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Iranian Journalists in America; Chernobyl Anniversary

Aired April 28, 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, the constraints of being an Iranian journalist in New York while reporting from Iran itself.

We assess the coverage of the nuclear issue.

But, first, we reflect on the world's worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl. Tragedy struck in April 1986, when plumes of radioactive debris mushroomed across Ukraine. The human and environmental toll was catastrophic.

Now, 20 years on, there is still much anger about how the disaster was handled by the authorities and the media.

CNN's Matthew Chance reports.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They're the victims of a monster of pollution. Hundreds of thousands were contaminated across a vast region, exposed to massive doses of radiation from Chernobyl.

ANATOLY RASSKAZOV, CHERNOBYL'S OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHER (through translator): The accident occurred on a weekend, late Saturday night, when most of us workers were at home. In the morning there were rumors, but no one could really believe something so terrible could go wrong.

CHANCE: Anatoly Rasskazov was Chernobyl's official photographer. As the Soviet authorities grappled with what had happened, he was ordered to fly over the smoldering reactor, with his camera.

RASSKAZOV (through translator): We couldn't see anything through the windows because of the smoke. I asked the pilots to open the door of the helicopter so I could take pictures. They were reluctant, because they said the fumes and dust would be bad for us.

But, eventually, they agreed and I leaned out, with an officer holding on to my legs so I wouldn't fall. Those photos were never made public.

CHANCE: They showed explosions had destroyed the reactor core, a nightmare that would brand Chernobyl the world's worst nuclear accident and leave many, like Anatoly himself, dangerously contaminated.

RASSKAZOV (through translator): I had nausea and was very weak. By 11:00 in the evening, I could hardly walk. My skin had turned red and I couldn't stop vomiting. My wife was giving me all sorts of hot drinks to make it better.

The next day our entire family was evacuated.

CHANCE: Evacuated in buses to safety, or so they thought. But 20 years later, the effects of Chernobyl are still painfully felt.

Yarina Kloss was a child when the disaster struck. She's lived with cancer ever since.

YARINA KLOSS, CHERNOBYL VICTIM (through translator): There was no mention of cancer at first. Doctors just said I had an enlarged thyroid gland.

After Chernobyl, all the local kids were examined and many of my classmates were diagnosed with an enlarged thyroid, just like mine.

CHANCE: In fact, it was an epidemic of thyroid cancer caused by radioactive dust. Nearly 4,000 cases have been recorded. It's mostly treatable, but it still shatters lives.

KLOSS (through translator): I've become much less active since my operation. I get easily tired and my husband says I can be very moody. I suppose it's the dependence on medication.

As soon as I wake up, I have to be in control of what I take. You can never forget to take the pills, even at the seaside, even on vacation.

The long-term health consequences of Chernobyl remain hotly disputed. Estimates range between nine and 93,000 eventual deaths. Twenty years since the world's worst nuclear disaster may be just too soon to know for sure.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Ukraine.


SWEENEY: The anniversary of Chernobyl was marked by the media this week. But two decades ago, journalists were criticized for not covering the disaster or seriously underplaying it.

Olexiy Solohubenko of the BBC has visited Chernobyl numerous times and he joins me now.

What is your recollection of the events at that time?

OLEXIY SOLOHUBENKO, BBC: Well, the recollection is very simple. We didn't know that anything happened at the time and that was typical of the whole country.

I worked for Ukranian radio at the time and we first learned about something really strange happening a day later, when we heard stories about firefighters being sent to the site and some movement of troops and some movement of ambulances and then the next day there was the evacuation of the people.

So we heard about a large number of cars and buses being commandeered by the authorities. But this was all snippets of information. There was nothing official. There was nothing coming at all.

SWEENEY: And what were you reporting?

SOLOHUBENKO: Well, we were not reporting anything until Monday, three days later, when the first Western reports were sent saying that there was an increase in radioactivity in Sweden, that was the first report, and then Western reports were coming in and then there was the official statement.

But I think the listeners should understand and the viewers should understand that the Soviet Union, at the time, was an extremely regulated, totalitarian, centralized state and everything was either going through Moscow television and for local journalists in Ukraine, certainly, it was next to impossible to get any information at all.

SWEENEY: Do you think Chernobyl had an impact on reporting generally in the Soviet Union, that it was forced to loosen up its tight rules and censorship?

SOLOHUBENKO: I think it opened up many things, because it was impossible to contain the information in such a big event and such a scale, showed that any attempt by whatever authorities, at that time, the Soviet authorities, to control it or to contain it under the lid of political control. It was just impossible. That was one lesson.

But the other lesson, I think, for journalists was that, in a sense, that was the beginning of what is today described as citizen journalism. The way information was exchanged, the way people talked to each other, the way people circumvented official censorship and official channels was something quite spectacular in the pre-Internet era and I think that is a very interesting angle that is worth exploring.

SWEENEY: And this is all taking place against the backdrop of glasnost.

SOLOHUBENKO: Well, yes, but glasnost said, also, a two-dimensional thing. It's something that was very well publicized in the West. But if you read very carefully the transcripts, Mr. Gorbachev was telling members of the politburo at the time, you see that from him directly there were very strong messages that we should contain this, we should control the information and we should release part of the information, not all of the information.

And the way I, certainly, observed it through the years and particularly in the first year, 1986 and late in 1987, with our best endeavors, we couldn't break that wall that existed at that time, the wall of censorship.

SWEENEY: Does it surprise you that an official photographer can take photographs of the destruction at Chernobyl and, yet, not have those photos published immediately?

SOLOHUBENKO: No. That was typical and I know a couple of friends of mine who went, actually, and worked there, also, photographs or camera people, who also couldn't have their photos released.

We sent television crews, for instance, very early, I think it was the 7th or 8th of May, which was just, you know, less than two weeks before the accident, and they came back with pictures, half of which could not be shown.

And I spoke to a couple of our camera people who were saying that, basically, the devastation is really terrible. It's on a grand scale. But if you looked at the official pictures on the screen, they were so heavily edited that, basically, you had a standoff against the heroic efforts.

SWEENEY: And you and your fellow journalists were who had access, some access to these unpublished pictures. What was the feeling at the time?

SOLOHUBENKO: Well, the feeling was one of frustration. The second was the effort of -- we did realize that there was the moral responsibility was to say something. It was very difficult to realize that moral responsibility.

I think we tried to do our best to tell as much as possible and there were periods when, even under the very strict regimented Soviet control of the media, it was possible to tell a lot, particularly, I think, when we interviewed Western doctors or Western politicians or Western experts who came to visit the Chernobyl site and we reported on international conferences, for example, when more information than in the official Soviet media was released and, therefore, we could report that angle of the story.

But the authorities tried at every stage to control it.

SWEENEY: Twenty years on, of course, it's a very different story in the former Soviet Union in terms of coverage of Chernobyl.

SOLOHUBENKO: It is, but I don't think the lessons have been learned fully. For instance, I think one of the important things is that Chernobyl started a whole chain of first ecological movements in countries like Ukraine and Bellus, in particular, which slowly, but surely moved into a different sphere.

They became pro-independence movements and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it actually caught many people unawares and, you know, many people were surprised by watching how quickly the whole structure collapsed.

I think part of the reason why it collapsed so quickly lay in Chernobyl and the whole corruption of the regime, the whole inability of the regime to actually explain to its citizens what was happening, to give meaningful information, I think, was part of the problem, which later caused the collapse of ideology, collapse of the Communist Party, and collapse of the system itself.

SWEENEY: Olexiy Solohubenko, thank you very much, indeed.

Ahead on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, up against the U.S. We hear from two Iranian journalists. That's in just a moment.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Is Iran building a nuclear weapon and will the U.S. take military action against it? Well, that question tops the international agenda, as Tehran is pressed to declare its nuclear ambitions.

Reporting this story is difficult. Western journalists at least have limited access to and within Iran, but little consideration is given to the restrictions placed on Iranian journalists working in the West.

CNN's Richard Roth spoke to two reporters based in New York.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The workday begins like many in American homes. Morning coffee, some news of the day, the all- American sport, baseball.

Every day, Maghsoud Amiriam commutes to work from his home in Tuckahoe, a small town outside New York City, just like thousands of other New Yorkers, with one large difference. His boss is the government of Iran.

Last stop, Grand Central Station. A towering reminder of Maghsoud's temporary home hangs over his head. It is the nation facing off with his over nuclear fears. He melts into the busy crowd.

Maghsoud writes for the government of Iran's "Islamic Republic News Agency." He says his government, his boss, does not edit his news.

MAGHSOUD AMIRIAM, ISLAMIC REPUBLIC NEWS AGENCY (through translator): I work with the Iranian government, but there are a lot of people working for the government. I'm not some kind of diplomat. I'm actually trying to report what's happening here, like you guys.

ROTH: Maghsoud wants to report from other U.S. cities, like Washington, but under his restricted U.S. visa, he can't travel more than 25 miles from the United Nations, the same limit the U.S. imposes on Iran's diplomats.

AMIRIAM (through translator): There are a lot of events happening in, actually, Washington, D.C. You know, for example, President Bush had some speech at this university, Johns Hopkins University.

I saw that and I really wanted to be there.

ROTH: So Maghsoud spends most of his time on international territory, the United Nations, where his own country is now the hot news.

It's also where you can find the only other Iranian state journalist working in the U.S. right now. Morteza Ghoroghy reports for the Iranian network "IRIB." He's also frustrated by the visa limitations.

MORTEZA GHOROGHY, IRIB: I'm 25 years as a journalist and they know I'm a journalist, but I don't know why they have restricted me. You'll have to ask the U.S. Government.

ROTH: The U.S. says journalists who work for government news agencies could be acting as intelligence agents and the U.S. must know where they are.

SEAN MCCORMACK, SPOKESMAN, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: I'm not aware of any move at this point to reexamine any restrictions that may be placed upon their movement. I would assume that there are good reasons for those restrictions.

ROTH: Both men deny any links to intelligence agencies.

AMIRIAM (through translator): This kind of accusation is actually always following news reporters. That's not true. If you are some reporter, that doesn't mean, you know, you are working for the intelligence network in the country.

ROTH: The restriction can also mean missing your family. Maghsoud says they have not been granted visas.

AMIRIAM: This is not the lifestyle I've had before. I was never lonely like this. I have a wife, two beautiful children. I haven't seen them for almost a year and we feel we are a little bit depressed here.

ROTH: In 2005, the U.S. Government issued only a handful of visas to Iranian journalists. Angered by what they call extraordinary restrictions, pro-government Iranian journalists have urged their leaders to retaliate by not issuing visas to American journalists.

U.S. news organizations, including CNN, say getting visas to report in Iran can be very difficult anyway and while reporters can travel, they have government minders. And seeing America is something Maghsoud would like to do.

AMIRIAM: I feel like I am in prison.


SWEENEY: CNN's Richard Roth reporting there.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, more on Iran. How should it be covered by the media from inside and outside the country?

That's after this short break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Welcome to Tehran. Well, that would be music to a Western journalist's ears if it was true and although many have tried, few have succeeded in getting into Iran to report on what is happening there.

To discuss this issue, I'm joined here in London by Leonard Doyle, foreign editor for Britain's "Independent Newspaper" and from New York, the Iranian journalist, Nazenin Ansari

Nazenin, let me start with you. What are the main challenges?

NAZENIN ANSARI, IRANIAN JOURNALIST: Well, first of all, in Iran, if you are within the circle of the Islamic Republic, you are allowed, to a certain extent, to cover certain news stories.

But, for example, in relation to the nuclear issue, you do not hear at all any dissenting voice and about the logic, for example, of the program, whether it is financially feasible, whether it's economically feasible, or whether it's environmentally feasible at all.

In effect, there is no discussion about the nuclear issue, the dissenting opinion in the newspapers, the biggest student association in Iran, talking about that, came out with a statement questioning the viability and, also, at what price is this nuclear dossier and nuclear program being followed.

And up to now, there hasn't been any discussion about this statement inside Iran. So there are certain issues that cannot be handled. For example, the issue of political prisoners cannot be handled in Iran. Akbar Ganji has been imprisoned for such a long time and even when he was outside, when he was released last month, he hasn't been allowed to express his views in newspapers.

Indeed, none of the media were allowed to cover his release and it is very difficult, indeed.

SWEENEY: What about the difficulties, Leonard Doyle, about covering the nuclear issue in relation to Iran in the West? I mean, because we're grappling with all sorts of indecidables in terms of actual concrete proof about what Iran is actually doing.

LEONARD DOYLE, FOREIGN EDITOR, THE INDEPENDENT: It's very difficult. It's a little bit like trying to cover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

You're beholden to Western sources a lot of the time and you're never really sure, as we were completely wrong, it turned out, in Iraq, just how true they are.

But in the case of Iran, at least the IAEA, the International Nuclear Energy Agency, is in there and is inspecting and there's a degree of cooperation going on. So we know a little bit more.

But the idea that you could go in and report it independently, it's not possible. It's really not possible.

SWEENEY: You bring up the parallel, though, with Iraq and a recent article in "The New Yorker" by Seymour Hersh certainly gave the impression that it is all over but the shouting in terms of the plan, a concrete military plan, in some form or other, in terms of Iran.

DOYLE: I think they have a great dilemma and the idea that you would have a military strike on Iran is practically unthinkable. The ramifications in terms of the terrorism it would generate around the world, around the West, in particular, is just unthinkable, really.

And the Iranians are aware of this and they're also aware that the Americans did attack Iraq because it did not have nuclear weapons. They did not attack North Korea, because it does have nuclear weapons. And they're trying to quickly get to the position where they have nuclear weapons. I think that's the reading of a lot of people.

So it's a race against time for them.

SWEENEY: I want to go back to Nazenin in a second, but just to continue on this point. I mean, the Western media's coverage of Iran to date, given these parallels and the backdrop of Iraq, is it the same?

DOYLE: I think that the trouble is that the Iraqi experience has left the media very weary and very cherry of any official views from the West, in particular, and the trouble is that Iran probably really is on the tail of a nuclear device.

The Iraqis had given up, it seems, and had kind of acknowledged. So nobody believed them or just didn't like them and wanted the regime out of the way. But the Iranians really are hot on the trail and have been for a long time of acquiring military nuclear capability.

So in other words, we don't believe the authorities anymore. So they have a difficult mountain to climb. They have a much more difficult time persuading us.

SWEENEY: On the issue, Nazenin, in Iran, of this nuclear debate, in the media, is regime change at all considered as one of the options being pursued by Washington and its allies?

ANSARI: Well, they're always afraid of regime change and their biggest fear is about the people in Iran, actually, taking the matters into their own hands. So there are talks, for example, that one of the reasons, basically, that the regime is following such a program and such a policy of being so antagonistic and not cooperating with the Western community is that it wants to divert attention from its failures inside Iran.

SWEENEY: The power of the authorities over the media in Iran is absolute. If there were to be some kind of transition, where would the cracks begin to show, do you think?

ANSARI: Well, you are very right in the sense that inside Iran, the regime has complete control over the radio and TV networks. On the newspaper front, all the newspapers inside Tehran have to abide by certain standards and regulations.

There's a certain degree of freedom, perhaps, in the provinces, as long as the news does not get to the national scene and the international scene.

Where the cracks might start to happen will be from outside. We are in a situation where there is complete control inside Iran, so that you do not hear any voice of dissent.

So those of us outside of Iran have a big responsibility and, also, we have a big program. I mean, we have a lot on our hands to be able to project all the arguments that are going for and against the nuclear program in Iran.

And, hopefully, I mean, the United States Congress has allocated over $31 million to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of America Persian service and they are expanding their television broadcasting to Iran. Then there are rumors about the BBC also starting a Persian service TV program.

But I think what would be effective would be a program, a very professionally run program by Iranians, for Iranians, and that would comprise of all different political groups and of all different sides to the argument.

SWEENEY: There we have to leave it, I'm afraid. Nazenin Ansari in New York, thank you very much, and Leonard Doyle of "The Independent" here in London.

And 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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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