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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 18, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


LINDSEY HILSUM, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Lindsey Hilsum, 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, backpack journalism. We speak to one reporter about his solo mission to cover all the world's conflict zones in a year.

First, though, another bomb has gone off in one of Baghdad's backstreets. Three little girls and a young boy died on the way to school. Whilst ordinary Iraqis bear the brunt of the daily violence, resentment of the occupation fuels the insurgency. So when this week more gruesome images of U.S. soldiers defiling Abu Ghraib prisoners were broadcast, the animosity could only get deeper.

CNN's Barbara Starr has this report. I must point out that it contains images that are both graphic and disturbing.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Australian television was the first to broadcast these pictures and the Pentagon confirms that they are from the hundreds of unpublished photos and videos of soldiers physically abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.

The U.S. government did not want these disturbing images made public. Australian television did not disclose how they got them.

One sequence, showing a restrained prisoner hitting his head against a door; the Australian report described the man as mentally disabled.

With riots across the Islamic world in response to cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, this could not come at a worse time. The U.S. military worries the release of the photos could lead to even more violence in the Arab world, a point that General John Abizaid, who oversees the military in Iraq, made as far back as September.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND COMMANDER: When we continue to pickup and show the pictures over and over again, it just creates the image, which is a false image, like this is the sort of stuff that is happening anew, and it's not.

STARR: The American Civil Liberties Union is one of several groups suing the Bush administration for access to photos that still have not been released.

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON, ACLU: I think the most critical thing to make sure that there isn't additional violence and a response of that type is to make sure that people in the Middle East and Muslims around the world see that the United States is actually holding people accountable.

STARR: The Pentagon is emphasizing that a dozen major reviews of detainee operations have turned up no evidence that prisoner abuse was ever ordered by senior officers. As a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, nine soldiers have been convicted at court martial, two soldiers are pending court martial, 16 other soldiers have received a variety of other reprimands and punishments.

The highest ranking officer to be punished to date is One Star General Janice Karpinski, demoted to colonel for leadership failures during the time she commanded the military police brigade at Abu Ghraib, although she was never directly implicated in the abuse of prisoners.

(on camera): There has been continuing criticism on Capitol Hill that no senior U.S. military officer was ever held accountable for what happened at Abu Ghraib. The military has known about these pictures for months. No new investigation is expected.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


HILSUM: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Abu Ghraib, again. Should the media have broadcast the latest torture pictures from Iraq? We debate the issue.

That's after this short break.


HILSUM: Welcome back.

Inmates at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail were subjected to sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses at the hands of U.S. soldiers. That was the finding in a report by an American general, a report that was never supposed to be made public.

But after these repugnant images were shown in the media, the scandal was out there. An investigation went ahead and the media moved on to the next story, until this week when new pictures of the 2003 abuse emerged and were aired around the world.

Editors said they illustrated the full extent of the horror and humiliation. Iraqis ask if this was the democracy and freedom the U.S. said it intended to bring them.

Back in Washington, the Pentagon criticized use of the pictures, saying they could inflame passions and incite unnecessary violence.

With this in mind, should they have been kept out of te public eye?

To discuss this, I'm joined here in London by Fran Unsworth, the BBC's head of news gathering, and from Baghdad by CNN's Aneesh Raman.

Aneesh, I'm going to start with you. What's been the reaction in Baghdad to the showing of these really horrific pictures of abuse by U.S. soldiers?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lindsey, it's interesting. It's actually been quite muted, the response of Iraqis, in part because the government response was largely muted, as was the response from religious leaders.

Iraq's prime minister issued a statement denouncing the abuse; Iraq's president saying it was the actions -- it could not be the actions of a civilized country, referring to the U.S. soldiers who perpetrated the abuse.

But these latest pictures and video, incredibly graphic, incredibly disturbing, more so than the first batch that we saw in 2004. Some of them have been shown on Arab networks, but in Iraq, in Baghdad, in terms of the newspapers, none of the government-backed or party-backed newspapers really touched the story at all. Only the independent newspapers put it on the front page, some of them actually putting one of the photos.

So the Iraqis that we spoke to, really, they felt that the huge ferocious blow they were dealt when the first batch of pictures came out couldn't get much worse. They have seen -- they have imagined they worst possible in terms of the abuse, but they were calling upon their government to be more forceful in the rhetoric, in denouncing these abuses.

HILSUM: Do you think they actually have sort of moved on in the sense that people are now more concerned about current abuses, alleged abuses by the new Iraqi authorities, that the abuses by U.S. soldiers is something that people have grown used to and think it's a thing of the past?

RAMAN: Well, I think they think it's a thing of the past. They are also already in their camps, either for or against the presence of U.S. troops here. They are just further convinced of either stance that they already have. It's already a tense environment right now, especially in the south, in the city of Basra, where the Danish and British troops are based because of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper and because of the recent video showing British soldiers allegedly beating Iraqi youths back in 2004.

So it's already a tense environment between the Iraqis and between the West. That might be in part why they government has been keen not to push this story too far out there, to remind Iraqis that these atrocities were committed in 2003, that there is nothing new, and they remind them that today Abu Ghraib is different. But for Iraqis, they have also started voicing again the notion that that prison, which has long been the source of incredible controversy here, should come under full Iraqi control, something they've started doing again now.

HILSUM: Fran Unsworth, let me bring you in. Did the BBC have any hesitation in showing these images?

FRAN UNSWORTH, BBC: Well, hesitation, yes, but not for the reasons that you outlined possibly to start, which was the Pentagon and the United States authorities not wanting us to. Our hesitation was on the grounds of taste and decency, because there are some really amazingly graphic images in this collection of photos and videos which, actually, you wouldn't necessarily want to put on the television.

So that was the hesitancy, to give us time to go through the material in advance, before we aired it, to actually weed out things that we think were not appropriate to put on the television.

HILSUM: But did you -- I mean, when I first saw these images, they were absolutely ghastly. I found them actually very personally upsetting, and I've seen a lot of horrible things. Did you look at them and think, actually, if we put these images on there, we could make everything worse in an already very bad situation in Iraq?

UNSWORTH: Well, obviously, yes, that does enter your head when you're thinking about this, but on the other hand, it can't really be the reason that stops you doing it. And I think it's very interesting what we're hearing out of Baghdad over it, actually, which is that actually the Iraqis seem to be not terribly surprised by this, possibly because they are already aware that these abuses took place and they are three years old, and in a way the story has moved on to be something slightly different now, which is possibly about how the U.S. authorities didn't want this to come out, and we knew at the time, back in 2003, that there was worse, that we were not seeing the worst of them, and there's clearly been a concerted attempt to prevent the worst coming out, which is now being overturned by the American Civil Liberties Union.

So this is really why we're doing the story now, not because it's actually surprising that these abuses have taken place, although having said that I think that people would have been, as you say, deeply shocked by what these images showed.

HILSUM: Aneesh, these images come after we saw a video obtained by the News of the World of British soldiers kicking and beating Iraqis in southern Iraq. What kind of impact has that has, because I think the people in Britain, we like to think that we're better than the Americans, our soldiers are not brutal and horrible. Maybe we're wrong. What do Iraqis think?

RAMAN: Well, especially in Basra, where the majority of British troops are, there have been sustained protests there. The provincial council has called both for British and Danish troops to leave southern Iraq, so there has been a good deal of anger that has been voiced by the Iraqis.

And in terms of these Abu Ghraib pictures, there's two other interesting threads. First, is it American officials that long said we should not release -- they should not release any more pictures because it would incite violence, it would incite fury in the Muslim world and then Iraq. They then, after these pictures came out here in Iraq, a U.S. military spokesman said that did not happen. There is no evidence that further release incites further violence.

And for Iraqis, when you talk about human rights abuses, for them they are more concentrated on their own government. It's just been few months since that bunker was found in the capital where Iraq security forces, majority Shia Iraqi security forces, were found to have tortured detainees, a majority of whom were Sunni. And so Iraqis more concentrated on that. And as you say, in the south, in Basra, the protests have been sustained. They have been fierce against the British troops there.

HILSUM: Fran, let's broaden it out and talk about the rest of the Arab world as well, because of course the BBC is broadcasting all over the world. We've had the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. We've had the beating up of Iraqi boys by the British. Now these new Abu Ghraib pictures. How do you make these decisions about what to show? Because you're in a very responsible situation.

UNSWORTH: Well, obviously we think it through very carefully. I think that the issue about the cartoons, of course, and the video that the news of the world had about the British soldiers and the Abu Ghraib pictures, they are qualitatively different because the reason that one might want to not show the cartoons is because they are massively offensive to the world's Muslims. So that is something obviously that you have to factor into your decision to show them or not. Whereas the others are just simply offensive to Western sensibilities, which is different. You're not injuring religious sensibilities.

HILSUM: But you are showing Arabs being humiliated, which is a tremendously potent thing.

UNSWORTH: Yes, I accept that, but the cartoons issue, just to go back to your question, of course, did give us a huge amount of pause for consideration, because we knew that this would generate actually a lot of anger around the world. We have BBC offices around the Arab world. We have to think about that quite carefully before we put them out and a lot of thought did go into whether we should show these cartoons or not.

HILSUM: And did you?

UNSWORTH: We did show the cartoons, because we decided to show them in the context of illustrating the fury that had arisen around them. We didn't put them up full screen. We simply showed a flavor of them to illustrate that this is what the row was all about.

It's quite interesting, though, that actually back in November, or September, I think it was, when they first were published, we did show them then on BBC World and actually received no complaints at all about them. And it was only this, a few weeks back, that the whole thing took off in a way which I think was probably generated in Denmark, the anger towards them. But we did need to, before publishing last week or showing a flavor of them, to think about what the impact would be on our staff around the world, yes, and also, you know, what is the responsibility that we have in general towards the Danish embassies around the world, towards the British embassies around the world, towards businesses that might be impacted by this.

So, yes, you think about that, but at the end of the day it can't necessarily stop you doing it. You can't really exercise self-censorship on the basis of, you know, what the impact might be. You can mitigate against it as best you can, but if you're going to actually publish, then there is a freedom of expression issue there.

HILSUM: Aneesh, what about this issue of humiliation, with all of these three questions of images, all perceived by many Arabs to be humiliating, all being shown one after the other. Do Iraqis talk about that, people you come across?

RAMAN: They do, especially when you talk about Abu Ghraib.

We talked to someone that was a detainee at the time, that was in some of those graphic photos that came out in the first round, and when you talk to them about the abuse they suffered, they say it is far worse than death, it is far worse than me being shot at, anything like that. They say this humiliation is something that is with them forever, something they can't tell their children about, they try not to tell anyone else about, because they feel it mars their entire existence.

So here, those images that we have seen, especially those out of Abu Ghraib, this new batch, has even more humiliating video and images, are incredibly destructive in the society here. It is seen as a fate worse than death, to be put in that situation.

HILSUM: Fran Unsworth, of the BBC, Aneesh Raman, of CNN, thank you very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a man, his multimedia kit and very little else. We speak to the war correspondent going solo in the world's hotspots.

That's next, after this short break.


HILSUM: Welcome back.

He's a one-man multimedia wizard. Kevin Sites is Yahoo!'s new and first ever foreign correspondent, minus the ever-decreasing entourage that a traveling journalist has. In fact, Kevin's mission is solo and rather ambitious. He's tasked with visiting all the world's combat zones within a year. He'll carry his own kit and file prose, pictures and audio from places like Chechnya, Colombia and Kashmir.

Is this so-called backpack journalism the future of news reporting?

Well, Kevin joins me now to talk about his assignment.

Kevin, welcome to London. I don't know if it counts as one of your hotspots or conflict zones.

KEVIN SITES, YAHOO!: Potentially, yes.

HILSUM: Potentially, yes.

SITES: And thank you for the nice intro. Multimedia wizard is always a nice tag to live up to, yes.

HILSUM: Tell me what the essential difference is between what you do and what the rest of us do.

SITES: Well, let me tell you the similarities first. I mean, we're both journalists. You and I have been in the same war zones together. And the idea is that we live up to the same ethical standards, the same skill applications that any journalist lives up to, and again, the same kind of narrative storytelling techniques.

But we merge ours with digital technology. Smaller, mobile digital technology, and in doing so we're able to tell our stories almost more, I think, like a print journalist. We can travel a little bit faster than you can with a crew. We can go to places that you can go to, but it takes you a little bit longer. And we transmit with a satellite modem. We sacrifice some of the production quality that you have for mobility.

HILSUM: You also talk on your Web site about transparent journalism. What do you mean by that?

SITES: Well, transparent in a lot of ways, that there are going to be limitations to what we can do. I know as a single journalist, someone that's not in a bureau somewhere and in a country for years to learn that country very well, but to tell the small stories within a conflict. You know, that's a limitation. And we want to be transparent about it.

But at the same time, it's an advantage because we're allowed to let our viewers know what we're looking at, what the specific goal of the project is, and I think that kind of transparency is something that's really honored on the Internet. They enjoy that. They see that as honest journalism.

HILSUM: So tell me about the kind of stories you're doing then.

SITES: The idea is to do the small story in front of and behind the conflict, not to do a macro view of any country.

What we want is to use the power of the Internet. For instance, if we don't feel like we can tell the chronology of a conflict, to go from day one, we'll link to the BBC country profiles or to some other organization.

What we want to do is go in, find people, put a human face on global conflict, and tell the story through them. For instance, we went to Iran recently and we did a story we call "Brown Sugar Junkies," and it's about Iran's major drug problem. They have at least 2 million drug users there, 200,000 intravenous drug users, and the idea was we had a maverick doctor that was using a needle exchange program and methadone, which is something that isn't that easy to do, even in the United States and in some Western countries. But the fact that an Islamic regime allowed this to happen showed that there is some kind of negotiating room with this regime possibly.

You know, telling that story through this individual can be extrapolated to a larger level, I think.

HILSUM: What kind of reaction did you get to that story? Because you have a whole section on your Web site, don't you, and you encourage people to respond and give their comments.

SITES: It's a wide open forum for us and I think that's part of the difference, is we have that direct interactivity, the same place that people are getting information that we're giving them, they can respond to us as well.

And in that particular story, we had 2,000 responses. Normally we average about 150 responses. And I mean, they go all over the board. Sometimes they've very complimentary. Sometimes they're calling me a hack or names. Or sometimes they're providing a thread to that story that expands it. Maybe they're providing other links that go beyond what we provided there. Sometimes they're correcting my text. Sometimes they're doing it erroneously and we have to go back in and correct them as well.

HILSUM: And who are they? Because one of the things that news organizations like CNN, like my news organization, Channel 4 News, we try to reach a different audience, because we worry about falling audiences, both the television and newspaper.

SITES: Sure, aging audiences, right.

HILSUM: Are you reaching a different audience?

SITES: At this point, it seems to be a traditional news audience, 26 to 34, predominantly male, about 70 percent, 30 percent female. We'd like to expand that, obviously, but we're a new venture. We've been around for about six months so far, since September, and I think it's going to be a growing process.

We spiked at about 2 million viewers per week during our highest coverage. We've fallen as low as 750,000. But we think -- we're not direct competitors with traditional media. In some ways we can amplify each other.

For instance, my text dispatches are carried on Scripts Howard Newswire, and so that gets distributed to newspapers all over the United States. And that kind of gives them credibility on the Internet and gives us credibility through mainstream media.

HILSUM: Now, I'm going to quote your own words back at you, because I was looking at your Web site.

SITES: That's a scary situation.

HILSUM: It is.

You wrote, "Sometimes we sacrifice depth for breadth in a race to expose you," that's you, the viewer, the listener, "to as much of your world as we can in a short period of time."

So that means you're just going to places for a week. Why? Why not stay longer, learn more?

SITES: There's a couple of reasons behind that. Number one, we know that the ability to be funded is probably limited. You know, if I would have gone to any other media organization in the United States, they would have laughed me out of their offices with this project idea? You want to go to Sri Lanka? You want to go to Nepal? They don't see those on the map at all in terms of coverage, especially in the United States.

And so we know that funding isn't going to last forever. The second part of that is that we feel that there are people we're covering that are in the same kind of race against time that we are. Perhaps their lives depend on it. And I want to expose as many people as we can to their stories. So perhaps they can help.

Another dimension of our reporting is that we have a solutions section, where if you're interested in what we're reporting on, perhaps you can go to the IRC or the Red Cross or another organization that's working in that region and make a contribution or get involved politically or just talking about the story on its own is certainly valuable.

HILSUM: And what about Yahoo! itself, because Yahoo! has been criticized, particularly in China. There are two Chinese journalists who are now in prison, and it is said that it's because Yahoo! handed over electronic evidence of what the Chinese government says was their misdoing.

Do you feel uncomfortable about that?

SITES: We've maintained our independence, and Yahoo! has certainly supported that. Even on our site, we've called for the release of these Chinese prisoners, we've stated that we're an independent journalistic entity. And I am not, you know, someone of any level that can comment on what Yahoo! is doing as far as a business plan is concerned. That's like asking a coder, you know, what the president of the company is doing.

But as far as dealing with us journalistically, they've been very supportive, and I want to continue to do this job, and I think this is the best way to inform people, by example.

HILSUM: Kevin Sites, we'll be watching your travels around the globe over the next year.

SITES: Thanks very much, Lindsey.

HILSUM: 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 Lindsey Hilsum, thanks for joining us.



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