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World Press Responds to Saddam Hussein's Controversial Execution

Aired January 5, 2007 - 14:00:00   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.
This week, triggering outrage and debate, the world press responds to Saddam Hussein's controversial execution as mobile phone footage reveals the truth behind the spin.

And in a rare move, China eases restrictions surrounding the media. What's behind it and just how much freedom now exists in one of the world's most dynamic countries?

We begin this week with the explosive aftermath of Saddam Hussein's execution. An event of obvious global and historic significance, the hanging has dominated all media for days on end with Saddam's last moments captured on official government videotape and released.

It was, however, some unauthorized footage presumably shot on a mobile phone that ignited debate in newsrooms across the world and fueled sectarian tension in Iraq.

The images of Saddam responding to Shi'ite taunts while on the gallows triggered outrage among Sunnis with widespread disbelief over how badly the execution was handled.

The footage first appeared on the Internet with broadcasters merely following in the wake of an online demand. The execution also raised issues of editorial taste, how much to show and why.

Iraq's government, meanwhile, moved to close down a Sunni TV station, which it accused of inciting sectarianism after presenters broadcast in mourning clothes.

To discuss this further, I'm joined from Baghdad by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Burns of "The New York Times." And here in London, Martin Fewell, deputy editor of ITN's Channel 4 News who's driven expansion of its digital services.

John Burns in Baghdad, the fallout from this mobile phone video footage of Saddam's execution has been coming thick and fast. Do you believe that the Iraqi government is capable of investigating itself? And how is that investigation being reflected broadly in the media there?

JOHN BURNS, NEW YORK TIMES, BAGHDAD: Signs so far not terribly encouraging. They've told us that they have arrested variously one or three guards, but we also know from two or three officials who - there, that there were two or three officials who also had cell phones. Indeed, when the official party returned to the helicopter landing zone in the Green Zone, about 45 minutes after the execution, they were seen by one of my colleagues gathering around, looking at his - a cell phone camera and watching what appeared to be a recording.

So if you asked me is the monarchy government going to make a clean vest of this, I rather doubt it.

SWEENEY: And in terms of your Iraqi journalistic colleagues, how do they view what took place there in Baghdad over the weekend?

BURNS: Do you know, I have to say that the reaction of the Iraqi journalists is sometimes not exactly what you expect. We had a briefing by General Caldwell on the execution, its aftermath seen by the American authorities here.

And the Iraqi journalists present, who counted for about nearly half of all of us, I would say, asked no questions at all about this, which suggested to me the cultural perspective is a major thing here.

There's no doubt that there's a good deal of outrage here in the Sunni community and amongst secular proponents of a civil society in Iraq. But my guess is that many other Iraqis, including many Iraqi journalists, feel that Saddam got what he deserved.

SWEENEY: Martin Fewell, there has been some debate about the difference, cultural distinctions, between the West and Iraqis and the Arab world in terms of how the execution itself was carried out. And indeed, we have seen some limits applied by the broadcast media in the West in terms of how much of the footage they showed, be it the mobile phone footage or the official Iraqi government TV footage.

But doesn't the rise of the Internet perhaps even take the manner of showing his execution out of the broadcast media's hands to a certain extent, given that it's available on the Internet if one wants to look at it?

MARTIN FEWELL, CHANNEL FOUR NEWS: Sure, it does to a certain extent for that portion of the audience which wants to go online, wants to look at video on the Net, then clearly, they can make a judgment themselves about how explicit material they want to view.

But that doesn't mean that the majority of people, not just in the U.K. or in the States, but in the world itself, actually are still seeing those images from, if you like, traditional conventional media, be it television news programs like Channel Four News in the U.K., or "The New York Times," which John writes.

So we still have to make those judgments. We still have to have a lot of discussion or debate about what we show, what we don't show. More importantly sometimes, and our judgment is that our audience doesn't want to see that. They can see sometimes quite graphic material. They understand they need to see that to get a full picture of what happened. They needed to hear the chancing in this case. They needed to see those men in (INAUDIBLE) to get a full and accurate impression of the execution.

But I think, and this is borne out by the e-mails and calls we've had, our viewers felt they didn't actually need to see the debt itself to understand the significance of the story.

SWEENEY: I want to bring into the discussion now, if I may, Nabil Khatib. He is in Dubai. He is the executive editor of el Arabiya, the network by Dubai officers have been briefly closed by the government. Thank you for joining us.

Let me ask you how has al Arabiyah been covering the execution of Saddam Hussein and the fallout?

NABIL KHATIB, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, AL ARABIYA, DUBAI: We are being covering it extensively like everybody else. But on that day, we were thoroughly covering it with breaking news. And the footage as everybody knows started being released by al Iraq TV and then by Biladi (ph) TV.

I mean, the different Iraqi TV stations until that footage were released that was showed by the mobile. And we got it from Baghdad first before it was released on the Internet.

Of course, we didn't show it in full, which is 2.5 minutes. We had to edit it because of the tough scene and the tough talk that is there.

SWEENEY: Obviously, you aren't likely to reveal your source for the mobile phone footage from Baghdad, but given that al Arabiya has been in trouble with the Iraqi authorities in the past, do you believe that you are in trouble with them now? And do you see a distinction between how Arab media outlets are treated by the government and Baghdad compared to other networks and broadcast outlets?

KHATIB: For the first question, I hope we will not be in trouble, although there was for some reason a report that is disturbing me on al Iraqi TV is that government owned and controlled in Iraq. That was attacking the Arab News Networks and named us among them for covering the execution of Saddam Hussein that extensive - that intensively and extensively.

And that may be would answer your second question, because the perception among the - lots of Arab regimes and governments, and in this case, Iraqi government, that they watch and monitor mainly the Iraqi news - the Arab news channels. And al Arabiya is widely watched in Iraq.

So if CNN or BBC or Sky News or Fox News will continue covering very widely any scene in Iraq or any event in Iraq, they would not notice that. Most probably, they will not have any observation against that.

But once something on al Arabiya, for example, because it's widely watched in Iraq by Iraqis, they react aggressively.

SWEENEY: And Martin Fewell here in London, in terms of covering stories that move at a very fast pace such as Nabil has outlined, what do you foresee as the challenges for Channel Four, for example, in keeping apace with technology as it develops?

FEWELL: I think the challenges are - go back to your previous question about the significance of the Internet. I mean, I think it's right to say that people will need established media, established broadcasts, brands to guide them to the most appropriate material, enough insight.

But equally, I don't think you can assume that those broadcasters that are currently successful in the traditional television world will automatically carry their power and reputation over into the online world.

SWEENEY: So in a sense, the channel challenge for broadcast channels, terrestrial satellite channels, is to be aware of the technology, be able to keep abreast with it, but pick and choose as to how much of it it needs to adopt or adapt.

FEWELL: That's true. But also keep our eyes on the main story. I find this whole discussion about the release of the mobile phone footage very, very interesting. In a way, it's distracted people from the previous footage that came out, which was a government, state deciding to televise an execution. And I read and I've shown the bill to some (INAUDIBLE), this is the first televised execution of an Arab leader. That was a big decision.

And for all - there to be all this labinow (ph) about was it that guard or that guard who recorded it as well on his mobile phone, in many ways, it's a distraction from the fact the people who carried out the execution decided it needed to be televised.

I'd be very interested to hear what Nabil (ph) thinks of that as well.

SWEENEY: Yes, that is a very interesting point that Martin raises. I mean, what is the reaction in the Arab world, as much as you can gauge to the fact that initially, this was an execution of an Arab leader for the first time being aired and broadcast?

KHATIB: The first reaction was people were very much attached to the first footage that was officially released through al Iraqiya TV. And it's good to notice that that footage was without all view. It's only having the shots until when Saddam was about to get hanged.

The big issue became when the footage of the mobile has uncovered the situation there that is now inviting the investigation, where the investigation is not about whether people had the chance to take footage, but about why that case took place and why people were allowed to go there and shout on somebody who's about to be hanged in this way.

SWEENEY: John Burns in Baghdad, do you think the release of this mobile phone video footage perhaps demonstrates a new departure for technology in the media, given that if we had to rely on the Iraqi official government for the - we might be none the wiser for the manner in which Saddam was executed?

BURNS: Oh, there's no doubt about that, but I think we're talking here as much about the cell phone as we are about the Internet.

I mean, how are Iraqis seeing this? They're not seeing it in the main on the Internet. They're seeing it on 3G cell phones. And they're everywhere. I mean, strange replay everywhere you go. Yes, there's no doubt that that has made an enormous difference.

I'd like to think - I don't want to be too much of a Luddite here, but I'd like to think that good reporting, even in the old days before these devices, would have brought us, not so powerfully certainly, there's nothing like those images, but would have brought us to the same point we would have known fairly quickly that Saddam had been abused because they were 25 people there. There were never 25 people who are gathered in one place. You cannot keep the truth from emerging.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there. Martin Fewell of Channel Four, John Burns in Baghdad, and Nabil Khatib in Dubai, thank you very much for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, press freedom in China under scrutiny. Beijing lifts some key restrictions in the run up to the Olympic games. We discuss reporting in the political and economic (INAUDIBLE). Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's become a priority for news organizations as one of the world's most powerful and dynamic countries, China and the interest and the interest surrounding it is expected to continue rising in the coming years. But press freedom remains under tight control with some 38 international journalists reportedly arrested over the last two years.

Now in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has lifted some key restrictions, allowing the foreign press greater freedom of movement and interview rights.

How will it work? And where does this lead China's domestic media? For more, I'm joined from Beijing by CNN's John Vause and here in London by David Schlesinger, editor and chief of Reuters, which as been testing the new limits, as well as Jim Corrigall. He is observer of press freedoms, who's affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists.

John Vause in Beijing, if I may turn to you first of all. You've been there a relatively short period of time. What has been your experience reporting from there?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fionnuala, it has to be said so far, so good. I certainly haven't run into some of the problems which my colleagues have talked about over the last few years here reporting not just from Beijing, but certainly around rural parts of China. They have some horrific stories of running into local officials who simply refuse them to come breaking news, simply refuse them to have access to stories, to cover stories, controversial stories like the government's reclaiming of land, controversial issues like AIDS patients in this country as well simply denied access. Some people, in fact, being detained. And there have been reports, as you mentioned, of some journalists being beaten up as well.

So in my short period of time here, though, it has been fairly easygoing. It must be said, though, that my very first story on air, which mentioned the incoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who attended a demonstration in Tiannamen Square here in the early '90s, was actually partially blocked out by Chinese censors.

So while it's been fairly smooth sailing, it has to be said that the Chinese officials and the censors are watching all the time.

SWEENEY: David Schlesinger, you were based in Beijing for a number of years in the early '90s. And you continue to travel there quite frequently. What changes have you noticed?

DAVID SCHLESINGER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, REUTERS: Well, I think there's been a complete change. When I was there from '91 through '94, that was just after the Tiannamen Square problems and amid crackdown on dissidents.

And at that point, it was almost impossible to get people to talk on the record about anything. We had to register to travel. We - very difficult to get interviews. All of our reporting really had to be done with anonymous sources. I've never used so many anonymous sources in my entire career.

But now, things - over the years, things have changed. I was just back there at the end of last year for a summit that Reuters put on. And we had two dozen very senior business officials, government officials talking on the record, in our offices, but about business and economics. Politics is still off limits.

And these new rules, that's simply a continuation of that. Now correspondents can travel more freely, but there's a very big difference between having access and really getting information.

So there will still be a problem getting information, be it the entire apparatus of rules about revealing state secrets, the whole national security apparatus. That has not been dismantled. And it won't be dismantled.

So you can have access, but whether or not you can actually get information and insight, that will be the true question.

SWEENEY: Jim Corrigall of the IFJ, is it your belief, then, that this is maybe just a token gesture ahead of the Olympics? Or is this something else going - turning on behind the scenes?

JIM CORRIGALL, NATIONAL UNION OF JOURNALISTS: Well, I don't think it's a token gesture. I think we should welcome it. It's relaxation, if only from foreign correspondents. And we welcome it as that.

But it's - we'd like to see, obviously, much bigger relaxation of media law in China, so that it doesn't just apply to foreign correspondents, but also applies to local journalists, Chinese journalists, who still lay by the enormous restrictions.

SWEENEY: Have you had any discussions of any government officials at all? Has - or have you had complete freedom of movement since you arrived? Or has anybody had a quiet word in your ear?

VAUSE: No, no quiet word in my ear at this stage. But so far, we haven't embarked upon any of those controversial stories that we've all been longing to do for quite some time, like land confiscation, like the AIDS patients, like the situation with the environment, the water crisis in many parts of this country.

When we do go onto those stories, I suspect that it will be a different situation when it comes to dealing with the government officials. And how it plays out on the ground, of course, will be the test for this Chinese government, especially going to be to the Olympics. Because this government has said that it wants to have the best Olympics ever. And part of that is giving foreign journalists access to report China and to report it freely.

SWEENEY: David, Reuters has been testing the waters in terms of the relaxation of these little rules. But when John mentions these stories, you know, such as AIDS, for example, I mean, how far has Reuters been able to go in pushing the limits?

SCHLESINGER: Well, we've been able to report about AIDS since the early '90s. It's just a question of how much access you get into the provinces, and how deeply you can do the stories.

I - in the couple of stories we've done since the new regulations came into effect, we were able to interview Baoshung (ph), who is the most senior person who's imprisoned after Tiannamen Square in 1989. We've gone to inner Mongolia.

And all that is great and wonderful. But I think it'll be many, many years before a foreign correspondent can walk up to Jung Nan Hi, the central leadership compound, knock on the door, and sit down for a cozy one on one chat with the premier. I mean, there will be real limits to the kind of access you can get to senior officials.

Of course, I've always done controversial stories. It's a question of how much access they get to officials telling the real story.

SWEENEY: Jim Corrigall, in your experience of China, how much interest is there on the part of individual Chinese journalists and organizations for contact with international media?

CORRIGALL: There's a lot. I mean, we found a tremendous interest in what's going on internationally, as well as how the international media reports things, including, of course, how they report the situation in China.

And a lot of interest in dialogue, a lot of interest in visiting other parts of the world, but also, having journalists and union organizations, press freedom organizations come to China and engage in dialogue. So we can't -- receptive atmosphere from that point of view.

There's also quite a lot of foment in the Chinese media, which I think is important to realize. It's not just a one dimensional situation. To some extent, the authorities have been encouraging the media, at least at local and regional level, to criticize local and regional bureaucracies.

And that has led to an openness that is sometimes quite surprising. But it only is a certain level. It's only really to the level of the region or regional bureaucracy. Criticism of central government is still pretty much out of bounds.

SWEENEY: David, you were about to say something?

SCHLESINGER: I think that's exactly right. There are certain topics which are limited. And as long as you stay off those topics, as long as you stay - don't criticize the Communist party, as long as you don't do anything to jeopardize stability of the nation as a whole, I think even as a local reporter, there's a lot that you can do now that you couldn't do before.

SWEENEY: John Vause in Beijing, do you think it's within your powers to destroy the stability of China as a whole in terms of your reporting?

VAUSE: Well, certainly not me alone. But if there is a groundswell of reporting, not necessarily within the foreign media, but certainly in the local media. And what you all notice about this relaxation of laws when it comes to journalism, it only applies to foreign or international reporters.

The local journalists still operate under some very stringent controls. And if they don't print what the Communist party likes, and they do suffer, they lose their jobs. Or worse, under certain circumstances.

So really, the Chinese government here isn't entirely relaxing all of the laws. And this comes after the Communist party also announced back in September that they would, in fact, be a tightening of laws that media organizations could not report certain events unless they had the approval of local authorities and of the government.

SWEENEY: David, a final question to you, if I may. Given your vast experience of China and traveling there over the years, how much do you think the relaxation of these laws will have on China itself after the Olympics? And will they stay in force after the Olympics?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think it'd be very difficult to roll back. I think the most important thing will be to expose local officials and local people to the international press, which up until now, has pretty much been confined to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangjou, the coastal areas that have enjoyed the most growth.

So I think people in other areas of China, in less economically developed areas of China, will suddenly meet some of the foreign press for the first time. And that may open their eyes and encourage a different kind of dialogue.

SWEENEY: All right, there we have to leave it, gentlemen, here in the studio. Thank you very much indeed. John Vause in Beijing, my thanks to you.

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 Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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