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Photographing Africa; World Press Freedom Day; Bush and the Correspondents Dinner

Aired May 5, 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 program, one young president. What was it about the White House Correspondents Dinner that left Mr. Bush looking so miserable?

Plus, a mother's pain, haunting images of the famine in Niger. We speak to an award- winning photographer.

But, first, imagine the horror. Armed men barge into your newsroom, abduct and interrogate you just for reporting the truth. This is a real fear for hundreds of journalists around the world, particularly those trying to document government corruption or criminal activity.

These concerns were marked on May the 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, a chance to highlight shameful abuses against the media.

One correspondent, who knows all too well about such attacks, is May Chidiac. The veteran Lebanese journalist survived a car bombing in Beirut last year. She's just been awarded UNESCO's World Press Freedom Prize for her bravery.

Before that, CNN's Brent Sadler visited May at the French clinic where she's being treated.


BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To many in the world, this woman is a huge television news star. To millions of viewers, a kind of Barbara Walters of the Middle East. Always strong-willed, often making enemies.

On her talk shows in Lebanon, May Chidiac fearlessly trampled on leaders, if not nations. Her last broadcast assault came six months ago. The target of her scorn was Lebanon's powerful neighbor, Syria, which was suspected of several assassinations in Lebanon. All of the victims had been vocal critics of Syria.

And so now, after a murderous act, some wonder if May Chidiac's Syria show struck too deeply.

MAY CHIDIAC, LEBANESE JOURNALIST: I heard a blast and I felt it at the same time. I was still awake. I saw like black of snow falling over me.

SADLER: A bomb ripped through Chidiac's SUV. Somehow, she crawled away, her hair ablaze, her body sliced to shreds.

CHIDIAC: I saw my hand attached to my arm with a small piece of skin. So I hoped that they could save my hand.

SADLER: In fact, Chidiac would lose her hand and half of her arm. The bomb also tore away most of her left leg. Terrible burns and shrapnel wounds cover much of her body.

CHIDIAC: I still have pieces of metal in the face, near the cheek here, and all over my body.

SADLER: She says now there are times when she's wondered if death would have been better.

You can't always be so upbeat. There must be times when you feel despair.

CHIDIAC: Of course. There's time when I feel depressed. There's time when I cry when I feel pain, a lot of pain. This is my fifth month of treatment.

SADLER: For months, Chidiac's been subjected to grueling physical therapy at a special rehabilitation center near Paris.

CHIDIAC: He's putting so much pressure on me. He's making me crazy.

SADLER: When the pain is too much, she says, she imagines the bomber who nearly killed her and to overcome the pain, she says, is to defy him.

CHIDIAC: I imagine I have the enemy in front of me and I have to kick him.

SADLER: Her bomber, she imagines, is Syria, suspecting her sharp tones went too far.

CHIDIAC: I'm guessing, but you know who is the enemy in Lebanon for the time being. It's Syria and we were people talking against Syria.

SADLER: Chidiac was fighting then, she says, and vows the attack will not deter her when she returns to the screen.

CHIDIAC: Never. It won't be me. It won't be me. I'm a fighter.

SADLER: She is learning literally how to rewire herself, how to get her brain and her remaining damaged muscles to control a new prosthetic hand.


CHIDIAC: Watch your hand.


CHIDIAC: I think some angels are protecting me. I hope they will like it I'm doing this.

SADLER: May Chidiac, who may have paid dearly for her strong voice, vows to prove she will not be silenced, every step of the way.

CHIDIAC: Hey, it's the first time I do it.

SWEENEY: CNN's Brent Sadler reporting there.


SWEENEY: Well, as I mentioned, May Chidiac has been awarded UNESCO's Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for 2006.

To discuss this, I'm joined, from Paris, by UNESCO's director general, Koichiro Matsuura.

May Chidiac, obviously, a worthy recipient of this award. What was her competition like in terms of the other entrants?

KOICHIRO MATSUURA, DIRECTOR GENERAL, UNESCO: Well, we had four or five other candidates, but we decided May Chidiac is a symbol of press freedom. As you said, you know, she had a very serious attack, but she miraculously escaped from it and she is still determined to pursue her profession of journalism. Ultimately, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) she intends to go back to Lebanon very soon.

SWEENEY: By giving her this award, what is UNESCO saying about the situation in Beirut?

MATSUURA: Well, I just visited Beirut myself. The situation is improving, but nevertheless, the press situation is still very precarious. But I talked to a number of journalists. In fact, when I visited the headquarters of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) important newspapers in Lebanon and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) seeing journalists heavily assassinated, including the editor- in-chief's son.

And journalists are in a very strong mood to pursue their profession, giving the right and the correct information to their people and to the people in the world. But the press situation is still precarious.

SWEENEY: In terms of giving a World Press Freedom Award, why is UNESCO involved in that and what contribution or what difference do you think giving such an award makes?

MATSUURA: Well, in the last 12 years, UNESCO has been celebrating the World Press Freedom Day and we started, three years later, the giving of a UNESCO prize to a courageous journalist, who is fighting, even risking his or her life in order to promote press freedom.

And we witness there has been improvement, there has been improvement in many parts of the world, movement toward establishing more press freedom in more countries.

Unfortunately, you know, we have to say there are still many countries where press freedom is not completely established or even press freedom is totally prohibited.

We have to continue to advocate that press freedom is a crucial and an indispensable component of democracy. It is closely linked to other important rights, political, economic, cultural, and educational rights. And without establishing press freedom, we could not hope for establishing other human rights. In that sense, press freedom is basically human rights.

SWEENEY: It is a basic human right, as you say. Giving such an award, have you ever seen it make a significant difference to either the journalist involved or the country in which he or she was working?

MATSUURA: Yes, it does. It gives very strong encouragement to the journalist concerned, but, also, it gives a strong signal to the world that there are courageous journalists who are risking, you know, their lives to promote press freedom and, you know, that can also give signals to political leaders that they have to establish more press freedom, if it is not established in their country.

SWEENEY: Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO's director general. Thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

MATSUURA: Thank you very much. Thank you.

SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the butt of a comedian speech. Who came out worse, the president or the press? Find out after this short break. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

He came, he spoke.


STEPHEN COLBERT, TALK SHOW HOST: Wow, wow, what an honor. The White House correspondence center. To actually sit here at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush, to be this close to the man, I feel like I'm dreaming. Somebody pinch me.

You know what? I'm a pretty sound sleeper. That may not be enough. Somebody shoot me in the face. Is he really not here tonight? Dammit. The one guy who could have helped.

By the way, before I get started, if anybody needs anything else at their tables, just speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers. Someone from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail.


SWEENEY: The audience laughed, the president grimaced. Then, in the days after, the media dissected it.

Stephen Colbert's rather torrid speech at the White House correspondence center caused quite a stir. The faux talk show host appeared to support Mr. Bush, but it seems his message was subversive. Was it funny enough? Was it supposed to be?

Joining me now to discuss this is Howard Kurtz of "The Washington Post" and host of CNN's RELIABLE SOURCES.

Howard, what do you think was the aim of the speech?

HOWARD KURTZ, THE WASHINGTON POST: To make people laugh. That's what comedians do for a living. Stephen Colbert is a moderately well known comic here in the states and recently got his own cable show and he plays a kind of a blowhard pundit on the air, and that was the character he was playing when he was making fun of President Bush and when he was making fun of the press.

And a lot of people think that maybe the reason that it didn't go over very well in that room at this black tie dinner is that the journalists didn't appreciate being the butt of some of those jokes.

SWEENEY: And one was able to separate one's self from the actual dinner and the room in which that speech was given. Was he as funny as he usually is?

KURTZ: I didn't think he was anywhere near as funny as he usually is. It's a hard environment when the president is sitting right there and when you're not on your own show.

But, you know, the whole tradition of these dinners, it's just kind of this annual ritual in Washington where president and press get together and kind of poke gentle fun at each other, is to let your guard down and make people laugh.

Some people thought that Stephen Colbert was a little too aggressive in talking about the polls, for example, how unpopular George Bush has become.

I thought it was all in good fun. The problem was it didn't make that many people laugh. Other people, though, the liberals out there who watched this on TV or replayed on the Internet thought it was hysterical because they don't like President Bush and they think that Colbert is one of the few people who actually stand up to the president.

SWEENEY: Well, there are those who would also argue that he was very disrespectful of the president, that, basically, his message was that this guy is a joke, and why the media are so upset, because he was challenging them, saying they weren't doing their job.

KURTZ: Yes. I'm not in that camp. I didn't think the jokes were all that respectful. I've watched these things for many years and you always poke fun at the president. I know some people disagree.

But, you know, what's amazing is all the chatter and all the controversy that has been caused, just one comedian at a dinner last weekend, and I think that's because the country is so polarized over George W. Bush, that the people who don't like the press because they think they're not aggressive enough toward this president have sort of made Stephen Colbert into a hero because he said things, even in mockery, that they were just dying to hear.

SWEENEY: What has he been saying about it afterwards?

KURTZ: Not very much. He is sort of laying low and letting the controversy swirl around him. I'm a little surprised that, you know, for example, he refused to comment to my newspaper when we called him for comment.

But, you know, let's face it, a week ago, there certainly was a large swath of America that had never heard of Stephen Colbert. Now, everybody's talking about him. He's big on the Internet. He's being talked about on radio and cable. This is probably the best thing that's ever happened for his career.

So even if a lot of people think, you know, that he went too far, that he wasn't funny or that he was disrespectful to President Bush, you know, people who are in the public eye, they thrive on controversy. And so I think this only helps him.

SWEENEY: And, finally, we're talking about the media and how they react to it in the days afterwards, but what do you know of the atmosphere in the room as the speech was being delivered?

KURTZ: Well, I talked to a number of journalists who were there who said that, you know, Colbert just fell flat. It wasn't so much that he was disrespectful, but he just wasn't that funny.

And I just have to wonder, you know, because journalists generally love this guy because he specializes in a kind of satire that reporters find very appealing and often he likes to prick the bubbles of pompous politicians.

I just have to wonder whether the fact that he made so much fun of the White House press corps played a little role in the bad reviews that he has been getting.

SWEENEY: Certainly something to think about. Howard Kurtz, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us from Washington, D.C.

Now, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Africa's pain, through the lens. We speak to the award-winning photographer, Finbarr O'Reilly. That's in just a moment.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

"Haunting, elegant and moving," this is how judges described this image taken by Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly, when they named him winner of the 2005 Press Photo Award.

His poignant photograph captures the human suffering of the famine in Niger. A child's fingers press against his mother's lips at an emergency feeding station.

Well, Finbarr covers West and Central Africa for Reuters and, earlier, he joined me to discuss his life and career as a photojournalist.

FINBARR O'REILLY, PHOTOGRAPHER, REUTERS: I started off as a text journalist in Africa for Reuters, but I often found it difficult to get the stories the play and attention that I felt they deserved. And so I would provide pictures with my stories to give them a little bit more distance and I moved more and more towards pictures as I progressed with my career in Africa and Reuters.

SWEENEY: Was it a natural transition for you?

O'REILLY: It was. Africa is a very visual place and a lot of times, our stories, we try to incorporate as much color and visuals as we can. And so photography is just a natural way of reporting from there.

SWEENEY: Do you think photography is perhaps a more direct, immediate way of getting a message across to the viewers than text can be?

O'REILLY: Absolutely. This is the main reason that I've moved towards photography, is that we do have a more immediate and emotional impact with photography than we do have with words.

Coming from a text background, however, I still hope that people will see a picture and then be inspired to go and read a bit more about the situation and discover more about what's going on.

SWEENEY: Let's take a look at -- this is the award-winning photograph in Africa. In the picture, obviously, it's a child's hand, but it looks very much like an old man's hand in many ways, quite wrinkled and dry.

Tell me, what was the shot?

O'REILLY: This picture was taken in the West African country of Niger during a hunger situation there last year and this woman I found in an emergency feeding center run by the medial charity, Doctors Without Borders.

There were about a dozen mothers with their children, most of whom were sort of on the verge of starvation and were receiving emergency intravenous and oral food to sort of rehydrate them and bring them back to life, essentially.

And I was watching this woman for quite some time and just observing her and her interaction with her child. Her name is Fatou Ousseini and her son is named Alassa Galisou, and there was just this sort of very intimate moment where, at first, he had his hand on her nose and it gradually slid down onto her mouth and that's when I captured this particular frame.

SWEENEY: And do you have any idea about his face, the child?

O'REILLY: I do, actually, yes. A German reporter and photographer traveled back to Niger this year to find out what happened to them and it turns out they found them roaming on the edge of the Sahal desert, with the nomads there. And Fatou is fine, she's well. She was still wearing exactly the same clothes that she was wearing a year ago when I took my picture, now faded by the sun and tattered by the wind.

And Alassa is three years old, but he's alive, but suffered severely from the malnutrition and he can't walk and he can't talk. He mostly just clings to his mother.

SWEENEY: Let's have a look at another picture. It's of a man carrying some boxes and one of the striking elements of this is the contrast in colors, in many ways.

Where was this taken?

O'REILLY: This was also taken in the same town as the winning image, in the town of Tahoua in Niger. And there was an intense media sort of coverage of the hunger situation there at a certain point last year and, gradually, food began to arrive due to this focus on the situation.

And this is food from the World Food Program finally beginning to arrive in the country. This guy was actually carrying some 50 kilo sacks on his head. Some of them would carry one, some would carry two, but this wiry man was carrying three sacks of 50 kilos on his head.

SWEENEY: How do you explain the sharp and vivid contrast in colors in some of the photos you take? I mean, let's now have a look at another one. It is of a child with green eyes and, really, very, very striking in terms of its vividness.

O'REILLY: Yeah. This picture was taken in Darfur late in 2004 and a lot of times we see images from Africa that portray Africans as victims and I'm really trying to avoid that in the work that I'm doing.

And the colors there are very vivid and the character on people's faces is very strong and this represents the actual character of the people that you meet on a daily basis.

And this young girl was in a refugee camp, having fled violence in Darfur, and just the expression on her face and in her eyes really, for me, summed up a lot of what was going on there, the confusion over the different sides that were fighting, Muslims against Muslims and Arabs against African tribes.

But it's all so mixed that it's not clearly defined.

SWEENEY: What draws you to Africa as a journalist and as, specifically, a photojournalist?

O'REILLY: Well, I first went there as a backpacking student in 1994 and happened to experience firsthand some of what happened in Rwandan genocide, and then the elections in '94 when Mandela was brought to power in South Africa.

And so I felt like I had experienced the best and the worst of what people had to offer and what humanity could do to itself, good and bad, and that intensity of experience is something that you do encounter almost on a daily basis there and that really is the attraction for me.

SWEENEY: Finbarr O'Reilly, thank you and congratulations.

And, finally, we pay tribute to the man who made financial journalism look easy and interesting.

"People Magazine" said Louis Rukeyser was the only sex symbol of the dismal science of economics. The longtime host of "Wall Street Week" died this week, age 73, after a long battle against cancer. His remarkable career spans 30 years, working for all the major U.S. networks.

He'll be remembered for his irreverence and his trademark honesty, humor, and silence.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in against 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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