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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired December 25, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London. Welcome to CNN's International Correspondents, where we examine how the media is covering the big stories of the moment.
The year ended with some wonderful news; the release of two French journalists held captive in Iraq for the past four months. But on the whole, this has been a very bad year for journalists and journalism. Journalists are not just being killed, kidnapped or wounded, but there's been an unprecedented assault on how we do our job, on journalist itself.

And not just in the usual suspects, not just in dictatorships. We begin our report today in the country that brought us the First Amendment, free speech and respect for the right of reporters. In the United States eight journalists are under fire by courts for refusing to reveal their sources.

One of them, Jim Taricani, the journalist I first interned for when I was a student in Rhode Island, is now serving six months house arrest. Another case involves leaking the name of a CIA operative.

To talk about the attempt to muzzle the U.S. media, I am now joined in Washington, D.C. by Matthew Cooper of "Time" magazine. Matthew is one of those journalists under fire. And we're also joined by Geneva Overholser, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

I first wanted to ask Matthew Cooper, what is the status of your legal case and where do you think it's going to go from here?

MATTHEW COOPER "TIME": Well, it's a crazy case, Christiane.

You know, in the United States it is potentially a crime to leak the name of a CIA covert operative. That name was leaked not to me but to a columnist and CNN commentator, Robert Novak. And since that happened in July 2003, there has been a federal investigation into who did this leak.

Now, at the time, I wrote a piece trying to call attention to the leakers and noting that we'd gotten the same leak as well. And since then, this federal investigator has been trying to get me to divulge confidential sources, and we've been in court trying to stop it.

Right now we're still in the courts and awaiting a decision from the second highest court in the United States, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and we'll have to see what they say.

AMANPOUR: With Jim Taricani already sentenced and under house arrest, do you -- what is the scenario that you envisage for your case?

COOPER: Well, I would hope the prosecutor would be wise enough to, you know, not go down this road continuously that he's pursued. You know, most prosecutors in the United States don't subpoena journalists. They don't call grand juries and try to get reporters to expose their sources or put reporters in jail for doing their job. And I would hope we might find a peaceful resolution of this conflict.

But at the moment, we're going to see how we do in the courts. We've got a good argument. You know, 49 of the 50 states have some kind of protection for journalists. We're not asking for any kind of exotic rights. We're asking for something that we believe is in the Constitution.

AMANPOUR: Geneva Overholser, if indeed as it is in the Constitution, if the majority of the American states do have protections for journalists in these situations, what on earth is going on? And what is the prosecutor in this case, I believe Patrick Fitzgerald, trying to do?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, MISSOURI SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM: Well, those are very good questions, Christiane.

I agree with Matt that one would hope that reporters would have a stronger stance in the courts than they currently do. It seems to me that we're under kind of an assault.

We would have hoped that Fitzgerald would have gone to the administration and used that as the source for these leakers rather than to go to the press and to sort of turn them into yet another information- gathering arm of the government.

AMANPOUR: How do you assess what he's doing? He hasn't gone to the administration. He hasn't gone after Robert Novak, who after all first wrote this and, as we know, is a conservative columnist on CNN and in newspapers. Is this politically motivated?

OVERHOLSER: You know, we don't know whether he's gone after Robert Novak, unless Matt corrects me. Novak is not saying what has happened. We don't know if he's been subpoenaed, if he's pled the Fifth. I mean, we really don't know what has happened with Novak.

But, you know, it's an odd political motivation. I would say it participates in a larger and equally disturbing -- well, not equally for Matt, perhaps -- but -- trend which is a remarkable control over information in this administration.

Really, many of the norms of White House reporting have sort of broken down with this administration, increasingly keeping information secret and controlling the message. It's, I think, a lamentable state of affairs.

AMANPOUR: Matt, control of information. That's what we've basically seen for the last four years, whether it be in your particular case, the one that you're being taken to court over, or whether it be in reporting the war, reporting what's going on in Iraq, whether it be the whole reporting of the issue of the war on terrorism.

Do you feel that -- have you ever seen this kind of control before in your experience as a journalist?

COOPER: Not really, Christiane.

You know, I mean, all administrations try to keep a reign on leaks and they try to keep control of information, but the Bush administration has taken it to a new level. You know, at the White House it's not only sort of public problems, like the president having fewer press conferences than other presidents, but just the whole culture of the place. It is very difficult to gather information throughout other agencies of the U.S. federal government. Much more information is kept classified than used to be the case. Whole new areas of government have opened up, like this Homeland Security department, much of whose work is classified, and it makes it very hard for reporters to report on anything. You know, the awarding of contracts, the pursuit of terrorists. It's difficult work.

AMANPOUR: Geneva, as you watch and you study this and you've written a lot about the media in the United States, what is the larger issue, Geneva? Is it -- what is the cost if journalists can't hold democratically-elected governments accountable?

OVERHOLSER: Oh, the cost is enormous. I mean, what kind of democracy can we have when we're not able to get the information that citizens need, really, to govern themselves.

I mean, it's both the bad news and the good news, maybe, that we have had such a tumultuous year in media here, Christiane, I think, that some in the media are standing up and really beginning to think about what we can do to take more of the situation into our own hands.

I mean, it's been tumultuous in several ways. You know, we had both the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" doing essentially mea culpas about they having been too credulous, really, in reporting on the buildup to the war.

AMANPOUR: OK. Well, let me follow-up on that, because too credulous. Others would say some other organizations have been sort of self-censoring themselves. Do you think that in a second Bush administration it will go back to being business as usual in the journalistic community instead of this kind of kid gloves treatment that many in the mainstream and other media have given the administration over the past four years?

OVERHOLSER: Well, I think the trend has been better.

Immediately after 9/11, it was kid gloves-plus, but the trend has certainly been better. There is some pretty tough reporting going on, I believe, especially in the best U.S. newspapers.

But -- and I will say that Bush has had, what, two press conferences already, which is unusual, since the election, I mean.

But the problems are broad and numerous. I mean, the landscape of journalism in this country I would argue over the past year has changed in terms of increasing presence of clearly partisan media. I think there are important questions that are being answered and I hope over the course of the next year there will be more aggressiveness in being forthright and transparent about what drives us and certainly more assertiveness in reporting.

AMANPOUR: Matthew Cooper, assertiveness, more aggressiveness. This case that is being foisted upon you and other colleagues, does this have a chilling effect on you and your other colleagues, when you go out and seek to do the best you can to uncover the most you can?

COOPER: Well, it's obviously a big distraction, Christiane, being caught up in the American legal system. Wouldn't wish it on anyone.

But it -- I don't think it's actually had that big a chilling effect on people around me immediately. You know, I mean, we're fighting in court in my case, trying to keep me out of jail and, you know, I think we're just pressing ahead every day and doing our job.

I do think that these investigations, though, are kind of viral. We've had a kind of an explosion of these leak investigations, where prosecutors have begun for the first time in recent memory to start to haul journalists into court and try to get them to reveal sources.

It's ironic and probably not helpful for the United States at a time when we're trying to promote democracy in the Middle East and abroad, to be imprisoning reporters in the United States.


AMANPOUR: And on that note, Matthew Cooper, of "Time" magazine, Geneva Overholser, of the University of Missouri, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

We're going to take a quick break now, but when we come back, 54 journalists killed, 100 imprisoned. We look at why 2004 is proving to be the deadliest year in a decade around the world.

Stay with us.



The deadliest year in a decade. That's what media groups are calling 2004.

According to a press watchdog, as many as 54 journalists have been killed this year. Many of them deliberately targeted, from the Philippines to Columbia and points in between.

But it's not just murder. Governments, some supposedly democratic, are encroaching on press freedoms, making it almost impossible for journalists to do their job.

To talk us through this we're joined now in Moscow by Raf Shakirov, the former editor of "Izvestia." In Washington, we're joined by Salameh Nemat, the Washington bureau chief of "Al Hayat" newspaper. And in New York, Joel Simon, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Thank you all very much for joining us.

Ralph, I wanted to ask you, we have just introduced you as former editor. You lost your job over a story that you wrote in your newspaper. What happened and why was it so controversial?

RAF SHAKIROV, FMR. EDITOR OF "IZVESTIA": That's true. I was fired after the issue was raised here of the 4th of September. It was the next day after the attack in Beslan, after the terrorist attack.

So the whole issue of the newspaper was devoted to this tragedy and we tried to show to the country that it was a real new point in its history. The same point, almost more dangerous point, than the 11th of September for the United States.

But the next day I received a call from my bosses and they told me that it was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from the Kremlin and I was fired. They need blood, let us say, the blood.

AMANPOUR: Why did they want blood? What had you done wrong in their eyes?

SHAKIROV: From my point of view, I was, and our team of news people, was very honest covering these events. You know, according to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of our authorities, they suppose that such coverage of events is absolutely not adequate, from their point of view --

AMANPOUR: They say it's giving help to the terrorists.

SHAKIROV: -- because it's a pro-Chechen -- let us -- yes, yes. They appreciate it as help to the terrorists. That's it.

AMANPOUR: And in your view, is the Kremlin, is President Putin's government at war with journalism in Russia right now?

SHAKIROV: War is a very strong word. You know, it's -- in the United States, in your army, you have such a word as "penetration." You know, it's a kind of tactic and it's not a war. But such signs as you know, firing the editor-in-chief of "Izvestia" is a very strong sign to the print community.

AMANPOUR: Let me turn to Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which, you know, obviously monitors these kinds of events all over the world.

Mr. Simon, you're executive director. In fact, your organization has in response to these kinds of closures, these kinds of firings and indeed to the killing of journalists in various republics in the Soviet Union, including in Russia, have said that you can kill a journalist and get away with it. That is what seems to be the message from the Kremlin.

What is going on here in today's Kremlin?

JOEL SIMON, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: Well, it's certainly the case that journalism in Russia is much more limited than it was when the Soviet Union collapsed, and that's a pretty sad statement.

The Putin government has slowly consolidated control over media and used aggressive tax audits, other kinds of administrative practices to gain control or allow media to sort of be transferred to business people who are sympathetic to the Kremlin.

At the same time, there is a very violent environment, an environment of impunity. I believe it's 11 journalists have been killed in contract- style killings, including Paul Klebnikov, since Putin came to power. No one has been convicted in any of these crimes.

So there is a message -- there are two messages being sent. One is the Putin government itself will take measures against critical media. The other is those who use violence against journalists can get away with it.

AMANPOUR: I want to move on and then come back to see what we can do about this in the future, but basically you have said that in this emerging democracy, basically only all but three of the 15 former Soviet Republics have anything like some kind of flourishing and open press now, and those three states are the Baltic states.

I want to go across to Salameh Nematt of "Al Hayat" newspaper, who has also been outspoken about the kind of coverage and the kinds of reactions to coverage across the Middle East.

You've talked about the hypocrisy of some governments, in terms of what they accept and what they don't, in news coverage. For instance, let's just take the war in Iraq.

SALAMEH NEMATT, "AL HAYAT": There is no doubt about it. I mean, the war in Iraq has exposed the hypocrisy of many, many governments in the region, in the context of them asking for postponing elections or wanting fair and honest and free elections when they don't hold these elections themselves. Not a single government in the region has been directly elected by the people.

AMANPOUR: What is the hope in a place like Jordan, which many people see as one of the more liberal, one of the more democratic points in the Middle East. Is there any hope for a free and flourishing press?

NEMATT: Well, there is always hope, definitely, but the problem is that we have witnessed a regression in the past few years. The democratization process launched by the late King Hussein has been reversed over the past few years. Some would attribute that to the intifada and the Palestinian territories making the regime in Jordan nervous and less confident. Some attribute that to a combination of the Palestinian and Iraqi factors.

I believe that, you know, you can never blame outside forces for your failure to introduce reforms and I believe that the problem, the main problem throughout the region, is the rise of militarism represented by the security establishment taking over political responsibilities instead of the politicians.

AMANPOUR: Have you tried to figure out what it is with this year, this time, where everywhere we look just about there are assaults on the ability of journalist to do their job. It's not just in the Middle East. It's not just in the Soviet Union. It's all over the place, including in places which had for a moment some flowering of a free press.

Let's take Iran, for instance. I mean, all of those newspapers that came out after the reform movement have basically been shutdown and many, many journalists have basically been incarcerated. What do you think politically is going on around the world that is causing this to happen now?

NEMATT: I think there is a growing awareness, even in the developing world, that of the power of the media, and how political change actually begins in the media.

This increasing awareness has made authoritarian regimes more nervous and made them, you know, clamp down harder on journalists and the media.

The problem here obviously is that the more technology becomes effective and the transfer of information and knowledge becomes faster and easier, the more nervous these regimes become and the more they want to clamp down. You already have a few governments in the Middle East who basically filter the Internet and they basically control what you can or cannot see, you know, on your own PC.

This is really, really ridiculous considering that we're in this age and time, the 21st century, that there are still governments who want to hide things from their own people. They are afraid of their own people. This is one of the reasons why they don't hold elections.

AMANPOUR: Joel, I want to give you the last word.

SIMON: I just want to get back to the question that you asked Salameh and just -- I think that governments ultimately -- repressive governments - - are afraid of information. Information is something -- the more information the people have, the more threatened they feel. And that's why you're seeing this broad counterattack on independent journalism around the world.

I also think that the rhetoric of the war on terrorism has made that kind of counterattack easier. It's very simple to define your political enemies as terrorist and say that any coverage of their activities constitutes terrorism.

We've seen President Putin use that kind of rhetoric. We've seen President Mugabe, in Zimbabwe, and many other leaders around the world. So I think those are two factors in why we're seeing a broad crackdown on press freedom around the world.

AMANPOUR: Do you think it's going to get worse or better in 2005?

SIMON: It's hard to imagine it getting worse. I mean, as you mentioned, this has been the most deadly year in a decade for journalists around the world, and we haven't talked about journalists in prison. We're calculating our annual tally now, but there are at least 100 journalists in prison around the world.

So I am optimistic only because I just have trouble imagining it getting worse.

AMANPOUR: Joel Simon, Raf Shakirov, and Salameh Nematt, thank you all so much for joining us.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London.

We leave you with our tribute to all of those colleagues who have been killed just doing their job this year.



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