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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired April 24, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Matthew Chance, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media bring the big stories of the moment.
Closed down in Iran, kicked out of Baghdad and banned in Saudi Arabia, Al Jazeera is arguably the world's most controversial television station. It puts Osama bin Laden on air as well as grizzly beheadings, including piercing screams of hostages.

But despite much criticism, the Pan Arab news channel is expanding, an English-language network is in the pipeline, along with kids' shows and a documentary series. Can the beit noir (ph) of the Bush administration ever be globally accepted?

Well, to discuss this I'm joined by Hugh Miles, author of a new book about Al Jazeera, and Maher Othman, editor of the London-based "Al Hayat" newspaper. Thank you, both of you, for joining us.

Hugh, let me start with you, because this is a television network, Al Jazeera, that has been grandly lambasted in the West, I suppose, for being the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden, for inciting violence in Iraq, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. All of that is true, isn't it?

HUGH MILES, AUTHOR: It is absolutely true, although it's worth bearing in mind that the British independent watchdog, the television regulator, OFCOM (ph), regards Al Jazeera as substantially less biased than Fox News.

CHANCE: Nevertheless, this is an organization that broadcasts the speeches of Osama bin Laden. It shows the images of hostages being executed by insurgents in Iraq. It's a mouthpiece for these organizations.

MILES: Well, actually, that's not true. Al Jazeera has never shown an executive live, but it has shown bin Laden tapes consistently.

CHANCE: What's the basis of its special access to al Qaeda, do you think?

MILES: Well, Al Jazeera is the go-to channel for a lot of terrorist organizations besides al Qaeda. They get tapes from the Chechens, from Afghan warlords, from different groups, because they know that through Al Jazeera they'll reach a large, trans-Atlantic, Arabic-speaking audience, and they probably won't be edited.

CHANCE: Is there a sense, you think, that it's a little too close to these organizations? One of its correspondents is currently indicted in Spain, on trial in Spain, for being a member of al Qaeda.

MILES: That's true, and certainly a lot of people would agree with you. But the fact is that many news organizations envy Al Jazeera's relationship with al Qaeda and the way that it consistently gets these tapes and are eager to share footage and use Al Jazeera's contacts.

CHANCE: Maher, let me bring you in, because this assertion that Al Jazeera is a bastion of the independent media, in a region where the independent media is pretty rare, do you agree with that?

MAHER OTHMAN, "AL HAYAT": Generally, yes I do. I think Al Jazeera has brought onto the Arab political and media scene a totally new thing, an independent line, a line which knows no taboos.

It broke so many barriers. It brought so many issues in the open. And it offered an alternative view to, for example, the embedded journalism, American style and British style, Afghanistan and in the first Iraq War and in the second Iraq War.

So it is very much respected and it is very much viewed and listened to, and as I said, it is an alternative. It provides information where, for example, the information was blocked about bin Laden or about Sinn Fein even in this country. Nothing has moved. So people do need information. Governments need information.

CHANCE: How concerned are you about these proposals -- and they're not firm plans, but there are proposals for Al Jazeera to be privatized? This sort of independent stance that it says it has, do you think that could be threatened if it is bought by representatives of a country like Saudi Arabia, for instance?

OTHMAN: It has, obviously, its pros and cons, and also it very much depends on how it is done. If it is not going to be turned into a private monopoly, like news organizations in this country or globally, Rupert Murdoch, and then begin to affect political things or take sides totally, then well and good.

If the shares can be distributed evenly among so many parties, including the staff of Al Jazeera, you know, there could be many arrangements to guarantee its independence, really.

CHANCE: Hugh, do you think any news organization can be truly independent? I mean, can it, you know, maintain this sort of, this ideal of independence in a world that is full of various interests that are vastly vested in this?

MILES: No, I think absolutely not. I think it would be very načve to think that there is such a think as the objective truth, and I think any sensible person will educate themselves from several different news sources and try and makeup the best picture that they can.

But I think that Al Jazeera has issues that its financiers and the relationship between its editorial output and who controls it financially, that's the same for every channel. These questions are not unique to Al Jazeera. But with regards to them selling the channel, I think this is as much a move to try to flex on the heat coming from the American administration as much as it is to actually, genuinely set the channel up on its own two feet.

CHANCE: Now, the channel has also announced plans to expand quite dramatically. They're launching an English language channel, a kids channel, a documentary channel as well. At the same time, it's coming under increasing pressure in the region. It's banned from Iran, from reporting in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as well. It's going to have some difficulty filling its air, isn't it?

MILES: Well, history has shown that Al Jazeera has managed to get exclusive reports and scoops in countries even when it's been banned from them. Al Jazeera continues to get exclusives in Iraq, even though it's not there and, for example, in 2002, during the elections in Bahrain, Arabs in Bahrain were sending their own footage to Al Jazeera, and so Al Jazeera had exceptional coverage. It's the go-to station for people in the Arab world.

CHANCE: Maher, do you agree with that? Or do you think Al Jazeera is being too ambitious in this expansion?

OTHMAN: I tend to agree with Hugh, actually, regarding this, because people will continue to provide Al Jazeera with information where it matters, when it matters, and providing it, it seems, with scoops in many cases, really, because they listen to it and they see no alternative. You know, they don't like to see government-sponsored stations, state media organizations, really.

CHANCE: All right, Maher Othman and Hugh Miles, thank you very much for being with us here.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, after the tsunami. The media's role in mending Aceh's broken heart.

Stay with us.


CHANCE: Welcome back.

They are images that will haunt the world for decades to come. The Indonesian province of Aceh was one of many regions flattened by the power of the tsunami. Numerous radio stations were wiped out. One newspaper lost 51 employees.

But these news organizations are determining to rise from the ashes. The disaster gripped the world at the time, but the aftermath and the reconstruction has all but fallen off the news agenda.

To discuss this further I'm joined by Kenneth van Toll of Free Voice, which supports independent media in developing countries, and Philip Turner, one of CNN's most experienced news gatherers.

Philip, let me start with you because you've seen a good many disasters, manmade and natural. How does this one -- and you were in Sri Lanka, I should point out -- how does this one compare to the others you have seen?

PHILIP TURNER, CNN: What was different about this was the immediacy of the event. We actually had on tape, on film, cameras, recorded this event. We also had people who were on holiday there and also locals giving up an eyewitness account of this.

This was a big difference. It was a significant difference, because most disasters, you don't have the images, those powerful searing images that called the world to wake up and think. This was something that is Biblical. This is something that was unexplainable, and I think that made a big difference in the early responses that the media and the world in general made.

CHANCE: What about now? There is a certain amount of fatigue, I suppose, for want of a better world, that's taken root in international organizations covering this crisis. Is that something the international journalists should try to stop? Is it possible to stop it? Or is it sort of an inevitable evolution of a news story?

TURNER: In some ways, Matthew, it is an inevitable consequence of these kinds of events, but all of us who were there were touched by what we saw.

The anniversary dates are important. It's important to remember what happened. But you cannot sustain the coverage as we had it back in December and January to that degree. There is a natural falloff point. But I think that people were changed and I think that significant changes happened in terms of the warning systems that have been established.

CHANCE: Kenneth van Toll, your engaged in trying to get the local media back up and running in Banda Aceh province. Why is that important to the people in that devastated area?

KENNETH VAN TOLL, FREE VOICE: Well, I think at this stage in the reconstruction process it is important because media can then actually assist in the reconstruction. You can provide information about relief efforts and you can provide information to people that would otherwise have not have had access to that kind of information, by simply rebuilding local radio stations so that it can be broadcasted on air and received by the people for whom the relief efforts are meant.

CHANCE: Is there a feeling on the ground that the international media has perhaps, to coin a phrase, dropped the story when it comes to the tsunami?

VAN TOLL: I would think so, but I also think that people take that for granted. They know the dynamics of international media tension, that at a certain point it is going to shift away.

CHANCE: The issue of the local media, the regional media, rather. Do you think they've done a better job of providing people with that kind of information that you were talking about?

VAN TOLL: Well, I think, I mean, immediately after the tsunami happened, definitely there was a huge information blackout. If you look at, let's say, one week after the tsunami happened, you saw that the (INAUDIBLE), the newspaper that you just referred to, who lost a tremendous amount of employees, was actually up and running again after one week because its printing house was still intact.

As for radio, there were emergency radios up and running I think within two weeks after the disaster happened. So the local media, they were very much part of the disaster, so therefore in the immediate aftermath, they couldn't provide the kind of information that was very much needed.

I think by now if you look at the Aceh local media scene, you will see that there are local radios broadcasting again and that print media is also up and running. The thing is though that they do need more help to be able to sustain themselves in the future and play a very important role and take on their part in the reconstruction process.

CHANCE: Phil, here in London, what's been your perspective here? Has the international media, do you think, played a different role in the aftermath of this tsunami? Has it created a network of contacts in the aftermath of this disaster, do you think?

TURNER: Interesting point. Three weeks ago we had another earthquake off of Sumatra and we were all very concerned that another tsunami was ensuing. It was very interesting. I was on duty at that time and I remember just picking up the phone and calling my contacts in Sri Lanka and saying have you heard the news, have you heard the news. Most of them had heard and the organizations that were setup to monitor these situations had already contacted the regional governments.

So people were aware and they were able to implement some kind of evacuation plan. Fortunately, it didn't happen.

CHANCE: Kenneth, how instrumental can the international media be now to try and bring these sort of developments that you're hoping for?

VAN TOLL: I think first and foremost is to provide context, to provide context to what is actually happening in the reconstruction process, not just to relief efforts that are being undertaken now, but also to look at Aceh and to look at areas like Sri Lanka. What is the political context, what are the implications of this political context for the reconstruction process and for the rebuilding of Aceh but also Sri Lanka, of course.

CHANCE: All right. Kenneth van Toll, Philip Turner, here in London, thanks very much for being with us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a one-woman wonder in the world's war zones. We look at the legacy of Marla Ruzicka.

That's next.


CHANCE: Welcome back.

Marla Ruzicka was a one-woman aid organization. The bubbly 28-year- old from California made it her mission to help the victims of war. It is a tragic irony that last weekend she became one herself. Marla was killed in a suicide bomb attack near Baghdad

CNN's Jane Arraf looks back at her legacy.


JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Marla Ruzicka had a knack for making friends and a passion for helping the helpless.

She could have stayed in California, but she spent her time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MARLA RUZICKA, AID WORKER KILLED IN IRAQ: And instead of watching these terrible images and being depressed -- you're sad, you always are sad, but you try to figure out what can we do, how can we help people.

ARRAF: So she hit the streets, working her way through war-torn Baghdad to find out where she could get help.

RUZICKA: I'm frustrated because I go to the HOC (ph), I go to the CPA, and I'm just like who do I talk to, and nobody knows.

ARRAF: She convinced U.S. lawmakers to appropriate money for civilian victims of U.S. military campaigns. Marla saw more suffering in a day than most people ever do, and still kept her sunny disposition.

On this trip, we went with her to visit Najia Mohammed Brisn (ph), who had lost eight members of her family when a missile hit their car.

Marla told American soldiers the baby would die if she weren't airlifted to a hospital.

RUZICKA: We tried to get her immediate medical help and to save her life, and we did save her life, but her body couldn't take the burns.

ARRAF: She and her Iraqi assistant, Faiz Ali Salim, set up a project with 150 volunteers to do a survey of civilian victims.

RUZICKA: But we have about 5,000 cases. Not necessarily of deaths, but where homes were destroyed, where people were very critically injured. And, you know, for me, I try as much as I can to go to families to say we're sorry, we're working to try to get you some assistance, and to kind of help them have some reconciliation and some closure and to let them know that Americans do care about their well-being.

ARRAF: In hospitals, grieving relatives would approach her, like this man, whose two children were killed.

RUZICKA: I'm very sorry. I don't know what it is like to lose a child, but it pains me to know.

ARRAF: Marla thought about the risks of working in Iraq, but she didn't let them stop her.

RUZICKA: But you just have to keep your eyes open and let people know what you're doing and what you're about, and people -- I feel that a lot of people really appreciate our campaign so they take a lot of care of myself and other people that work with me.

ARRAF: At 28, Marla had lived more, done more, than most people do over a long, long lifetime.


CHANCE: Well, Marla trod the same dangerous path as dozens of correspondents in Afghanistan and Iraq. She fought tirelessly to track down civilian casualty numbers and highlight the cause of the innocent.

To discuss her life and work I'm joined from Washington by Andrew Bunkem (ph) of Britain's "Independent" newspaper.

Andrew, thanks very much for being with us.

It is ironic, isn't it, that a woman who strived so energetically to publicize the deaths of others is now the one making all the front pages and all the headlines around the world.

ANDREW BUNKEM (ph), "INDEPENDENT": Sure, and I think it is something she wouldn't have wanted. She would have certainly -- I think, that the people she was working to try to help, that they were the story.

But, no, as you say, we have a situation where someone was probably doing more than anyone else to help the victims of America's war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and herself became a victim. And probably because she was so dedicated to doing what she was doing, always out and about, taking a fair amount of risks to get to places.

CHANCE: And it was just a few years, wasn't it, that she was involved in campaigning in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course in Washington, yet she did achieve a lot of actual concrete results, didn't she?

BUNKEM (ph): A tremendous amount. You know, it was 2001 when she first went to Afghanistan. I don't think it would be unfair to say people might have thought she was a little young and načve. But within a matter of weeks, she was getting results. And, you know, she achieved a tremendous amount in those four years.

Patrick Leahy, the senator from Vermont, this week telling the Senate that with Marla's inspiration he obtained $20 million for appropriations to pay compensation. So real achievements. And nothing else like it. No one else has done anything like that, and, you know, she did that through her dedication and her effort.

CHANCE: She did really, really focus on this issue of civilian casualties, didn't she. Even getting elements of the U.S. military, at least, to admit, contrary to what they had been saying in the past, that they do actually keep tally of the number of civilians their soldiers kill on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. That's quite a significant sort of journalistic achievement, isn't it?

BUNKEM (ph): Absolutely. One of the stories that people have been following ever since Afghanistan, but certainly since the spring of 2003 in Iraq, is just the numbers of U.S. casualties -- caused by the United States, sorry, civilian casualties.

Tommy Franks, who is the former head of Cent Com, he said that the U.S. army don't do body counts, but that clearly wasn't the case, and Marla, just weeks before her death, again, ironically, found out, having spoken to a brigadier general, that it was a matter of standard practice that troops on the ground did do body counts whenever they were involved in a firefight, and she wrote this in an op ed piece for "USA Today," one of America's national newspapers.

CHANCE: Do you think there was a sense in which -- I mean, she was such an investigative sort of individual, that she in some ways did the job that journalists have been in many ways failing to do, in covering the war in Iraq?

BUNKEM (ph): I think that's a fair point. I mean, I think that the issue of civilian casualties, the damage that has been done, the destruction of cities like Fullujia, it is a story that doesn't get covered as much as it ought to.

One of the reasons for that is certainly the danger of getting to those places. As you know yourself, the operating conditions in places like Iraq, certainly outside of Baghdad, are near on impossible. But, you know, that has been one of the great stories that hasn't been reported, the number of civilian casualties, the damage that has been done. There have been whole ranges of estimates as to the numbers. Something published in the "Lancet" last year suggested that maybe as many as 100,000 civilians have been killed in the last two years. I mean, no one knows for sure, and Marla was going about digging away, trying to find out, and she did this in a number of ways.

I mean, one of the things she did was get out and speak to people, you know, old fashion reporter-style, take notes and write it down in a notebook and compile data. But another way was that she spoke to everyone. She knew absolutely everyone. She knew the U.S. military commander. She spoke to them. She spoke to other aid groups, and it does seem to be that was through a military contact, that she made this breakthrough.

CHANCE: Do you think, though, there will be others that will follow her example? Was her personality strong enough, do you think, that it will still inspire people to go to these dangerous places and do what she did, despite the risks?

BUNKEM (ph): I'm sure it will. I mean, at the same time, you know, no one is going to replace Marla, but I'm sure she is going to be an inspiration. I'm sure she's going to make a lot of people think about what they do themselves.

And this, I'm sure, is true of a number of journalists who I have spoken to since Marla's death who said, crikey (ph), this really puts into perspective what we do. We might think how we're doing some sort of good in telling people what is going on in the world. And what she achieved was far more considerable than that.

And so I'm sure people will look at her example and think they can try to do the same and want to do the same, and perhaps it will make people like us, you know, ask a bit tougher questions.

CHANCE: Already, Andrew Bunkem (ph), for the "Independent" newspaper, thank you very much, on a woman that's been an inspiration to many.

Well, 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 Matthew Chance. Thanks for joining us.



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