR: The prime minister of Thailand said today in an interview that Thailand had been quite slow in interpreting the results that they were obtaining at the time.

In other words, we were forced to make a tough decision between revealing an unclear message of what it was, whether or not it was flu, and if the choice was just reveal anything to show that we are transparent, regardless of the consequences that might happen.

SWEENEY: How do you care, Mr. Penkair, that you've been treated largely by the international media?

PENKAIR: I believe the media did a job of reporting, but certain media organizations or personalities decided also to instead of reporting, interpreting the nose, meaning that they suggested what should have become of the news, which is by the way day to day inputs and outcomes that happen. So it's quite hard for a media personality at the time to patch these pieces together.

SWEENEY: Clive Cookson, let me ask you. There is a fine line between reporting the facts and whipping up fear about the potential of a disease like bird flu.

COOKSON: I think that we were reporting the fear of people in the World Health Organization. It was the WHO officials who said that if we are unlucky, if this bird flu undergoes a genetic change that makes it transmit much more readily to humans and then between people, then we could have a pandemic killing millions, maybe many millions.

SWEENEY: You do believe that there is a real prospect of avian flu mutating into something else, something more dangerous?

COOKSON: I wouldn't say a prospect. I would say that it's way below a 50 percent change. But even if it was, say, I don't know, plucking figures out of the air, 10 or 20 percent chance, a 10 or 20 percent chance of something happening that would be as catastrophic as a new really virulent flu pandemic is something to take very, very seriously.

SWEENEY: Jakrapob Penkair, in hindsight, is there anything that you could have done differently and certainly in your dealings with the media to have portrayed your work better and the real facts of what was happening in your country?

PENKAIR: Yes. I believe you can reverse time. We should have explained to the public better what we were suspected at the time. But when, like I said, things were unclear, it was quite hard to make decisions to reveal what we ourselves were not clear about. But, yes, I would have explained it, that we were suspecting this, if we would have realized that the disease would go this far in terms of fear and paranoia.

But that couldn't diminish the facts that Thailand had done its best at the time, learning about the diseases in the past years of our records. But for the bird flu, it was the first and fresh experience that no one really knew what we were talking about to make a clear decision.

SWEENEY: All right. Clive Cookson, there we must leave it. Jakrapob Penkair, also. Thank you very much for joining us.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, France's headscarf headache. The outside world wonders what the fuss is all about. That's when we come back.


SWEENEY: It's a dispute that's raised charges of treason and racism, and in some cases both. The issue whether wearing the fullah (ph) or an Islamic headscarf should be prohibited in public schools. A proposed law would ban conspicuous religious symbols, including Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses, from public institutions.

This week, French lawmakers spent 22 hours over 4 days sparring over the issue. French President Jacques Chirac says a law is needed to safeguard the country's secular traditions, but there is little consensus in the French press.

Joining me from Paris to offer some insight is Christine Ockrent, an anchor and reporter with France 3 Television and here in London, Amir Taheri, an Iranian commentator and columnist.

Christine, many Muslims charge that the French press has been very hostile towards them on this issue. What's your view?

CHRISTINE OCKRENT, FRANCE 3 TV: I don't think that's true, frankly. One has to take into account something which his specifically French, which is that secular tradition, which considers that the school has to be a haven, some neutral area, where people can bring in their personal feelings, their personal convictions, their personal faith, that it shouldn't be exhibited, it shouldn't be exploited. And it is true that in France, as you know, with more and more children from first or second immigration, coming mostly from North Africa but also black Muslims from African countries, it has become a preoccupation that some Islamic movements on the one hand and some families in good faith on the other want to change that tradition. And most French people don't agree. They want to stick to this secular tradition.

SWEENEY: Now, Amir Taheri, your argument would be that the headscarf isn't even an Islamic religious symbol.

AMIR TAHERI, COLUMNIST: No, it isn't. It is a political symbol which was invented in 1975. It is based on the headgear that St. Vicente, or St. Vincent, designed for the nuns, and it is very easy for Muslim families to go through their family albums, they see nobody wore it before 1975.

SWEENEY: 1975?

TAHERI: 1975 in Beirut. It's very recent. And Islam is an iconoclastic religion. It has no symbols, because any symbol would be considered as an adversary of God. So the French have not been able to pose the question as a political question. It is a question of Islamism that wants to impose on the faith issue. Not only on France, but on other Muslim countries too.

SWEENEY: But let me quote to you, because perception is often greater than reality, and let me quote to you a line from the proposed legislation, which says "The wearing in state schools and colleges of religious signs or dress through which pupils conspicuously show a religious affiliation is prohibited."

Now most people on the street would think a girl or a woman wearing a headscarf in that fashion, the fullah (ph), is Muslim. They would see it as a religious affiliation as much as a political one.

TAHERI: Yes, but we know a democracy cannot function on the basis of what people think in the street. Many people in the street might think the earth is flat. A democracy does not ban things. A democracy discusses, debates, persuades, finds the reason why are these girls wearing it, because some may have forced them, you know, in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), where life is miserable. So you are going to punish these girls twice, once by the rascals who forced them to wear it and once by the gendarmes or somebody at the gate of the school who forces them to take it off.

SWEENEY: Christine Ockrent, in Paris, is this a very -- is the desire to keep France's secular tradition alive and well taking a very narrow interpretation of the whole headscarf issue?

OCKRENT: No. I agree with what most of my friend, Amir, has said, but you have to note that in our parliament there is now a bipartisan majority to approve that law.

It's a very difficult issue, because as Amir points out, there are girls who are forced to wear the veil because of their fathers or brothers and the family pressure. There are very of them, but there are some, and indeed it is their freedom to say, well, it's my faith and that's what I want to do.

But, again, in France, the tradition goes that the public school is an arena where religion should not step in, whatever religion, and that dates back a century ago. And what will happen probably, as it has happened for Catholic schools as well as Jewish schools, you are going to see probably more Islamic schools where people will send their kids to have specifically that kind of an education, but it will not be within the public system.

SWEENEY: Amir Taheri, let me go back to how this has been covered in the press and the question in put in originally to Christine Ockrent, about how many Muslims feel that the French press is deliberately hostile towards them on this issue. Is that a view you share?

TAHERI: No, I don't think so, because the French press actually is better than the French presidency and the French parliament. In fact, it is beginning to show more democratic maturity.

In my opinion, France is still an under-developed democracy, but the branch that is developing fast is the media, precisely, and maybe the justice system. So the press has been putting the case as best as they could. The problem is that they are not sufficiently informed about it and they have not emphasized the political aspect of all this hijab business. They have assumed that this is a religious symbol and they have gone for it. But I don't think there is a campaign by the French press in the case.

SWEENEY: Christine Ockrent, what do you think of that, France as an under-developed democracy with a press that isn't explaining the entire story about this headscarf issue?

OCKRENT: Well, I wouldn't comment on the kind of democracy that we have, but as far as the media is concerned, and let's stick to that, I think there has been huge coverage. Some people say it's been over-played, the fullah (ph) issue altogether.

But I think it's a way to inform people who are already concerned for the wrong reasons about immigration. You have to remember that in France there is an extreme right, there is a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who of course dwells upon all these issues for all the wrong reasons, with racist undertones.

So I think the press has been doing its job, and indeed there has been more and more coverage about what Amir is talking about, which is the political exploitation of what should remain as a token of religion. So I think the press on the whole has done its job.

SWEENEY: And, Christine, finally, quickly, does it surprise you that this issue is so huge in France while here in Britain women, girls, wear headscarves to schools, state schools, and there is absolutely no problem about it whatsoever?

OCKRENT: Well, Britain, my dear, is a multicultural society. In the British parliament, there is a black baroness who I think was born in Guyana who runs the House of Lords, and it's a community oriented system, and France is not at all into that process, and that's very much the problem.

SWEENEY: All right. Amir, briefly, very briefly.

TAHERI: Briefly, Christine, I think said it, because, you know, 1/3 of the French have a parent or a grandparent who is foreign-born, so France is more multiracial and multicultural than Britain, but doesn't want to accept it.

SWEENEY: All right, there we must leave it. Christine Ockrent, in Paris, Amir Taheri, here in London, thank you both very much for joining us.

It's a chilling story of evil centering around North Korea. A BBC report making claims that the hermit country is testing new chemical weapons on its prisoners, most of whom have committed no crime. The result: a harrowing piece of journalism.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The scientists sit around the edge and observe the experiment from above, through the glass.

The injection tube comes down through the unit and it's attached like this. This is the main door to the chamber. And this is another automatic door.

Normally a family sticks together, like this. Individual prisoners stand here and here, separately, in the corners. I watched a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber. Parents, one son and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying but until the very last moment they tried to save their kids by doing mouth to mouth breathing.

For the first time it hit me that even prisoners are capable of powerful human affection.


SWEENEY: We're joined now by the reported who filed this piece, "Access to Evil," Olenka Frenkiel.

Olenka, "Access to Evil" and axis of evil, Bush administration believes it's an evil society. You believe clearly that there is evil taking place there. Is that where the similarity between you and the Bush administration ends?

OLENKA FRENKIEL, BBC: Well, we didn't initially want to preempt the story with that title, but after we discovered what we discovered, we felt that we had to.

We went there with an open mind and brief words from the North Koreans to try and tell their side of the story, and we did try to tell their side of the story. They showed us the things that they normally show visitors, which is to some degree a fa‡ade. You go to the city of Pyongyang and you're shown a lot of very happy, smiling, well-fed people.

We knew from reports outside of Pyongyang that the situation isn't so happy outside, but we weren't able really to film it or see that. We had to go outside North Korea itself to get a different picture of that country and having explored that, we really did discover something that was truly evil.

SWEENEY: And in terms of the access that you had to defectors and the like, what is the guarantee that what they are telling you is the absolute truth?

FRENKIEL: Well, obviously, as a reporter, I would prefer to see the prison camps that we've described. I'd prefer to see the gas chambers where these experiments are said to have taken place. But that really isn't possible. And in a country like North Korea, which is so closed and so utterly, rigidly controlled, verification of all these things has for many years now been a huge problem.

So I haven't seen these gas chambers. I haven't seen these prisons myself. So the next best thing you have is testimony and what documentary evidence you can find.

Now of course we know from Iraq that testimony from defectors can be suspect, can be exaggerated, and we went to some considerable lengths to filter it through, check it with others, corroborate it with other people's testimony, and check the credibility as far as was possible of eye witnesses.

So if we didn't think it was true, we wouldn't have put that story on.

SWEENEY: Has it occurred to you that a decision was made to go to war with Iraq based largely on information from defectors from Iraq? And do you believe that the West is very aware of what's going on in North Korea but isn't using the information to take it one step further and to do anything about it?

FRENKIEL: I think the situation in North Korea is very different. The only similarity is that it was popped on that axis of evil list.

But there was it now appears quite a lot of interest in an invasion of Iraq long before 9-11. North Korea, I don't think there has been an appetite for an invasion. I don't think there is an appetite for an invasion there now. Therefore, a solution has to be found. I think it was put on that list for a number of reasons that weren't very strategic.

So I don't think the defectors are being used in a political way in the way they might have been in Iraq.

SWEENEY: This program resulted in an article in the "Washington Post" during the week which said, basically, a charge I raised earlier, how do we know that it was true. I mean, you have gone, you said, to the most extreme lengths to find out that it was true and you've had testimony as such, but the wider point of the "Washington Post" article was that in 10 or 20 years time, we can't say we didn't know it was happening because there clearly is evidence that it is happening in North Korea.

FRENKIEL: I think that is the case. If you put yourself in the 1940's and testimony was coming out of what was happening in occupied Europe and you said, well, we can't really prove it and we don't know for sure, now that doesn't look like a very strong position. That's more or less the position that is being taken up now about North Korea.

SWEENEY: And do you have any sense that the work that you're doing might be able to influence politicians, the authorities? Do you believe journalism in the wider sense has that ability?

FRENKIEL: Well, what I'm told from people who are involved, from South Koreans, is that the North Koreans do respond when they are accused of, for example, counterfeiting money, which is what they were doing, for manufacturing pharmaceuticals. There was clear evidence that they stopped doing it or that they scaled it down, and there is a strong belief, I think, among significant people in South Korea, that this film will force them to look at their human rights and start to -- well, to stop doing what they're doing.

Not only that. The North Koreans are very keep on sponsorship. They had a superpowers protection for a very long time and they've lived virtually without that for about 14 years now. They need friends in the world. They want diplomatic relations with the United States. They have diplomatic relationships with Britain. They want to expand those. They want cultural exchanges. All of those expansions of their diplomatic status in the world could be made conditional on an improvement of the human rights record, and with any luck we can only do a little, small amount as journalists. That will help. It will feed into the agenda and it will put a bit of pressure on them to improve that.

SWEENEY: All right, Olenka Frenkiel, thank you very much.

FRENKIEL: Pleasure.

SWEENEY: And that's 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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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