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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired December 3, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Becky Anderson, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
Later in the show, a look at how the Chinese government is cracking down on bloggers, plus behind bars in the Middle East. I'll be speaking to the award-winning producer of "Inside Israel's Jails."

First, though, we begin with these terrifying images of the Westerners kidnapped in Iraq this week. A videotape of the four men, all said to be Christian peace activists, was broadcast on the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera. Western television networks followed suit.

There was at least initially some confusion over the identity of the captives and the hostage-takers, who are said to have accused the men of being spies, though verifying this information is virtually impossible.

So, should the media broadcast the tapes at all? And if so, what steps should be taken in advance?

To discuss this, I'm joined by CNN's editorial director Richard Griffiths and in the studio, James Brandon, who was kidnapped then released in Iraq last year.

Let's start with you, Richard, if I can. Should these media -- these pictures have been shown by Al Jazeera and indeed should the rest of the international media have followed suit?

RICHARD GRIFFITHS, CNN: The answer, I think, is yes. These are difficult issues. We have to figure this out on a case by case basis. You can't have a blanket rule. But, yes, I think that these images were news- worthy.

Now, a few things you should know about CNN's process. We saw the pictures on Al Jazeera. We looked at them carefully and examined them, determined that there were identifying data on the tape, and then started making calls.

Only after we had confirmation that the families knew that these hostages had been taken did we broadcast the images, and then only in a very sparing fashion, about 15 seconds of each, and nothing that would be seen as humiliating. That's been our rule of thumb since these tapes started showing up.

ANDERSON: There are two issues here, aren't there, James. There is the question as to whether these are news-worthy. This is what news is all about. And, secondly, how this affects the families, relatives, of those who had been captured. These pictures must be familiar to you, remind you of what you went through. Your thoughts?

JAMES BRANDON, "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR": Well, I think they are newsworthy. They're an important part of what's going on in Iraq, and they may be unpleasant, they may be disturbing, but I don't think that gives us any excuse to just shut our eyes and pretend the thing isn't happening.

Yeah, you can argue it's propaganda, but at the same time 9/11 was propaganda. Should we not have shown images of that?

ANDERSON: Richard, that's a point, isn't it, this idea that this is propaganda, that effectively CNN and the rest of the international news networks that pick these pictures up from Al Jazeera are effectively playing into the hands of those who believe that taking people hostage is useful to them and their cause.

GRIFFITHS: Well, I think if we were to play the entire tape without applying any kind of editorial value or evaluation to the material, then perhaps we would play into their hands. But by looking at the tape carefully and choosing elements from the material, from the tape, that convey what needs to be shown without falling into the propaganda trap, I think that's acceptable. So, I mean, we're not going to have hostages on there delivering long shrives as they're being coached by their captors. I think that would be crossing a line.

But showing that they are alive, showing that they have been taken hostage, showing them and then in the context of their organizations perhaps denials if they've been accused of something -- and that certainly happened in the case of this Christian aid group. These men were all accused of spying, something that their organization vigorously denied.

ANDERSON: Richard there talking about why perhaps these pictures have been shown. Just remind us, James, if you will, as a journalist you were working in Iraq. You were taken hostage and then what happened?

BRANDON: I was down in Basra for a few days doing reporting, and I was just in my hotel room, a group of gunmen burst in and seized me. And within a few hours, they produced a video camera. I was taken to some kind of deserted building on the outskirts of town and they filmed a little piece with me talking into the camera, saying who I was and next to me a guy with a gun was saying unless America withdraws from Najaf, where it was fighting, we're going to execute this hostage.

ANDERSON: Richard was talking there about the fact that we certainly and other organizations haven't shown the whole tape. You've been there, you have been at the recording of one of these tapes effectively. To your mind, what were your hostage-takers expecting to achieve out of getting you on air?

BRANDON: I guess it was the chance to show the world they existing, if you want. But at the same time, it was funny. They hadn't probably done it before but they had a very good idea of what they were going to say. It was as if they were following some sort of script in a way. They had an idea of how the thing should be done.

One of them put on a mask and sat next to me holding a gun. They hadn't actually had masks on before that point. It was all part of an image, creating a kind of picture of how strong they are and how weak this Westerner, this example of the West, actually was, how he was in their power.

ANDERSON: What, Richard, would happen effectively if we didn't how these pictures, do you think? Because this must have been a conversation that you have had with the editorial staff at CNN.

GRIFFITHS: I think that we can't sanitize the news by not showing some of these images. I think it's very important to be up front with the public about what's going on. And, frankly, some of these images are out there in their entirety on the Internet, so for us to ignore them raises the question, well, are we censoring in some way. But we're not censoring. We're applying an editorial judgment about what's appropriate to show and showing that, and I think to not do that would open us up to somehow falling into the trap that we were not independent in our evaluation of what's happening in Iraq.

ANDERSON: Let's just talk about the fact that Al Jazeera have shown these pictures and then they've been picked up by other organizations. There have been allegations, and these are only allegations at this point, that President Bush had been of a mind to bomb the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha. This is part of a court case in the United Kingdom at present.

At the time, people were suggesting that the states had become highly irritated by the editorial stance that Al Jazeera had taken in the past. Now, they say they are completely unbiased and that their coverage is just newsworthy coverage. Do you think that's right at this stage? Are they doing the right thing in showing perhaps more than we are showing of these sort of images?

GRIFFITHS: I think that every news organization needs to make its own judgment about what to put on. They are an independent news organization and they have to make their own calls, just as CNN makes its own calls.

We don't make a decision about what to put on the air on the basis of what Al Jazeera does, and nor should Al Jazeera make its decisions about what to put on on the basis of what CNN does. They have their own audience, they understand their audience, just as we try to understand our audience and what it needs and what our responsibilities are.

And I think that they have to make their own call just as we make our own call.

ANDERSON: OK, Richard.

James, we were just talking earlier there about what would have happened if indeed these images of these hostages weren't shown. I'm just wondering, in your experience, what you think would have happened if the image of you hadn't been shown?

BRANDON: That's a very interesting question, actually. I imagine the people, the hostage-takers, would have been very angry, actually. They wanted their air time, they wanted their place in the sun, if you want. And denying them that, I think, is just going to cause them to resort to other methods to get attention, whether it's car bombings or shootings or whatever, or just killing people without taking videos.

ANDERSON: But surely then that means that we are just glorifying these creeps, doesn't it? Surely it means we are providing them a platform for their discourse, whatever that may be.

BRANDON: Possibly, but I don't think that by just censoring the video is really going to affect the kind of overall situation. The videos are really a symptom of the problem. If we want to stop these videos being taken, we need to get to the root cause of it. We need to find out why these people are running around taking Western hostages, why there is so much violence going on in Iraq. Simply censoring out the videos isn't going to really change anything.

ANDERSON: We're going to leave it there.

GRIFFITHS: And we should bear in mind here that we are not running these tapes without evaluating them editorially. We are looking at them, determining what is useful to run and then running that portion. We're not running the whole thing.

ANDERSON: Richard, we're going to leave it there. We thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Well, I mentioned earlier those allegations that President Bush considered bombing Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters. Well, last week the channel's general manager, Wadah Khanfar, appeared on this show. He traveled to London to urge the British government to reveal the truth about the claims which were leaked to the "Mirror" newspaper.

Well, the news chief's request to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair was turned down, as well as his appeal for more information. Mr. Khanfar says he'll continue to seek the truth. We here on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS will bring you any developments.

Up next on the show, silencing dissent. How the Chinese government is trying to put the lid back on the country's bloggers.

Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

China's elevation to world superpower status is one of much debate. What's not is how quickly the country is transforming, including its media.

Traditionally, the Chinese government has had tight control over journalists, but with the rise of the Internet, that's becoming increasingly difficult.

CNN's Stan Grant explains.


STAN GRANT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kang Langyi is a bundle of contradictions. He enjoys what he calls the freedoms of the information age in a land where ideas are often censored. He munches on that most American of foods, McDonalds, while running a Web site denouncing the United States and its allies.

KANG LANGYI, CHINESE INTERNET USER (through translator): More and more Chinese people are using the Internet. The Internet is a convenient and free space.

GRANT: He uses this "free space" to allow people to run messages like this. Some anti-China wolves have put on sheep's clothing and infiltrated the flock. Expose those Net spies. Execute them on the spot."

People like Kang Langyi help organize anti-Japanese protest over the Internet earlier this year. The violent demonstrations, some say, were secretly encouraged by the Chinese government.

(on camera): There has been an information explosion in China. Nearly 100 million Internet users, another 300 million people using mobile phones and text messaging. Put simply, the genie is out of the bottle. The challenge for the government here now, to find new ways to put it back in.

(voice-over): The government already has Internet police monitoring Web sites. It's now cracking down on online use services, tightening restrictions on stories containing pornography, gambling or violence. It outlaws information inciting demonstrations, concerned that protests against Japan one moment could turn on China the next.

He Jiazheng runs online news service He keeps a tight- reign on what is reported.

HE JIAZHENG, PEOPLES.NET (through translator): We emphasize the rule of law. Basically, we advocate discussions within the framework of the law and discourage rumors, abuse and vulgar, offensive stuff.

GRANT: Vulgar, offensive stuff like democracy or human rights. These words currently banned from blog sites and bulletin boards. Here we type in "only democracy can save China," refresh the page and it is gone.

In China, government censorship clearly casts a long shadow.

Stan Grant, CNN, Beijing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)ANDERSON: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, "Inside Israel's Jails." An award-winning filmmaker tells us what it's really like.

That in just a moment.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

Imagine catching the gaze of those considered to be the world's most dangerous people, never mind engaging in a conversation with them. Well, that's exactly what one group of documentary makes did when they filmed "Inside Israel's Jails."

Here is a clip from their film, which has just won the top prize at the Foreign Press Association's Media Awards.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

NARRATOR (voice-over): An Israeli officer and a convicted terrorist kill time. Both have lots of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

NARRATOR (voice-over): In the past, these two men would only have come eye to eye at the end of a rifle sight. Now they're offered a unique chance to learn about each other at close quarters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

NARRATOR (voice-over): Outside the prison walls, the momentum towards peace and the creation of an independent Palestinian state gathers haste.

But inside Israeli jails, there are still 10,000 prisoners accused of crimes against Israel.


ANDERSON: Well, judges call the film an outstanding piece of investigative journalism and praise the team for getting access to a high security Israeli prison.

I'm joined now by the executive producer, Dimitri Doganis.

Dimitri, just how difficult was it to gain not just the access to this facility but the trust and ultimately the balance in this film?

DIMITRI DOGANIS, FILMMAKER: It was very difficult and it took quite a long time. We spent about four months trying to persuade the Israeli Prison Service to let us through the door, not just to let us through the door, but to let us through the door and then once we were in, to allow us to go where we wanted and film with who we wanted.

And, of course, while we were doing that, we were also contacting representatives from the Palestinian prisoners associations, both inside and outside the jails, and saying this is what we'd like to do, we need your permission as well as the Israeli Prison Services permission to do it, and in a way what you have to do then is you have to be totally honest with both sides, because you're going to make -- if you promise -- you can't promise it's going to be one thing to one side and another thing to another because you're going to be found out very quickly once you get inside.

It was a complicated process, but ultimately I think it was worth it.

ANDERSON: Do you think, or were you aware that people change once the cameras went on?

DOGANIS: I think that's true in any documentary situation. What tends to happen is the moment the cameras are there, people talk in a very self-conscious way and they're very self-aware. And particularly in the Middle East, what inevitably happens is the first half day or day, people talk in slogans. They talk about their political position and their beliefs and how outrageous it is what the other side is doing. And we knew that was going to happen and it did happen, and you have to wait, let them get through that, let them express all of that.

And actually, once that -- once they're through that, once they've said all that stuff, actually what you get then is something really interesting because it's human and heartfelt. And we felt that the success of a film like this had to be not in the slogans or in the political beliefs but actually in the people that were behind the uniforms, be they the blue of the Israeli Prison Service or the brown of the prisoners.

ANDERSON: And the idea of this film, as the judges suggested, was that it gave a sense, it explained what was going on in the region through the Palestinian freedom fighter or terrorist, whatever you want to call him or her, and the Israeli prison guard. Is it, though, do you think fair to extrapolate from those very diverse characters, two characters who stand at both ends of the political divide, to extrapolate the sense of the conflict as a whole from those characters themselves?

DOGANIS: Well, I mean, the metaphor is limited, but in a sense what you do have is just like in Israel and Palestine, you have a small enclosed space, you have two sides very diametrically opposed to one another, very hostile to one another, face to face, one side with a monopoly of coercive force and all the power seemingly, but the other side with the ability to make things very difficult and dangerous and ugly for the other side and able to kind of mount a resistance, and you have that within the four walls of the prison just as you have it between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan.

So there wasn't something which I felt was significant in a greater sense, that had a resonance beyond the prison walls. And for me, what was very interesting was watching how these people actually in this very close space, away from the political structures, have reached an accomodation. We talked about it as a kind of tango. They danced with each other. They realized they had to put their differences to one side or they were going to be at each others' throats 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that was what was really amazing for us going in.

ANDERSON: You're a fairly experienced filmmaker at this point, both on the directing side and on the producing side. What did you learn out of this?

DOGANIS: Well, that's a good question. I was surprised. The things that really surprised me going in were how when people are put face to face with one another, they are able to reach an accomodation, maybe not the one they wanted, but one which enables them to live with each other, and once you strip away the grand political structures, the international pressures, actually on a day to day level they were able to get on and they recognized that their ideals would have to come second to actually the necessity of living day to day with one another cheek by jowl.

ANDERSON: It's an interesting point, particularly in the region, you were able to and won an award for a story which got behind the conflict by talking to the people. As you say, this is day to day, day in and day out, these are the people who are involved.

There is not enough of that going on to my mind, and many people's minds, in the region. These stories about the people behind the story. Is this the sort of story, is this the sort of film that you want to take and make in Iraq, for example? And if you do, the sense is that you would like to do that, what are the limitations? How difficult, effectively, is it to make a film like this?

DOGANIS: I think making any, really any film, is very difficult. I mean, some are more difficult than others. But actually I think the significance is a change in how you think about it, and I am quite bored of or familiar with, shall we say, films which have, you know, a dichotomy of one side versus the other and this argument versus that argument. Actually, it's much more interesting to look at -- for me it's much more interesting to look at where people are coming together and where there is dialogue.

I feel like in everything we do, perhaps the nature of journalism leads us to say on the one hand and on the other hand, and actually there is stuff happening in the middle that's really interesting, often in the places where you expect it least and often in a way that is more telling than anything you've seen before.

ANDERSON: We leave it there. We thank you very much indeed for joining us.

DOGANIS: Thank you.

ANDERSON: That's it for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handing the big issues.

I'm Becky Anderson. Thanks for joining us.



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