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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired December 10, 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.
And we begin this week in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was back in the dock on trial for war crimes against humanity.

Many were bemused by the deposed dictator's antics in court. Saddam ranted and raved until mid-week, when he simply refused to attend. All this as journalists gather in Iraq to cover next week's elections.

And while the political process may be marching forward, behind the scenes there is concern about media relations. The U.S. military has been accused of planting "good news" stories in the Iraqi press while there is realization that the insurgents are becoming increasingly media savvy.

To discuss the issue of war propaganda and the challenges of reporting all that's happening in Iraq, I'm joined by John Daniszewaki, London bureau chief for the "L.A. Times;" from Washington, D.C., Bob Maginnis, a former U.S. lieutenant colonel who has just returned from Iraq; and from Baghdad, CNN's Aneesh Raman.

Aneesh, I'll start with you. You've been in the courthouse, you've seen the goings on. A lot of grandstanding, a lot of shouting, a lot of positioning, as it were. As a journalist, how difficult a story is this to cover?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's quite difficult because there are two threats going on. There is a legal case that's being built inside that courtroom by the prosecution, and everything is about specifics in terms of the testimony, but there is also a trial in the public arena, those that are watching the feed that comes out on delay.

It's an amazing enterprise to actually be in that courtroom. We, the press, are seated behind the defendants. Their backs are to us. We face the five judge panel. We're separated from the courtroom by a soundproof wall of glass, and so as we are watching we are also aware that the world is seeing what we see 20 minutes later, so when you work for an organization like CNN, if news happens in the courtroom, you often have the urge to rush downstairs and report that, and risk missing any other moments that are taking place inside. So when you're there, there is always that friction.

Also, when you're inside, again, you are only hearing the legal testimony and you get a sense for the case that is being built, the fact that this is very much a trial. There are no givens in terms of Saddam Hussein's guilt. But having been on the other side as well, reporting, as we've seen the video come out, for the world, it's a different arena. It's not as much about the testimony and the case being built and more, as you say, about the power struggle we've seen between the defense lawyers and the judge and more predominantly between Saddam Hussein himself and the presiding judge.

The week began with the defense lawyers walking out, it ended yesterday with an empty chair where Saddam Hussein was to sit. So it's a difficulty in terms of balancing your reporting, both to allow what is clearly an important thread, the public perception, the Iraqi perception, how this trial is going forward, but also the legal case that is being built -- Becky.

ANDERSON: How well, John, do you think the defense team, Saddam Hussein's defense team, is using the media during this trial?

JOHN DANISZEWAKI, "L.A. TIMES": I think they are trying to use the media to get their case out. Saddam is obviously trying to talk to his own people and saying to them, look, this government that has been installed is not a real government. It's a puppet government. I'm the real spokesman for Iraq.

And at times you see him ordering the judge to do this or do that, still saying in his way that he's in charge.

ANDERSON: Bob, Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general, has appeared both on CNN and other networks and in the press. Perhaps the accused is using the media to its fullest extent. He, though, says that this trial isn't legitimate and indeed he suggests that the security for those involved isn't good enough. It's not good enough for anybody at present, including journalists in Iraq, is it?

BOB MAGINNIS, FMR. U.S. LT. COL.: No, it's really not. It is tough. As we know, we've had lawyers that have been assassinated. Others have fled the country and, of course, many have been fired by Saddam himself. So, you know, this is a tough time for anyone in that courtroom that is in face, or facing down that camera. And, of course, we've seen some of the witnesses that have now been put behind screens, which is very important.

But you're right, Becky, it's a tough environment. But, you know, it's an Iraqi trial. You don't see the Americans on the judges stand nor, other than Ramsey Clark, behind the defense bench. So we'll see how this comes out. They've already met four times, or three times. They're going to meet again on the 21st and there will be far more, I think, theatrics, Slobodan Milosevic-like theatrics, in the future.

ANDERSON: Your thoughts -- Aneesh.

RAMAN: Well, I think a couple of things. One, it is important to say this is an Iraqi court, it is an Iraqi process. It's important to note, though, that the video that is delayed, that is released, is also censored. It is at times edited, audio is cut out.

So another interesting thread when you're in the courtroom is to gauge what has been left out of what the world sees, and that process is done by the court but also tangentially by the Americans, who are involved in this process. They've refused to allow any moments that divulge information about security details about where these defendants are being held or other names of witnesses, but they have generally great latitude, as does the judge, to censor what the court puts out.

In terms of the security, I think the defense has been almost masterful at using this trial to make its case to the world, by walking out, by allowing the defendants to make these longwinded statements. Saddam Hussein questioned the legitimacy of the court, calling himself still president.

The defense, it seems, is much more aware that this is as much about public perception as a trial than the judges or prosecution have been so far.

ANDERSON: And, John, we talk about how the defense team has used the idea of the public perception in their favor, perhaps. Let's talk about the propaganda war, because your paper recently wrote that effectively the U.S. forces, the U.S. military, have been planting stories in the Iraqi press, favorable stories for U.S. and coalition troops and some officers indeed in the forces don't agree with that. Just explain what you believe has been going on.

DANISZEWAKI: Well, as we've been told, there is an operation to put U.S. molded news into the Iraqi press and onto the Iraqi radio stations. Stories are written up by United States military personnel and then taken to newspapers by intermediaries, who don't say where the information is coming from, and actually paying editors to put those stories in the paper.

ANDERSON: Have you seen evidence of this -- Aneesh.

RAMAN: Well, it's tough to tell. We haven't seen direct evidence. We do know, though, that Iraqi journalists are an incredibly difficult bind. They are perhaps more susceptible to this than they would be at any other time. They are financially strapped. There is a dearth of people who want to be journalists here, domestic journalists, despite the large number of foreign journalists that are here, and they don't know where to begin.

They need training. They've never dealt with a situation where they haven't had to report what they've been told to report. And so financially, that's the biggest concern for them, and it makes them susceptible to something like this. But in terms of the Iraqi population, it is not good for the United States to be seen as playing in the same game or on the same field as the insurgency. To say that we are battling their propaganda by doing things that Iraqis will see as similar to what took place prior to the war does not help the cause on the ground and, again, for the journalists, they want to report the truth. They are just going through incredible growing pains to figure out how to do that.

RAMAN: Aneesh says it's not good to be playing the insurgents' game and, indeed, when we listen to the reaction of the United States to this "L.A. Times" story of planting propaganda stories the other day, I heard the United States not necessarily excepting the accusation but certainly saying, well, look, the insurgents are doing it so why shouldn't we at this point.

MAGINNIS: Well, Becky, they haven't apologized, you're right. They have an investigation ongoing. They make the argument that, look, we have planted about 1/3 of the 1,300 articles that have been put together by soldiers. They argue that they're factual. They also argue that this is almost analogous to first putting out the first before you pick up the table setting.

Iraq, they argue, is still a democracy on training wheels that needs a lot of help and that the post-modern world, especially with regard to media, you know, the playing ground isn't level. So what they're arguing at this point, Becky, is that, you know, in order to play in this reality, in order to bring this country into a true democracy that respects freedom of press, we have to plant factual, truthful articles through a subcontractor to our contractor, but of course the journalists don't know they're doing this.

Now, the ethics of this is going to be questioned. That's why we have an investigator going into the field right now.

ANDERSON: John, your response?

DANISZEWAKI: I think it's -- I have heard the argument before, that this is all part of psychological warfare and it has to be done, but I think, you know, it's like all the other accusations that have been placed against the United States about the torture, the renditions, all this undermines America's image in the Middle East. People begin to see the United States as being somewhat hypocritical, preaching one thing and doing another.

ANDERSON: How important is it for us as journalists to tell our viewers and our readers just how difficult a job this is these days? We very rarely say that we're imbedded, as we did during the war, and we very rarely tell our readers or our viewers that we may not be leaving our compounds when we're working. Should we be?

DANISZEWAKI: Yes, I think the readers and the viewers need to be told that there are clearly limits on freedom of movement for journalists. They're not absolute. Sometimes I feel it's exaggerated.

Journalists do get out somewhat, you know, always taking extra precautions for their safety. But there is some ability to interact with Iraqis in their offices and homes and over the telephone.

ANDERSON: Aneesh, your thoughts because, of course, you have been out a lot.

RAMAN: Yes, Becky, I mean, as journalists we have to be in Iraq, we have to be in Baghdad. That's a full stop in order to cover this story. And so whatever limitations they are, it's better than covering it, of course, from elsewhere, from Amman or from Dubai.

But given that we are here, I think it depends on the type of story and how often we have to remind the viewers of our limitations.

In terms of how I report, on a vast majority of cases we're in Baghdad getting the information, and that doesn't require us to physically go and talk to the Iraqi police or talk to the Iraqi government or talk to the U.S. military. It's a matter of compiling it and then balancing it with what we know, having been here for some time, having know the population, to be true and reporting that.

But we have incredible limitations. It's a different war here. We are targets. Journalists have been kidnapped. Journalists have been taken hostage. And so our limitations become huge. And when I go out to a certain site, there is an immediate time clock that starts ticking. You cannot stay there for too long. We saw with Rory Carroll (ph), when he was kidnapped, it was because he was in the same location for quite some time.

So I think you're incredibly correct. We need to be as up front as possible, but we need to be here as well.

ANDERSON: Aneesh Raman, Bob Maginnis and John Daniszewaki, we thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, left for dead in a Saudi street. We hear from the BBC's Frank Gardner.

That is in just a moment, stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back.

He was shot six times and left for dead. Frank Gardner is the BBC journalist, partially paralyzed after an ambush by militant gunmen in Saudi Arabia. His colleague, cameraman Simon Cumbers (ph), was killed in the attack in June last year.

The assault was a poignant reminder of how reporters risk their lives to tell the world what is happening.

Now, Frank has been back at work for several months and joins us now to talk about his ordeal, his recovery and how it's changed his approach to journalism.

Frank, thank you very much indeed for joining us. Before we move on to all of those issues, do remind us if you will what happened in Riyadh in June last year.

FRANK GARDNER, BBC JOURNALIST: Well, we went down there, just myself and a cameraman, to report on the state of the al Qaeda threat in Saudi Arabia immediately after that raid on (UNINTELLIGIBLE). If you remember, there was a pretty brutal raid by al Qaeda in the eastern oil town and 22 people died. They invaded a housing compound, lined up people and asked them are you Muslim, are you Christian, and if they didn't give the right answer they slit their throats, and most of the al Qaeda team then escaped. They got away.

So we went down there very much with the sort of permission from the Saudi authorities to report on what was the extent of the violent movement there and what steps were being made to tackle terrorism. And it was such a -- we knew it was a dangerous time, so we said, well, we're not going to do anything mad and go off on our own, we will be entirely with the Saudi government.

So we put ourselves in their hands and they looked after us very well in the eastern oil area. We wanted to look at whether there really was any threat to the oil industry and we concluded at the time that there wasn't, and we then moved on Riyadh. And we pretty much had finished, Becky, it was our last day. But we thought we ought to get some general views, some shots of where there had been some trouble in the past, a slightly dodgy area in the south. We didn't want to go into it though, so the Saudi Ministry of Information provided us a driver and a guide and they were very relaxed.

They said, yeah, you can go anywhere you want, and they took us to, at our request, to the edge of this area. We filmed for about half an hour, hardly anybody around. It seemed very peaceful. And then two cars turned up. This guy got out, smiling, looked like a perfectly ordinary Saudi, and he said (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which in Arabic means peace be upon you. It's the standard Muslim greeting anywhere all over the world. It can be in Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines, anywhere.

And I returned the greeting. I said (UNINTELLIGIBLE), upon you the peace and the blessings of God. He then took out a gun and shot me. Hit me in the shoulder. I was running by then because I could see what was happening. And he brought me down with another shot to the leg and I then pleaded with him in Arabic to spare my life, but these were tough theories. These were jihadis who have a very, very narrow view of Islam. They even consider that most of their Muslim countrymen aren't really good Muslims because they don't join their cause, and basically didn't know the word mercy.

They just -- as far as they were concerned, they executed me at point blank range with four bullets into the back as I lay on the ground there. We had no police protection, which was a failing of the Saudi government, I have to say, but we represented no threat at all. We were shot because we were white and Simon Cumbers, I think, was shot instantly, I mean, he died, one bullet to the head, so he didn't even have a chance to run, I don't think.

ANDERSON: So they tried to execute you; they executed effectively Simon Cumbers. You've had time, a lot of time now, to reflect on what happened. You knew the risks and you just suggested that, you know, this was an extremely risky situation, although perhaps you said you had taken as many precautions as you might have done.

In hindsight, should you have been there? Was it worth it?

GARDNER: It certainly wasn't worth it. I mean, in my view, no story is worth getting a bullet for, absolutely none, as a journalist. That's my personal view. I mean, you know, I'm, as you say, partly paralyzed. I will almost certainly never walk, run, jump, dance, again. Losing the use of your legs is a catastrophic blow to life, and of course Simon, his widow, his family, it's just beyond description.

We thought we were being -- we were taking a calculated risk by going with the government. The Saudi Ministry of Information or the Saudi authorities, generally, are notoriously over-cautious about what they will show journalists, so we didn't strike out on our own, some maverick expedition. We said we will trust you to show us what you can. We don't want to go to anywhere dangerous. We don't want to go into that area. You just take us to where you think is safe. And they underestimated the risk.

This was their town, Riyadh. It wasn't our town. I mean, you know, if somebody asked to be shown the sites of London, I wouldn't take them to some rough estate in South Peckham (ph). You know, I would -- you would take them to where you think it's safe. So it was a miscalculations by them and also in retrospect, of course, we shouldn't have trusted our Saudi minders. They didn't know what they were doing.

To be fair to the Saudis, they then did a fantastic job in saving my life. They took me to the best hospital in -- possibly in the world -- and I was very lucky. I was treated by an expert, I was kept alive.

ANDERSON: You were there to cover a story; effectively you became the story. Your thoughts on that?

GARDNER: Well, I never wanted to be -- I mean, there is the sort of - - all this kind of minor fame that I have had has been very strange for me because, you know, we're journalists. We expect to be reporting on somebody else. I have no great need to be famous myself.

I think that -- the fact that I have come back to work and recently got an OB (ph) from the Queen for services to journalism, it's nice. It's a sort of vindication of, okay, I did the right thing in coming back to work. We live in such a critical era in terms of what's going on in the Middle East, in terms of the reputation of Islam and the Muslim world, in terms of terrorism, in terms of the al Qaeda jihadi phenomenon.

I sort of feel that this is -- it's too important a time to leave the issue alone. There is so much -- so many nonsense things being spoken out there by people. I mean, unfortunately I have to pick out President Bush here when he says, you know, they don't like us because they don't like our way of life. That isn't the issue, you know. Al Qaeda's beef with the West is because of what the West is doing in what they consider to be their land. That's their big issue.

Of course, there are people that you simply cannot negotiate with there, and Western leaders are right to say, well, they attacked us long before we went into Iraq. But there is always reasons behind these things. These are not in many cases nihilistic terrorists. They've got an agenda, albeit a crazy one, but we need to know what it is we're dealing with. And, you know, I want to contribute to that debate.

ANDERSON: You are a fluent Arab speaker and a leading expert on al Qaeda and you were reporting at the time full time on the war on terror. I looked at the BBC Web site just recently. Viewers and listeners have posted hundreds and hundreds of messages about the way you covered the story intelligently, with integrity, and also saluting you for your bravery. Are you brave?

GARDNER: No, I'm not brave at all. I mean, I ran away. The guy pulled out a gun and effectively said I've come here to kill you. I didn't sort of stand him down saying, you know, put that down or you'll be in trouble. I took off, as any sane person would. I mean, I suppose instinct kicked in. I could have been frozen to the spot, but I ran. And for a split second I thought I would get away with it. I ran deeper into the area of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But they were lucky, they got me with another shot.

I suppose the only sort of brave part -- not really brave, but my brain was really functioning at 150 percent. It kept tell me you've got to stay conscious, because if you lose consciousness, if you blackout with the pain, you probably won't come back up again, you will die and your family will lose you forever. And I just wasn't prepared to let that happen. I just didn't want to let down my wife and children. I wanted to stay alive for them. And I was able to stay conscious and tell the police what had happened and that I was British and get me to a hospital and all the rest of it. I guess it was pretty obvious when you're lying there covered in blood with a broken leg.

But, I mean, I suppose, yes, I could have gone and done something completely different. My wife said, when I recovered, when I came to in hospital, she said do you want to do something completely different now. I said no, I want to go back to covering all of this stuff, and she sort of groaned, oh no.

But I'm glad that I am doing it, because it's a fascinating thing and, you know, I like being a journalist. I can't obviously do the sort of journalism I was doing before, which is very sad for me because I use to pride myself on not traveling with a big team. My kind of journalism is to sling a rucksack on my back about the size of a handbag with a tiny miniature DVD digital camera in it and head off into the backstreets of somewhere like Sunnar (ph) in Yemen or Baradar (ph) in Saudi Arabia, hook up with a few contacts, meet people, get their views on tape, record a piece to camera and slip out of the country, and just do it discretely.

That was the kind of journalism I liked. That's going to be pretty difficult in a wheelchair.

ANDERSON: What's the message from your experience for other journalists covering (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

GARDNER: Expect the unexpected. My wife said to me before we went to Saudi, she said are you going to take a flak jacket, and I always laughed. I said this is not Iraq we're going to, you know, we're not going to Afghanistan. It's Riyadh. It's a place where there are -- you know, it's an international business center. I had been going there for years and doing business and would never -- it would be like do you wear a flak jacket to go to Russell Square in London. Well, perhaps on the 7th of July you might do, but you can never predict these things.

But I think you've got to take calculated risks. I mean, I think you can't just hide in a bunker and just, you know, wait for it all to go over you. You have to take some risks, but be very calculated and, I hate to say it, never trust anybody. I don't.

ANDERSON: Frank, thank you very much indeed for joining us, Frank Gardner of the BBC.

That's it 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 Becky Anderson, at CNN, thank you for joining us.



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