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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 14, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


This week, we're in Jerusalem, and over the next half-hour we'll be discussing the newly launched Al Aqsa TV, otherwise known as Hamas TV.


(on camera): And a journalist professor's dilemma.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I cannot really tell them what to do, what they should do or shouldn't do, when they face choices or are under pressure. I want them to sacrifice or to be a martyr.

SWEENEY: We take a look at the risks and challenges of reporting in China.


But first to a hospital ward the world has been watching. Ariel Sharon was rushed to the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem after suffering a massive stroke on January 4. And the world's media rushed after him, many of them waiting for the next of what have been dozens of hospital briefings.

Here's what some of those journalists outside the hospital had to say about their week.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Living under a tent in the rain for four days is not my idea of a good time, really.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think most of us are kind of exhausted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's quite an experience, kind of like the disengagement.


SWEENEY: So why did Ariel Sharon's health generate the amount of coverage it did. Joining me now from Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital is CNN correspondent Guy Raz. And with me from Tel Aviv is "Ha'aretz" columnist Ari Shavit.

First of all, Ari Shavit, in Tel Aviv, did Ariel Sharon warrant the coverage that he received over the past 10 days or so?

ARIAL SHAVIT, "HA'ARETZ": I think the coverage is really quite amazing, and it really proves the great success Ariel Sharon had over the last five years in changing his image completely from pariah to really constructive player in the Middle East scene. And because of this new image of his, we see this enormous interest, rather sympathetic one, definitely in Israel but throughout the world.

SWEENEY: Guy Raz, let me ask you. This transformation that Ari Shavit refers to, is that solely responsible for the amount of coverage generated over the last week?

GUY RAZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it has something to do with it, Fionnuala, but I think the main dynamic at play here is essentially the United States policy in this region.

If Jacques Chirac, from France, or Angela Merkel, in Germany, were infirmed, I'm not sure the international media would be covering the story 24 hours a day. But broadly speaking, Ariel Sharon essentially fits into the wider Bush administration policy in this region, and that is the democratization of the Arab world, and ultimately the administration essentially believes that unlocking the democratic potential in that part of the world. In order to do that, they must resolve this conflict (AUDIO GAP) covering here isn't even an individual but really what he represents, a sort of diplomatic process in this region.

SHAVIT: I would like to refer to what Guy said. In a sense, I think what's interesting is that Ariel Sharon is no great democrat. He never accepted really in his heart the democratic agenda of President Bush and the American administration. But what has happened here is that this man has become from the main -- one of the main sources of instability in the Middle East to one of the pillars of stability in this region, and the reason the Americans, but not only the Americans, even the Europeans and many of the Arab leaders, look up to him and regret the possible disappearance of his figure from the regional map is that he became stabilizer. And the fact that Ariel Sharon is now a pillar of stability, first of all, proves what a long way he came. But also proves what danger lies in the fact that he might disappear. Because indeed his disappearance might bring renewed instability to this region.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you about Ariel Sharon's relationship with the Israeli media. It has been rather volatile over the years. But in order to come prime minister, one has to turn around the public's perception of him, and usually a lot of politicians will use the media as a tool.

How did Ariel Sharon turn -- it's not just the public, Israeli public, around for him, what about the media?

SHAVIT: What Sharon did is really a political miracle in many ways.

If we go back to the '80s and even the '90s, not only throughout the Arab world or Europe but in Israel itself, Ariel Sharon was pretty much a pariah. Definitely the media, leaning left, treated him as a (AUDIO GAP) as a warmonger. What Ariel Sharon did in the late '90s is to use the fact that the media was very hostile to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the time. And actually through having a common enemy, Mr. Netanyahu, he created a kind of silent alliance with the media, gradually bringing the leading journalists in Israel to support him, not to support his policies but to have an intimate relationship.

Mr. Sharon is a charmer, and late in his life he discovered the virtues of using this charm in order to disarm political enemies, and he began that with the media. He actually neutralized the media as a force that prevented his comeback. And once he became legitimate in the eyes of the Israeli media, the road to power was open.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, Guy Raz, at the Hadassah Hospital, the description of Ariel Sharon as a charmer is something that might not sit well with certain aspects of the international media. Let me ask you, how much do you believe, being based here in Jerusalem, the international media's coverage of Ariel Sharon's illness has been driven by the Israeli local media coverage?

RAZ: Very much, Fionnuala, because I think that essentially the media here ultimately will in some ways reflect what the domestic media is describing.

For so long Ariel Sharon wasn't even necessarily an international pariah, but he was a domestic pariah. He was written off by the Israeli media. And I definitely think after the Gaza pullout, the disengagement there, where you had about 2,000 journalists based in Gaza watching what was happening there and watching to a considerable extent some of the opposition that Mr. Sharon faced, I think in a sense it really changed the way they looked at him.

Ariel Sharon wasn't this one-dimensional figure anymore. He wasn't this warmonger or this warrior type, but essentially he was a pragmatist as well, and it wasn't so easy to just write him off in a shrill kind of way. You had to take a more complex look at Ariel Sharon and it definitely has to do with the way the Israeli press have looked at him, because traditionally the Israeli media has been far more critical of its own leaders that the international media has been of Israeli politicians.

SWEENEY: Guy, in a sense covering this event from the hospital, you're aware of just how much media interest there was there. Do you think the coverage that you've seen over the last few days, week, 10 days or so, has accurately reflected Ariel Sharon's life? Or was it because his illness was so grave and that he seemed to be battling it that there perhaps was not the coverage that certain aspects of the international media would have preferred to have seen, and I'm talking specifically about the Arab world?

RAZ: Well, there was kind of a reverential sort of treatment of the subject, I think. And I definitely think that it has to do with the fact that there will be time to assess his legacy. Right now we're talking about a medical issue and we're talking about it immediate impact on the region. But to begin talking and assessing Ariel Sharon's sort of wider legacy, a very complex and checkered legacy, there will be a lot of time to do that.

And so I think at least for now people are still reluctant to really delve into it, and certainly from our perspective here, that's the way we've been approaching it.

SWEENEY: A final word, Ari Shavit, from Tel Aviv?

SHAVIT: I think what happens here to the media and to the international community is that there was this longing for a strong man who would come from the right and would tame the Israeli right. This longing for an Israeli De Gaulle was shared by the international community, by the Israeli media and the Israeli left, and once Sharon was willing to play that role, to appear to be the Israeli De Gaulle, he had everybody supporting him, and this is why he had the support he justified, but also some of the support that perhaps was too much, perhaps he had too much media support actually not giving him enough of a hard time, not asking him the hard questions, and helping him in becoming a father figure to this nation in a way no other Israeli leader has been in recent memory.

SWEENEY: Ari Shavit, in Tel Aviv, Guy Raz, at the Hadassah in Jerusalem, thank you both very much for joining us.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, Hamas follows in the footsteps of Hezbollah by launching its own television station in Gaza just weeks before the Palestinian elections.

We'll discuss the implications after the break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Last Sunday, a new television station hit the airwaves over Gaza. Al Aqsa TV broadcast by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.


(voice-over): Hamas, like Hezbollah, which too has a television channel, Al Manar, has been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. Both groups called for the destruction of Israel. Palestinian elections are scheduled for January 25. Hamas is expected to do well against the ruling Fattah Party.


Joining me now to discuss this further from Beirut is Ramez Maluf. He's the editor-in-chief of the "Middle Eastern Broadcasters' Journal." And from Gaza, Hazem Abu Shanab. He's a journalist and lecturer at Gaza's Al Hazar (ph) University.

Ramez Maluf in Beirut, let me ask you, Hamas TV is said to be loosely based on Hezbollah television. What is behind Hezbollah TV in terms of its philosophy and ethos and objectives?

RAMEZ MALUF, "MIDDLE EASTERN BROADCASTERS' JOURNAL": Well, I think it would be fair to say that Hezbollah is a developing station. It's philosophy has developed over the years. It is the organ of Hezbollah. It was created to promote their philosophy, to attend to their audiences. But over the years it's become more and more mainstream, and I think one of the characteristics of Hezbollah station, Al Manar, which distinguishes it from other stations in the Arab world, is that it has a very loyal audience.

Because of the mushrooming of television stations in the Arab world over the last 10 years, there's a lot of competition among stations for audiences, but Hezbollah has been able to maintain a solid loyalty among Shiites, particularly in Lebanon, but also across the Arab world.

SWEENEY: Hazem Abu Shanab, in Gaza, it is very early days for Al Aqsa Television. Let me ask you, what are the objectives of Hamas television within Gaza?

HAZEM ABU SHANAB, GAZA JOURNALIST: OK. Good evening. Hamas Television is trying to give a message from Hamas by itself directly to the audience. They are not willing to depend on the Palestinian formal television. So they want to tell the people what do they really want to tell. They want to tell them that they are stuck to the resistance philosophy and they are stuck to their ideology, which is based on liberating the whole land of Palestine.

SWEENEY: Given the chaos and lawlessness in Gaza at present, has there been any opposition, official or otherwise, to the launch of Al Aqsa TV?

SHANAB: No, there is no opposition, but there is a kind of formal reaction. You see, the Ministry of Information here in Gaza did tell that they are working without any formal license. The other we can call parties, like the Fattah, like the public fronts, the democratic fronts, they are not using their own television, so they are amazed. But the formal responding to the launching of the Hamas Television is refusing this launching according to the ELO (ph). So they didn't have their license from the Palestinian National Authority, so they are illegal as they think.

SWEENEY: Ramez Maluf, in Beirut, Hezbollah Television, Al Manar, obviously backed by Hezbollah, but is there anything that distinguishes the two organizations, Hezbollah from Al Manar?

MALUF: One is totally the organ of the political grouping. It's run by them, the general managers are appointed by the Hezbollah political bureau. There is very little in that sense that distinguishes them.

I think that Al Manar, however, reflects development within Hezbollah to become more mainstream, and this is reflected in the type of programming over the years, the shifts that they have made in their news coverage, their political talk shows, and even in their more entertaining programs.

SWEENEY: Of course, there have been all sorts of questions raised in the United States in particular about the credibility and legitimacy of networks such as Hezbollah and now Hamas Television. Presumably, Hamas TV will want to expand. It says it wants to become eventually a network available on satellite.

SHANAB: I think this will be all delayed until the end of the Legislative Council elections that will be held approximately at the end of this month. So let's wait, let's see what they are going to have, but I think it will be different from Al Manar TV, which is in Beirut, and I think also it's going to be different from the legal or the formal television channel here in Palestinian, in Gaza and in Ramallah.

MALUF: If I may say something about Hamas TV, I (AUDIO GAP) what I've read about it in the last few days is that they have said that they are interested in (AUDIO GAP) legalize their status and so forth. To do so, they'll have to uplink. And to uplink, they would have to uplink with (AUDIO GAP) one of the satellite providers, and to do this, they would have to get on the good side of Arab governments. They can't just do it on their own.

Right now, even their location in Gaza is unknown. They're operating illegally and under the table, so to speak. If they want to get on the good side of Arab governments, they would have to do something about their political vocabulary, and I think that that's a lot of change, if they're willing to do it, and why not. Let them enter the fray, let them broadcast their news, their points of view, broadly rather than in the alleys of Gaza and in the middle of the night.

SWEENEY: OK. We have to leave it there, but that's a very controversial statement, what you just said, in some parts of the world. But for the moment, Ramez Maluf, in Beirut, and Hazem Abu Shanab, in Gaza, thank you very much indeed.

We leave our special focus on the Middle East for now. Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, when journalists come up against the dark side of China's legal system. We look at the risks of reporting in China.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Prosecutors in Beijing are deciding whether or not they have a case against a "Singapore Straits Times" journalist they have kept in detention since April accused of spying. That's a charge regularly levied against journalists reporting on sensitive domestic issues.

Tara Duffy looks at the challenges of covering a country under the government's watchful eye.


TARA DUFFY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 38-year-old Jiang Hua, star of Beijing TV's most popular news show. She speaks Chinese and English and landed her job as the stations thought a more international feel ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese media are opening up. More competition among TV stations, Jiang says, means audience ratings more often than government edict decide what gets on TV. She says she's never had any official pressure on what can or cannot be reported.

JIANG HUA, BEIJING TV ANCHOR: Not me (AUDIO GAP) can have this information from other channels, for example CNN and BBC and Web sites, so you have no way to avoid anything or to hide something.

DUFFY: But when it comes to reporting on domestic Chinese news, many of the old Communist Party controls over what can and cannot be done still apply. Especially when it comes to social unrest.

Riots over land disputes between farmers and the government, investigative reports about bird flu, stories like these can put Chinese journalists under closer official scrutiny.

Critics say government controls on the Chinese press are tightening. Last month "New York Times" researcher Jao Yen (ph) indicted on charges of revealing state secrets and fraud. When senior editors were dismissed at the popular and probing Beijing News, the staff held a rare strike in protest. Some observers saw the firing as punishment for the paper's aggressive reports on farmers demonstrations and a toxic spill that polluted local water supplies.

One Beijing news reporter asked China's top information official to define the paper's role.

"The newspaper," he said, "must play a role to give proper guidance to people so as to help build a harmonious society."

Building a harmonious society is the catch phrase of Chinese President Hu Jintao. These journalists from the "People's Liberation Army" newspaper know exactly what he means.

(on camera): Where political guidance on the role of the Chinese media on just what qualifies as promoting harmonious society and just where the limits for Chinese journalists lie are not clearly defined.

(voice-over): Peking University. Journalism professor Kun Li helps her students hone their English writing skills. She uses the Bible of American journalism, the "Associated Press's Guide to News Writing."

16-year-old Jong Jo Jo (ph) says Chinese people are used to reading between the lines.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think Chinese people have some kind of talent on reading the news. You know, we learn from our childhood how to judge what is wrong, what is right. So I think the situation of our country is different from the Western world.

DUFFY: Professor Li studied in the United States. She teaches her students how to use the best words. But what does she tell them about the limits they may face?

KUN LI, JOURNALISM PROFESSOR: That's a very hard question. That's a predicament of being a professor of journalism. I cannot really tell them what to do, or what they should do or shouldn't do when they face choices or are under pressure. I want them to sacrifice or to write to be a martyr.

DUFFY: Li admits there are still some off limit subjects for Chinese journalists. Some of her students are ready to steer clear of them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think in our country it's pretty hard for us to focus on the political issues, and we may face a lot of pressure on (AUDIO GAP). So I think it's safer way to commit my career into reporting and do financial news.

DUFFY: China's seemingly unstoppable economic growth. Now that's the story the government wants everyone to hear.

Tara Duffy, CNN, Beijing.


SWEENEY: You've been watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time to see how the media are covering the big stories.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in Jerusalem. Thanks for watching.



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