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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 19, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


WALTER RODGERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Walter Rodgers, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
We begin this week with bloodshed in the streets of Beirut. After more than a decade of relative calm, Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered, along with 14 others, in a bomb attack.

Within seconds, journalists were asking who was behind it, and why.

The Western media was quick to point collective fingers of blame at Syria. The Arab press also weighed in with analysis on the future of Syrian-Lebanese relations. But all of this so far amounts to little more than speculation.

I'm joined now from Beirut by CNN's bureau chief there, Brent Sadler, and here in London by Sebastian Usher, media correspondent for BBC World.

Brent, let me start with you. First, it was a heck of a story, but as I watched it unfold, it almost seemed like there was a rush to judgment. Within seconds, correspondents from virtually very network were saying you have to suspect the Syrians in all of this.

Was there a rush to judgment?

BRENT SADDLER, CNN BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF: Walter, first of all, this was a massive explosion by any accounts given the succession of assassinations this country has seen over decades during the civil war.

Yes, there was a rush to judgment, because the hand of Syria is so influential in Lebanon. Its security forces, its intelligence services are hand in hand with the Lebanese. But also, there was also accusations going that were more muted towards Israel, Lebanon's southern neighbor. Israel also involved it is alleged here with assassinations of enemies of Israel for many, many years, the Mossad accused of being behind those assassinations.

But as always here, there never really comes any had, undeniable proof of responsibility.

RODGERS: But isn't it dangerous? I mean, I recall when I was in Beirut in the `80s, you were there then. If some pointed a finger of blame at the Syrians, you were taking your life in your own hands, weren't you? Isn't it dangerous to do this for a journalist?

SADLER: Journalists have always been keen to not accuse directly, but to pickup what the temperature on the streets are. I mean, we reporters are attributing these accusations to what people believe. There is a widespread belief here that Syria directly or indirectly, or at least allow the politicians that support Syria, to create the tension of instability here in the political field could let something like this happen, take out Hariri, someone with that international clout and that reputation here in the Middle East.

RODGERS: Sebastian, rush to judgment or reasonable journalistic news call?

SEBASTIAN USHER, BBC WORLD: I think the way that it was presented, and in the Arab media this was the case, was that they showed the people in Lebanon, the people who were close to Hariri, the opposition politicians, pointing the finger at the Syrians. They were not, as journalists themselves, saying we think the Syrians did it, but they were reflecting what was the dominant sense being felt on the streets of Beirut and in other cities in Lebanon.

And what you have now in the Arab world, you have all these Arab stations, like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, which are beamed 24 hours into Arab homes, both in the Arab world and outside, and they are giving a forum to voices that you might not have heard in the past. So it is quite interesting to actually see Lebanese politicians pointing the finger at the Syrians and then have an official from Damascus -- the vice president, for example, was in Beirut -- having to answer questions about that.

They've also been amongst those who have been trying to put the finger of blame towards the Israelis.

RODGERS: Now, let me ask you that question. Shred of evidence there? Or is this just the typical Arab conspiracy theory that anytime anything bad happens, it's the Israelis?

USHER: There hasn't been a huge amount of that that I have seen in the newspapers and on the Arab media. Obviously, in Syria itself, quite a few of the newspapers have been suggesting quite obliquely, actually, that Israel must be behind this, that American interests must be behind this. But there hasn't been -- which I think is sometimes the perception in the Western world -- that there is just a huge media reaction in the Arab world -- something happens in an Arab country which has a difficult relationship with Israel, the Israelis must be behind it.

RODGERS: Let me ask you this. One of the things that came out of the Hariri assassination story was that once again the world was reminded I think that the Syrians have 17,000 to 18,000 troops in Lebanon. Now, if that is the case, why is the world so silent about this? If Israel occupies the West Bank or occupies Gaza, the Arab world screams. Why is there this double standard for journalists about Syria occupying and pulling the strings in Lebanon?

USHER: I think that there are several answers to that. There are political answers which are that Lebanon hasn't been at the forefront of people's concern for quite a long time. But also, within the Arab world, the media outlets and so on, I mean, I'm not pushing for the Syrians to move out of Lebanon. Until recently, this was very much an internal Lebanese feeling and its' now come out on the world stage with what's happened to Hariri, and it's been building up there for months, as Brent says. But that hasn't been something which has been making the headlines around the world, in the West or in the Arab world. It just hasn't seemed like such a big story.

I mean, the Syrians have been there in some capacity or another since 1976.

RODGERS: Brent, as you look at the stories, the next day after Hariri was killed, one of the things you saw was this prediction of destabilization of the region again. Is that just reporters looking for a lead? What is your worst-case scenario in the post-Hariri era?

SADLER: Let's look at the bigger picture, Walt.

Syria's neighbor is Iraq. Democracy at work under the patronage of the United States, going on right next to Syria, right on Syria's doorstep.

Lebanon was expecting parliamentary elections, is still expecting parliamentary elections in a couple of months from now. The wider picture is U.S. plans to democratize the Middle East. What role does enduring one- man rule in Syria for decades have in this new vision that the United States has with the United States given its relationship with Israel.

In terms of destabilization, who benefits from this most of all? Syrian officials tell me, do you think that we would be so insane as to kill Rafik Hariri and bring the pressure of the United States and France to an even higher level when we, the Syrians, are already under intense pressure from the United Nations and other countries? What does Syria have to benefit from this? That's the question they ask and they point to Israel, the Syrians, quite clearly and obviously, and they also point to Islamists, the possibility of some sort of al Qaeda link to destabilize Lebanon on the border with Israel and to weaken Syria's relationship still further with the United States to serve Islamic interests.

And then there is the other idea that Rafik Hariri was a Saudi citizen as well as a Lebanese citizen. Maybe there was some connection with the Saudi royal family and al Qaeda's ambitions to topple that regime.

RODGERS: Brent Sadler, Sebastian Usher, thanks very, very much for your valuable insights.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the powers of persuasion. We debate the rise and the role of Internet bloggers.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: CNN's Eason Jordan is the latest high-profile news executive to quit. He stood down to quell the controversy over his reported remarks about U.S. soldiers killing journalists.

Some media commentators say Jordan was got by the bloggers, those who pen streams of comment on the Internet.

The furor is prompting fierce debate over the rise and power of these bloggers. Is this really power to the people? And what happens when bloggers chase stories or go for heads? And either way, who and what should be keeping an eye on them?

Joining me now to discuss this further is Howard Kurtz, media correspondent at the "Washington Post" and host of CNN'S RELIABLE SOURCES; and Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard Law Schools Berkman Center.

Rebecca, you're a journalist and a blogger. What are the issues here?

REBECCA MACKINNON, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Well, the issues here are that the media, the professional journalists, no longer control the agenda of what is considered important and what is discussed in the public sphere, so you have situation where Eason Jordan, in Davos, made some remarks in a forum, and a person who was in the audience, a gentleman named Romy Amovitz (ph), who is a businessman based in Florida, was upset by the idea that he thought that U.S. troops might be targeting journalists, wanted to foster more discussion about this and wrote an account of what had been said on the World Economic Forum Web Log.

And then other bloggers started pointing to this, discussing this, saying isn't this outrageous, that Eason Jordan had insinuated that the U.S. troops were doing this deliberately, even though he had backed down.

Now, there had been some media reports as well, but it was really the bloggers who brought this issue to the forefront, and particularly a group of conservative bloggers who were outraged, that they felt that Mr. Jordan had been in some people's world slandering U.S. troops, although Eason did clarify and say that actually he had not meant in any way that there was a deliberate targeting and that in fact what he meant to say was to express concern about the situation in Iraq.

But what this shows is that journalists, the professional media, no longer control the framing of debate on issues anymore. It also shows that any public forum or any meeting that has more than say a handful of people in it, even if there are ground rules about it being off the record, it is impossible to expect such a meeting to be off the record anymore, because anybody might possibly put an account of that meeting on the Internet.

RODGERS: Howard, should these bloggers get to define the agenda or what is news and what isn't? Let me give you an example.

I was in Davos that day. The lead clearly out of that was not Eason Jordan self-destructing, talking about the future of democracy and the news media. The lead was Tony Blair. It was Bill Clinton. It was Bill Gates. Two African presidents and Bono talking about Africa. How in the heck did the bloggers hijack the story of the day?

HOWARD KURTZ, MEDIA ANALYST: Well, welcome to the digital world, Walt. Bloggers get to say and do and post anything they want. They don't have editors. They don't have lawyers. They don't have a lot of rules.

But in this case, while there is no question that the people going from the original blogger to many other bloggers, mostly conservative but not exclusively, who drummed this and made so much noise that Eason Jordan ultimately decided to step down from CNN, this was a self-inflicted wound by Eason Jordan, and a lot of people are saying that he didn't handle his defense very effectively.

He gave only one interview, which happened to be to me. He did not call for the release of the videotape, which would clarify exactly what he had said, for those of us who were not at Davos. There are conflicting accounts of just how far he had backed off. And in an age when news moves at the speed of light, it is very hard to do that. And so he kind of lost control of his own story.

RODGERS: Rebecca, shouldn't news executives appearing in public be held to the same ethical and journalistic standards that the reporters who work for them are? If you're going to make an allegation, you better have a source. You better be able to back it up. Isn't that a basic rule?

MACKINNON: Well, that's certainly what a lot of journalists and a lot of bloggers have been saying in the aftermath of this, that you have to be careful what you say in public, and you don't make allegations or you don't -- or you make sure that you don't even misspeak allegations or things that might be construed as allegations, until you do have facts.

RODGERS: Howard, can you sue a blogger for liable or slander if indeed you have been wronged?

KURTZ: I'm sure you can sue them, but they don't necessarily have any money. It's not like suing CNN or the "New York Times."

The fascinating twist here, Walt, is that in the past, bloggers have managed to push an issue into the mainstream media -- a classic example, CBS's Dan Rather and his since retracted story about President Bush's military service. This is the first case that I've even seen where the bloggers didn't just play a role where they pushed a story into the mainstream press, they basically created the story themselves.

RODGERS: Rebecca, bloggers see themselves as guardians of truth. Does a democracy need self-appointed guardians of truth? And to whom are they accountable?

MACKINNON: Well, I think one important thing to point out, that we're talking really about a very, very tiny segment of what is know as the blogosphere. People who are very involved in the public discourse.

The majority of what we believe are in existing 7 million or so blogs out there, the majority of those are not trying to be journalistic. They're just having conversations about their lives. They're talking about their hobbies.

So there is only a very small percentage of bloggers who are really trying to impact the public debate and to do something that they would describe as journalism.

RODGERS: Have they hijacked the media? And, again, to whom should they be accountable? And is this a breakdown of the traditional media -- Howard.

KURTZ: Look, I think it's a very healthy development. I don't want to live in a world anymore where five or six or seven media corporations control the national conversation.

The idea that anybody who can write and has some opinions can go online and share those with the world is a great thing.

Yes, they don't -- they're not accountable in the traditional sense of having an editorial chain of command, but they are accountable to each other and to us. If they make mistakes, if they are so partisan that people can see that they don't have a lot of logic behind what they're putting up on that computer screen, then they lose audience. Nobody has to read a blog. These people have to earn the respect of viewers everywhere.

And I also think in this new world, Walt, that the mainstream media people, like you and me, need to do more reporting on the excesses of the blogosphere, so that we hold them accountable just as they delight in holding news organizations accountable.

RODGERS: Thank you very much. We'll close with Thomas Jefferson: "Error of opinion can be tolerated where freedom of expression exists."

Howard, Rebecca, thanks very, very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, one journalist battles to overcome Zimbabwe's oppressive press laws.

Stay with us.


RODGERS: Welcome back.

Wilf Mbanga has been declared an enemy of the people, but that has not stopped him for fighting for an independent media in Zimbabwe. The founder of the now-silenced "Daily News" has launched yet another newspaper, this time here in London. "The Zimbabwean" pitches itself as a voice for the voiceless.

Robyn Curnow has this story.


ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hot off the press, a new independent Zimbabwean newspaper. Not printed in the troubled Southern African country, but in London.

Weekly reading not just for the estimated 1 million Zimbabweans living in the United Kingdom, but also for news-hungry readers back home.

The editor, Wilf Mbanga, has found a novel way of breaking Zimbabwe's Draconian print laws. 10,000 copies of this first edition were flown into Harare to be distributed along with other international journals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no law in Zimbabwe to stop outside papers being distributed in the country. It is difficult to register inside the country to start a paper inside the country, but if you are operating from outside, you don't have a register. So we have exploited that loophole.

CURNOW: Mbanga's previous newspaper venture, the "Daily News" in Zimbabwe, was closed by the Mugabe government. Virginia Maluko (ph) worked as a photographer for Mbanga and his paper in the capital, Harare, until she, like many other journalists, was beaten and jailed by the government, which has been increasingly heavy-handed with the independent media and any other voices of dissent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you work for the state, you're safe. And if you work for independent papers, like I was doing, then you are at risk. You are at very great risk.

CURNOW: A brutal clamp down on members of the press as well as intimidation of government opposition members, just some of the human rights abuses of which the Mugabe government stands accused.

New U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singling out Zimbabwe as an outpost of Tyranny, along with Cuba, Belarus and Burma.

(on camera): The masthead of "The Zimbabwean" newspaper bills it as a voice for the voiceless, an independent news source critical of the Mugabe government ahead of the March elections.

(voice-over): The paper is funded by the editor and two Dutch NGOs. Financing is secured until the parliamentary elections in 1-1/2 months time. After that, its future is not yet written.

Robyn Curnow, CNN, London.


RODGERS: Since its launch last week, "The Zimbabwean's" editor Wilf Mbanga says it has sold more than 10,000 copies. He joins me now to expand on his mission to promote independent reporting in Zimbabwe.

We also invited the Zimbabwean government to appear on the program. The country's deputy high commissioner in London, Godfrey Magwenzi, declined, saying that Mr. Mbanga's latest venture is, quote, "inconsequential and probably full of falsehoods."

Wilf, what do you say about that?

WILF MBANGA, "THE ZIMBABWEAN": How can he say that before he has even seen a copy of the newspaper?

RODGERS: Never let truth get in the way of a good story.

MBANGA: Right.

But, you know, they should have waited until they have seen the copy, and then they can say that.

RODGER: How has the paper been received internationally and in Africa and in Zimbabwe?

MBANGA: Fantastic. We sold out all 10,000 copies that we sent to Zimbabwe, and in fact we understand that some people were buying the paper on the streets for $4,000 Zimbabwe, which is about 20 pounds, and reselling it, after reading it, for $7,000.

RODGERS: Why do you think the Zimbabwean government refused to appear on this program with you?

MBANGA: Because they look at me now as an enemy of the people, as you said in your opening remarks.

RODGERS: What does that mean in Zimbabwe? Enemy of the people?

MBANGA: Well, you know, let's just give a dog a bad name and hang him. That's basically -- they say they don't like the way I've been reporting. They don't tolerate any alternative viewpoints.

If you don't agree with them, you're an enemy of the people.

RODGERS: Obviously, you think there is an information gap in Zimbabwe. How bad is it?

MBANGA: Quite bad. You know, the -- well, you can see from the sales of the newspaper, the moment it hits the streets, people flood it, you know, to buy it. They were grabbing the newspaper. And in fact, we're asking next week if they don't find it, we're going to increase the print run for Zimbabwe.

RODGERS: What is it that the government is afraid of? What is it they're trying to hide?

MBANGA: Obviously they can see that their track record is not impressive. They don't want anybody to point out their mistakes.

In any democracy where there are two major contestants, like what we have here, the MDC and the Zanu PF, you would expect that they would allow people to have the facts at their disposal before making a decision before the election.

But the MDC, the opposition, is not allowed access to the media in Zimbabwe. They do not allow any independent voices, and that's why I've got these problems.

RODGERS: Why has the Zimbabwean government banned the international news media from coming in and covering the upcoming elections?

MBANGA: Well, that's precisely because there's something to hide.

RODGERS: OK. What are they hiding?

MBANGA: Well, a number of things. There is -- I mean, human rights are being abused. A number of people have been killed. Women have been raped. The opposition is not allowed to campaign freely in the rural areas. The judiciary has been emasculated. We've got the hospitals operating without drugs because of inefficiency, corruption and -- just corruption.

RODGERS: The Zimbabwean government dismisses your newspaper as, quote, "a gigantic fraud."

MBANGA: Well, why are people -- the readers, for me, are the people who decide whether it is a fraud or not. They are prepared to part with their $4,000 to get this, and others are reading it secondhand for $7,000. That is a vote of confidence.

RODGERS: One last question. The upcoming elections in Zimbabwe, what's your prediction?

MBANGA: Mugabe says they're already won the election, they're going to bury the opposition. So that speaks for itself.

RODGERS: So it's a charade?

MBANGA: Well, I don't even know why they are going through with this process.

RODGERS: Thank you very much, Mr. Mbanga.

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 Walt Rodgers. Thanks for joining us.



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