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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 31, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


Ahead in the next half-hour, he's a billionaire businessman, a prime minister, and now he's everywhere you look. Silvio Berlusconi takes his message to the Italian people, but is his pre-election media spray likely to help or harm his campaign.

Also coming up, better in than out. Google complies with China's wishes to censor political sensitive Internet searches, but what does that mean for press freedom.

And the ultimate cost of reporting in Iraq. CNN's Michael Holmes gives us a glimpse of life on the road in Baghdad.

But first, it was a fair and democratic election, but not without controversy. Palestinian voters elected to power a group better known internationally for terrorism than politics. Within minutes, online newspapers carried headlines of Hamas' landslide win. They included calls from the West for an end to violence as well as warnings of a Middle East in disarray.

I'm joined now from Jerusalem by Palestinian affairs analyst Khaled Abu Toameh.

First of all, has the reaction been as controversial, or have there been as many hails of derision in your part of the world has there have been internationally?

KHALED ABU TOAMEH, PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS ANALYST: I would say that many Palestinians are indeed shocked. They are surprised. I would even say that Hamas itself is surprised and shocked by this victory.

Hamas leaders were predicting a 30 to 40 percent victory in this election, but the results have been indeed shocking for the majority of the Palestinians. This is indeed a political revolution. This is how the Palestinians are referring to it. They see it as the beginning of a new era or, if you want, the beginning of the end of the old era.

SWEENEY: And what has been the response in the Palestinian media?

TOAMEH: Well, the Palestinian media has been reporting on the results of the election. So far the Palestinians are saying that we respect the choice of the people. The Palestinian media has been hailing the vote as a democratic vote. The Palestinians are boasting that this is in fact the first democratic vote in the Arab world.

They are saying that we, the Palestinians, are setting an example for the rest of the Arab world. So they are very proud of what they call the free and democratic election that took place. And most Palestinians, especially in the media, will tell you that this is the first time that an opposition takes over the government or take over the authority through a democratic and free election.

SWEENEY: And can you give us a sense of what the landscape is like for journalists working in the West Bank and Gaza who have been covering this election campaign and is it expected to change?

TOAMEH: Well, we hope that it will not change, not that it was much better in the past. Journalists working the Palestinian areas managed to cover the election without any obstacles, without any interference by any of the groups. I would actually say that most of the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were very open to the media. They know that without the media they cannot function. They know that the real battle has been taking place in the media. So there is a growing sense of awareness as to the importance of the media.

So we hope that Hamas would not place any restrictions on the work of journalists. Hamas has always been known to be very open towards journalists. Its leaders used to receive foreign journalists from all around the world and its leaders also used to give interviews to the Israeli media.

SWEENEY: And those of us who travel there know that traditionally the West Bank is rather more liberal than Gaza has been, particularly of late, Gaza being more conservative and one can see that on the streets there, in how people dress and how people deport themselves.

Is there going to be a differing reaction among Palestinians in the West Bank to this election and the media there compared with the reaction in Gaza?

TOAMEH: Well, I would say the biggest surprise in this election was the fact that Hamas also won a majority in the West Bank, which has been traditionally known as a secular stronghold. The West Bank, unlike the Gaza Strip, was never known as a basic Hamas stronghold. Hamas never enjoyed tremendous support in the West Bank.

So I would say that that is one of the most important developments in this election, that the West Bank has finally become affiliated with Hamas, such as -- exactly like the Gaza Strip.

SWEENEY: All right, we'll have to leave it there. Khaled Abu Toameh, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Jerusalem.

One European leader is taking no chances in the lead up to his country's election. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has embarked on an exhausting media campaign ahead of the April vote. But, as Alessio Vinci reports, not everyone is happy to see him.


ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you didn't know better you'd think there was only one candidate running in upcoming national elections. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is all over Italian television these days discussing serious politics, appearing on sports and talk shows, speaking about football, love and his mother, and even bringing gifts to his rivals.

On some shows, an opponent is invited to debate him. More often, they are relegated to their own timeslot on a different day.

But the candidate who will run against Berlusconi is choosing a more reserved approach.

ROMANO PRODI, OPPOSITION LEADER: No, no, I don't choose the same type of strategy, you know. He can set the agenda and say you can follow where I take you.

VINCI: Most observers agree Berlusconi is a better, perhaps more aggressive, campaigner, and although critics accuse him of favoring image over political substance, the end result is that media-savvy Berlusconi, who by the way owns Italy's largest private television networks, dominates the airways.

GUILIANO FERRARA, JOURNALIST: The opponents of Mr. Berlusconi are in television shows as much as he is. The difference is not in the fact that Mr. Berlusconi owns three television channels and his opponents do not own any television channel. The difference is in the fact that he is a TV star and they are not.

VINCI: Berlusconi is trying to keep that advantage as long as he can. Media campaign restrictions only kick in when parliament dissolves. The prime minister managed to delay that date until mid-February, two weeks later than originally planned.

(on camera): Those restrictions include giving equal airtime to all parties running and a total ban on all forms of paid television advertising. This means that access to studios like this one, which, by the way, is owned by Berlusconi, will be strictly limited and regulated.

Alessio Vinci, CNN, Rome.


SWEENEY: So, is Silvio Berlusconi's very public charm offensive likely to recruit or repel potential voters?

I'm joined now by "Time" magazine's Rome bureau chief Jeff Israely, who has lived in Italy for eight years.

Jeff, let's clarify something, first of all. Are rules being broken here, or are they being bent?

JEFF ISRAELY, "TIME": There are conflict of interest laws about Berlusconi's use of his own TV stations. There are also basic laws that are regulated by the communication authority that require equal time, balanced reports, that are probably being bent severely.

But the moment when that really takes effect is after the parliament is dissolved next month and more rigorous guidelines go into effect, and every transmission, every program and every newscast, must be precisely divided, evenly divided, between both camps.

SWEENEY: So that raises the question, then, does Mr. Berlusconi's current media blitz, will it hold sway with the voters? Will it have a decisive impact on the voters this early in the campaign? How do we know the voting patterns? Or do people make up their minds towards the end of the campaign, just before the election?

ISRAELY: I think he's trying to set the tone for the campaign, and trying to impose himself in voters' minds.

I think it has had some affect. Polls have shown that he's been able to mobilize some of his old-time hard-core voters, but the risk of course is also that he mobilizes his opponents, who, you know, are tired of hearing his -- of hearing from him, and there isn't a sign that he has yet been able to overcome the apparent advantage that his opponents have.

SWEENEY: You've been talking about, you know, this has been an ongoing issue over the last five years. Have the fears that were raised when he was first elected, about the perhaps underlying threat to democracy, been born out?

ISRAELY: I think ultimately not. Italy is still very much a democracy. There is free debate. The opponents get their chance to have their say. It's nothing like Soviet-style television or anything like that.

But with that said, you know, Berlusconi promised before, right before the election, in 2001, that he would resolve his conflict of interest. He has not done that. And it's a bad lesson for democracy if anything. It's a bad sign that this has been able to continue.

In terms of what the actual effect is on voters, you know, we're in uncharted waters here. This is the first time a relatively healthy democracy has been run by someone who owns much of the mass media, and the results of it are somewhat surprising at times, and his own troubles in the polls are evidence that control of television alone doesn't necessarily guarantee victory.

SWEENEY: All right, Jeff Israely, in Rome, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Google tows the line in China. We look at whether its moves to self-censor are a step back for freedom of the press.


SWEENEY: Excruciatingly difficult is how Google is describing its decision to censor Web searches in China. The Internet search engine has attracted a storm of criticism this week for being seen to trade its independence for commercial gain.

It's launched a new Web service in China called (ph) but users won't be able to find anything at odds with the Chinese government.


ANDREW MCLAUGHLIN, GOOGLE: It is in fact uncomfortable to be doing this kind of work. And it's uncomfortable, whether we're doing it in Germany or France or the United States or China. But we do it because countries set rules and the choice for a company like Google is whether to do business in that country or not.

After thinking about it long and hard, we reached the conclusion that we're better off, and our users in China are better off, if we provide a service that's accessible in China.


SWEENEY: So is Google's move just good business sense or could it threaten wider freedoms?

Rebecca McKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, joins us. She's also the cofounder of blog site Global Voices Online. And from New York, I'm joined by Mickey Spiegel, senior researcher on China for Human Rights Watch.

First of all, Rebecca, here in London, there are something like 100 million users of Internet search engines in China. Paint for us, if you can, briefly, a picture of the Internet and how it is crucial to life in China, or otherwise.

REBECCA MCKINNON, GLOBAL VOICES ONLINE: Well, China, as you say, has over 100 million Internet users, but that's still only about 8 percent of the entire Chinese population, so at this point in time it's primarily young, urban people who are online in China. But this growing very fast. Every year the number of people going online in China is increasing. Increasingly you're finding that particularly the elites and the media and so on are very much effected by the discussions and information they're getting online.

But at the same time, China has the most sophisticated Internet censorship and filtering system in the world, and the government has in place a system through the Internet service providers so that when you're going online in China, you try to access certain sites, including Human Rights Watch, which is where Mickey is from, you cannot get onto the site because it is blocked at the Internet service provider level.

SWEENEY: As we've just heard there, Rebecca saying that all businesses in China, Chinese or international, have to subscribe to Chinese laws, and there are those who say that there are ways to get around these firewalls if you're as experienced as many people in China are. What do you say to that?

MICKEY SPIEGEL, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Certainly people who are experienced are able to find ways around the censorship, but that's getting harder and harder for people to do, and I think it's very important to realize that the Internet strategy is part of a much wider strategy of media censorship in China. There is no free press. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, all of these -- information on all of these is blocked by rules and regulations.

SWEENEY: But Google's argument would be that it would be more damaging if it didn't go into China, because at least now there is some access to what is going on in the outside world through their search engine.

SPIEGEL: That's very true, that Google has said that. However, the argument really doesn't hold up in that information, as you well know, is power, and when you say that you're going to be organizing and providing the world information and empowering people, and then you only allow them access to part of that information, how in fact are you empowering them? How are you allowing them to think about information in ways that's different than the Chinese government wants them to think about it? And that's really, as far as I'm concerned, the crux of the matter.

I might add that this is something that we warned. Human Rights Watch warned about this as far back as 2002, the summer of 2002, when Yahoo! actually signed onto a public pledge of self-discipline for the Internet industry. And at that point we said, you know, you can be the gatekeeper or you can be the gateway to information.

And I think what happened at that time -- we also urged at that time, that the Internet information providers, like Google, like Yahoo!, like Microsoft, get together and begin to.

SWEENEY: That raises another very important point here, because, first of all, Rebecca, it actually raises the question, is the Internet the 21st century tool for greater press freedom. And would there be any difference if the Internet search engines came together and cooperated, as Mickey suggests. Would that change things or have an influence with Beijing?

MCKINNON: It is interesting. I think there have been a lot of people assuming that as soon as the Internet got to China, suddenly that would be the end of the Chinese Communist Party, and that's not true because it has been able to incorporate a very sophisticated set of censorship practices and has gotten businesses to go along with these practices.

Now there are many people who feel that by going along with these censorship practices, American companies, Yahoo!, Google and so on, are helping to institutionalize and legitimize censorship, and this not only will help to legitimize it as part of the information business model in China, but that this type of business model and this type of practice will become much more widespread about the world and much more accepted as a way of doing business around the world. Which is one reason why not only are we concerned about the concerns with freedom of speech within China, but this is indeed a global issue.

SWEENEY: I'm afraid we're out of town, ladies. We have to leave it there. Mickey Spiegel, in New York, and Rebecca McKinnon, here in London, thanks indeed.

Coming up on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the death toll keeps rising. After the break, a personal account of the perils of reporting in Iraq.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Every day they risk injury, kidnap or even death. Of the 150 journalists killed on the job last year, 35 were working in Iraq. We leave you now with this report from Michael Holmes. It comes two years after he survived an ambush that claimed the lives of two colleagues.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a sad fact of war coverage that casualties become numbers, compounding the tragedy, trivializing the individual. But that's what many victims here have become, numbers. 45 killed in this bombing, 80 in that one. The maimed, their own lives shattered even if not ended, are more numbers.

With so many deaths, it is impossible to cover the individual stories of the lives of those who perished. Reporters at work, it's easy to become anesthetized. There's an element of deja vu here sometimes. Another day, another bomb, another attack, another death toll.

(on camera): Many of us, of course, try to stay detached from the actual violence. You'd go crazy if you got emotionally involved in every horror that you see. But there are always times when we in the media cannot bury it, and usually that's when the horror involves you or someone you know.

(voice-over): Many in the media have lost friends and colleagues here. These are photos of just some of them. This week it is two years since we lost two of our own, translator Duraid Mohammed Isa on the left, and one of our drivers, Yasser Katab; two vibrant young men whose lives were cut short by insurgent bullets.

We'd been returning from filming a story south of Baghdad when our two cars were attacked by two cars. None of us there will forget the image of gunmen standing up through the sunroofs, firing AK-47s, wanting to kill not someone who had become a number, but us.

Cameraman Scott McWhinnie was sitting next to me. He was shot in the head, but survived. Yasser and Duraid didn't make it.

(on camera): It changed me, changed all of us in the cars that day, of course, and many people who were not. These were people we worked with, lived with, and joked around with.

(voice-over): Yasser, young, idealistic, came to work for CNN despite his family's constant warning of the dangers. He used to bashfully teach us Arabic swear words on the way to stories.

Duraid, fun, funny, devoted father of two children the same ages as my own. We'd proudly compare photographs and laugh at their latest antics.

It's changed too how those of us who carry on work here in Iraq now. Those of us here in the early days would certainly take precautions, but would think little about walking the streets in Baghdad and elsewhere, speaking with locals, getting a first-hand look at the story we're covering. In this case, sitting on Saddam's famous statue before it was removed.

(on camera): This is where we do our live shots from every day, reporting to you. However, most days this is as close as we can get to those in the city behind me.

(voice-over): It is difficult to get out and about. We do, but it is always with great caution. The kidnapping of journalist Jill Carroll is another reminder of the risks involved. Like most of us, she is here because it is a story that needs telling, despite the risks.

Just a few photos of those who have died here. It helps now and them to remind ourselves and those who watch our work that those casualty lists contain more than numbers; Iraqis or coalition forces, they're people.

Michael Holmes, CNN, Baghdad.




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