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Former Russian Spy and Outspoken Critic of Kremlin Alexander Litvinenko Apparently Poisoned

Aired November 24, 2006 - 14:00:00   ET


RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: The headlines we're watching this hour. In Iraq, there are conflicting reports about a U.S. and Iraqi military operation in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. The Associated Press quotes residents as saying a U.S. helicopter opened fire there after Shi'ite militiamen attacked the aircraft. But some mourners said they were shooting weapons in the air to commemorate the dead, not firing at the helicopters.
These raids come one day after a series of bombing attacks in Sadr City killed more than 200 people. There are new reports of revenge attacks on three Sunni mosques across Baghdad.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Medical examiners say they found large amounts of a radioactive substance in Litvinenko's body. The former Russian spy died Thursday night in a London hospital. Litvinenko was a prominent critic of Russian President Putin's government, especially its role in the Chechen war.

British health officials say that levels of radiation have been found in a London sushi bar, where Litvinenko ate just before he became sick.

VASSILEVA: President Putin was in Helsinki for a meeting with European Union representatives when the news came of Litvinenko's death. He offered condolences to the family, but says his government had nothing to do with the death of the former spy.

MANN: As the death toll from Israeli strikes in Gaza rises, Palestinian Prime Minister Ishmael Hania (ph) says militant factions have agreed to halt their rocket fire if Israel stops its offensives in Gaza and the West Bank first. Rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants killed an Israeli in Sterut (ph) on Tuesday.

VASSILEVA: A bomb scare in northern Ireland just as the Assembly there missed another deadline for forming the government. Politicians fled the building after one of the province's most notorious Protestant militants tossed a bomb filled bag into the entrance. Police subdued him. They later said his bag contained at least six explosive devices that bomb experts had dismantled.

And that's a check of the headlines this hour. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva.

MANN: I'm Jonathan Mann. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS begins right now.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL 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.

This week, it reads more like a movie plot than a headline. A former spy is poisoned while probing the killing of a Russian reporter. The challenges of reporting from Sudan, why it's becoming more difficult for journalists. And no to O.J. Public pressure in the U.S. forces the hand of a media giant.

It grabbed the headlines across the globe. Former Russian spy and outspoken critic of the Kremlin Alexander Litvinenko was apparently poisoned. At the time, he was investigating the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskya. It was big news, except it seems in Russia, where some media outlets played the story low if at all.

Six years ago, Litvinenko spoke to ITV's Keir Simmons about his fears of being deported from Britain.


KEIR SIMMONS, ITV NEWS: What do you think will happen to you if you go back to Russia?

ALEXANDER LITVINENKO, FORMER KGB COLONEL (through translator): I think if I go back to Russia, I won't last long there. I won't live long. I think perhaps it would be better for me to die here in England in the fresh air.

FIOONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Litvinenko died after spending several days in hospital.


SWEENEY: Well to discuss how this story has been played out so far, I'm joined by the Moscow correspondent from "The Times of London" newspaper, Tony Halpern in our Moscow bureau. And here in the studio, Darya Pushkova from the news channel Russia Today, along with Irina Demchenko, the London bureau chief of Russian agency Novosti.

Tony Halpern, let's start with you in Moscow. How has the story played out there?

TONY HALPERN, THE TIMES: Well, it's been very patchy. What coverage there has been has tended to focus on the response of the British press towards the whole case, rather than what facts there may or not may be in relation to Litvinenko's poisoning. And I have to say much of it has been really stung by the degree what they see as animosity towards Russia and the Kremlin.

SWEENEY: So there's the sense there of moral indignation, but is there any correlation between the Kremlin and the broadcasters and newspapers in terms of their reactions?

HALPERN: Well, there's been very little coverage on state television of this. And as I say, most of the newspapers have downplayed this. Some have tended to see conspiracy theories, but in relation to Boris Berizovsky (ph), rather than the Kremlin. Mr. Berizovsky (ph) does not enjoy a very high reputation among many of the newspapers here. And some of the papers have tended to see his hand in the whole thing, rather than the FSB or the Kremlin.

SWEENEY: And what - to what benefit would that be? And also I'd like to ask, how is Litvinenko viewed in Russia?

HALPERN: Well, I have to say most of the papers view him as a traitor. And therefore, have little time for him. Mr. Berizovsky (ph) is seen as somebody who would do pretty much anything to blacken Mr. Putin's character. And as such, they see it very much as a war between this former oligarch and the president in the Kremlin to define somehow Russia's image in the West.

SWEENEY: Well, let's turn now to our guests here. Irina, let me ask you, I mean both of you are journalists based in - for Russian outlets based in London. Are you surprised to the reaction of the British press here? Because it's been wall to wall coverage over the last few days.

IRINA DEMCHENKO, NOVOSTI NEWS AGENCY: Well, I understand that Litvitnenko is far more popular here in London and in Britain, rather than Moscow.

In Moscow, probably few people and few very deep journalists remember him appearing some years ago on a news conference in a black mask reporting about the preparations of the plot. So this news came to Russia actually from the Western media.

SWEENEY: Yes, the story was broken actually here in London. But Darya, were you surprised at all by the expanse of the coverage here? And what has been the reaction to it, do you think, among you and your colleagues?

DARYA PUSHKOVA, RUSSIA TODAY: Well, to the British media, this is a news story. And this is in a way a new character on the scene.

Whereas for the Russian media and for the Russian public, Mr. Litvinenko has been on the news since 1998. So I would like to point out here that when the media here reports that he's a critic of President Putin, now we're talking about the time in 1998 it was a different president. President Boris Yeltsin. That was the time when Mr. Litvinenko had to leave FSB, the security service. And therefore, he's been coming out with a variety of different statements in - for quite a number of years.

And not always, those statements really sounded credible. And even if we take a couple of cases of him saying that, you know, al Zawahiri, the second man in command of al Qaeda, has been trained and in Russia, and is a secret agent of the Russians, or if we take a statement that the Russian - the FSB had its hand in the Mohammed - prophet Mohammed caricatures scandal, that to any sort of normal person sounds quite a ridiculous as a statement.

Now we don't hear reports about that here. And therefore, the coverage in Britain is in a way a bit selective due to the lack of information on Mr. Litvinenko themselves that they have.

SWEENEY: We've been hearing from Tony in Moscow, though, about a sense almost of moral indignation on the part of the broadcasters and the media outlets in Russia about how the British press have covered this. Has there been much of an appetite from your news agency for this story?

DEMCHENKO: From the news coverage point of view, we do not say actually - the main use for us was the broad coverage here.

SWEENEY: Tony Halpern in Moscow, let me ask you, do you detect at all any trickle down effect on perhaps the Russian journalist colleagues near or around you in terms of how they might choose to pursue stories?

HALPERN: Well, I don't think so. I mean, journalists are divided into two camps here. There are those who seem wearily familiar with the whole conspiracy theory, and may be quite willing to believe it, but don't necessarily think it tells them anything new about Russia. And there are those who simply don't believe it, who dismissed Litvinenko, think he has nothing necessarily to contribute to modern Russia's environment. And as your guests have said, the more astonished, the more interested in the media reaction in Britain than what it means for them here in Russia.

With Mr. Putin, his approval ratings are 80 percent plus. So you won't necessarily find it either commercially valuable or journalistically valuable to start going into opposition to Mr. Putin. Most of the public thinks he's doing a great job.

So I don't think this particular case will change their view of the president and his position.

SWEENEY: Darya, there's been much made of any correlation procedure or otherwise between the Kremlin and the media in Russia in terms of covering this story, but do you see any parallel with the British government and the British media here?

PUSHKOVA: Well, as Tony has just said, there has been - he feels there has been very little response from the Kremlin and from Russian officials. We on our channel, we did several interviews. We had - they had of SVR. We had the spokesperson for Kremlin, who both responded to - gave their reaction to what happened to Mr. Litvinenko.

But what I would like to say is that we have to be really careful with this story, because there has been, if you've noticed, a what little reaction from the British officials as well. And this is a story, whether there's no evidence, no real facts to rely on.

And therefore, everybody's just being careful and trying to see what Scotland Yard or any other investigation's going to lead to.

SWEENEY: All right, we'll have to leave it, everybody. Thank you very much indeed for joining us both in Moscow and here in the studio in London.

Well, also in Russia this week, a journalist who campaigned for Chechnya's independence was sentenced to five years in prison for extremist activity and inciting religious hatred.

Forester Machen was the editor of the monthly newspaper, "Radical Politics." He also contributed to a website.

And Russia's state run gas giant Gazprom has announced it's buying the country's biggest newspaper. The Consoloskya Pravda (ph) tabloid. Gazprom media also earned private TV station NTB. And the deal is expected to be finalized early next year.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a crackdown on aid workers and journalists in Darfur. And new challenges for reporters looking to report on the region when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Thousands have lost their lives. Millions have been forced from their homes. The crisis in Darfur continues to be a magnet for reporters came to highlight what's going in Sudan.

Like aid workers, more journalists are now finding it harder to access the region. Many have had their travel permits denied. Given this apparent crackdown, how do reporters cover the story?

For an insight into the situation and the challenges of reporting from Sudan, I'm joined by Nima Elbagir, a Sudanese journalist based here in Britain.

You've been back and forth to Sudan several times. How have you found the experiences of getting there, getting visas changing or revolving over the last number of years or months?

NIMA ELBAGIR: It's definitely gotten harder, especially in the last few months with the Sudanese government's latest military offensive.

Even for Sudanese journalists now, there is a problem. Whereas before it was a situation of you get to Khartoum, and for Western - for foreign journalists, you get a travel permit. And you go to Darfur. A lot foreign journalists are saying now that they get to Khartoum. They get their travel permit after a long wait.

They get to Darfur, and then they're told by local authorities this permit's not valid.

SWEENEY: Do you think you're more exposed than perhaps foreign journalists might be?

ELBAGIR: I think it's a double edged sword. You're less noticeable. You can move more easily. But at the same time, if you're caught, or if you're work becomes a problem than when you return, there's always the kind of - the threat of your tracer of being tried for espionage.

Whereas with a foreign journalist, the worst they can do is throw you out and never allow you in again.

But I think that there are a lot of Sudanese journalists who go in. And that's the shame is whereas in Iraq, there is an acceptance that it's a difficult place to work and people are using local Iraqis. In Sudan for some reason, they don't seem to be able to compute the fact that they can use local journalists. And local journalists want to be involved.

SWEENEY: And do you involve local journalists when you go to Sudan and you try to get to these areas in Darfur?

ELBAGIR: I use a local crew. I use a local camera man. And I take local drivers.

SWEENEY: And are they exposed in any way after you leave the country and come back to Britain?

ELBAGIR: More recently, it has become more worrying for me. My last trip over the summer coincided exactly with the beginning of the government's aero bombardment and the renewed military offensive. And it was very difficult.

You know, we - you know, we had - I was back and forth on the phone with my driver in Darfur. I was very worried about my camera man. He was called in once and then I told him, you know, I'm responsible. It's my fault. If they say anything, just blame me completely.

And - because I was based there before. They have an awareness of my work. So they were quite willing to believe that it was completely my fault. And that seems to have gotten him off the hook.

But I had a friend who was killed out in Darfur - Sudanese journalist. And I think for a lot of local journalists, there's a sense that the world looks on and says this is, you know, this is a tribal warfare. This is genocide. And they tend to judge people in the north. They tend to judge Arab Sudanese.

SWEENEY: Are they very sensitive to how their country and how their actions are portrayed internationally? Do they follow individual journalists, do you think? Are there work of individual journalists?

ELBAGIR: Not just journalists. People tend to view Darfur as being stone age. But they forget that people have satellite dishes. People listen to the BBC on short wave radio. They have an awareness of how they're portrayed.

And you go into a camp. And I remember after Colin Powell said it - called it genocide, I went into a camp. And the first thing I was told was right, you know, it's been called genocide. The troops are going to arrive. You know, I'd have long conversations. And because you tend to go back to the same places and people haven't moved the last few years.

SWEENEY: But they're very aware.


SWEENEY: .of how they're portrayed?

ELBAGIR: Yes, yes.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you. You're going back in December. Do you have any greater or less fears about going back there for your own security? And when you do go back, and the risks that you take, do you ever wonder how much impact your work and the work of your colleagues has on international opinion?

ELBAGIR: Well, I think the problem is more that it's a mess. There's a real disjoint between Darfur and the central government in Khartoum.

So if anything were to happen, I don't have conspiracy theories. I don't think, you know, you would get taken out. But I think - the situation there is so fluid, that you could get there and be caught in crossfire of police of breaking a demonstration in a camp.

I think it's important to go back, even if you go back and just come here or come to go back to America and say, look, these are the same images. These people haven't moved. You know, you literally go back. And people are sitting in the same shacks in the same place that you left them a year ago.

SWEENEY: We're out of time. We have to leave it there. Nima Elbagir, thank you very much indeed.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the crime and subsequent trial gripped a nation. A hypothetical tell-all media deal horrified it. News Corporation bows out of its O.J. Simpson showcase. More on that in a moment.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It was called the trial of the century in the U.S. An actor and former sports hero stood accused of the brutal murders of his ex-wife and one of her friends. O.J. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal case, but later found liable for their wrongful deaths in the civil suit.

In the minds of many, Simpson got away with cold blooded murder. Now more than 10 years later, the media conglomerate that owns the Fox network has scrapped plans to a TV interview and book deal with Simpson. Soledad O'Brien reports.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On Monday, November 27th, the interview that will shock the nation.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): If you are waiting to be shocked by that O.J. Simpson interview, you're going to have to wait a while longer, maybe indefinitely.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You wrote I have never seen so much blood in my life.

O.J. SIMPSON: I don't think any two people could be murdered without everybody being covered in blood.

O'BRIEN: The clip is no longer on the Fox website. That's because Fox took the extraordinary step of canceling plans to air the O.J. Simpson interview just days before it was supposed to be broadcast. Also canceled, the Simpson book called "If I Did It."

It has already cracked the top 20 on In both the book and the interview, Simpson spoke hypothetically about how he would have done it, killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, back in June of 1994, if he did it.

The book and the interview created a storm of criticism over the past few days for many people, including Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera.

STEVE ZEITCHIK, VARIETY: I think there was really a whole chorus of criticism and backlash here. And I think that's everyone from, you know, Fox's own affiliates, Fox's own personalities, and the market in general.

O'BRIEN: So on Monday, Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of Newscorp, the owner of both Fox and the book's publisher Regan Books issued a statement saying this.

"I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project." He also apologized to the Brown and Goldman families.

KIM GOLDMAN, RON GOLDMAN'S SISTER: They did the right thing. And to take responsibility for the havoc that has come about in the last week.

O'BRIEN: She may be grateful, but Ron's sister Kim Goldman told Larry King she doesn't think it's over. She expects to see the book start popping up.

GOLDMAN: I definitely think that it's going to end up in somebody's hands. And we're going to read excerpts about it. And it's going to be on the black market somewhere.

O'BRIEN: She could be right.

ZEITCHIK: I think it's downright unprecedented for it to be pulled after it was already shipped. In this case, the book was actually, and in fact is at this moment, on its way to stores. And stores are being instructed to turn around and send it back. And that's just something I'd never heard of before.

O'BRIEN: Soledad O'Brien, CNN, New York.


SWEENEY: Well, with the advantage of hindsight, let's review the so- called Simpson showcase. To help put it into perspective, I'm joined by Andrew Neil, a newspaper editor, indeed former editor of the Murdoch owned "Sunday Times," publisher broadcaster and former Fox executive.

So what went wrong in the Murdoch hierarchy?

ANDREW NEIL, PUBLISHER, THE BUSINESS: Everything went wrong. I mean, for a man who prides himself in having his finger on the pulse of American opinion, he was on the wrong pulse. He faced a revolt of the affiliate stations to Fox. He faced the revolt of American public opinion. He faced the revolt inside Fox itself. That's never happened before. It all came together in the end. He had to retreat.

SWEENEY: So let's roll back a little bit. Would he have personally have been involved in the decision to publish?

NEIL: Yes, he was. He was personally involved. There's a big sum of money. It's a controversial issue. He signed off on it.

SWEENEY: And how quickly do you think the Fox Network and indeed the Murdoch empire was to react once it became apparent that this was.

NEIL: They were slow to react. I mean, they tried to ride it out to begin with. They thought they could get away with it. Indeed to begin with, the idea was that all these attacks on it can only be good publicity. I mean, Fox ratings this autumn, this fall season have not been good. And this was meant to restore them until they get through to the new year when a whole batch of new programming comes on.

So the more the row was about it, the more the chances are that more people would watch it on the night or on the two nights it was running.

But then, some of the affiliates, as you know, Fox doesn't own every station in America that it broadcasts on. Some are owned by other people, but they take the Fox Network.

About a dozen of these stations said we're not going to take this show, particularly in the south. It's in bad taste. We have a moral compass on these matters. So should you. We don't agree.

The advertisers started to think do we want to be associated with this? Are we going to advertise in the break of a show like this with O.J. Simpson? So they began to pull out as well.

And then, you had this dramatic development of people inside Fox itself, saying they were ashamed that their network was going to broadcast.

SWEENEY: Particularly, their lead anchor is like Bill O'Reilly.

NEIL: Bill O'Reilly, who's the highest rated guy on Fox News, he was publicly coming against it. And so was some of his colleagues. And I think when all that came together, plus the head of steam building up, you can imagine what they were saying on the blogs, the e-mails that Murdoch would be getting from all over the United States and the wider world as well.

I think in the end, he was forced to do the right thing. He just had to say look, this is wrong. We've got to get out of this. Do it now.

SWEENEY: So are you saying that he might have toughed it out, had it not been for the revolt within Fox? That even if there had been huge public disquiet about it, he would have tried to ridden the storm?

NEIL: Yes, though the affiliates were giving him problems as well. You know, any network has to keep its affiliate stations happy. I mean, you produce a program that they don't want to broadcast, then I think you do get into trouble.

Of course, part of this was privatized. I mean, the woman who did this is someone I know quite well, Judith Regan. She owns her own imprint, her publishing imprint called Regan Books, which is part of the wider Harper Collins empire that Murdoch owns.

Judith has tabloid and controversial instincts that make Murdoch look like a Presbyterian minister.

SWEENEY: Looking like a Presbyterian minister, but also in the words of one Richard Branson here in Britain, a threat to democracy, as Murdoch tries to buy into ITV.

NEIL: He's not a threat to democracy, but he is a threat to diversity of television in Britain. Here, you've got Skye Television, which is a huge broadcaster, hugely successful. I'm very proud of it. I launched this in this country. So it's a great station.

But to allow it to own 18 percent of its biggest competitor, ITV is anti competitive. Richard has got slightly over the top, saying Murdoch's a threat to British democracy, but he's certainly a threat to diversity and plurality in British broadcasting, if he's allowed to own.

After all, I'm not sure CNN would be allowed to own a big chunk of Fox or vice versa.

SWEENEY: Unlikely, one would think based on the trouble we've had. But a final question. How is Rupert Murdoch likely to be feeling about this in terms of the reaction? Will there be any long term impact for his empire in the state?

NEIL: He'll be bruised. He's come off badly. He's had to retreat. He's had to give in. He hates that. He will not be happy with Judith Regan. I don't think her Christmas turkey's going to be very big this year.

But you know Murdoch will just shake it off. After all, this is the man that published "The Hitler Diaries" in "The Sunday Times," just to add before I was editor. And just moved on to Skye Television afterwards.

There will, I believe, be no long term damage, but it's been an embarrassing development for him. And I think he'll think twice about coming down this road again.

SWEENEY: Andrew Neil, thank you very much indeed.

NEIL: Thank you.

SWEENEY: 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. Thank you for joining us.



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