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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired May 1, 2004 - 04:00:00   ET


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Sheila MacVicar, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
The U.S. government has poured many man hours and dollars into getting their message to Iraqi. Stations like Al-Hurra (ph) and Al-Iraqia (ph) are products of these efforts, but Iraqis remain skeptical and it seems their distrust extends even further.

Ben Wedeman explains.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Baghdad's Murabak (ph) Caf‚ there's a struggle afoot, a struggle on television for the hearts, minds and attention of the men who come here every day for a cup of tea, a water pipe or a friendly game of dominos.

Today they've tuned to Al-Hurra (ph), the U.S.-funded Arabic television network. Fallujah, the top story.

Everyone we spoke with here knows who funds Al-Hurra (ph) and Al- Iraqia (ph), the American-backed Iraqi station, and they take their news with a grain of salt.

If this rundown caf‚ had a satellite dish, the customers say, they'd rather watch the two most popular Arabic news channels, Jazeera and Al- Arabiya, both frequently accused by the U.S.-led coalition of distorted and inflammatory coverage of Iraq.

Yusef (ph), a former officer, prefers Jazeera because, he says, "It shows what's really going on in Fallujah or elsewhere, and I think the Americans don't want that to be seen."

The credibility of the Western media, not the Arab, is questioned here.

"The Western media isn't honest like the Arab," says Hassan, who doesn't speak English. "The Arab media shows reality, people and their suffering. The Western media is all about the dollar."

Some customers claim the Arab news channels occasionally exaggerate things, sometimes broadcast jarring pictures, but even that beats news under the old regime.

"In Saddam's day," recalls pensioner Abdul Raza (ph), "no one could say a word. They'd put out the news, but no one believed it."

Now at least they can watch whatever news they want and believe it or not.



MACVICAR: Well, this week one truly shocking story making its rounds in the world's media, Arab networks ere among those on Friday playing these photographs which first aired on a U.S. television network. The pictures apparently show U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib Prison outside Baghdad.

At the time this program was taped, CNN had still not independently confirmed the photos were authentic.

The U.S. military says six soldiers have been charged with abusing inmates at the prison.

To talk about reaction to this story and the rest of the week's stories out of Iraq, I'm joined now by Dan Murphy, from the "Christian Science Monitor," in Baghdad, Channel 4's Alex Thomson, here in London, and also in the studio Mohamed Chebaro, correspondent for Al-Arabiya.

Let me begin by talking about these truly shocking images aired on CBS. It seems clear from the statements we've had from the American military, we've known for sometime there is an investigation underway. These pictures are pictures of humiliation and torture.

Alex, in your view, how are they going to play out, and what impact do you think they're going to have on people in Britain?

ALEX THOMSON, CHANNEL 4: Well, they're going to play very badly across the world.

I think what General Kimitz (ph) said in his press conference yesterday in Baghdad sums it up: yes, this is an appalling event. You've got to throw your hands up and apologize and come clean.

It has to be said, though, that the important thing here is somebody smuggled pictures out of it. Let us not forget, down in the south of Iraq the British Army, who are supposedly able to handle these things rather better than the Americans, or so they like to tell us, have actually beaten to death at least one -- and this is prove, this is agreed -- at least one inmate in their own prisons down there. No pictures. The whole story was very good for the newspapers, never really worked on TV terms because nobody has ever really investigated it.

So there are appalling things going on as ever, in any war, and this is a war, let's be clear about it, on all sides.

MACVICAR: Mohammad, how are these images going to play out in the Arab world? I mean, Al-Arabiya, your network has been in, if I can say trouble with the coalition from time to time. You've been sanctioned. How is this going to affect, do you think, your relations with the coalition? And what do you think your viewers will be seeing?

MOHAMED CHEBARO, AL-ARABIYA: Well, I mean, the relation with the coalition, to answer that part, it's been like shooting the messenger, basically. We've been doing our job, reporting. Our reporting was not to the liking of coalition forces.

Moving to today's pictures, I think around the Arab media, they're just playing now on the hour every hour on all major networks, but the papers, the newspapers, the national newspapers, have missed it because they went to print quite earlier in the day, before these pictures were broken.

But, of course, I mean, the whole, I think especially Iraqis, as well as the Arab world, they once again are seeing these pictures to reinforce certain vision and ideas that the occupation, the American forces, are not there to bring democracy and the higher moral ground that they're supposed to, or promised the people and the world that they're going to do, and they're just using the same torture tactics in the same prison that Saddam Hussein and his henchman have done for decades in Iraq.

MACVICAR: Now, Dan, in Baghdad, I don't know if you've had an opportunity to see what is being shown to Iraq's people, who can see these images perhaps not only on Arab satellite channels like Al-Arabiya or Al- Jazeera, perhaps even others. I'm wondering how you think this might further inflame or infect the view the people in Iraq have of American purpose in Iraq.

DAN MURPHY "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR": I think that's the really important question. Is it possible to further inflame public opinion with a few photographs? Clearly it's going to have some impact, particularly if it's on heavy rotation on the satellite channels and does begin to hit the newspapers, and the behavior of American troops in this instance was shocking.

But again, American troops have a pretty poor reputation here as it is, close to rock bottom for many Iraqis, and it's hard to see it going there. People on the streets of Iraq every day have unpleasant experiences with soldiers, and that probably has as much to do with their negative impressions as these photographs might have.

MACVICAR: We have to take a quick break now. We'll be back with more in just a moment.


MACVICAR: All right. We're back with Dan Murphy, of the "Christian Science Monitor," in Baghdad, Channel 4's Alex Thomson and Mohamed Chebaro of Al-Arabiya television.

Dan, you've just come back after spending a number of days down in Najaf, where of course there is one of the most important stories that we've been following out of Iraq all week, this question of what happens in Najaf between the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and the U.S. military.

What was the mood in Najaf? And can you see any signs of any sort of rapprochement or negotiations taking place? How do you think it resolves itself?

MURPHY: The mood of Najaf has been very tense and very frightened for a long time. You have large numbers of young, heavily armed men running the town. Shopkeepers and many residents are terrified, and they're also terrified that an American assault is imminent.

Now in the past few days, the American forces it seems taking a cue from what they're doing in Fallujah, are beginning to look for solutions that would enable them to bring some sort of Iraqi forces in and cut deals and back out.

Given that they've already made a lot of statements, particularly from the civilian side of the CPA and the United States government, saying they want Muqtada al-Sadr dead or alive, it will be interesting to see if they can back away from that rhetorical corner they put themselves into, but certainly we're seeing signs that they're desperate not to have to go into Najaf guns blazing because of the way it would probably turn most Iraqi Shias against the coalition.

MACVICAR: Alex, as Dan has just said, the deal that apparently seems to be cut in Fallujah to put an end to the bloodshed there appears to bring back one of Saddam's generals and some Iraqi force that I don't think we're entirely clear on the composition of that force. What does that say to you about the position the Americans find themselves i?

THOMSON: It says in part that they've listened to what the British military down south are telling them.

The British completely ignored the American viewpoint that all the Ba'athist, be they civilian technocrats or the senior people in the army, be banished in utter darkness. The British didn't do that. For instance, the man who's going to be running the new Iraqi army in the south of Iraq used to blow up supertankers for Saddam Hussein. They don't have a problem with that. He's got the expertise; he's got the job.

Now the Americans belatedly are doing something of the same thing further north, because these people have the expertise, they have a certain degree of trust.

If there is any whole scale military solution, which is what the Americans have been promising for so long in Fallujah and certainly hinting of in Najaf, it will be an absolute catastrophe. And in the south, as a previous guest was making clear, all they talk about is Najaf. If Najaf goes up, the whole of the south of Iraq becomes untenable, and the British are quite open about saying that.

MACVICAR: Continuing on that point, of what happens with the American forces, Mohamed, given what has been on the Arab networks and Arab public opinion throughout the Middle East, not just in Iraq, is there any way back, do you think, if Iraqis and other Arabs now see the U.S. forces using Iraqi forces in places like Fallujah, negotiating settlements, not going into Najaf with guns blazing. Is this a point where they can maybe dial it back a bit?

CHEBARO: I don't know if a U-turn is possible at this moment in time in Iraq, especially after what has been going on in Najaf as well as in Fallujah. Let's not forget that, I mean, hundreds of civilians have been killed in addition to lots of so-called insurgents or resistance fighters.

So I don't know how well the Americans could really make a U-turn in order to persuade the people that there is democracy that they are trying to bring into that country, or at least peace and stability and a certain freedom and liberty and give the people a choice about who to lead them, who not.

I mean, bringing this new general from basically the files, the rank and files of Saddam Hussein's regime, is something that many Arab countries, many people in the Middle East have recommended, that you have to keep a certain status quo in Iraq so that not everything will fall to pieces and fall apart.

Now is it possible to bring everything back from the abyss? Maybe it's a step, but I think it's going to be quite difficult and next to impossible. It's Iraq we're talking about and there are lots of other hanging questions in the Middle East, and Iraq is one of the most difficult.

MACVICAR: Dan, in terms of the reporting that you've been able to do, not only in Najaf but perhaps in Baghdad, perhaps with coalition officials, when they look at this kind of arrangement that they seem to have come to it seems I Fallujah, what do you think they are saying? Is there an acknowledgement of where they went wrong in the past?

MURPHY: Well, there's no public acknowledgment that mistakes are ever made out of the coalition, but it's clearly the case that we've seen a 180-degree reversal in policy over the past few weeks, and it's not just being willing to bring back some of the senior generals from Saddam's regime, the recognition that the disbandment of his entire military in sort of a willy-nilly fashion after the war was a mistake, but also a broad, deBa'athification (ph) policy that left tens of thousands of civil servants out of jobs, including elementary school teachers and so forth, that the coalition has just now slowly begun to reverse because it recognized that it created powerful enemies in side the country, it's recognized that it had cut out a lot of people with skills that were needed to administer Iraq, and it knows that something needs to change drastically is the slide in the situation is going to be arrested.

MACVICAR: Alex, I wonder, given what we saw happen with the Iraqi Defense Forces, the Iraqi police, during the earlier stages of this insurgency, where many of those forces refused to go out on the street, refused to fire on their own people, some of them apparently crossed over and have joined the insurgency. What hope do you hold out that this force will truly do the bidding, if you will, of the coalition?

THOMSON: I think it's going to be very difficult, and I think what both Mohamed and Dan were saying just now absolutely focuses the point. It's one thing to have a matter of policy from the world go of bringing in former Ba'athists to run your police in your army, quite another to do it, as it were, from the point of a gun from the people in Fallujah, and essentially, militarily, they are now dictating this process. They will be perceived to have won.

MACVICAR: Critical developments in Iraq this week. Gentlemen, thank you very much. Dan Murphy, at the "Christian Science Monitor" in Baghdad, Channel 4's Alex Thomson, Mohamed Chebaro, of Al-Arabiya, thank you all very much for joining me.

Up next on the program, in the week where the EU concludes a historic enlargement, we talk about one of those which didn't make the cut.


MACVICAR: Welcome back.

Which country in Eastern Europe can boast being untouched by modern dentistry, inventing the polka and whooping cough? Welcome to Molvania. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, three well-known Australian satirists have written a travel guide about under-explored Molvania, and it seems appropriate that in a historic week when the EU welcomed 10 new member countries, almost all Eastern European nations, we take a look at the one that was left out.

Rob Sitch, one of those who wrote the book, joins me now, from Melbourne, Australia.

The book is called simply "Molvania," and here in the studio, Quinton Peel, international affairs editor for the "Financial Times."

The latest word from Molvania this morning, this press release which says, "Discriminatory and racist refusals to grant entry to the EU, Molvanians attempted to launch a final appeal today followed by a ballistic missile on France."

Rob Sitch, what gave you the inspiration?

ROB SITCH, AUTHOR: Well, we sort of thought -- we were traveling once around Portugal and it seemed that every cathedral and major historic public work was covered in scaffolding and a friend of ours pretended to read from the "Michelin Guide" and said some of the scaffolding dates back to the 14th century, and so we then sort of thought, well, what if you did that for everything, hotels and political systems, and then we invented this Republic of Molvania, which we say is north of Bulgaria and downwind of Chernobyl.

And we're very disappointed in fact that Molvania wasn't admitted to the EU, because Molvania was part of the coalition of the willing, although they've pulled out their troops now. That was at the request of the United States.

There is a fine line between offering protection and demanding protection money apparently.

MACVICAR: Well, Quentin Peel, in looking at some of the British press this week, one could well think, xenophobic as some of those tabloids can be on the subject of Eastern European nations and would-be immigrants, that they could have been writing about Molvania, the land that dentistry forgot.

QUENTIN PEEL, "FINANCIAL TIMES": I think they've been there. I think they've been living there for a while. I think they've convinced that the whole of this awful east is exactly what we see in Molvania. And really, the only thing that doesn't scare me is that I think a ballistic on France, thank God, the guidance systems won't work. But apart from that, it is a fairly scary thought. Thank God it doesn't exist, or does it -- Rob?

SITCH: No, it does. In fact -- I was just going to say that Molvania had a space program and Sputsfutz III (ph) was made in Molvania, the first country to land a person on Poland. But that was posthumously, of course.

MACVICAR: In terms of your readership, I have to say that there are those that I've spoken to that actually have been consulting their atlases. What about your readers? Are you getting mail saying, "How do I check into that delightful hotel"?

SITCH: We actually chose the geography because that part of Eastern Europe, I don't think school kids can even draw that part of Eastern Europe. They seem to add an extra country every year. And so we tried to hide it in a place where no one would notice.

It's somewhere around the Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary area.

MACVICAR: Quentin Peel, obviously this was a very significant event, a historic event, this enormous enlargement of the European Union.

Do you think that the British press or that elements of the British press that so much this week focused on immigration or the prospects for Britain's welfare system being overwhelmed, what are they playing to here?

PEEL: Well, they're playing to prejudice, they're playing to xenophobia.

I think it's terrifying, actually. I've been on a radio program this morning talking about exactly that, and there was all this stuff about, "My God, they're going to flood us out, they're going to take all our jobs."

You know, these are wonderful people who are coming out. These are bright kids and so on who no doubt are fleeing the fact there's no dentistry at home, but they're bringing the dentistry here. That's why there's no dentistry in Molvania. It's they're all coming here, and thank goodness for them, filling our teeth, looking after our old people, painting our houses. It's fantastic.

MACVICAR: Do you think that people here have forgotten -- or some people here have forgotten the earlier experience of European Union expansion, where if I remember correctly, people wrote the same kinds of things about Spain and Portugal and Greece.

PEEL: Yes, do you remember Luxemburg demanded 10 years to make sure the Portuguese wouldn't come to Luxemburg, and they discovered there was no flood to come in at all. It's all beforehand that people are longing to come in, when they're still poor and out the outside. Once they're in the club, they don't need to start moving around because the goodies will come to them.

MACVICAR: Rob Sitch, in terms of when you were thinking about writing this book and playing off these various stereotypes of Eastern Europe, was there a thought in terms of the way we perceive, or some people in the West, perceive those in the East?

SITCH: Well, I think, you know, 40 years of Communist planning made the book very easy to write. They took sort of 2,000 years of history and tradition and destroyed it in five-year plans, so, you know, we say that somehow the Communist era was a time when Old World charm met concrete, and it seems like every photo we ever saw of these provinces and republics featured the concrete apartment block, but I think that's changing.

And economic integration has made, and is continuing to make, a lot of these countries that are reminiscent of Molvania tourist destinations these days.

MACVICAR: Well, Molvania at least has given us something to laugh about in terms of European Union enlargement.

What do you think, Clinton Peel, will be the point at which there will be a change in attitude towards those new nations? Will this take years of time?

PEEL: I don't know. I see -- you know, my kids get inter-rail cards and they go zooming around Europe as I'm sure half the Australian kids who come over to Europe do exactly the same. They know lots about these places. They meet people who are like-minded.

I was struck the other day -- I was in Estonia, great little country, and there I was saying, well, what sort of local entrepreneurs have you got, and somebody say, "Well, you may have heard of one, the people who invented Kazaa," the software you use to download all that music illegally off the Internet, they're a coupe of Estonians.

They're bright young people who are doing all sorts of new things and I think, you know, I'm not sure it will take that long and I think people will say thank God for Polish painters, thank God for Estonian care workers. This is going to be a damned good thing.

MACVICAR: But there is a serious issue here for Tony Blair in terms of the referendum which he has now said that he will have to have. How do you think -- what do you think is in the prime minister's mind in terms of that referendum? And why do you think he feels that need to have that referendum?

PEEL: Well, I think he realizes that there is a sort of slightly vengeful feeling, insular feeling that's built up in Britain which says Europe stops here. It's starting to affect the whole political life of this country -- starting to, it's been affecting it for a decade, and it's got worse and worse. It hasn't got any better.

And I think he said, you know, we've got to lance this poisonous boil. Whether he's going to succeed, I'm a bit worried that he might not. We might be poisoned for a rather long time. We might become Molvania.

MACVICAR: Rob Sitch, may I ask you to leave us with a portrait of your favorite part of Molvania.

SITCH: I would have to say it would be somewhere between the River Ooze (ph) and the great Central Plateau, which was recently listed with UNESCO as a place of significant monotony . So those kids should go there. It's a very exciting place.

MACVICAR: Well, thank you, and we look forward to more explorations of Molvania. Thank you very much, Rob Sitch, in Australia, Melbourne, thank you for joining us, and Quentin Peel with "Financial Times," thank you very much for playing along.

PEEL: 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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