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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 21, 2004 - 03:30:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, 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, covering a critical election in Iran, which some politicians and some media are barred from taking part in; tackling anti- Semitism in Europe, how bad is it and are journalists simply fixated on it. And that photo of John Kerry and Jane Fonda, why the real story is even more interesting than the fake one.

We start in Tehran, where journalists are having to find new ways of covering the parliamentary elections, at least some journalists, because the last major pro-reform newspapers in Iran were banned Thursday by the judiciary. Journalists outside the country, some of them, are having a difficult time gaining access as well.

Joining me from Washington is the "Washington Post's" Robin Wright. She won the U.S. National Magazine Award and all sorts of other awards for reporting from Iran. She's been published in the "Los Angeles Times," "Washington Post," "New Yorker" and all over. Also, she's written a book about Iran. And from Tehran, journalist Gareth Smith. He's been there since December as the "Financial Times'" correspondent.

Let me turn to you first, Gareth, and I want to talk about this press thing first, because you've reported that, and others, of course, have, that the last two major pro-reform dailies were closed down ahead of the elections. What is the media climate right now there?

GARETH SMITH, "FINANCIAL TIMES": I'd say people are cautious. The two papers concerned broke an order from the Supreme National Security Council not to process extracts from a letter written by reformist MP which directly criticized the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They crossed a red line and as a result were closed down.

AMANPOUR: Is there any thought that they'll be opened again? Is this a slap on the wrist or is this another in, let's face it, a continuing assault on reform press there?

SMITH: Well, as far as we know it's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for some time. It may be that the papers will reopen at some stage under different names, or it may be certainly that this is the end of them at the moment.

But I don't think we should underestimate the letters from the deputies did break with fairly well-established precedent and fairly well- established tradition in Iran. Whoever else you criticize, you shouldn't criticize the supreme leader. They broke a taboo and they paid the price.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to you, Robin, because you have really been watching and reporting from Iran for years and years and years and perhaps I should say now that both you and I are trying to get into Iran and have had little success over the last few months in applying for visas.

What do you think they're saying by that, even though we still hope to get in? And what do you make of this closing down of the two pro-reform Iranian newspapers?

ROBIN WRIGHT, AUTHOR: Well, the press freedom in Iran is clearly one of the most important issues. It's the most important forum for the reformers to get their word out. So the closing down of these two papers and several other papers over the last seven years really has been a hallmark of the conservatives in their attempt to squeeze the reform movement and limit its ability to reach to an ever-wider audience.

In terms of why certain long-standing experts on Iran in the American media have been restricted or have not been given visas recently, I suspect it reflects this sensitivity inside Iran about the way Iran is portrayed to the outside world.

You have your own Iranian heritage. I've been going to Iran since 1973. I've seen all faces of Iran, both before and after the revolution, and I think there is a concern about people who know enough to try to put this current extraordinary moment in Iranian history into perspective. This is, after all, the end of an important era, one of the greatest experiments with democracy in the Islamic world, and the hardliners attempt to abort this movement, undermine it, squeeze it, prevent it from flowering, plays out both at home and to the outside world.

AMANPOUR: There are many people who do believe that this is the funeral for this latest experiment, which was the experiment with democracy. What are the young people there telling you? What are the people on the streets telling you about how they feel about this political moment in Iran? Are they hopeful?

SMITH: I think one point that's very, very important to understand is that there isn't a sense in this country of a political crisis. Most Iranians that you talk to in Tehran and elsewhere have left the political system behind. The argument that's going on between the reformists and the conservatives is an argument within a political system that nice people aren't interested in.

I've never covered an election in which there has been so little discussion of the economy, so little discussion of jobs, so little discussion of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The debate about press freedom, the debate about politics, is a debate in a very small part of the society.

AMANPOUR: Robin, let me ask you, because you and I both covered the extraordinary upheaval when reform was ushered in, '97, 2000, 2001. Is it -- are you surprised that there isn't more popular discontent about this, that people are sort of laissez faire about this assault on the parliamentary process, for instance?

WRIGHT: I think a lot of Iranians have seen it coming and are not surprised by the hardliners disqualification of candidates, yet again the clamp down on the press. I think there's been a shift.

When I said it was the end of era, it was the end of an attempt within government to change the system. I think increasingly now you're going to see Iranians who have been exposed to these ideas and who do back them in strong, extraordinary numbers, look to try to change the system from without, to change the way they lead their own lives, the creation of civil society. Perhaps the press may not be the leading vehicle for it, but there will be other attempts to change from within.

AMANPOUR: How do you see that playing out, though? I mean, do you see a further crackdown after the elections or a grassroots flowering of democratic movements? I mean, how do you see the post-election period playing out?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, it's very difficult to tell, but I suspect that you will see groups trying to form to create their own little interest groups that address the immediate issues in their lives. I don't think Iranians are gong to be passive about it. There's too much involvement. There's so much discontent among the young people.

The student movement is clearly the most dynamic element of society, but there are also a lot of other groups, whether it's the filmmakers and the message they relay in their movies, that the hardliners are not going to be able to curtail the movement. They may be able to disqualify people from being involved in government, but not in society. In extraordinary ways, there is still ability to express the message that underlines Iran's broader political movement.

AMANPOUR: Gareth, let me ask you, do you see it the same way? And also, you're there. How do you think this basically political crisis, plus a pending nuclear crisis, is gong to play out in the next few days and weeks?

SMITH: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the same, and I think the dilemma for the reformists is basically this. It did give (UNINTELLIGIBLE) system, which is Mohammad Khatami, the president, is trying to do. But when yu go outside the system and try and build up support and a different kind of approach within society at grassroots level, that is a very, very long-term strategy to achieve change.

And there is, as you say, an external factor as well. There's the way that the outside world, and particularly the USA, is reacting to Iran and is, as Iranians see it, putting pressure on Iran, since the Bush doctrine of the axis of evil two years ago. And that's putting pressure on the system and on the politicians as well.

AMANPOUR: Well, I wish we could talk more about this really important story, but we're running out of time on the satellite, so I would like to thank you Gareth Smith, "Financial Times," joining us from Tehran. And, of course, Robin Wright, for all your insights. Thank you very much from Washington.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, is anti-Semitism on the rise again in Europe? European leaders think so, but what about the press?


AMANPOUR: The monster of anti-Semitism is here with us again. That pronouncement comes from a prominent Jewish leader at this week's seminar on anti-Semitism, being held in Brussels.

The European Union organized the conference to address concerns that anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise across Europe. Critics, though, accuse the European media of being unable or unwilling to present an honest picture of Israel. But is that the same as anti-Semitism? What challenges do journalists face writing about Israel these days?

Joining me to help answer these questions is Melanie Phillips, a columnist with Britain's "Daily Mail" and Jonathan Steele, the chief foreign correspondent for the "Guardian" newspaper.

Let me ask you first, Melanie, is there anything to the accusations that the European press is anti-Semitic?

MELANIE PHILLIPS, "DAILY MAIL": I think there is something, and it's at the same time important not to exaggerate it. Clearly, journalists are entitled to criticize anyone, including the fate of Israel, and clearly journalists make honest mistakes.

But I think there is a line beyond which I think it's quite clear that something else is going on, the systematic misrepresentation of Israel, so that it's attempts at self-defense are constantly presented as aggression; the systematic purveying of lies and libels, for example, the Jenin Massacre that wasn't, no real attempts to correct it afterwards; the use of terminology such as Israel is an apartheid state, which is clearly false, or even worse, a Nazi state, which in my view is a kind of demonization.

And what we have is a kind of systematic attempt, I think, to delegitimize Israel completely and dehumanize it, which goes far beyond what (UNINTELLIGIBLE) applicable or right.

AMANPOUR: Jonathan, you've reported from there. Do you agree with Melanie's criticism of the press on Israel? And how difficult is it for a journalist to get it right when reporting about Israel these days?

JONATHAN STEELE, "GUARDIAN": Well, I wouldn't agree with Melanie when she says there is a systematic attempt to delegitimize Israel. I think that's finding a conspiracy theory that isn't there.

I think I would say that the coverage of the Middle East is actually much more balanced than of most other conflicts currently going on in the world, partly because access is amazingly easy. If there's a suicide bomb in Tel Aviv, you can get there very quickly, you can talk to people. If there is some Israeli strike in Gaza that kills a lot of civilians, you can get there very easily. So there is amazing access to both sides of the argument for foreign journalists.

I think the trouble is that the participants themselves don't talk to each other. Very few Palestinians can have a real dialogue with Israelis, or vice versa.

PHILLIPS: I think -- I've never covered this as a reporter, I have to say, as I yield to Jonathan. But I don't get the impression that it is easy to cover both sides in Israel. It's very easy to get access in Israel. Israel is a very open democracy. It is not easy to get access to the Palestinian side and to the Arab side. The Palestinian side is open to journalists on their terms so that one has to accept their terms, and sometimes those terms have involved, as I have been told, intimidation of journalists. You know, if you report what you have just seen, you will never have access again, or worse.

That, to me, is not open access on both sides.

AMANPOUR: I'm sure Jonathan would.


STEELE: You can come back with a classic argument, give me the chapter and verse on that, because I've certainly not heard anything as dramatic as you are saying.

AMANPOUR: How much of what we see now in the public debate can you trace directly to the current saturation coverage of this extraordinary and appalling conflict that has reached such unprecedented levels of violence and suffering on all sides? I mean, how much of the commentary and the so-called anti-Semitism or anti-Israel can be directly linked to the emotions that are generated by that? Let me ask you -- Jonathan.

STEELE: Well, obviously emotions are very strongly generated, and I think the fact that there has been a lamentable increase in anti-Semitic attacks, violent incidents of one kind or another, in Europe, particularly a place like France, comes from French Arabs, and they obviously feel very emotionally about what is going on with the Palestinians.

So there is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to know that. But I think this whole debate in which the European leaders have been having to face this is a debate which effects European Jews as well and probably American Jews too. I think there has been a bit of a conspiracy of silence by Jewish people in the Diaspora about not criticizing Israel. There is always a feeling among the big American Jewish organizations that you must not criticize Israel. That's somehow letting your side down.

The European Jews, I think, have been more independent as it were after the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the Israeli government and have been more critical. But I think there is this whole idea that if you're a Diaspora Jew, are you somehow a second class Jew because you haven't made the sort of Zionist (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I think that is all part of this debate too.

AMANPOUR: And just let me ask you about the very real images and reality that's going on in Israel and Palestinian territories today. How much do you think that influences the things that you're concerned about?

PHILLIPS: I think it influences it a great deal, because I think people are certainly -- in Britain, I don't know about Europe, but in Britain, people are extremely ignorant about the history of the Middle East, the history of Israel and indeed about the present.

STEELE: Let me say that I don't think that argument takes into account the huge historic shift there's been in Palestinian thinking towards accepting Israel's existence within the 1967 borders, not beyond them, where as in the past the Palestinian line was we don't want Israel here at all, the whole of the Zionist state is an aberration, et cetera.

I think there's been a huge shift, and I don't think that is taken onboard sufficiently.

PHILLIPS: I personally don't think there has been a shift. There's been a shift on the surface. When you look at what Palestinians are teaching their children, that Israel doesn't actually exist, even on their maps, when you look at their flags, their insignia, their whole literature, their discourse to themselves, Israel isn't there at all.

AMANPOUR: I wish we could continue this conversation. It is one of the most difficult for all of us to grapple with. How do you report this whole dramatic, emotional, political, violent situation in a way that doesn't create these kinds of debates, which are very heartfelt.

Thank you both very much for joining us, Melanie and Jonathan. Thanks so much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the art of the fake photo. That picture of John Kerry and Jane Fonda at the same anti-war rally. Did it happen? Why did so many people fall for it?


AMANPOUR: Welcome back.

It was designed to look like a moment in history. Jane Fonda sharing a stage with John Kerry at an anti-war rally in the early 70's. But Kerry is now a candidate for the White House and some sharp-eyed observers smelled a rat.

This photograph is in fact a forgery, combining separate pictures of Kerry and the Hollywood actress. A cut and paste job. It was falsely credited to the Associated Press. It was originally circulated by a conservative Web site.

Joining me to discuss this was the sharp-eyed man who smelled a rat, the photographer himself who originally took the picture of John Kerry. That is Ken Light.

Thank you for joining us, Ken.

What on earth did you think when you saw this?

KEN LIGHT, PHOTOGRAPHER: Wel, I was completely mystified. I was very upset. It was just hard to believe that this could happen in this day and age. Well, maybe it cold happen in this day and age is, I guess, the point.

AMANPOUR: What did you do? Who did you call? How did you know where it had come from?

LIGHT: Well, there were various different, fortunately, media people investigating and it was actually floating around the Internet for days before I even knew what had happened, and then when it was brought to my attention, obviously, I immediately went to my photo-agency, Corbis (ph), to say, you know, what was happening.

They fortunately were aware of it and at that point the lawyers got involved.

AMANPOUR: So tell us exactly, you took the original picture of John Kerry.

LIGHT: That's correct. In 1971, I was a 20-year-old photographer photographing America, the anti-war movement and other activities during that period. I went to a political rally, anti-war rally, in New York. John Kerry was a young man just back from Vietnam. He was one speaker among many. I photographed him.

That photograph disappeared into my archives, which are now some- 33 years old, and just recently in the last couple of weeks I pulled that work out, realizing there was this young man, John Kerry, and made some prints, sent it to my agency in New York, where it sat in their online file.

Someone discovered it, obviously, and it went from there.

AMANPOUR: Wow. And who did it? Who did the forgery?

LIGHT: You know, they're still investigating. I mean, this is something the lawyers are doing. I think both the Associated Press lawyers, who are very upset, and also the lawyers from Corbis (ph).

This isn't the type of thing that a photo-agency or a photographer is very happy about.

AMANPOUR: So what was their aim? What was the point of this?

LIGHT: Well, you know, it's really hard to know. It's hard to know the originator of this hoax, whether they were just having a good time and sent it out to a friend and with the Internet, as you know, there is absolutely no filter like ourselves, you know, journalists who are really critical in looking at the issues and thinking about things, and it went from there.

I assume it just kind of hopped through the Internet. Someone grabbed it -- or numerous people grabbed it. I can tell you the conservatives in America felt like they had the smoking gun. There was Hanoi Jane standing right next to John Kerry, and that became the big story. They were so happy, very gleeful. In fact, there are some people who still don't want to let go of it, still think that it's a real photograph.

AMANPOUR: And is it now off the Web site? Is it done and dusted and gone?

LIGHT: No, it's not. There is still a Web site, I believe based in Washington, D.C., that actually still has the photograph up and in fact not only has the photograph, but has a whole series of drawings with circles showing -- trying to prove that in fact the original photograph is the hoax photograph and my photograph, which just shows John Kerry, is actually the hoax.

So they haven't really let go of it yet. They really want to have John Kerry standing next to Jane Fonda, even though it is a complete lie.

AMANPOUR: So now they're accusing you of having airbrushed out Jane Fonda.

LIGHT: That is correct. They are accusing me of that, and in fact in their Web site they are asking me to send the negative to the "Washington Times," a conservative newspaper in Washington, or the "Wall Street Journal," so that the negative can be tested, to make sure that the negative is actually from 1971 and also to make sure that it's real.

It's kind of a very, strange, bizarre twist on this story.

AMANPOUR: My goodness. But it also gives you an idea, doesn't it, of the intensity of the people who wish it was real.

LIGHT: Yes. There's a tremendous intensity with this. They do want it real. And it simply isn't real. And it raises then, you know, the whole issue of what does a photographer do. You go out, you see, you try to tell a story. You make images and then somehow with this new technology we have the amazing possibility that our images can be changed, which is I think quite scary.

AMANPOUR: Why don't you just sort of bring it into the court system and sue them?

LIGHT: Well, I think that's what's going to happen. The lawyers are working on that. I think that part of the story is a very slow process.

It is a copyright violation. I own the copyright. The lawyers are pursuing it. But, you know, the law is always much slower than is the media. The media has been great in trying to, you know, get this story out into the world, that it is a hoax. The fringe media, on the other hand, isn't always necessarily interested in the truth.

AMANPOUR: Truth and impression. And on that note, we leave it. Thank you very much indeed, Ken Light, for joining us.

LIGHT: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: 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 Christiane Amanpour, in London. Thank you for joining us.



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