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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired April 10, 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.
Donald Rumsfeld says there will be good days and bad days in Iraq as the U.S. and its coalition partners struggle to bring democracy, security and stability to the country.

Given the events of the last week, it may be safe to say we are seeing a whole string of bad days. For journalists working in Iraq, a new part of their daily reality is the threat of being held hostage or captive.

This happened to "New York Times" journalist John Burns this week. He joins us now from Baghdad.

John, what happened to you?

JOHN BURNS, "NEW YORK TIME": Well, we went to a news conference, or we thought we were going to a news conference, summoned by Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, as we say the firebrand Shiite cleric, who is at the center of this uprising, the insurrection across central and southern Iraq against the American occupation.

There was no news conference, at least for us, as we arrived at the town of Kufa, where Mr. Sadr is we're led to believe holed up in the grand mosque. Five vehicles descended on us. We were pulled from our vehicle, then returned to our vehicle, driven to the mosque, into the middle of absolute mayhem and a scene out of the Middle Ages, really. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more of these black-clad militia men.

We couldn't enter into a chain of command. I think that's going to be a problem for the American forces in trying to deal with this. We were eventually reput back in our vehicle, blindfolded, driven out into the desert about 15 miles, stopping here and there as I could see through the lower edge of my blindfold, which in itself was a potentially fatal enterprise since they told us that anybody who attempted to see would be shot immediately.

We were stopping by canals, a riverbank, and it looked like they were looking for an open space, which was not encouraging.

Eventually, we arrived at a cinderblock building where they roughhoused us inside on the concrete floor, left us there, and we were there for about 6 to 7 hours, into the night, hearing American aircraft overhead, which was one of the most worrying things. On the one hand, it could have been a rescue raid, which we thought would have been fatal. On the other hand, it could have been a raid on Mr. Sadr's mosque, which would also have been fatal to us.

And eventually, as inexplicably as it had all begun, the same people returned. This time the Kalashnikovs were lowered, the fingers were no longer on the triggers, and they said you're free.

Trying to comprehend it is extremely difficult.

MACVICAR: Do you think that you were setup, that you were deliberately led into something? Or was it just something that you stumbled across?

BURNS: You know, I think that the motley nature of this, the milling- around nature of Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr's so-called army, is probably the key to this.

I don't think we were setup. We could make a construct of that that would be flattering to ourselves. I think they're just a bunch of men with weapons who are on the lookout for trouble, and we were trouble. We were Westerners, we were in identifiable Western SUV and we looked like an asset. We looked like somebody to engage with, somebody to punish, somebody to capture, possibly somebody to kill. Who knows?

I'm not even sure that they knew what they were doing. As a matter of fact, it was pretty clear they didn't know what they were doing. What was worrying was, and this is something that you see wherever you meet these people, that command seems to flow insofar as there is any command, to the angriest many in the group. So you can be having what you think is a reasonable conversation, and all of the sudden somebody with a frankly psychotic look on his face will join the group and start shouting, shouting about Bush, about Blair, about America stealing the oil, about whatever, and suddenly the mood of the group takes on the coloration of this late arrival.

So we decided very quickly that it was better not to engage in any kind of discussion at all.

It's not even clear to me that Muqtada Al-Sadr was in there. When we were in the courtyard of the mosque -- the mosque has great golden walls which are perhaps 500 yards long on each of four sides. When we were in the courtyard and we were looking at this Medieval scene of men sitting over burning fires warming themselves into the night with their black outfits, their headbands, proclaiming the glories of God, their Kalashnikovs, their machine guns, their knives, there was no particular point in that mosque courtyard that looked as though it was especially protected.

Indeed, there didn't seem to be any organization at all that we could see. We would have been glad to find it, because if we could we could have ascended a ladder of command, and we felt become safer.

My sense was if he were there, we would have seen something more like a phallanx to defend him.

MACVICAR: John, we have seen some extraordinary events over the course of these last days, you know, the anniversary of the falling of that statue of Saddam in that square behind you. What do you think, your experience -- and you've been in Iraq now for many, many months -- what does your experience tell you, you think happens next?

BURNS: I think that several things of fundamental importance happened this week, one of which was that I think there was a metastasis.

We had a Sunni insurgency, largely in the name of Saddam Hussein, in the name of inquired Iraqi nationalism, if you will. You had a Shiite insurgency which was narrowly based to begin with, focused on the closure of Mr. Sadr's newspaper, which quickly became much bigger, spread very fast, in the name of God, in the name of Mr. Sadr, in the name of whatever.

Then these two groups began to communicate with each other through the common bond of Iraqi nationalism. At this point, it began to look like a war of national resistance.

General Abizaid, the American commander who flew here, hastened here from Washington, to consult with General Sanchez, the field commander here, when I asked him, "Is this a war of national resistance?" he gave a very measured reply. He said, "Not likely, but not impossible."

And we've got to move fast. We've got to show resolve. More troops. Very tough. He used the word deadly. Deadly if necessary.

This is counterintuitive to the American enterprise here. Is the president of the United States prepared for that level of violence, for that level of troop commitment? Would it work? Very uncertain.

I think that most of us have spent the last year, year-and-a-half here, have the feeling that the mission began to go south in a serious way this week. It may prove to have been sadly, desperately, for America and for much of the world, it may have proved to have been mission impossible.

MACVICAR: John, as you try to continue to cover this evolving story, give me a sense of just how much more difficult you think it will be to cover what has been now for many months a very difficult story, in terms of your own safety, your ability to maneuver, your ability to go out to meet and report.

BURNS: Well, it depends on the snapshot you take. If you took a snapshot right now, you'd find that most news people here, television, broadcast and print, are staying close to home, I mean close to wherever they are quartered in Baghdad.

Many of us have escorts, armed escorts. We're not convinced that that's a great deal of protection, even against kidnap. Certainly not against rocket-propelled grenades. But it seems plain after all the kidnappings of this week that venturing beyond the perimeter of Baghdad is really to place yourself at the roulette wheel.

This may change. There may be a stabilization. We may be able to get back to more regular kinds of reporting, but there is no doubt that the job became a great deal more difficult this week.

MACVICAR: John Burns, of the "New York Times," in Baghdad, a very difficult week. Thank you for joining me.

Iraq is a tough assignment for any journalist and news organizations face a big dilemma, a growing dilemma, how to keep their journalists safe and still cover this major story.

I'm joined now by Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute.

Rodney, how difficult do you think the situation is now for journalists who are trying still to work in Iraq?

RODNEY PINDER, INTL. NEWS SAFETY INSTITUTE: It's a horrendous situation. It's already the worst war in modern times for journalists and news media people, and it's getting worse.

Now this new element of hostage-taking is particularly worrying. It brings back these ghastly memories of Danny Pearl in Pakistan, and this is a particularly worrying development.

MACVICAR: As news managers, we are committed to covering the story. There can be no more important time to cover the story. But it would seem that our ability to move, to report the story, is becoming increasingly circumscribed.

Tell me a little bit about the kinds of discussions that you know are going on inside news rooms.

PINDER: Well, there are discussions of how to reduce risks. Everybody knows you cannot eliminate the risk. Everybody knows the situation, if anything, is going to get worse, whatever you do. You've got to go out.

What you can do is look at the sort of vehicles that you're using. Are they prominent? Are they not? Do they attract attention? Do you use an armored vehicle or perhaps something that's a little less conspicuous, or perhaps buy an armored vehicle that doesn't look like an armored vehicle, because there are such things around.

You can look at whether your journey outside your secure base is absolutely necessary. You look at whether you move at night or not. We would certainly recommend not.

MACVICAR: But at the same time, we're rolling ourselves off from the story. We're not in a position -- if we're only reacting to events or we're only reacting to things that we are being told by, for example, coalition officials, we're not really in a position to have a way of reflecting back to our readers and our viewers what Iraq's people, in this instance, are thinking or talking about.

PINDER: I think this is a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) where quite frankly it's not the time to be out doing man-on-the-street stories. It's not the time to be out doing initiative stories, no matter how much you really need to do it.

There is going to be a major coalition reaction to this insurgency. There's going to be a major crackdown. This is going to stir the anger and response. I think this is a time for pulling in horns, quite frankly.

MACVICAR: There has been a debate, and it seems it's been primarily a division between American news organizations and European news organizations, about whether or not we should be employing armed guards to provide protection. CNN has taken the decision that we do employ armed guards. Other American networks have followed suit. Is there now, do you think, I'm hearing that there is debate and discussion inside networks that so far have resisted that, that are losing their security guards who say, you know, what good is my unarmed body against a guy with an AK47.

PINDER: You have to respect the news organizations who believe that this actually has saved lives.

I think there is a really strong case to make for, at least when you're traveling in and out in convoy, you're going into Iraq or leaving, to have an escort.

After all, is there really too much difference between a journalist traveling in a convoy with armed private guards and the journalist traveling with the U.S. forcers as an embed who is really under armed guard, isn't he?

So I don't think there is a huge difference to be drawn there. I think where we do drawn a line, still, is the question of an individual journalist carrying an arm, and we remain strongly opposed to that, because if people are picking up journalists and accusing them of being spies and anti-them agents, if they find a gun on the presence of that reporter, I think he's dead.

MACVICAR: This is dangerous new territory for all of us.

PINDER: Yes, absolutely.

MACVICAR: Rodney Pinder, International News Safety Institute, thank you very much for joining us.

PINDER: Thank you.

MACVICAR: Up next on the program, 10 years on we remember Rwanda and talk to a journalist who covered the genocide.

Don't go away.



It took 100 days, about 800,000 people murdered, and silence from the international community for the genocide in Rwanda to take place.

This week we reflect on the 10 year anniversary of that genocide. Joining me now, one journalist who was there, journalist Mark Hewitt (ph) was in Rwanda, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Nairobi's bureau chief.

You covered the Rwandan genocide. You were one of the very few Western journalists to actually be in Rwanda throughout much of that period of time. What was it like to try to work through that time?

MARK HEWITT (ph), JOURNALIST: It was -- as a reporter, it had all the challenges that a story has in the sense that the first big challenge was really knowing what was going on.

In retrospect, we can say there was a genocide in Rwanda, but the thing is, in those first few days, even the first week or two, we didn't really know that it was a genocide. We didn't really know that something had been put in place, a plan had been put in place which would be unleashed at a certain moment.

And so we were in a position where as reporters we could walk around the city, walk around Kigali, and I arrived a couple of days after it had started, and just see dead bodies and feel the tension, feel the fear in people's eyes and talk to people about what they were feeling and get a sense that something dreadful was taking place.

But then actually knowing how to define it was a huge challenge, and we were all subject to immense amounts of propaganda and denial and silence on the part of the United Nations, who didn't really see what was taking place. The French government probably had a better idea of what was taking place than any other government. It had its agenda. It had its political agenda. It didn't want to say that there was a genocide.

The Americans were in a position, were smarting from the horrors that they had gone through in Somalia only months beforehand, were in a position where they couldn't bear the idea of being under pressure to take action, to stand another appalling horror story.

So everybody was uncertain, and the vagueness and the uncertainties and the difficulty of being able to define what was taking place was the major challenge.

MACVICAR: Can you remember the first time the word genocide crossed your mind, or the first time you actually dared to use the word genocide in copy that you sent back?

HEWITT (ph): Yes. It was about three weeks after the thing had started.

MACVICAR: What tipped you over? What persuaded you that that was what you were looking at?

HEWITT (ph): I visited the house of a Tutsi family who had lost I think three people in Kigali and the word genocide just flowed from their lips, and I realized then that it was a systematic slaughter.

MACVICAR: Do you think the international community has learned those lessons from Rwanda?

HEWITT (ph): I feel very, very strongly that the Rwanda story is one in which everybody failed. The United Nations failed. The European countries failed. The United States failed. And the media failed.

I was there watching the failure of the media. I was there in a position where I had to fight to be there. I had to say to my editors at the newspaper I was then working for this is an important story, and I did that in many ways in defiance of them, because there wasn't actually a great deal of interest. There were people who felt that this was another African horror story which, you know, was just really too ghastly to warrant a lot of effort.

And I feel that to learn lessons, one has to -- really, people have to look to themselves. The United Nations has to look to itself, which I think it's done. I think under Kofi Annan, it has done. He knows that there was a grave failure on the part of the United Nations.

But I think the media also didn't give it the coverage that it required, and if it had given more coverage, then clearly public opinion would have to have been mobilized and politicians would have to have reacted.

Mark Hewitt (ph) of the "FT", former of the "Guardian," reflections on Rwanda, the 10th anniversary of the genocide, thank you very much for being with us.

HEWITT (ph): Thank you.

MACVICAR: Up next on the program, the uncovered conflict. Could Sudan be the next Rwanda?

Stay with us.


MACVICAR: Welcome back.

Earlier we talked about the lessons learned or not from the genocide in Rwanda. There is another conflict that is drawing parallels now with Rwanda, and that is in the Western Darfur region of Sudan.

War has shaken the area for over a year. Estimates are of thousands killed. Many more have been made homeless and fled across the border to Chad.

Arab militias allied to the Sudanese government are accused ot ethnic cleansing against non-Arab Muslims. The government calls it just local tribal strife.

There is very little media coverage, but one video journalist is amongst the very few to manage to get into the country. This is some of what he saw.


PHIL COX, JOURNALIST (voice-over): Tadera (ph) used to be home to 500 Sudanese people. Now it was empty. Just outside the village, we found hastily dug graves and a pile of bodies. It was impossible to say if they were civilians or soldiers.


MACVICAR: Phil Cox joins me now.

Phil, why is it that we have seen so little of material like the kind of material you have brought out from Darfur?

COX: I think because for the last two years Darfur has been very hard to access, and this has been due to the policy of the Sudanese government, which has determinedly stopped Westerners from entering Darfur, both politicians and the media.

The United States and the United Kingdom ambassadors have both tried to enter Darfur and were both stopped, and Western media organizations have also tried over the last two years and not had any luck either.

MACVICAR: Let me ask you, how did you do it?

COX: I saw, from being in London, that there was a big black hole media-reporting-wise on what was going on in Darfur, but increasingly there were thousands, tens of thousands of refugees in Chad, but nobody had yet explained why they were leaving Darfur or what was really happening in Darfur.

So I made contact in London with a member of the SLA and the Darfurese (ph) People Committee and we spoke directly to the SLA commanders in Darfur, and they said they would give me safe passage. So I got myself to the Chad and Sudan border and then in disguise I went across.

MACVICAR: I have to ask you, I mean, this has got to be a fairly dodgy trip here. You obviously had confidence in the SLA commanders, but how risky did you feel it was?

COX: I think yes, it was risky, but also in a sense there was a big story there which nobody could get covered, so I was fairly driven to see what nobody else was yet seeing. And also I was guaranteed safe passage by the SLA commanders and as journalists, in a sense we have to make a decision with things that are out of our hands essentially, and I did.

MACVICAR: Tell me a little bit more about what you were able to see. We heard from Kofi Annan and other U.N. agencies over the course of the last week, two weeks or so, that they are talking about genocide and ethnic cleansing. Is that what you saw there?

COX: When you cross into Sudan, you're first met by tens of thousands of people coming across the border. As you go further into Darfur, what you don't see is people, because most of them have already left.

What I saw was village after village which has been burnt down. Usually there are bodies around the villages. There are mass graves outside. When I say mass graves, I mean large pits in the earth, maybe 10 to 20 bodies in them, and these pits, 20 to 30 pits around the villages.

So something terrible has happened there. I never had time to really dig up these graves or properly account for what had happened, but from what I saw, what has been happening in Darfur, I don't think we should be worried about the semantics question of whether it's genocide or ethnic cleansing but a large amount of people have been killed and are still being killed daily.

There is so much rhetoric now, 10 years on from Rwanda, about the mistakes that were made, that this must not happen again, and yet today in Darfur hundreds of thousands of black Africans are being displaced, tens of thousands have been killed, and a country the size of France is being depopulated by violent means, systematically, by the Sudanese government.

I have seen this. I have listened to the recordings of the Sudanese bombers as they've flown overhead and ordered attacks on civilian villages. I have interviewed Sudanese government soldiers, who were told to attack villages and when they got there they only found civilians. I have interviewed the refugees and civilians from these villages who testified to this.

So I have covered many sides of what is going on in Darfur, and come to the conclusion that the Sudanese government have a systematic intention of removing many black Africans from Darfur by violent means.

The world is not dealing with this. We know it is happening. Ignorance is not an excuse now. And in the light of these commemorations and talk about Rwanda, it comes as increasingly double standards again by the international community.

MACVICAR: Phil Cox, thank you very much for joining me to talk about this. We look forward to seeing more of your work. Thank you.

COX: Thank you.

MACVICAR: 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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