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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired October 29, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to this special edition of CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.
We'll be focusing on the media's role in Iraq and the challenge of reporting from one of the most dangerous countries in the world. A little later in the show I'll be talking to the "Guardian" journalist Rory Carroll, who was kidnapped in Baghdad last week and then released some 36 hours later.

First, though, the grim truth of exactly how perilous Iraq is. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 57 reporters have been killed there since 2003. Most of them were Iraqis. The watchdog Reporters Without Borders says, quote, "The Iraq conflict is the deadliest interstate war for journalists since the one in Vietnam."

This week's bomb attacks outside the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, home to many international journalists, were a poignant reminder that those working in Iraq risk their lives to do so.

CNN's Nic Robertson reports on how the suicide bombers were able to get through such tight security.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Massive, spectacular and caught on camera, a bomb hidden in a cement truck detonates. The third and by far the largest of three explosions targeting two heavily fortified hotels used by international journalists and Western workers.

BOB REID, A.P. CHIEF EDITOR, BAGHDAD: At just about sunset, as I was sitting at my workstation, you know, preparing to do the night's work, heard this very, very loud explosion and even could feel the blast. So I knew something had exploded very close to the hotel.

ROBERTSON: It all began moments earlier with two smaller car bombs. The first car, captured on this security camera, detonates next to a concrete security barrier, blowing a hole in the hotel's defenses. The second car bomb approaches the breach, but is driven back by gunfire and explodes about a hundred meters from the hotel.

Seconds later, the cement mixer drives through the gap in the security barrier, exploding as it approaches the hotel lobby. Inside, stores were ripped apart. Hotel workers and some journalists among the walking wounded. Others fared far worse.

REID: Why they chose to hit at this time, we really don't know. What the purpose of it was, we really don't know. We can only guess that they knew this hotel is a target of international press and that probably journalists were the targets.

ROBERTSON: Police said all three of the vehicles were driven by suicide bombers. The pattern of the attack, targeting international journalists, almost guaranteeing big media coverage, mirroring what U.S. and Iraqi officials believe: that insurgents want maximum publicity to instill fear in Iraqis and the international community.

(on camera): Witnesses report gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades joining in, too. Security sources describe it as a complex attack, but note insurgents may have been forced to choose a soft target, like the journalists' hotel, rather than try to go after more prestigious targets inside the super-secure, heavily fortified international Green Zone.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Baghdad.


SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, would you go to Iraq? Is the story worth the risk? We debate the issues.

That in just a moment. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Dodging bullets, traveling in armored vehicles, telling the tales of a war-torn nation and its people. That is the life and work of a foreign correspondent. For those based in Iraq, though, the increasing risk to tell the story is a hot issue. It's difficult for journalists to leave their hotel rooms and most of those who do are accompanied by security.

So what could happen if news organizations decide to withdraw their media troops? The International Federation of Journalists says, quote, "As long as journalists, foreign or Iraqi, cannot move freely and face intimidation and threats, it is simply absurd to talk of a credible democratic process in Iraq."

Well, to discuss this further I'm joined by Mohamed Chebaro, London bureau chief for Al-Arabiya; from Paris, the BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson, who has just returned from Iraq; and, from Baghdad, Jonathan Finer, correspondent for the "Washington Post."

Let's go first of all to Jonathan, in Baghdad. Of course, within the last week we've had the kidnapping and release of an Irish journalists. Has that had any impact on you and your colleagues around you in Iraq right now?

JONATHAN FINER, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think if anything if was a reminder. There had been a few months recently where not that many negative incidents had happened in relation to foreign journalists, and I think to some extent we were starting to feel like the situation was becoming a little more safe in terms of our freedom of movement, our ability to get around Baghdad, the capital where most of us are based, and our ability to travel from Baghdad to other cities. And I think the incidents this past week served as a reminder that the threat really was always there. It had never really diminished. But it's good in the sense that we need to pay attention and be vigilant, and I think everybody will be so at this point.

SWEENEY: And has it stopped you or prevented you from going into certain parts of Baghdad or Iraq that you might have considered going into before the kidnapping?

FINER: No, I don't think anybody has quite taken it to that level, where certain areas of the city are off-limits. Obviously, this happened in a particular part of the city, Sadr City, that actually was deemed pretty safe by most people. But I don't think at this point that anyone has decided to sort of write that part of the city off. It just means that we be very careful about the way we do things. Try not to stay anywhere too long and make sure we know who we're meeting with and what we're going to do when we get there.

SWEENEY: John Simpson, in Paris, you have a huge range of experience when it comes to reporting from Iraq. How do you think the situation for journalists has evolved there over the last two-and-a-half years?

JOHN SIMPSON, BBC: Well, it has gotten worse, of course, and, I mean, Jonathan knows that on a daily basis. I only go there sort of four or five times each year, and each time -- I have to say, each time I go there, it is markedly worse in one respect or another from the previous time.

But as far as I can work it out, and it is difficult to be certain about these things, until very recently, journalists themselves weren't at all the target. I don't mean to say that things didn't happen to journalists, because they have from time to time, but I think what happened with Rory Carroll, the "Guardian" correspondent who thankfully has been released -- I think we were all desperate for that to happen. That seems to have been associated specifically with a situation in southern Iraq where the al-Sadr's people were looking to find somebody or another to trade for a couple of his men who have been arrested there by the British, and fortunately that wasn't what came about.

So I think these things are specific -- time specific. That threat still exists for British journalists in particular there, but I don't think that it's necessarily appallingly dangerous to work as a journalist. I just think that you've got to be extremely careful and I think you've got to be absolutely determined to get out as much as you can every day, if that's possible.

SWEENEY: Mohamed Chebaro, here in the studio, you actually helped setup the bureau in Baghdad for Al-Arabiya. How has the nature of that and those people working there changed over the last two-and-a-half years?

MOHAMED CHEBARO, AL-ARABIYA: Well, I have to differ slightly, maybe, basically, on the issue that journalists are increasingly a target here or there. I mean we've seen in the conflict, one of the last conflicts I've covered was Afghanistan. It was more number of journalists fell on the roads in Afghanistan than ever before.

And now in Iraq, we tried basically getting journalists from Iraq to cover the Iraqi story as much as possible, and Al-Arabiya paid a heavy price. We lost eight of our staff so far in Iraq, three of whom are journalists, five support staff. I have another two injured, one of whom I just visited this morning. He's undergoing rehabilitation in a center for spinal injury here in London. He cannot move from the chest down, basically, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has been a victim of an abduction attempt that went wrong and then they shot him three times. It seems to be professionally prepared. He got shot in the neck, in the chest and also in the heart. Lucky he's still alive and he's undergoing rehabilitation.

We have one more journalist now, another Iraqi journalist, Hamid Jawid (ph), and he has been imprisoned since September by the coalition forces. Until now we've failed to get a lawyer to him to know what are the charges. So it's gotten, like, really increasingly dangerous. It's unpredictable and our main office got bombed by a car bomb, targeted a year ago.

So, yet we're committed, we're continuing on to cover the story.

SWEENEY: This is what I wanted to ask. I mean, where does this leave the management of Al-Arabiya when it comes to covering the story?

CHEBARO: Well, I believe that like all journalists, we're basically working in a dangerous zone. Yet the word needs to come out, and Al- Arabiya is committed and is continuing to try to get the information out despite the fact that the price has been heavy and many times there has been moments where everybody was doubting whether it was worth going on. Yet so far we are continuing our coverage. We have a comprehensive coverage, not only from Baghdad but from all other areas. And I believe that we're going out more on the streets of Baghdad than maybe some other colleagues in pursuit of the story.

SWEENEY: John Simpson, we know that the cost, security, for a start, the cost of keeping a bureau in Baghdad, is quite astronomical. And with the situation the way it is in terms of the insurgency, do you think that managements of networks and newspapers want to remain committed to telling the story when you hear of the losses sustained, for example, by Al- Arabiya?

SIMPSON: Well, I hope so. I have to say to Mohamed, we were talking earlier, I thought, specifically about Western journalists, not Arabic- speaking journalists who have paid the highest price and have showed the greatest bravery, I think, in continuing, like his colleagues there and from other networks. And from the local Iraqi press and television.

I just hope that these things -- there was that big explosion the other day outside the Palestine Hotel, which will have shocked I think a lot of international groups who have got people staying there. I'm just hoping that it won't change their minds because that is the worst defeat.

SWEENEY: What impact did the Palestine explosion have on your and your colleagues?

FINER: Well, I think it forced a lot of us to sort of reevaluate our security procedures, to take a good, hard look at the places where we live and make sure that they're as safe as we can make them.

SWEENEY: John Simpson, it is of course up to each individual journalist to decide whether to stay or not in Baghdad. But in the wider sense, journalists tend to follow the story that's happening in that country, but given where the insurgency is going, where do you think it's going to leave journalists in the coming months and years?

FINER: Well, I mean, I don't think you can look at the situation without feeling that there is a slow decline in security there, which is continuing, which gets worse really by, certainly if not by the month then certainly by the quarter and definitely by the year.

So these are questions which are going to arise more and more strongly the whole time, and it's right in a way, of course, that people back in London or in New York or wherever should be questioning all the time, is it right, is it safe enough for us to have people there.

But I personally would want to carry on going there, reporting there, because I think you can actually do it with a modicum of safety and you've just, as Jonathan said, you've got to be really careful, very, very careful, extra careful nowadays, but that doesn't mean to say that it's instant death to go there, as Jonathan shows, as Rory Carroll shows. It is possible to get there, to report and to get the stuff back, and that, after all, is what the whole job is about.

SWEENEY: Mohamed, a final question to you, if I can play devils advocate, what would be lost if the story in Iraq wasn't covered?

CHEBARO: I think a lot. It will be defeat to us as professionals, I think, as John just said. You know, we have to continue, if there is a story, if there is loss of life, if there is a conflict of some nature, some form, one basic instinct of a journalist is to go and cover it and, yes, take extra care, pay attention and take all the measures necessary. And, yes, every administration in every news organization, broadcast especially, weighs all these dangers every morning, every evening, and they keep in constant consultation with their local staff and their staff on the ground.

Yet it's a job, it comes with the job, and the news keeps on coming out and we hope that it keeps going, because otherwise it's a defeat for the business and if not for the Iraqi people or people who need the word to come out.

SWEENEY: There we have to leave it, Mohamed Chebaro, here in London, thank you, indeed. Jonathan Finer, in Baghdad also thank you to you. And, indeed, of course, John Simpson, in Paris.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, held hostage in Iraq. We ask that kidnapped Irish journalist, Rory Carroll, what went through his mind before he was freed.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

He had a gun to his head and his wrists handcuffed behind his back. For Rory Carroll, the dreaded moment had arrived, kidnapped. That was the exact sentiment expressed by the Irish journalist who was abducted in Baghdad last week then released 36 hours later.

Well, Rory joins us now to talk about his ordeal. First of all, Rory, how are you?

RORY CARROLL, "GUARDIAN": Tired, but fine. Happy to be out and happy to be back in London.

SWEENEY: Have you had any time to adjust or take in what happened?

CARROLL: Well, not that much. It seems it happened so fast and, actually, honestly ended before it began. And since I have come out there has been so much attention and fuss about it, which is very gratifying on one level, but it means it is kind of difficult to process everything that happened so fast.

SWEENEY: What did actually happen?

CARROLL: I had gone with my interpreter and two drivers to Sadr City, a Shia area of Baghdad, to interview a Shia family that had suffered under Saddam Hussein and to watch the opening of Saddam Hussein's trial with them, the idea being to get the reaction, chronicle the atmosphere in the family and to report on what the trial meant to a Shia family, one of the classic -- some of the victims of Saddam.

So we did that. We had arranged an interview with them. It went on too long, a lot longer than we had expected because of the delay in the start of the trial, and we left the house about 2:15 p.m. This was last Wednesday. And we had gone barely 200 meters, me in the lead car and the so-called chase car following us, when out of nowhere, it seems, three carloads of gunmen cut us off.

And they jumped out of their own vehicles. We were forced to stop. We were surrounded by gunmen. They assaulted my driver. He was pistol whipped. The interpreter was in the front passenger seat and was dragged out of the car. And then my door was opened and a gun was put to my head and I was bustled around into the gunmen's vehicle. One of the vehicles was a police vehicle, but I was put in the unmarked car.

I had my handcuffs put behind my back, my head was forced down beneath the windows, and we sped away.

SWEENEY: And what was going through your mind?

CARROLL: Well, partly disbelief. I had been in Iraq for nine months. I had thought about this. I knew that this could happen. I discussed it with my colleagues. Almost every social gathering of journalists in Baghdad at some point turns to the subject of kidnap, what would you do if it happens. And suddenly it was happening. And it just happened so fast, there really was nothing I could do.

Resistance wasn't really an option when we travel unarmed, and so we're surrounded by gunmen. So there is no question of resisting. Flight was also out of the question, because, well, they got us so fast there was nowhere to run. And I had handcuffs around me plus a gun to my head. So, again, there was nothing I could do.

SWEENEY: At what point did you realize something was very wrong?

CARROLL: Well, only when the gunman overtook us in the car. I was sitting in the backseat. We had finished the interviews. We were heading back to our hotel. It was a very, very busy day for us. We had a lot on. Saddam's trial was taking place. We had other things to do and this story was one of five balls we were juggling that particular day, so I was really focused on what we were supposed to do next when the car suddenly cut us off.

I might have had a warning. I think my interpreter picked up slightly earlier than I had that something was wrong, and in the house where we were, basically these people were waiting for us. We had been set up, we think.

SWEENEY: You made a reference to staying in the house too long. I mean, clearly it was too long to some degree, but what made you think it was too long at the time?

CARROLL: Well, typically people -- journalists in Baghdad, we like to say there is a rule that we kind of try to stay maybe for 20 minutes, maybe for 30 minutes in one place and then move on. In this case, because the trial had been delayed for on hour-and-a-half, I had stayed on with this family, trying to wait for the trial to start to get their reaction.

The atmosphere changed a bit. Some people -- basically we were rumbled about during that time.

SWEENEY: And you didn't sense that yourself at the time?

CARROLL: No, again, my antenna was obviously not working that day, because I was focused on the story.

SWEENEY: Did you feel in mortal danger at that point?

CARROLL: No, I didn't feel that my life was in immediate danger. I knew that these guys wanted me alive and so, therefore, I was not in immediate danger of my existence being extinguished. That wasn't the fear. I just thought that this is going to be the beginning of an ordeal which could stretch to weeks, probably months.

SWEENEY: Your ordeal ended quite quickly. Do you know what kind of deal was done?

CARROLL: No, all I know is that very heavy political pressure was put on the people who took me. We think it was an element or a faction of the Sadr-ist (ph) movement, which is a movement loosely affiliated to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. We think it was one of those groupings that took me, and within hours of my abduction an extraordinary panoply of forces were put together to put pressure on them to release me, and this included the Iranian government.

They came out and spoke, calling for my release, as well as the British government, the Irish government, the American government and, crucially, the Iraqi government, specifically Ahmed Chalabi, the deputy prime minister, who weighed in very heavily and very effectively as far as I can see. Because he has very close links, he as allies within the Sadr- ist (ph) movement, so he has some sway over them.

And so it is, I think, due to the combination of the efforts of many, many people, and I can never thank them enough. But if it had to be one individual who is named, I understand that that was Dr. Ahmed Chalabi.

SWEENEY: Will you go back to Iraq?

CARROLL: I might. That's still to be decided. In the short-term, I can't. My face became too visible, was published in the newspapers in Baghdad, so I would just be too highly visible there. And I think it would be irresponsible and also unfair to my family to go back so soon.

However, next year I may well go back when things cool down a bit, but that has yet to be decided between me and my editors.

SWEENEY: And right now, how are you feeling?

CARROLL: Tired but happy to be out. Gratified and quite embarrassed by all the fuss this has caused. I'm looking forward to taking a break.

SWEENEY: Rory, thank you very much.

And 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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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