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Protests in Nepal; Queen Elizabeth's Birthday; Bush Press Secretary Resigns

Aired April 21, 2006 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
Ahead on the show, President Bush's media maestro quits. We look at the role of a political press secretary.

Plus, the royal birthday sends the media into a frenzy. Why is Queen Elizabeth so popular?

But, first, though, we go to Nepal, a country rarely covered by the international media, a country that this week has descended into chaos and the thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the monarchy. They want King Gyanendra to end his absolute rule, a move they say will bring freedom to the Nepalese people.

In marching, the protestors defied a shoot-to-kill curfew imposed by the authorities.

Well, to give us an insight into what's been going on, I'm joined on the phone from Kathmandu by Dhruva Adhikari, chairman of the Nepal Press Institute and a correspondent for the "New York Times."

Dhruva, how much has the atmosphere in Nepal changed over the last few days and couple of weeks?

DHRUVA ADHIKARI, CHAIRMAN, NEPAL PRESS INSTITUTE: Well, if we were to talk in terms of the media coverage and media's ability to cover events, which are disturbing events, violent events, then we have to see that the media, despite serial restrictions imposed by the royal authorities, it is, by and large, performing its duty effectively, I should say.

SWEENEY: In general, how much has the nature of its coverage changed over the last couple of weeks? Is there outright criticism, for example, of King Gyanendra?

ADHIKARI: Well, the media has not, despite the threat, as I mentioned before, has not stopped criticizing the king, even to the extent of ridiculing at times. But it has also attracted criticism from the royal government side.

Also, some kind of threat, intimidation, inconvenience, for example, like you see curfew (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to journalists when there was a curfew imposed in the valley of Kathmandu. That kind of thing has affected media's ability to cover the events more effectively, extensively. But that has not prevented it from doing its duty, even in trying circumstances.

That is a kind of satisfaction I, as a journalist, would like to draw.

SWEENEY: Is safety for journalists then an issue at all in Nepal?

ADHIKARI: Well, it is an issue at the moment, because quite a few journalists, I would say that more than two dozen journalists have been detained for the last several days and that includes several leading newspaper editors and columnists and so forth.

But that has not been a further threat to the rest of the journalists in the field to work, as they should be doing, despite resource constraints and despite the security constraints and so forth.

SWEENEY: Whatever emerges from these series of protests, whatever the outcome, what is your prediction for the work of journalists and the ability of journalists to do their work in Nepal?

ADHIKARI: Well, apart from the day-to-day problem the journalists are facing in this country for the last several months, especially after the king took over the direct rule, since 2005, February 1st, 15 months have by and it has been a most trying time for Nepalese journalists.

And it is this time that the royal regime also introduced a very restrictive ordinance, because there is no parliament at the moment in Nepal. So it is a royal ordinance which has put all kinds of restrictions to prevent the media people from doing their job.

But, nevertheless, as they have fought so far, they are likely to fight for their rights, because, essentially, the journalists are working on behalf of the common people to be informed on matters of public interest.

So they will continue to get support from the public, which they are getting at the moment tremendously. That's why the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has not died down. So it will continue to be the case, despite the restrictive attitudes and measures applied by the royal authorities.

SWEENEY: Dhruva Adhikari, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us from Nepal.

Well, we can go now CNN's Dan Rivers, who is also in Kathmandu. And we're also joined here in London by Surya Subedi, a Nepalese professor in international law.

First, Dan Rivers, what has been the international media presence in Nepal for this story?

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's been quite a lot of interest, definitely. We're in a hotel about 200 meters, I would say, from the royal palace, which is clearly the focus of all these protests, and there has been quite a broad international media here.

I guess you're wondering why, perhaps, such a small, isolated, faraway country is so much interest. I guess there's kind of two parts, really.

One is the strategic importance of Nepal, sandwiched between India and China, the kind of two emerging, burgeoning economies and the strategic importance that can play and, also, the ramifications for India if, for example, the Maoists did take over power here and there was a communist state established.

And, secondly, I think it's because of the kind of romantic back story to the monarchy here, the fact that the whole setting is a bit like a Shakespearean tragedy. You have this king and the entire royal family who are killed by the crown prince, who shoots them all, slaughters them all, before killing himself, and then the brother, Gyanendra, takes power and then slowly, according to the critics, dismantles democracy and then faces this massive popular uprising.

So there's this kind of twin aspect to the story that I think has captured people's imagination.

SWEENEY: Surya Subedi, is this a regional story as much as a very important national story?

SURYA SUBEDI, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS, ENGLAND: Indeed. I wouldn't only say national and regional, but, also, international story, because the democracy was restored in Nepal in 1990 and within 10-12 years, there were difficulties and democracy wasn't working properly.

What are the challenges to democracy in a small country like Nepal and how can these problems be addressed, I think that must be, also, a matter for international concern.

SWEENEY: Dan Rivers, when you arrive in Nepal and have to cover a story pretty much as soon as your feet hit the ground, what has struck you there about the atmosphere or the ability to move around, the ability to get the story?

RIVERS: Well, we've been really constricted in being able to move around. The hotel that we're in, we were actually kind of effectively prisoners within the hotel, to start with. They wouldn't let us out at all. There were guards on the gate behind me. They wouldn't let us go anywhere.

So we actually had to jump over the wall, believe it or not, and kind of run through the city and dodge all the kind of soldier checkpoints in order to get out and actually see what was happening. And I'm sure that's because the authorities here don't want people like me and my cameraman filming what's going on.

They don't want us to be showing the fact that the soldiers are willing to open fire on their own people, who only, after all, are protesting for democracy.

So it has been a very difficult place to operate. I mean, today, we literally had to walk for five hours, a five-hour walk round trip just to get to the other side of the city, because there were no vehicles operating and there were so many checkpoints all through the city, with police and security forces everywhere.

They've really tried to put a stranglehold on the media here.

SWEENEY: And as you talk to us live now, Dan, is there any presence around you, security presence?

RIVERS: Yes. I think there are guards on the gate behind me. I mean, certainly, earlier on, there were soldiers all the way up and down this main street. The royal palace is just off to one side here.

So this really is a very sensitive area right here. It's the focus for the protest. They haven't been able to get anywhere near this, but this is where they want to get and, clearly, the king is just up the road here and that is the man that these protests are directed at.

So there was a heavy, heavy army and police presence here. There are armored personnel carriers on the streets and lots of heavily armed personnel.

SWEENEY: So access and movement is difficult. What about your ability to report, freedom of speech?

RIVERS: Well, so far, I mean, we haven't had any kind of government minders or anything like that. We've been able to report totally freely once we're back inside the confines of the hotel, but they certainly haven't made it easy for us.

We are having to broadcast via this video phone, because our satellite dish has been impounded at the airport. They won't release that. They certainly, you know, they wouldn't let us go to the airport today. We wanted to go and interview some tourists there. They wouldn't let us do that.

So they've been as constrictive as they can, but they haven't actually, you know, stopped me broadcasting. They haven't told me, you know, "You can't say this and you can't say that."

They're just trying to impose logistical difficulties on us to make our job more difficult.

SWEENEY: Dan Rivers in Kathmandu, undergoing some broadcasting difficulties and, obviously, some reporting restrictions of one kind or another. But thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

Surya Subedi, let me get on to that point there, this transition from democracy, fledgling democracy back to absolute rule.

What kind of impact does that have, not just on Nepal, but throughout the region?

SUBEDI: Well, throughout the region, because of Nepal's strategic location between the two giants of Asia, and, also, Nepal has been quite a popular touristing destination and very hospitable.

So lots of people have gone to Nepal, average backpackers or in some other different capacity and they love Nepal, and a country going through very tragic (UNINTELLIGIBLE) since the massacre of the royal family in June 2001.

So people have so much to take on. So people have quite a sympathetic attitude towards the people of Nepal.

SWEENEY: Is it a personal story about risks within a royal family and a desire to be an autocratic ruler or is it really about something else in the region?

SUBEDI: Well, in the region, people wanted to see Nepal as a prosperous, democratic and peaceful country and the king came to the scene as a very ambitious, adventurous person.

He started a coalition government of political parties and promised a long list of things and people thought, perhaps, "Hey, this guy may be able to deliver something." But we have nearly one and a half years have gone by and nothing has been delivered.

SWEENEY: In general, is there press freedom in Nepal when it comes to covering other stories apart from this one?

SUBEDI: Indeed. Apart from political matters, there was freedom of the press. But on political matters, they were censoring very heavily in the first few weeks and months after the royal takeover.

But after that, they realized that they could not control the flow of information in this Internet age. So, gradually, things were relaxed. But the laws introduced to curtail press freedom remain intact and people were opposed to those rules.

SWEENEY: Surya Subedi, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

SUBEDI: Thank you very much.

SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, signing off. Why is President Bush's pressman standing down? That's after this short break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Imagine spending each day facing the beady eyes of a pack of political news hounds. That's exactly what Scott McClellan did in his role as President Bush's media maestro. That is, until he quit this week.

In an emotional farewell, McClellan stood alongside his boss and said, "I've given this my all." As the front for a troubled team, he's faced much criticism and been called many a name.

Despite that, though, he lasted nearly three years in what is undoubtedly a very tough job.

Well, Bill Schneider joins us now from Washington, along with James Rubin, who was chief spokesman for the U.S. State Department during the Clinton era.

Bill Schneider, in your opinion, what is the role of a press secretary?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: His or her job, there's been one female press secretary, in the Clinton administration, is to serve the needs of the press and the public, to essentially be the public face of the administration, to report news, explain policies, to give the president's position, give information to a hungry White House press corps.

But at the same time, he's on the president's staff. Interestingly, press secretaries often come from one of two backgrounds. Either they're former journalists, they've been on the press side, or they're former public relations professors who are in the business of promoting the point of view of a client.

Well, in the case of the White House press secretary, that person has to do both.

SWEENEY: James Rubin, did you feel any ounce of empathy at all for Scott McClellan as he said to President Bush, "I've given it may all, sir?"

JAMES RUBIN, FMR. SPOKESMAN, U.S. STATE DEPT.: Well, sure. It is a job that is very, very hard to meet the two masters. The two masters of the press corps, the White House press corps, on the one hand, and President Bush, on the other, are inherently in conflict.

The White House press corps believes it should have all information on an urgent basis and the president is more interested in making sure the press reports positively on what he's doing and minimizes the negative news.

So there's no way to possibly achieve the goals of both masters.

SWEENEY: Bill Schneider, Scott McClellan must have received a number of phone calls when he stepped off the podium.

How would you assess his time in the job?

SCHNEIDER: In many ways, he was a perfect blank wall, which is what the president really wanted. The press could go after him and they could ask him questions and try to pin him down and sometimes they went into full revolt, as they did after the vice president accidentally shot someone on a hunting trip.

And he was just continually -- he was imperturbable. He would say the same thing. You just couldn't break through there. That kind of brick wall is exactly what the administration wanted.

SWEENEY: And that was endemic, you think, to this administration, this Republican administration.

SCHNEIDER: No. It's for any administration, Republican, Democrat. The White House doesn't want people to know to much about what's really going on.

SWEENEY: James Rubin, how difficult was it for you to say nothing?

RUBIN: Well, you learn a lot of different ways to say nothing. I don't think I was ever ordered to say nothing exactly, but I was certainly told, on many occasions, especially if it had an intelligence component or was in the middle of negotiations, you had to learn how to talk about minor details for a very long time and create impressions and moves and color, it was often called, about a meeting or a situation, when you couldn't give any substance.

SWEENEY: And if you were in the Chief of Staff, the new Chief of Staff now, James Rubin, who would you be considering or what kind of pressman would you be looking for to take over Scott McClellan's role?

RUBIN: Well, I think the Bush administration is in desperate need of what is horribly called, but importantly known as a Washington insider, somebody who has a reputation in the long-running establishment of the Washington media or perhaps Washington politics, who has the respect of a large number of people and can encourage, subtly, but importantly, this White House to be more candid, to be more open.

They have a very, very closed reputation. There's a fairly hostile attitude between the White House press corps and the White House that's pent up over a long period of time and I suspect the best thing this president could do and Josh Bolten could do, as Chief of Staff, would be find someone, I'm going to use a name and I think some viewers may know who I mean, a David Gergen like character, someone who's been around a long time, who's served other Republican presidents, and who will bring a fresh approach, with perhaps a little more candor, a little more information, and a chance for a second life to an administration that's having a very tough time right now.

SWEENEY: Jamie Rubin, Bill Schneider, thank you both very much, indeed.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the regal royal reaches the ripe old age of 80. But why is Queen Elizabeth's birthday such a big deal?

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Blue suits, pink suits, big hats, small hats. Is that all a queen has to worry about? Well, of course not and particularly not if you take the media into account and it's something Elizabeth II can't get away from.

Her 80th birthday celebrations are no exception. Here in Britain, at least, it seems that a queen and the camera equals a story.

Why is her majesty so newsworthy and how has her relationship with the media changed over the years?

Well, to discuss this, I'm joined by Robert Jobson, world correspondent for London's "Evening Standard" and Katherine Witty of "Sky News."

First of all, Robert, is it safe to say that a queen and the camera equals news?

ROBERT JOBSON, THE EVENING STANDARD CORRESPONDENT: Not really. I think that the reality is that the queen's role as head of state is actually a very important role. When she speaks, she's speaking on behalf of her majesty's government. She's actually having something important to say when she travels abroad. She's an important person.

I think photographs of her don't necessarily publish unless she's actually doing something and if there's the real story behind the photograph to accompany it.

SWEENEY: There have been a series of celebrations for the queen's 80th birthday in this week.

How has "Sky" been covering them?

KATHERINE WITTY, SKY NEWS: We know much about the queen already. She's been on the throne for so long, more than 50 years, and I think the challenge for any journalist is to really make her interesting.

The difficulty with the queen is that because she's such a private person, we don't really know that much about her personally and about how she spends her private time and we only are used to seeing her during walkabouts and on big space occasions and it's that real challenge to try and make her interesting.

SWEENEY: Presumably, Robert, that's the way she likes it, having her private personal life to herself as much as possible.

But describe for us, if you will, how much the media's relationship, particularly in this country, with the royal family have changed over the years.

JOBSON: We only have to look back at the old, flickering, black-and- white footage of her father, the old king, on the balcony. You see the adoration that the crowd is treating the royal family with.

It's only really, I think, from the sort of late '60s when the first real documentary of the queen was made in terms of seeing her private life that we began to realize what was going on behind the public face.

SWEENEY: And that changed everything, really, for the royals.

JOBSON: It did . It sort of let the cameras inside the house, if you like, and, as a result, there was no more of this excuse where you could say, "Well, you have a public face and a private face." Effectively, the media could then, from that moment on, say, "Well, actually, there are no rules. We want to know more about this."

SWEENEY: Do you think that they regard that as a mistake, in hindsight?

JOBSON: I think they do. I mean, the reality is it's very difficult to get hold of the footage from that documentary. They don't like it. They don't like talking about it. They think that it was a mistake.

I, personally, think it was an inevitability. There's no way you can have the monarchy in the forensic media that we live without having an exposure to what their private lives are about. And I do think that, actually, that the queen has handled the whole thing very well.

SWEENEY: Katherine Witty, one comment about the queen over the last few days has been that she's like a great oak tree and that she's blossoming in her old age and becoming very relaxed.

How much is her individual relationship with the media defined by her personality as distinct from how Buckingham Palace, the officials, would like to have it defined?

WITTY: The difficulty with the queen is that we don't really know what her personality is like or, rather, very, very few people do and people who claim they know her probably don't, because the people who really do know her won't speak to us.

And I think that is very difficult for people to dissociate her public image with her private image. She is simply the head of state. We don't really know very much about her other than that and other than we see it on public occasions.

And I think, in a way, it's quite a clever PR exercise, because, in fact, she's remained fairly popular throughout all her reign. There have been ups and downs and, of course, the major shock to her was the reaction to her over the death of Diana, but that was nearly 10 years ago now and I think she's actually remained fairly constant in people's mind.

They know what to expect with the queen and she has never manipulated the media in order to get her own views and her own personality across. She's quite happy being somebody who is simply head of state, who's carrying out her role.

SWEENEY: All right, Katherine Witty, Robert Jobson, thank you very much, indeed.

JOBSON: Pleasure.

SWEENEY: And that is 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 Finnouala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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