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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired April 16, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Nic Robertson, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
The death of Pope John Paul II has left a monumental vacancy at the Vatican. His funeral was a hugely public affair broadcast to millions around the world. Selecting a successor, however, is a considerably more private affair. The conclave has historically been shrouded in secrecy. The entire process takes place behind closed doors.

Why is the media banned from covering it and what challenges do journalists face in finding out what's really going on during a papal election?

To discuss this further I'm joined by Charles Sennott, European bureau chief for the "Boston Globe," and in New York by Greg Tobin, an author.

Greg, you've written extensively about electing a pope. Just how difficult is it going to be for journalists to get a handle on who's going to be elected?

GREG TOBIN, AUTHOR: It's extremely difficult and it has been traditionally. You look back at the elections of the past half century or more and even as the electronic media were coming into play it was still a lot of reliance upon buzz and rumor there in Rome and in Italy and people around the world are watching and waiting.

There is a lot of pressure on journalists to get the story and get it right, but it is very difficult.

ROBERTSON: Charles, you're one of those journalists. You're trying to get it right. There is a media blackout on what goes on in the conclave. There is electronic bugs to stop people eavesdropping. How are you getting it to your audience?

CHARLES SENNOTT, "BOSTON GLOBE": I think one of the things you try to do in covering a story like this is just to shape the way it works, and the truth is no one knows who is going to be the next pope.

I think the cardinals themselves don't know where the critical mass will build until they get in there and until a candidate begins to emerge. It's a mystical, ancient process steeped not only in tradition but also in spirituality, and it's one of those stories we cover as journalists where, in fact, I think we have a different role this time. We aren't there to set the agenda. We aren't kind of out there doing analysis. What we have to do is wait for the white smoke, like everyone else.

ROBERTSON: This is an entirely different set of circumstances than 26 years ago. There is a much more active media around the world, 24 x 7 news coverage. Even the cardinals are coming in and out past rows of cameras, and they're taking advantage of it, aren't they?

SENNOTT: I think they are. I think the cardinals are very sophisticated about the ways in which they use the media because they've picked up on this from the pope himself, John Paul II, understood the media more than any other pope in history. He used the media to his advantage. They created Vatican Television, they created, you know, kind of live broadcasts to cover his funeral, to have all of these extraordinary events surrounding his death, so that his final teaching, even when he was silenced, becomes a media event about his perseverance and the struggle against death.

But in this election in particular, it's been interesting to watch the cardinals, the princes of the church, work the media. They put the issues out in buzz words. For example they'll walk by the pressroom and stop me or a few colleagues and say they really want to talk about collegiality. Now collegiality means kind of relocating some of the power back to the diocese, back to the bishops, taking it away from the centralized power. Or they'll talk about things like governance, which means despite the incredible successes of this papacy, this pope may have let some governance go.

So all of these issues are telegraphed through the media to their constituencies, the world, but also to their fellow cardinals sitting in their residences or in their hotel rooms waiting to vote.

ROBERTSON: Greg, do you think the media is going to play a different role that may even have an influence and a bearing this time on who is elected?

TOBIN: I don't think the media will much influence who is elected.

Charles is right in terms of the cardinals intelligence, sophistication, regarding communications and media today.

ROBERTSON: And, of course, another thing that's changed in the last few years as well, a more free-wheeling element of the media, if you will, the blog sites have already taken up against some of the potential candidates who have been seen to perhaps rise through the popularity ranks in the last few days.

Do you think that this kind of message, these blog sites, does it filter through to the cardinals, through their aides, perhaps?

TOBIN: I think, as we were discussing before the broadcast, Charles is there and thinks that they do, and I know that especially their aides are very plugged in and very tuned in. At some point the cardinals themselves really are sort of separated from that kind of contact. At the point of the opening of the conclave, they're separated, they're isolated, not 100 percent, but they will be on their own, and they may absorb some of the information, this electronic buzz, as well as the press, of course, there in Rome.

ROBERTSON: Charles, has the media given the pope good and fair coverage? Is the audience being best served by what they've seen so far and what they're hearing now, the speculation?

SENNOTT: I think this was an extraordinary event to cover for the media. I mean, I have covered the war in Iraq, 9/11, U.S. presidential elections, a lot of exciting stories. I think I can honestly say this is the most extraordinary event I've ever taken part in coverage of, and what was extraordinary about it was the way in which it was about the world.

This really drove home, I think, to the media, and I think to some extent the media was caught by surprise at the extent of the number of people who came, I mean, 8 million people coming through Rome to honor this man. I talked to a guy who sold his truck in Mexico so he could attend the funeral. We talked to people who drove for 25, 30 hours in packed cars from Poland because the trains were full and the planes were full.

It was an extraordinary outpouring of support for the guy. I do think we had built up a lot of expectation for how we were going to cover this. Everyone had a special section. Everyone had a special broadcast ready, and I think it is fair criticism or a fair question to say did we go overboard, and I think we did a bit.

But I think we went overboard on a man who had a cinematic life. I mean, one of the most extraordinary lives of a leader in the 20th century, and I think we did our best to capture the sweep and scope of that. It took up a lot of time.

The one criticism I would say of myself, of my newspaper, of my colleagues, I think, if we were going to be self-effacing, is to say we could have been a little bit more critical in terms of putting this pope in the context of how the Catholic world feels about him.

I think we really understood him as on important figure, one of the great popes of the history of the church, but there are a lot -- there is a lot of criticism there as well from the left in the church, from those who want to see women ordained, from those who believe that this was an over- centralization of the process in Rome, for those who feel that the issues of deep poverty were not addressed in a deep way. And I think in the next papacy, we in the media face a challenge too, and that's to cover these issues of poverty.

When this pope took power, the word was divided east-west. He played a role in bringing that wall down. Now the word is divided north-south, and I think if we as the media do a good job covering the next papacy, we'll be in Africa and Latin America a lot of the time, chronicling the Catholic Church's role in fighting poverty and its controversial role in fighting AIDS.

ROBERTSON: Greg Tobin, in New York, thank you very much. Charles Sennott, here in London, thank you both. Sorry, we've run out of time.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, China's silence. We take a look at Beijing's media ban on anti-Japanese protests.

Stay with us.


ROBERTSON: Protests in Tiananmen Square, and I'm not referring to 1989, but that is exactly what's planned for this weekend. This time, the fury is not directed at the Chinese government but Japan as anger has built up over its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and controversial text books that the activists say ignore Japan's brutal wartime colonization of Asian nations.

Chinese government censors ban the nation's journalists from reporting the demonstrations earlier this week, but now as the indignation intensifies and more marches are planned, the international media is taking note.

To discuss this further, I'm joined by Christopher Lockwood, Asian editor of the "Economist" magazine.

Christopher, why is it important for the Chinese to ban the coverage?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKWOOD, "ECONOMIST": They are very worried that this is going to get out of control. The problem with nationalism is that it's a genie in a bottle. Once you let it out, there's really no knowing where it will go, particularly in a country like China, where protest of any form is so difficult and so rare. The danger is, once people have a cause to start demonstrating about, it can snowball into almost anything and it can get really very dangerous to the Communist regime.

You have to remember what happened in 1989. That started out as a protest -- not a protest at all, actually, but an expression of grieving for the late (UNINTELLIGIBLE), who had just died, and it then turned into a set of protests that came very close to toppling the Communist government.

ROBERTSON: Is that realistic, that these protests could really snowball? Is there any indication that's happening?

LOCKWOOD: I'm not saying that. I'm saying that there is just an unpredictability about what happens with protests in China, and they are very worried, I think, that these will go too far.

That said, they have wanted to use them up till now in order to make their point, make their point to the Japanese, that the Japanese shouldn't be going for a Security Council seat, that China is the only important power in East Asia, and the Japanese should remember their place.

ROBERTSON: I mean, there is an indication that the Internet is being used to spread the word of the protest, that mobile phone text messaging is spreading the word as well, and that's getting out of control.

LOCKWOOD: I would be very surprised if you see any of the mainland newspapers carrying this story in any significant way. If they have been told not to do it, they will do that.

Internet is a different thing. The police in China do a pretty good job of controlling the Internet, but if is inherently a very difficult thing to police. People know how to get around all of the controls, how to use anonymous accounts, and, you know, it's a sort of tag, really, between the authorities and the protesters, to get their messages up quicker than the authorities can take them down.

ROBERTSON: What are we learning about the Chinese media at this time as they sort of follow the governmental controls here on the ban on reporting?

LOCKWOOD: The Chinese media?

ROBERTSON: In China, yes.

LOCKWOOD: We learn that although they've reformed in some ways, they are still quite supine. They are quite prepared to criticize the government on minor things. They're quite prepared to expose ill-doing by lowly officials, even quite senior officials. But when it comes down to what you might call matters of state, major policy, important stuff, they will do what they're told.

ROBERTSON: While the international media, not confined by the same bounds, but still potentially faced with being thrown out of the country.

LOCKWOOD: That's a risk that all of us will have to take. We're going to write about these protests. I'm sure CNN will continue to cover the protests. If we get thrown out, we get thrown out. CNN very famously, of course, was taken off the air during 1989 Tiananmen incident.

ROBERTSON: Do you think things could get that serious in this particular situation? Could it develop to that state?

LOCKWOOD: I would bet not. I don't think there is the same hunger in China for a massive challenge to the system as there was in 1989 and the reason simply is that people have done very well out of this present Communist government in China. There has been a lot of economic reform, a considerable amount of individual liberty in a way that there just wasn't in the 1980s. People aren't bossed around in the same way. People used to have to get official permission to get married or (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and all of that. You know, that's all gone now. So there isn't the same anger with the state that there was then.

So I think it will go a certain amount, but not too far.

ROBERTSON: If the Chinese government doesn't get this right or doesn't run the ban as efficiently as they would like to, they're implications for trade. Japan and China are very big trading partners right now.

LOCKWOOD: It's a huge problem. This is a really serious situation.

China and Japan, as you say, are each others largest trading partner. Japan does more business with China then it does with America now. At least in some years, that's the case for China with Japan. China trades more with Japan then it does with America, an extraordinary fact. This wasn't true just a few years ago. And this is very dangerous for that reason.

Japanese investors, particularly businessmen, Japanese, who are planning to go to China, will be thinking twice about traveling on the mainland, putting their money in the mainland. They will be worried about violence against them or against their property. It is a big problem.

ROBERTSON: Charles Lockwood, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, held hostage on planet bin Laden. We hear from a journalist who became a pawn of one of the world's most dangerous nations.

Stay with us.


ROBERTSON: Welcome back.

Hauled around in a cardboard box, threatened with beheading and fed on dates and green beans, this is what two French journalists were subjected to while held hostage in Iraq for four months.

Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot thought their time was up. Miraculously, they were finally freed from what they dubbed planet bin Laden.

Well, Georges joins me here in the London studio now.

Georges, you've had four months now to reflect an that experience. What have you learned from it? What did it teach you about yourself?

GEORGES MALBRUNOT, JOURNALIST: It taught me that we could resist, finally, under a tough situation, and we managed to survive because there was no other alternative. It's very simple, when you are held you have only two things you can judge: the way your captors treat you and the information they give you.

So from those two points we thought from the beginning that perhaps our fate would not be a disaster. And after, of course, it took a long time before we got released, but we managed. We told ourselves we had to be strong, otherwise -- you can't be weak from the first day, otherwise the outcome -- you can resist if it lasts, or as it lasted for four months.

ROBERTSON: Why do you think that you were let go and not killed like so many of the other hostages?

MALBRUNOT: We were released because there was an agreement between the French and the Islamic army in Iraq, our captors. We don't know the context of this agreement, but there was negotiations for four months between the French and the Islamic army. They wanted political insurance that the French would not send troops in Iraq, and the answer was clear and done by our foreign minister, the United Nations General Assembly in September, today and tomorrow, and in fact at this time there were discussions by e-mail, perhaps the first time in hostage history.

The French ambassador in Baghdad was e-mailing messages to the Islamic army in Iraq and there was for two weeks these kind of negotiations. We were supposed to be released at the end of the first month, and after there was a French member of parliament who disrupted the channel. But the contacts were tough also, difficult, because our captors were a little bit afraid of interference. They were afraid also that the French gave information to the Americans. Until the last moment, until our release, they were panicking that the French at the last minute gave the localization of the release. So it took a long time.

And also perhaps there was another problem with the security situation. There was the attack in Fallujia and, you know, hostage crises can take months and even years. So we knew that by experience from Lebanon and four months, boy, it long, but we managed, we survived, and it's an old story now.

ROBERTSON: Was a ransom paid for your release?

MALBRUNOT: I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. It wouldn't be unusual, but we have no information. Our kidnappers told us at the beginning, we don't want money. One of the problems you are not released is because there was a mediator ready to give $1 million. We are not thieves. Is it true or not, I don't know.

ROBERTSON: Did you talk to your kidnappers about the role of journalists in conflicts, that they don't take one side or another? Did you get into a debate with them about this?

MALBRUNOT: We told them, you know, American journalists, British journalists, can be very tough against their government, so if you take journalists, you shoot yourself. So we tried to let them understand that journalists are not spies or are not fighters. They come here to show the reality of the occupation to the Americans, to the French, but they are not reflecting the position of their country.

ROBERTSON: Your kidnappers could be watching this right now. What would you say to them now?

MALBRUNOT: I would say to them not to kidnap any journalists. They need journalists. When there was a French delegation of Muslims sent to Baghdad, they met (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Sunni responsible for the situation, and one of the French Muslims told them, during the French war in Algeria, there was no French journalist kidnapped or killed. You need journalists to show the reality of the occupation to the American people. And I told them, the American press is tough, it's very tough.

So I would say, I will tell them the same as I told them. You need journalists, and the journalists are helping you. They told us we don't need journalists, we want to be face to face with the Americans.

ROBERTSON: Georges, I'm sorry, we're run out of time. But thank you very much for joining us.

Journalists are among many still being held in Iraq. "Liberacion" correspondent Florence Aubernaise (ph) and her guide, Hussein Hanun al-Said (ph) were last seen leaving their Baghdad hotel on January 5. A day of solidarity was held in the French capital on Friday to mark their 100th day in captivity. Three Romanian journalists were also abducted last month.

In other news, the two British journalists arrested in Zimbabwe have been cleared of breaking the country's strict media law. Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds of the "Sunday Telegraph" were accused of reporting on the Zimbabwe elections without proper accreditation.

And in Morocco, a leading reporter has been fined and banned from journalism for 10 years for criticizing the monarchy. Ali Lmrabet was ordered to pay nearly $6,000 for defaming a little-known association in the Western Sahara. Lmrabet has also repeatedly "tested the limits" of press freedom in the Muslim country. He was jailed for three years for insulting the king in his now-banned satirical magazine.

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 Nic Robertson, thank you for joining us.



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