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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 22, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
And it was a deposed dictator who stole the show this week. That's right. Saddam Hussein was in the dock for the first time charged with crimes against humanity. Images like these of the former Iraqi leader in a Baghdad courtroom were shown around the world.

In just a moment, we'll be speaking to two correspondents about the media's coverage of the tribunal to date. First, though, CNN's Octavia Nasr looks at how Saddam's day in court was reported by the Arab media.


OCTAVIA NASR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Saddam Hussein of yesteryear, a ruthless and feared leader, commanding and in control. In stark contrast with a much thinner, ordinary man who walked into the courtroom assisted by escorts to face charges of crimes against humanity.

This is what viewers across the globe, including those in the Arab world, watched as they gathered around television sets awaiting the first war crimes trial of an Arab leader ever.

The local Iraqi-government-run TV channel called it the trial of the century for the dictator of the century. This anchor congratulated Iraqis on what he called a historic day for Iraqis and the entire humanity. The channel also interviewed people about their stories of how Hussein abused them. This man asked, "Why did Saddam cut my hand? Why? Death to Saddam," he said.

The Dubai-based all news channel Al-Arabiya spoke to Saddam Hussein's daughter, Raghdad (ph), on the phone from Jordan. She said she watched her father with much pride. She called him a hero, a lion, a wolf. She said he made the entire family proud by challenging the court and that he was never scared or submissive.

Guests appeared on different Arab channels, some challenging the fairness of the trial, others hailing it as the beginning of a new era for the entire Middle East.

One thing most experts agreed on, the enormity of the crimes and the seriousness of the charges along with a man who, after two years in captivity still refers to himself as the president of Iraq, qualifies this trial when it resumes to be called the trial of the 21st century, at least for the Arab Middle East.

Octavia Nasr, CNN, Atlanta.


SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, was Saddam the ringleader in a trial described as a media circus?

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

He was defiant and belligerent, but that's not altogether surprising. Despite his incarceration, Saddam Hussein still considered himself to be the president of Iraq. The world watched as the ousted dictator appeared in court this week accused of crimes against humanity. He went on to plead not guilty to multiple charges of murder and torture.

A handful of journalists witnessed the scene. The media's coverage of the case ranged from sensationalist to sedate. One thing is for sure, though, there has been no shortage of advice on how the tribunal should be reported.

The former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had this to say.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF STATE: Frankly, the media plays a very large role in this and if every crazy thing he does ends up being on television then it in fact does do what you're saying. On the other hand, it's very important that people -- that it's covered in a way that people understand that there is a trial going on. So it is risky, but I don't know what the other options are.


SWEENEY: To discuss this further I'm joined by Sebastian Usher, media editor at BBC World; and, from Baghdad, CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson.

Nic, if I can turn to you first, what has the reaction of the press in Iraq been largely to this trial?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly it has had a lot of coverage and certainly there has been a keen interest from Iraqis to see what that coverage has been. A lot of people here want to see that the trial is going to be fair. They see that -- if it is fair and just then they see that it -- they believe, therefore, that the country has a potential for a sort of stable future. They think if the trial is unjust, then obviously that is a bad indication that the country is corrupt or institutions within the country, particularly the judicial system, would be corrupt.

So there has been a lot of interest from people on what is being played out in the media. And, of course, a lot of emphasize here to have it on television so that Iraqis can watch it. And I did see on the day of the trial a lot of people watching the trial.

SWEENEY: Sebastian, this is no ordinary trial, as we're obviously aware. And to quote from a columnist in one Iraqi newspaper, "Al-Adallah" (ph), the trial, though late, quote, "has brought some psychological relief to the Iraqi street."

Is that what's really going on here, the difference between -- the distinction between the legal process and what can sometimes come into the sensational aspect of it?

SEBASTIAN USHER, BBC WORLD: I think there is a difference between the way it's being perceived in Iraq and the way it's being perceived in the rest of the world and the rest of the Arab world.

In Iraq, I think there is a sense of relief, of release, which is certainly conveyed, as Nic was saying, in the Iraqi media, which is very much a particular line, which is basically Saddam Hussein committed these crimes, it's right that he should be on trial.

Outside Iraq in the wider Arab world, I think the media reflects the ambivalence about what is actually going on. Again, there is a sense that Saddam should be on trial, but there is a lot of questioning of how the trial is being done, and the questioning begins really with the fact that it's seen as stage managed by the Americans.

I've seen a lot of editorials in many Arab newspapers which are basically saying this is a U.S. operation which is just using Iraqi involvement to go with the cameras, so it looks like the Iraqis are being involved, but it's not really their trial.

SWEENEY: Nic, being in Baghdad, can you talk us through the mechanics of journalists trying to cover the trial? How does it work?

ROBERTSON: Very, very strict security measures. Journalists going into the court couldn't even take a pen, couldn't take a notebook, couldn't take a pencil in. Telephones, cameras were all kept out of the court apart from those courtroom cameras operated by the court. Journalists had to leave the courtroom to go and file their reports.

And the coverage within the courtroom was weighted towards -- at least as far as the international media representatives who were allowed into the court -- was weighted towards the broadcast media, the television media, rather than the print media, a real indication there that in the opening days of the trial there is an emphasize to have broad television coverage and to make sure that that was very, very heavily represented.

SWEENEY: And, Sebastian, that actually brings me to the next point, which is a comment Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state, made earlier this week that we just heard, saying that the media in a way, while they should not self-censor, they should look at how they choose to cover Saddam's would-be tantrums in court, that he should not hijack the court proceedings.

How difficult is that, to walk a fine line?

USHER: Well, it is difficult. One way that they're trying to do it is the images that you're seeing on TV have a lag on them. There is, 20 minutes or 30 minutes later than actually is happening in court, which I think is partly there as a precaution against Saddam making statements and the court and the broadcast media and the rest of the world just showing that without any control over it.

I think, though, what we saw on the first day was that that was kind of short-circuited in a way, because you've got the correspondents who, I mean, it's actually rather odd, because you basically had a mismatch between what you were seeing and what the correspondents were saying. On the BBC, for example, we had the images which were like half-an-hour old, then we had our correspondent who came out to speak about it, John Simpson, and he was telling us something that we hadn't seen with the live images.

What was quite interesting was that usually in stories like this, huge stories which have massive media interest, TV pictures lead the way. They do everything. In this case, you're actually getting more of a sense of what was happening just from words from the correspondents, because they were actually telling us half-an-hour further than the pictures that we were seeing. So we were seeing pictures of Saddam being led into court, shuffling in, then we're hearing our correspondent, what he actually said.

So I don't think if they're trying to stop Saddam from being able to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I don't think they're going to be able to do that.

SWEENEY: But doesn't that give credence to a certain degree of the criticism from certain factions of the Arab world that this is being stage managed?

USHER: I think that is unavoidable, and I think that whatever happens now with the trial in the Arab world, the sense that the Americans have -- I mean anything the Americans do now pretty much as far as the Arab media are concerned, is wrong. I mean, the original invasion of Iraq is seen as something that was just a major, major mistake which has turned Arab opinion just whole-heartedly against the Americans.

So to see them now seeming to be pulling the strings of the trial of the man, even though Arabs, you speak to them, who read the Arab media, they will all grant that Saddam Hussein is a man that should be on trial. But they move on very, very quick from that, and this is reflected in virtually all the media coverage except, as Nic was saying, where there are specific instances of groups within Iraq who were attacked by Saddam and who just rejoice in him now being on trial.

SWEENEY: To go back to a point we were discussing earlier, this idea of seeing him in the dock giving some kind of psychological release to the Iraqi street, how much is this trial an exacerbater of the tensions in Iraq and how much is it perhaps -- or is it in any way leading to any form of reconciliation? If not reconciliation, perhaps some kind of acknowledgement of what has gone on in the past?

ROBERTSON: It's very interesting. I was in the town of Baqubah, which is just northwest of Baghdad during the day of the trial, and I was out in the town talking to people as they were watching it on it the television. Baqubah is a mixed town, mixed Sunnis, mixed Shias. They've lived together there for centuries. And when you talk to people, they say that they are friendly, that they get on with each other, that there are not big sectarian issues.

When I talk to them about it, both sides, if you will, are giving me very different opinions. The Shias predominantly saying they're very happy to see Saddam Hussein on trial, that they do want to see the death sentence passed and they want to see it quickly. Many Sunnis, as I said before, saying that they didn't think that Saddam Hussein should be on trial, that the court was unjust.

When I put it to the two communities that their statements were at variance with one another, did that worry them, the Shias predominantly say no. The Sunnis do have a right to put their opinion forward. Many of the Sunnis that I talked to said that they were concerned because they realized some of the passions in the community about what was happening to Saddam Hussein would exacerbate and bring further violence and indeed in Baqubah, just two days after the trial, there was a car bomb in the center of the town that killed a number of people.

I think in terms of sort of truth and reconciliation, I think one half of the community perhaps feels that it is getting that, the Shia part of the community. The Sunnis on the other hand, feel on many levels that they're losing here, and I think for many of them I certainly didn't get the sense that this is a period of reconciliation for them. It's perhaps for them they get the feeling that it's a further deepening of their problems. They again are having the finger of blame pointed at them. That's how a lot of people I talked to seemed to interpret it.

SWEENEY: A very final question to both of you, and I'll begin with Sebastian. From what we've seen of the trial to date, what do you thing we can expect when it resumes?

USHER: I think we can expect the same kind of intense media coverage. It will depend then on how long it looks, how long the trial looks that it's going to last. I think that if it's going to be a long, very detailed trial with a lot of witnesses, where, you know, it becomes very entrenched in the details and so on, that the mass media interest or Western media interest, will drift away.

I mean, it's not going to be sustained, and that will only return obviously when we get towards a verdict. But as Nic said, I mean, the feeling has been that this trial is something that the Iraqis want to get over with quite quickly and possibly Americans too. So it might be that it has a momentum which keeps the media interest sustained at this kind of level throughout.

SWEENEY: A final word to you, Nic?

ROBERTSON: I think the interest is going to be determined to a large degree, I think Sebastian is absolutely right, and I think the peaks of interest will be when there is perhaps some very emotional and very direct testimony in the courtroom. That's going to certainly on television at least draw people's interest, and it will be watched very, very closely here, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: All right, for the moment, Nic Robertson, in Baghdad, Sebastian Usher here in the studio, thank you.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, bird flu, will you get it? It depends which newspaper you read.

More on that after this short break.


SWEENEY: Deadly and causing consternation around the world. The bird flu virus has killed 60 people in Southeast Asia and now it's reached Europe, but what exactly is it? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the chances of getting it?

The media has been accused of scare-mongering and criticized for printing alarmist headlines that induce fear but fail to explain the facts. It's a reporter's job to decipher complex medical data and report it fairly and accurately.

Well, to discuss that challenge I'm joined by ITN science editor Lawrence McGinty and Dr. Ron Cuttler, a lecturer in medical microbiology.

Dr. Cuttler, I understand that you have a problem with how the media generally has covered bird flu.

DR. RON CUTTLER, MEDICAL MICROBIOLOGIST: In general, basically it's been very over the top.

I think I agree with you completely in the fact that the press should cover these issues looking at all the facts and translating them for the general public. I think if you went out there to the general public now and you asked someone in the street what did they think of bird flu, one of the comments from the Canadian magazines is most people there seem to think the pandemic was already here and it's not.

SWEENEY: Lawrence McGinty, with you look at headlines like this here on the personal screen, what comes to your mind about how the media has covered it?

LAWRENCE MCGINTY, ITV: Well, it's pretty difficult to be over the top on this. The government in Britain rates it as the number one health threat to the British population.

SWEENEY: Flu or avian flu coming into humans?

MCGINTY: Flu, human flu, originating from avian flu.

The chief medical officer says that if the flu epidemic that is sweeping through birds does mutate into a form that infects humans, it could kill between 50 million and 750 million people. I think it's pretty hard to be over the top about a threat that's that scary.

Where I think these headlines fall down is that they don't point out that that isn't happening yet. We don't have a human epidemic let alone a human pandemic; we don't even have a pandemic of flu among birds.

SWEENEY: But isn't it too the unknown quantity here, that it may happen, and if it does we're not prepared for it?

CUTTLER: That's very important, and that's where I think the press has actually helped a lot, as was just demonstrated to Europe, how unprepared we are for the next pandemic when it comes along. Whether it's going to be the poultry avian flu or not, I'm not convinced, simply because this particular organism has been in poultry for the last nine years, so it has been in contact with man for the last nine years through poultry and it hasn't done anything.

That's not to say it won't, because these organisms are like dice. You can throw the genes around and they will suddenly change. But for the moment, it's demonstrated how unprepared we are for the next pandemic and I'm glad to see that we're actually starting to move towards some sort of methods by which we can actually control flu.

SWEENEY: I mean, this has been around for the last nine years or so, but it seems sitting here that it's only when it reached the fringes of Europe that governments really galvanized themselves and their resources on a huge scale. Is that a fair comment?

MCGINTY: I think it is a fair comment. I think the government here and in Europe as a whole should have been doing something before now. They should have been doing something five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years ago. And that's because they know in general that a flu pandemic, a human flu pandemic, will happen every 30 or 40 years. And we're due one. And at the same time you have a very virulent, very nasty form of flu knocking about in birds. So there is always a chance that that will leap into humans.

SWEENEY: Here we are dealing with the media today. Again, we can see headlines like this, which is completely uncorraled, so to speak. You say it's difficult to go over the top, Lawrence McGinty, but have certain aspects of the media gone a little too far?

MCGINTY: I think so. Some of the newspapers especially have been confusing bird flu in birds with bird flu in humans. What we've got at the moment is a crisis for farming. Poultry are being affected throughout the Far East and now in Europe. And that's a massive economic problem and it's a big problem for farmers. If you're a free range farmer selling free range anks (ph) and you have to put your hands indoors to keep them away from bird flu, your living is gone. So that's a big problem. But it's not the health disaster that could happen if the virus in the birds mutates into a form that affects humans, and that hasn't happened yet. We haven't got to that stage yet, and we might never. It night not happen this year, might not happen next year. It will happen sooner or later, and that's why we should be prepared.

SWEENEY: And essentially it comes down to this, the person on the street wants to know can I get it, and if I'm going to get it, how will I get it. Since we have you here, doctor, could you break in down for us?

CUTTLER: As I said before, I don't think we should be panicked at the moment. Don't panic. Take sensible precautions when you're actually -- if you have some sort of problem with your chest, if you are in some way immunosuppressed, you should take sensible anti-flu precautions. Still go down to your doctors. Get your flu jab. And don't forget, even though we have worries about the avian flu, as Lawrence said, we have worries about the avian flu, but the ordinary human flus are still there. They still kill 12,000-plus people a year, usually the elderly, so make sure you still get your flu jab. You never know. No one can say. Maybe it will help against the avian flu. Who knows.

SWEENEY: Lawrence, what will be the first signs, apart from reading massive headlines in the press, when -- assuming it does, if we're due, one hits us?

MCGINTY: We might not, because I think the most likely scenario that the government in Britain is working on is that there will be a human outbreak in a country like China, that a farmer will be infected with the bird flu from his birds, at the same time he'll be infected with ordinary human flu, and that the two would mix their genes and you'll get, if you like, a super-virus that could spread between humans and start a pandemic.

The first reports we'll probably hear is a few hundred cases somewhere in China, and we hope and pray that we'll get those reports early on, before people start traveling and start spreading it. If we do, then we've got a chance at making a vaccine that might protect people.

SWEENEY: So is it a given that because bird flu started in that part of the world that that's where we can expect the first pandemic will begin?

CUTTLER: Yeah, that's what we recognize as the epicenter. You know, they live close to their animals. They keep pigs -- now pigs are actually one of the other agents that have been implicated in actually being able to do this genetic change between being a human to human virus and avian to human virus.

At the moment, it's people who are in close proximity to the birds for long periods of time who have caught it and not all of them died.

SWEENEY: Doctor, very, very last point here, though. It would seem that, you know, those of us in the West are quite fortunate and are in a fortunate position, but if you're the poor guy in China with a few hundred people in China who get it, there is not time to develop a vaccine.

CUTTLER: That's a very good comment, because one of the newspaper articles I read from Germany recently was actually saying, why are we building up stocks of vaccine here. Shouldn't we actually be trying to vaccinate the people in the Far East. And that's a very good point.

MCGINTY: Indeed, I agree with that entirely. One of the ways of stopping this spreading is to vaccinate poultry workers, people who slaughter them, people who butcher them, people who look after them. I don't think we've yet got the infrastructure to do that in places like China and Vietnam, although even as we speak a delegation of medical experts from Britain, where the flu virus was first identified back in 1933, are flying out to Vietnam and to China to talk about the kind of technical exchanges that might help in China, one, to spot it early, so we've all got a warning around the world, and, two, perhaps to work out some sort of vaccine that could be given in those countries.

SWEENEY: OK. I'm afraid we're out of time. Lawrence McGinty, Dr. Cuttler, thank you very much.

And that is there for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for a look at how the media are handling the big issues. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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