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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 27, 2004 - 19:30:00   ET


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin in the Middle East, where Israel's killing of Hamas's spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is drawing international criticism. Though the Bush administration says it is deeply troubled, it did veto the United Nations resolution condemning the killing. In contrast, most of the Security Council supported the motion.

Israel's policy is being debated around the globe. Joining me now to talk about the differing Israeli perspectives, Brett Stephens, editor of the "Jerusalem Post," and Akiva Eldar, senior political columnist at the "Ha'aretz" newspaper.

Brett, if I can begin with you, in your newspaper, the murder of Sheikh Yassin has been viewed as all-around, if you will, a fairly good thing.

BRETT STEPHENS, "JERUSALEM POST": Yes, I think that's right. I mean, obviously, sitting in Jerusalem, we sit and wait for possible retaliation, and so it's difficult to praise it in that sense, when you are fearing for your life.

But generally speaking, I think it makes us safer rather than more endangered.

I think to say that going after someone like Sheikh Yassin was a bad thing or might bring on more violence is a bit like saying going after Osama bin Laden would be a bad and counterproductive act. That seems to me a very strange and difficult argument to make and it's one that we do not make.

You know, on the whole I think that Hamas is an organization like any other. It operates from the top down, and when it's decapitated, as it was on Monday, it's bound to suffer. So hopefully this will be a serious blow against Hamas.

MACVICAR: Akiva Eldar, in "Ha'aretz" this week, you were, however, arguing a very different point of view.

AKIVA ELDAR, "HAARETZ": Well, we are giving kind of a broader, if you like a deeper, look into this operation and we ask the same questions. Are we today safer than we were the day before the assassination of Sheikh Yassin? And the second question is whether today we are closer to peace with the Palestinians or we are further away from this.

And my answer, as well as the answer of "Ha'aretz" editorial is that removing an individual from the political arena, because Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was leading a party, whether it's legitimate or illegitimate, this is a popular party and it will be a popular party. And the past shows us by removing someone, if we like it or not, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is not Osama bin Laden, I happen to disagree with my colleague, because Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is representing a struggle of people who have been under occupation for 37 years.

And as long as Israel is still deployed in Gaza -- and we're talking about redeployment, disengaging in Gaza, this is still up in the air, these are still words -- as long as Israel is there, there will be more Sheikh Yassins and as long as they don't see an end of occupation, we'll see more people with no hope and we'll see one out of four children -- this is a survey that was conducted in Gaza, this is what it shows -- are willing to turn into a live bomb.

MACVICAR: Brett, how are you seeing these two differing views? And I know that the "Jerusalem Post" is somewhat on the right, "Ha'aretz" is somewhat on the left. How are you seeing these two differing views play out on the Israel street? A polarization perhaps?

STEPHENS: Look, I mean, I think, I don't know if it's polarization. You have a situation in which most people simultaneously approve of the killing of Yassin and are convinced that it's going to lead to more terrorism, so there is a certain kind of schizophrenia, if you will, you know, as far as the way Israelis are reacting to it.

And obviously, you know, we're just waiting for the next shoe to drop. We're waiting to see what really will be the effect of the killing.

There is a perception that somehow Hamas has sort of strategic reserves, that it's holding something back when it launches strikes against Israel, and so a strike against someone like Yassin, a high profile strike, is going to incur a very high profile response from Hamas.

I'm not exactly persuaded that's true. I think the evidence suggests that Hamas has been throwing pretty much everything it has at us almost every day, so the killing of Yassin is not some kind of additional provocation that's necessarily going to lead to a very extravagant response from Hamas.

ELDAR: I agree with Brett that the rule of Sheikh Yassin is very popular and let me make it very clear, you know, I didn't waste one tear after he joined his ancestors. I think, you know, at the end of the day, we may be better off without those people, but as long as Israel is not offering also carrots to the Palestinians, as long as it's just sticks and more violence, I don't see any hope for a better future.

Even the Hamas, I believe, had their own rules. The Israeli government was warning us from what they call a mega-attack from Hamas as a response to the killing of Sheikh Yassin.

Now there is a kind of ritual that is coming from the government of Israel, from the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, from the spokesman of the Ministry of Defense, beware now. After we got rid of one of them, now there are more Israelis that are going to get killed.

So there is a kind of a vicious circle and people are now hiding at home and shopping malls are deserted and tourists are not coming to Israel for Passover and we are paying the price, and actually this is the best price that we can give terrorism, because this shows that we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

MACVICAR: Thank you both very much, Brett Stephens, editor of the "Jerusalem Post," Akiva Eldar, senior political columnist at "Ha'aretz" newspaper. Thank you both.

Time for a short break, but when we come back, could 9/11 have been prevented? As government officials reflect on their shortcomings, should the media do the same?

Stay with us.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The country was not systemically protected because even in racing through all these threats, sometimes exhaustively, we exhausted ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue.


MACVICAR: The 9/11 Commission hears about possible intelligence failings as members of both the current Bush and previous Clinton administrations reflect on their shortcomings.

So should we in the media be doing the same?

Joining me now in Washington, D.C., Walker Pincus, reporter for the "Washington Post," and here in the studio, Jane Corbin from the BBC's "Panorama" program. She has just completed several major investigations on al Qaeda.

Walter, turning to you in Washington, these Commission hearings have made for some great political theatre this week, but are we really, do you think, learning much that is new?

WALTER PINCUS, "WASHINGTON POST": You're not learning too much that is new, although you're getting it from the people who are involved.

One of the ironies of the first day is it was clear that both the secretaries of state and defense in the Clinton and Bush administration admitted that they were looking at terrorism, but never expecting exactly what happened. And it took 9/11 and the killing of 3,000 Americans to wake the country up to the danger that existed.

MACVICAR: Jane, you've reported on this for a long time. You've listened to what's gone on in Washington, as Walter has said, not much new. Why is it resonating now, do you think, even overseas?

JANE CORBIN, BBC: Well, fairly soon after 9/11 these discussions were going on in Europe. I was writing a book about al Qaeda at the time and certainly I mentioned in that some of the criticisms about the Clinton administration and the incoming Bush administration, about their failure to get to grips with al Qaeda. They were reported here. But I think perhaps, you know, America was in a state of shock at that time and for some considerable time afterwards. Perhaps it wasn't felt that it was the right time, that it's taken awhile for this to sink in and, as Walter says, for the key players themselves to come out and give that testimony.

So it's certainly not new, speaking from the European perspective. We were discussing and talking and writing about those things at the time, but maybe now is the time that America needs to address them, and I think in a politically charged atmosphere in the run up as we are now to the elections in November, that's another reason we're hearing a lot about it at the moment.

MACVICAR: Walter, when you were listening to those commission hearings, what's the weight of all of this testimony that's coming forward? What is the sense that you are getting about what was going on inside those administrations, compared to what we knew before?

PINCUS: Well, I think the irony is that the Clinton administration was probably much more worried about the issue than the Bush administration when it came in. People are forgetting that when President Bush and his group came in, they really did have an agenda and the agenda really focused around fears of China (UNINTELLIGIBLE) missile defense, and those activities and in fact the political tone of the Commission particularly the second day with Richard Clarke, the former counter- terrorism White House expert coming on, was that the Bush administration looked at terrorism as an important issue, but not an urgent one, and they delayed sort of picking up on what the Clinton people were starting to do until 9/11.

MACVICAR: 9/11 really is the bookmark, sort of. There is a period before and the period after, the amount of time that we focused on it ourselves, in terms of reporting and our ability to interest our various audiences.

Do you think that that interest is being sustained -- Jane.

CORBIN: Yes, I think that it is, and people are very, very interested in it, because it effects them. It's here on their doorstep. And what we saw in Europe, with the bombings in Madrid a couple of weeks ago now is that it focused people's minds in London, and you know, alerts on the tube, warnings put out by the authorities, suddenly became very much more real to people, but the irony here was that the threat level has been high in London since 9/11 but it's only now, since Madrid, that people are taking it onboard.

As far as the authorities are concerned, the threat level hasn't changed radically in the last two weeks, but the message is getting through to the public.

MACVICAR: Are you seeing that in the United States, particularly in Washington, Walter, where there is sort of a greater focus now on the reality of what the threat is as posed?

PINCUS: Well, I think it's kind of an American problem that we have.

Terrorism has existed in Europe for 10, 20 years and never existed here in this sense that people were really afraid.

What was interesting about 9/11 and the days after it were the fear level, that suddenly something had happened here. I hate to say it right now, but since two years or so have passed, people have calmed back down. Nothing has happened. They can't go through another period of sort of waiting the next day and the next day.

So the public at large, the Midwest, to some degree the coasts worry more than the Midwest, and people are beginning to go back to their old feelings.


PINCUS: The president talks about waging a.

MACVICAR: Sorry. That's even with the warnings, the threat elevation level. It goes from yellow to orange. You have Tom Ridge out there saying, whatever he talks about in terms in threat. You have FBI warnings.

In spite of all of those things, people are beginning to become more complacent again.

PINCUS: I hate to say it, but I think that's true, and I think things like the color warnings with nothing happening, you can cry wolf just so much.

It may take another event to really turn the pressure up again.

MACVICAR: I mean, that's what we've been seeing in London for the last eight months or so. We have had public warnings from everyone from the head of MI5 to the head of the Metropolitan Police to the head of Counter-terrorism that an attack is coming, an attack is coming, an attack is coming.

I mean, it does have the effect, it seems, of terrifying us, of scaring us.

CORBIN: I think the authorities feel politically they can't afford not to make those warnings. There was a lot of criticism when our government surrounded Heathrow Airport with tanks a year or so back. The feeling was, this is total overreaction.

If they hadn't and if there had been a threat, and I certainly knew at the time and was saying in my reports that the threat was real. They had evidence of an al Qaeda plot to fire a missile from just outside Heathrow and bring down a plane. That was real -- a real threat.

If they hadn't put those tanks there and something had happened, then obviously the politicians would have felt the enormous public backlash, the things that we're seeing now, of course, with these commissions.

MACVICAR: Jane Corbin, of the BBC's "Panorama," Walter Pincus of the "Washington Post," in Washington, thank you both very much for joining me.

Up next on the program, divided over a tragic story. Why the Serbian and Albanian press are at odds over the deaths of three children.

Don't go away.



One story, two different interpretations by the Albanian and Serbian press that may be inflaming an already volatile situation in Kosovo.

What is not in question is that three ethnic Albanian children are dead, apparently drowned. Albanian-language media allege the children drowned after being chased into a river by ethnic Serbs. That setoff the worst violence since the end of the 1999 War in Kosovo. It left 28 people dead and 600 wounded.

Some accuse the Albanian media of incitement.

This is a story that once again points at the deep divide between the two ethnic communities.

I'm joined now in Prishtina by Albanian journalist Ducachem Gurani (ph). He was the former director of Kohovision (ph), the second biggest television station in Kosovo, and here in the studio Gordana Igric, Balkans Project Manager for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Ducachem (ph), let me begin with you. This story, what evidence is there, do you think -- is there evidence that in fact the story as told by this one child survivor, that he and his friends were chased into the river by Serbs, was in fact true? Do you believe it to be true?

DUCACHEM GURANI (ph), JOURNALIST: Well, that was what was generally stated and that's what was broadcast. So far, the investigations are ongoing, but there is nothing such as clear confirmation that that is precisely what happened.

MACVICAR: Gordana, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting has its own reporters on the ground who are reporting back to you. What are your reporters able to find out about this story? I should say you have now ethnic Albanian and ethnic Serbs.

GORDANA IGRIC, INST. FOR WAR AND PEACE REPORTING: We actually have two brilliant reporters that we are training and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) very good training. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Albanian and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Serbian.

And two of them, after all of these days, still couldn't produce a story of exactly what happened. What really happened is that this young boy (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and after a couple of hours, just after the terrible incident now, and until now the United Nations is doing investigation. Until the investigation is done, as you know here also, you cannot make conclusion of what really happened.

The problem was that this is so volatile and sensitive situation both in Kosovo and Serbia, that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) provide any good information, Serbs said Albanians (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just as they ethnically cleansed other Serbs. That really happened and so that (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

And of course, Albania has suffered so much and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just came back to that mode of being victims, like it's 1999, it's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) it's again all these crimes happening and they're in danger.

So I do think both sides feared that.

MACVICAR: Ducachem (ph), in Prishtina, is that your interpretation of what happened here, that there was a -- that in spite of all the effort of the international community since '99, in spite of the money that has been spent in Kosovo since '99 by the international community to try to build strong, stable institutions, there is still fundamentally such a deep ethnic divide that a story like this can't help but inflame opinion?

GURANI (ph): Yes. I think I would agree on that.

The international assistance certainly created almost a cosmetic media landscape and perhaps also the institutional landscape of Kosovo, but it certainly didn't tackle or didn't manage to tackle the key problems of Kosovo society, which are both political and social. And this revolt, which was directed symbolically against the Serbs, it was a revolt also against all levels of power in Kosovo.

MACVICAR: When you talk about the cosmetic landscape or changes in the what you said was the cosmetic landscape of Kosovo in journalism, what do you mean by cosmetic?

GURANI (ph): As you have mentioned yourself, there was a substantial financial assistance put into Kosovo for the past five years, particularly on the media scene. But other than technical assistance in terms of equipment, in terms of computers and very short-term media training, the existing vibrant media scene was still remaining far away from accomplishing elementary, fundamental standards of professional journalism.

The events of the past week have caught the entire media scene by surprise and the only way that they did react was in fact going back or trying to go back to what was the local perception of wartime reporting and war time reporting in this environment usually meant, and it still means, the vigilante way of reporting and expressing the truth in the events.

So I find that to be among the biggest failures.

MACVICAR: Gordana, we're five years on from 1999 and here we are, it seems, back at the place where those divisions are as deep, and yet amongst the journalistic community there has been it seems no lessons learned. Why do you think that is?

IGRIC: I do think that training investments (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are frivolity and if you have so fresh memories and civil society weak with weak institutions, you really have to come to some sort of long-term and political process to deal with that.

And by now I think the international community -- and I agree with Ducachem (ph) -- is always somehow financing, giving lots of money to the media, but not really for the real training, on-the-job training. All we have, like in Kosovo, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of equipment and cameras, but with really people who do not respect a child's privacy, for example, in this case. Or you have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) against Milosevic and none of them pushing (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to teach them how to report.

MACVICAR: When we talked about the ongoing investigation -- the United Nations is charged with that investigation -- if the results of that investigation are as politically or ethnically sensitive as they possibly might be, what do you think the impact will be?

GURANI (ph): Well, I believe that the impact of whatever the findings of the police, the judiciary will be, will be significant to this society. Whether the media will try to repair the effective damage that was done by assuming that there was an inflammatory reporting, whether they will withdraw and try to repair the situation, that remains to be seen, because the problem has already (UNINTELLIGIBLE) out of what we would say the framework of pro and contra facts with respect to a tragedy.

The problem has now went through a metamorphosis and what we have now is more or less a political deadlock which does come close to what we had a few yeas ago, and that is some sort of a clear political and ethnic division.

MACVICAR: Ducachem Gurani (ph), in Prishtina, thank you very much. Gordana Igric, here in London, Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Thank you both very much for joining me.

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 Sheila MacVicar, in London, thanks for joining us.



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