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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 15, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello there. I'm Monita Rajpal, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
And it is one story in particular that's dominating news bulletins this week, the cataclysmic earthquake that struck near the border of India and Pakistan, arguably one of the poorest regions in the world.

Images like these have been broadcast globally. We've heard personal stories of tragedy and tried to grasp the reality of the numbers. Tens of thousands of people were killed. More than 2 million are now homeless, their lives and surroundings in ruins.

While local people tried to escape, journalist rushed into the worst hit areas, each and every one determined to witness the disaster, to show and tell what happened.

To discuss the media's coverage of the catastrophe, I'm joined by Shahed Sadullah, editor of the Pakistan newspaper the "Daily Jung." And from Islamabad, CNN's Becky Anderson.

Both -- thank you both for being with.

Becky, I want to start off with you. One of the major issues that we've seen this week has been the issue of access, not only for government officials who want to tour the area and aid agencies who want to get to the area, but journalists as well. How difficult is it to cover a story when you can't even get to that story?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Extremely difficult, Monita.

It hasn't been so hard for the crews I've been with here in Islamabad, we're in Pakistan's capital and we're moving around fairly easily. In fact, today we've got exclusive access to Rawalpindi Airport here, where the huge international effort is headquartered.

So working in Islamabad and Rawalpindi hasn't been too difficult. It's when you try and get up north that you hit the major difficulty, and the issue is this: ultimately, we've got four crews coming and going from the north, and we're having to beg, borrow and steal any transport that we can up to the north. And that means talking to the Pakistani military, talking to the American military primarily, and getting on the back of some of these local trucks that are going up north.

Going in a chopper is really sensitive, of course. There are ethics involved here. You know, should you be on the chopper when at least in the initial phases there weren't many of them around and they were taking relief aid up north. Should you be getting on the backs of these truck when there are these hugely congested roads. There is only one arterial road effectively going up north, so should you be on the back of a truck with all of your gear when ultimately that should be for food relief. So an extremely difficult situation.

But I've got to say, when you get out there, often times certainly our crews have been up there, before any access has been made available to the aid agencies up there. So once you get on some sort of transport, they're getting on and they're getting up north and they're telling the stories.

RAJPAL: And Shahed, let me ask you this question. When it comes to the coverage that has been done by the Pakistani media, aside from Pakistan TV, the private media is considered relatively young. How do you compare their coverage to the larger networks, international networks, such as CNN and BBC, that are there right now? How do you think -- what kind of a role do you think they've been playing?

SHAHED SADULLAH, "DAILY JUNG": Well, I think they've been playing a very important role, and what's more important, I think they've played it very well during this disaster. I mean, yes, they do not have the resources of some of the large international networks, like the BBC, like the CNN, and so on, but they do know the area, they do know the customs, they do know what is involved, and I think they have a greater appreciation of the problems as well of getting around, of reporting these stories.

It is, as you say, a very, very young industry, Pakistan Television, PTV, which has been the government television channel, is the one that has been operating, and over the last few years you have had, say, three or four years really, you have had a host of private networks coming in. But even among them, for example, Geo Television now has come up as a fine news television station in Pakistan.

RAJPAL: That's it, because it's happening in your own back yard, what kind of impact does that have on the coverage?

SADULLAH: Well, I think, you know, the first thing is that it's something that, you know, people are not really prepared for, and I think you have to differentiate this with something like Katrina, where you had at least four or five days notice and advance warning that there was something coming around, so probably television crews could have been moved around to sort of cover the event.

RAJPAL: Now, inevitably, when a disaster, a natural disaster like this happens, it tends to hold a mirror up to the government, the home government, in terms of how -- and its ability in terms of handling a situation like this. Granted, for the most part people have stayed away from the blame game, but how do you believe the government has handled the situation thus far?

SADULLAH: I think, and this is the opinion of lots of people, including the U.N. secretary-general, including the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, that no government, no agency, no organization, could ever have been prepared for something like this.

That said, you know, I feel that there is no such thing as an entirely satisfactory relief operation. I cannot think of one relief operation where the people who are affected have sat back and said, yep, everything's been fine, everything's been perfect. That doesn't happen. Even in India, where the damage has been really fractional compared to Pakistan, I was reading a news report yesterday of a villager in Indian Kashmir who said that the government has forgotten about us, as far as they are concerned, we don't exist.

I think that, you know, people who are affected are under severe pressure. They've lost members of their family. Those who have survived are probably hurt. They're injured. They haven't had food. They don't have shelter. And under that pressure, even if you have -- you know, whatever amount of time you have to wait is probably too long.

The problems that are now taking place of coordination, of administering the relief, of trying to make sure that, you know, those who deserve it most get it on a priority basis. Those are the problems now.

RAJPAL: Yes, Becky, how is that being played out locally?

ANDERSON: It's an interesting point, isn't it, because certainly for the first couple of days it was extremely difficult to get any information. Neither the government nor the media really had any real sense of the scale of this disaster, nor did the Western governments, the United States, those who were going to be involved in the international aid effort, had any real sense of the scale of this disaster.

It's got to be said of myself and the rest of the media, very critical I think of the initial phases of the response, if you like, but I've got to say, after three, maybe the fourth, fifth days, they've been really ratcheting up this relief effort. The government has got themselves organized here in Pakistan. President Musharraf apologizing effectively for the sort of 72-hour delay, acknowledging that things were very difficult, and getting people into the country.

You see the relief effort going on here now at the airport. It is absolutely unbelievable. It's difficult to really comprehend the sort of coordination that you see here at this airport. There are 20 nations, Monita, 20 nations working alongside the Pakistani military now, and you just see things happening minute by minute.

RAJPAL: Yes, interestingly enough, Becky, talking about the some 20 nations that are now on the ground and this outpouring of support from people around the world for the victims, and among those that are providing that support are some that some would consider unlikely sources. We're talking about rival India, nearby India, also President Musharraf has accepted donations from Jewish charitable organizations as well as from the United States. Of course, more than $50 million has been pledged by the United States, a country that some in Pakistan have vilified.

So what does that -- what is being said about that on the ground in terms of, I guess, the reaction and how this might change the political landscape when it comes to relations.

ANDERSON: Well, perhaps the easiest way of answering that question is to describe one of the editorials I read, I think it was in the "Nation," one of the daily newspapers here, and on Tuesday the editorial went something like this. It said there are two realities in this situation. One is that Pakistan and Pakistanis are coming together and bringing food, blankets, clothing, tents, they're bring as much as they can to points in Islamabad, where it can be picked up, put on helicopters here and taken up north.

The editorial said the other reality is this: President Musharraf's image is being dented here. Now, that was on Tuesday. The issue was not only that he hadn't responded quickly enough, but also the sensitivities of issues like accepting aid from India, and the same editorial was talking about putting politics aside and working now on humanity. Humanity must prevail in a situation like this. Politics must be put aside.

And you've got to remember that President Pervez Musharraf was extremely hesitant about accepting aid from India. He didn't really have a sense of how that would be accepted here in this Islamic state for example, certainly not prepared in the initial stages to accept any military help from its nuclear rival, India.

RAJPAL: Shahed, your response to that? Just a quick response from you.

SADULLAH: Well, I think there is an element of politics in all such situations, sad as that may sound and unnecessary as it may sound, it very much is.

I mean, India was here offering its troops to come to Pakistan, but it hasn't opened the telephone line from Indian Kashmir onto Pakistan Kashmir, so you wonder what the priorities are in that case.

Keep in mind that India is a country with which Pakistan has fought three wars and these are some of the forward areas which are along the line of control of the border with India. No country in that situation would allow the armed forces of another country to come in.

In any case, it is not the lack of people that is the problem there. The problem always was accessibility, getting stuff, getting people, getting supplies to the people who have been affected, and to a great extent I think that is still the problem. I mean, to begin with, that was why, you know, when President Musharraf made his first broadcast, the first thing he asked for was helicopters, because that was the main problem. Regrettably, yes, there is always an element of politics in such situations, and it takes more than one to stop playing politics.

RAJPAL: All right, Shahed Sadullah and Becky Anderson, in Pakistan, thank you both so much for being with us.

Coming up next here on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Iraq, back on the front page. Find out why in just a moment.


RAJPAL: Welcome back.

After more than two years of constant coverage, Iraq has taken a backseat in the media of late. Even deadly bomb attacks are barely considered newsworthy these days, but this weekend it's back in the spotlight as the Iraqi people take a momentous step towards the rebirth of their nation. Millions of people are expected to vote in a referendum to accept a new draft constitution.

Now, media organizations have boosted their presence in the country to cover the historic vote as well as the looming trial of Saddam Hussein.

To discuss both these events, I'm joined by Bill Emmott, editor of the "Economist" magazine, and from Baghdad, CNN's bureau chief Kevin Flower.

Gentlemen, both of you, thank you so much for being with us.

Kevin, I want to begin with you. On the heels of major stories, like the disaster in Pakistan, what are some of the difficulties in trying to convince viewers that there are still lots of stories to be told, important stories to be told, coming out of Iraq?

KEVIN FLOWER, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Well, it is a difficult process. One of the challenges we face here is sort of the steady drumbeat of violence, and I think a lot of viewers, a lot of readers, have a certain amount of fatigue for that type of reporting. So the challenge for us is to develop sort of character driven stories or stories that talk about the problems, the issues here that are not always wrapped up in the day to day violence but give an accurate picture of what day to day life is here, whether it be the political process, the social conditions that people are living under, socioeconomic conditions, and obviously a driving force for our coverage here is the American military presence, and how successfully they are accomplishing their mission, or not accomplishing their mission.

RAJPAL: Now, of course, there are two major events that are coming up in the next few days and one is the vote on the referendum, the draft constitution, and, of course, the trial of Saddam Hussein. But when we're talking about spreading resources, that's a major issue for news agencies, paying for it. How do you pay for the coverage of major stories like this? And how do you distribute and decide, OK, we want to put more resources, say, in the earthquake in Pakistan or to the trial of Saddam Hussein or covering the constitution. How do you decide that?

BILL EMMOTT, "ECONOMIST" MAGAZINE: Well, I think for something like the "Economist," we're of course in a different position from a television company or a news agency. Television companies and news agencies really have to allocate the resources according to the sort of resonance they think the story will get with their viewers, which often is frankly a bit of a mixture between shock, fear and a bit of entertainment value.

I mean, Saddam Hussein's trial is an entertainment value story in a way. It's got an underlying seriousness, but it's that.

For me, in a weekly magazine, the question is about analysis, how much -- what resources do I need in order to be able to explain these stories to our readers and give context. Do I need people on the spot or do I need more people sort of around the other capitals understanding what's going on. Is it, in the case of the earthquake, is it people looking at the science or at the actual knocked down cities.

So at the analytical end of the line, it's a different set of decisions, still difficult, than it is for a television company.

RAJPAL: And, Kevin, when we're talking about, again, two major events coming out of Iraq in the next few days, again, constitution, the referendum on the draft constitution, and then the trial of Saddam Hussein, how are those resources divided?

FLOWER: Well, that's always a challenging equation. Both of those stories, both the referendum and the trial of Saddam, are hugely resource intensive, and we're both lucky and unlucky that these are coming right -- they're coming back to back. So we've -- CNN, for example, we've brought in more resources to cover the referendum and then we've decided to keep some of those resources in place through the Saddam trial.

But the difficulty with Iraq specifically is there is a void of information on very key events like this. We're just learning now about some of the rules and regulations by which we can cover the referendum vote. Security is always at a premium. And the same with the Saddam trial. We're just learning about the parameters of coverage, whether or not live television feed will be available or not. So that's one of the biggest issues for us as a television station.

RAJPAL: You know, that's an interesting point, too, Kevin. In fact, the idea of putting a camera in a courtroom is not something that's legal in a lot of countries. Here in Britain you cannot have a camera in a courtroom. So in that sense, they are setting the rules, they're changing rules and setting up rules in a very different form, and, Bill, when we're talking about coverage of, say, Saddam Hussein's trial, how important is it to have your people there on the ground?

EMMOTT: For something like the "Economist" magazine, not very important at all for the Saddam Hussein trial. I think that's something that we will basically cover by analyzing what is reported by everyone else.

And, actually, the trial, while it will be -- we'll have a piece about it -- it's not vital from our point of view. The referendum is much more important for the economist, but it poses its own difficulties. It poses difficulties of how do you tell whether it's a success or a failure, what are the measures. Lack of information, as Kevin said, about the procedures and about what's going on all over the country. You know, it's a dangerous story, you can't get secure information. Thirdly, there is no polling. So we've got no sense of what should be the expected outcome and how do we measure the actual outcome against that expected outcome.

So all of these things are peculiarities that make this story a difficult one, but nevertheless, it's absolutely the most important thing for us, the referendum.

RAJPAL: Let's talk about that referendum in itself, and Kevin, of course, what we've been hearing is that the interim government is relying heavily on the local media to not only get the word out on the vote on the weekend, but also to explain the charter to Iraqis as well. What do you see -- what's happening there in terms of what the role is the media is playing over there?

FLOWER: Well, the local media is perhaps one of the only ways the Iraqis are finding out about this constitutional process, and I think we've seen mixed success.

The constitution wasn't -- they didn't start printing the constitution until just about a week ago, and they've been making changes up until just a day and a half ago. So the process is extremely fluid. It's reported in -- there are a few hundred daily Iraqi newspapers where a lot of people get their news from, and also some of the Iraqi television stations and the Pan-Arabic stations, but that has been a problem and a question here is how much -- is the information about this new constitution, is it getting to the people. Do they know what they're voting on. Do they understand it. And it depends upon who you talk to and in what regions of the country, frankly.

RAJPAL: All right, Kevin Flower, in Baghdad, Bill Emmott, from the Economist, thank you both so much.

EMMOTT: Pleasure.

RAJPAL: Coming up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the Pentagon's own television channel but is it just propaganda? Stay with us for that.


RAJPAL: Welcome back.

The media deliver news, politicians run a country. For all intents and purposes, the two are totally different tasks. In fact, in the United States it is illegal for governments to act as a news provider. So eyebrows were raised when the Pentagon launched its own television channel just a little over a year ago.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre has more.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Bush says winning the war in Iraq will require more sacrifice.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Cable subscribers in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Prince George's County are the latest in a potential audience of 12 million households who can now watch the Pentagon Channel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Operations aimed at stabilizing Iraq before the referendum in upcoming election are going well.

MCINTYRE: The news channel's slogan is "Serving those who serve."

MEL RUSSELL, SENIOR MANAGER, PENTAGON CHANNEL: We use only uniformed broadcasters on the air so they know it's a military channel.

MCINTYRE (on camera): The Pentagon Channel originates from studios here in Alexandria, Virginia. There's everything here you'd expect to find in a modern television station: cameras, teleprompters, computers. The one thing it says it doesn't have is an agenda to advance administration policies.

(voice-over): Petty Officer First Class Jennifer Gray anchors the evening's main newscast.

PETTY OFFICER 1st CLASS JENNIFER GRAY, U.S. NAVY: No one ever tells do not write this. Take this slant.

MCINTYRE: But at the University of Delaware Journalism, Professor Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent, asked his students to consider whether the Pentagon Channel could also be a propaganda tool.

RALPH BEGLEITER, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE: You want to have "Radio Free America" or some such hypothetical title, broadcasting propaganda to the United States? No. We don't allow that in this country. It's a law.

MCINTYRE: He's referring to a 1948 ban that stops the government from controlling the news sent to domestic audiences, a law inspired by abuses in Nazi Germany.

But Pentagon officials say the Pentagon Channel is simply internal communications for the military and rejects the idea its programming is propaganda.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would totally disagree with that. Absolutely.

MCINTYRE: While much of the Pentagon Channel programming is more like CSPAN than CNN, this original documentary called "Inside the Wire" purports to show that the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo is humane. That, argues Professor Begleiter, sounds a lot like the Bush administration version of the truth.

BEGLEITER: Well, let's say you need to know about treatment of prisoners. Would you get the full story from the Pentagon Channel? No, you would get what the Pentagon wanted you to know about treatment of prisoners.

MCINTYRE: Begleiter's warning to his students, when watching the Pentagon Channel, consider the source.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.


RAJPAL: That is 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 Monita Rajpal. Thank you for watching CNN.



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