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World Press Scrutinizes Washington's New Iraq Strategy; Fears Over Press Freedoms in Venezuela

Aired January 12, 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.
The battle for the streets of Baghdad. The world press scrutinizes Washington's new strategy in Iraq. Fears over press freedoms in Venezuela, as President Chavez ignites an international row. And iconic front covers with strong opinion. We'll discuss the editorial line of "The Economist" with its editor.

And we begin this week with President George W. Bush's primetime address. A heavily leaked, but highly anticipated policy speech. The announcement triggered widespread reaction.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. The vast majority of them, five brigades, will be deployed to Baghdad.


SWEENEY: The move has been seen in many quarters as a radical decision which sidelined many of the recommendations of the Iraq study group, as Britain emphasized to the press it will not increase troop levels.

To discuss this further, I'm joined by CNN's Baghdad bureau chief Cal Perry. From Paris, by Allison Smale, managing editor of "The International Herald Tribune." And here in London by ABC News senior foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto.

This speech was made at 5:00 in the morning in Baghdad. Cal, what has been the reaction to that?

CAL PERRY, CNN BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF: Well, that was the biggest factor for the speech itself. It did air here at 5:00 a.m. And there was no power on in the city at the time. So nobody saw it live.

There are two major news television stations here in Iraq. One is Shi'ia owned. One is Sunni owned. The Shi'ia owned station has replayed the speech. They replayed it midday. I do understand that it was fairly widely watched. The Sunni owned station has not even played a single clip from the speech. In fact, they are only showing screen grabs of other news organizations, shots of George W. Bush giving the speech now.

As you mentioned, of course, the speech coming at 5:00 a.m., it was too late for the press media to put out anything but two papers. Here in Iraq, did put something out ahead of the speech. The most widely read paper put out this cartoon, in fact, showing a key. On the key, it says `the new plan.' And the keyhole says `the new Iraqi government.' Clearly, the two do not match up.

SWEENEY: And Cal, therefore, we're taking a rather benign view of what President Bush had to say. Do Iraqis believe that President Bush was making this new strategy in their best interests or in America's best interests?

PERRY: Well, they really believe that it's in America's best interests. And that's been the majority of the commentary on both television and in the news in general here today.

They see Bush as the leader of both Iraq and of America. And they see this as really Maliki's last chance. We've heard commentators on the news saying that over and over again, that this piece was really Bush putting Maliki on notice. Get things done now. This is your last chance. We're not staying forever.

For a lot of the media here, I hate to use the word `distraction,' but I think that's really what this speech was. Most of the media here wants to talk about the reality for the everyday Iraqi civilian.

There are over 300 bodies found, for example, this month dumped on the streets of Baghdad just so far murdered this month. Sectarian violence has only increased. And there's a refugee crisis going on here that, quite frankly, a lot of people do not believe is being covered widely enough.

SWEENEY: So people are concerned very much with day to day life in Baghdad.

Let me turn to Allison Smale, managing editor of "The International Herald Tribune" in Paris. Of course, President Bush has had his detractors in Europe, particularly in France. What has been the reaction in the media there so far to President Bush's strategy?

ALLISON SMALE, MANAGING EDITOR, IHT: Intense interest. Obviously, there was a lot of leaking ahead of this speech. No live attention since it also ran in the middle of the night here.

But "Le Figaro" billed it pretty much universally, this is the opinion here, as a last chance for Bush. And interestingly enough, so that his job now would be seduce the American public into thinking that this plan might work.

A lot of skepticism, also obviously in Britain, which I'm sure Jim will talk about. I think this - very decisive statement by the British government that they won't send more troops is a real rupture with what we've seen as the Bush Blair tandem on Iraq.

Elsewhere in Europe, there's a lot of disappointment that Bush has rejected the recommendations of the Iraq study group to reach out to Iran and to Syria, and a great deal of skepticism about that kind of diplomacy, anything really positive can be achieved.

SWEENEY: Let me turn to Jim. As Allison was mentioning, a lot of this speech was leaked beforehand. What do you think the purpose of that was?

JIM SCIUTTO, ABC NEWS: I think there are two points to be made. For one, it's been quite a long time that this speech has been in the making. Several weeks, two months now. So a lot of time for people in the know about the report, to speak to reporters, but also for reporters to pursue this.

But I think more importantly, it was intentional. The Bush administration had quite a large bombshell to drop here with talk of 22,000 more troops going to Iraq. So politically necessary to lay the groundwork for that, get the word out there, and begin to justify it in advance of the president's speech.

Of course, the downside of that is that opponents then of the troop search had time to already lay out their positions. For instance, Senator Kennedy earlier this week already laying out his opposition to it and this possible Democratic strategy of blocking the funding for it.

But I think mostly, it was intentional because it was necessary.

SWEENEY: Necessary to resonate with the American people. And of course, no president can carry on a war without public support for it. Will it work with the American people, this kind of media handling from the White House as a speech that's - accepts being released?

SCIUTTO: I think the early signs are not promising. ABC News did a poll which found that 60 percent of Americans, even after the speech, still opposed the war. And 57 percent believe the U.S. is losing the war in Iraq, versus 29 percent who believe the U.S. is winning.

So two to one there. Those are the odds that the president is fighting against. So he's going it alone against the American public, but also against members of his own party.

Those are the stakes at this point. But certainly, he's not giving up. He is holding the line. And you talk about stage managing, and we saw some of that. Just even having him in the library as opposed to the Oval Office. Standing, his physical posture as well, to show that he's in control.

And for instance, I know ABC was speaking to some viewers this morning. He said that that did resonate with them to some respect, because it's a place they haven't seen him before. And he was standing. He was sticking to his position. And we know that stage managing is something that this administration is very good at.

The question is, will that pay off in time? And the early signs are that he doesn't have the public support.

SWEENEY: Allison Smale in Paris, you say there's a healthy amount of skepticism to the Bush new strategy. Is there a certain amount of rejoicing among certain sections of the media perhaps in Europe?

SMALE: I don't think so. I think the time for rejoicing or any kind of Scheudenfreude (ph) has long past. I just think that the majority of Europeans find any news they get from Iraq intensely depressing. They are not as aware of it perhaps as Americans, because European media in general have largely pulled out of Iraq, in part, because there have been some very, very sort of high profile kidnappings of European journalists over the past two years.

SWEENEY: Do you believe that Europeans - I mean, we had President Shihak (ph) make his foreign policy speech about Iraq and the Middle East the other night. And do Europeans feel hey have any kind of stake in what takes place in Iraq anymore?

SMALE: Definitely they feel they have a stake in some kind of Middle East policy that would calm down what is widely seen as turmoil. But I would say that the news agenda in Europe this week was probably much more dominated by the EU's plans to try and cut energy emissions and for us to cut down global warming, which we've seen in action because there's very few C-races being held in the (INAUDIBLE) have no snow.

I'm sure that there are more people worried about that than exactly what is happening in Iraq.

SWEENEY: Cal Perry in Baghdad, these must have been rather lofty aspirations for the people and indeed the government and media in Baghdad and beyond. But let me ask you, is that also something that might be reflected in how President Bush's strategy was relayed to people?

PERRY: Well, I think for the everyday Iraqi, and for Iraqis in general, I think it's been presented and it's been seen as Bush's exit strategy in the long run. I think it's clear to Iraqis that the Americans are not going to remain here forever, that they realize that to a certain extent, the policy here has been a failure, and that the writing is on the wall.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there. Jim Sciutto here in London, Allison Smale in Paris, and Cal Perry in Baghdad. Thank you all very much.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Chavez and the press. The Venezuelan president moves against a leading broadcaster, sparking an international row. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. This week marked the inauguration of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who begins his third term in a blaze of headlines.

Mr. Chavez triggered fears of repressed freedom after he refused to renew a license to the country's largest terrestrial broadcaster, which he accuses of backing (INAUDIBLE) against him.

The move has aroused fresh concern over his authoritarian tendencies. The church is supporting Radio Caracas TV. And the Organization of American States warns the ban amounts to censorship.

Mr. Chavez in turn called for the resignation of the head of the OAS.


HUGO CHAVEZ, PRESIDENT, VENEZUELA (through translator): What is the Organization of American States Secretary General have to do with this topic? Absolutely nothing. We are not closing a channel or violating anyone's freedom of speech. By ending Channel 2's contract, some say Venezuela loses. The oligarchy is the one that loses. The hatred, the consumerism, that oligarchy which is now down on its knees are the ones who will lose a television channel.


SWEENEY: Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by Flor Santamaria from Caracas and Dr. Claudia Grossman from Washington, D.C. He's the former president of the OAS Human Rights Commission.

In general, Flor, how nationalized is the media in Venezuela?

FLOR SANTAMARIA, JOURNALIST: The situation is there. The government owns around five media, five national media. And the private media is just about four.

(INAUDIBLE) Entertainment TV station bought has a political line clearly and strongly about - against the government. So they feel opinion programs or TV shows that they have are definitely against the government. And this is for the government the reason that they will not let them to broadcast any more for the next 20 years.

So the government, these TV stations are absolutely pro Chavez and pro government. And there's no opposition at all. So it's like probably I can say it's an unbalanced situation of the TV stations.

SWEENEY: Dr. Grossman in Washington, D.C. How do you read the decision by the Chavez government not to renew the license for this TV station?

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, I think that this is going into the relation of strength (INAUDIBLE). This man, it could amount to a serious problem in terms of freedom of expression. This idea that (INAUDIBLE) supported the coup, well, this type of issues and particularly if you are recently (INAUDIBLE), they could be ventilated in main (INAUDIBLE).

And certainly, Mr. Chavez hasn't been shy to go to a tribune. And so, the key thing is (INAUDIBLE) has expressed strongly other political option. I think that within a framework of (INAUDIBLE) demography, that this is a title. And so that creates serious concerns.

SWEENEY: Serious concerns, how far do you think it might go?

GROSSMAN: Well, again, the government of Chavez approve a law of social responsibility that create - is - has been seen by the human rights community and by the (INAUDIBLE) Commission Human Rights as a way to control content.

The last report of the commission talks about harassments of journalists, a lack of impunity in cases of assassination of journalists. So vaguely defined norms, use of the state police. So there are serious concerns that this is a pattern designed to increase the control of the society by one way of thinking.

SWEENEY: Flor in Caracas, these must be interesting times to be operating as a journalist in Venezuela. What is it like?

SANTAMARIA: In my case, personal case, as - even if I'm Venezuelan, I work for an international press. And I - we have another mechanisms because our media don't go under Venezuelan laws. So it's - but it's difficult to work right now. It's a little bit slow, the way that people - because nobody wants to talk in most of the cases.

SWEENEY: Dr. Grossman in Washington, you're a former president of the OAS Human Rights Commission. How do you view this row between the OAS and President Chavez over the revocation of - the revoking of this license for the TV station?

GROSSMAN: Well, indeed, we're concerned because I think after the rejection of the dictatorship in the region, the processes of transitions of democracy that took place in Chile, Argentina, Peru, I mean, there is a big hope of an increased let me say freedom for everyone, which is what is established in the different instruments of (INAUDIBLE).

And I'm particularly concerned now by the so-called desacato (ph) contempt loss, which criminalize the criticism to power link officers. If anyone looking at this problems were to repeat the expressions that President Chavez said concerning the Secretary General for (INAUDIBLE), using the same words but changing the object, in other words mentioning Chavez, he or she would go to jail for more than three years.

So we have a whole interest in the region in expansion of realm of expression and the supervision of power link officers. And this is - this round counters this movement in the region to expand freedom.

SWEENEY: We'll have to leave it there. Dr. Claudio Grossman in Washington, D.C., Flor Santamaria in Caracas, thank you very much indeed.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, "The Economist" in focus. We discuss taking a position on issues with its editor. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's one of the most respected and iconic magazines in the world, driving debate through strong opinions. And there's more than 160 years ago in Britain, "The Economist" has risen to a position of global influence with its eye-catching front covers and renowned editorial positions.

It's also rapidly expanded its circulation in recent years with major pushes into North America and Asia.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by the editor of "The Economist," John Micklethwait.

What distinguishes "The Economist"?

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT, EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: I think what's different about us is that we are a global newspaper. We look at the whole world. We don't just sort of concentrate on one particular bit. Try and look at it from a global perspective.

And as you said, we do take an opinion. We try and give a view about what's happening. We give a loaded objective reporting. But we also say what we think about it.

SWEENEY: So how would you describe "The Economist's" position generally, socially and fiscally?

MICKLETHWAIT: We are liberals. We are classical liberals who believe in small government. And we also view in the government keeping out of your lives.

So that means we often have a message, which on the one hand is being quite successful through globalization. But in terms of politics, we don't really have a party that reflects us. You go to America, on the whole, we tend to agree with the Republicans about things like the size of government and taxation.

But we agree with the Democrats when it comes to lots of the social issues. I mean, we are paper that's supported gay marriage. We're a paper that supports a lot of kind of social freedoms like that.

SWEENEY: This is a week, of course, in which President Bush has announced a new strategy for Iraq. And in fact, "The Economist" albeit under former editor, supported the war in Iraq or the invasion of Iraq. And then, happily admitted that it may have got things wrong or at least stood by its position.

What does "The Economist" feel now about the Bush strategy in Iraq and where it's headed?

MICKLETHWAIT: Well, our cover says "Baghdad or bust." And we think that Bush is taking a gamble. We point out that he's doing this against the background of very heavy opposition at home. And we also think that his chances of making everything work are small.

Nevertheless, we are actually supporting him on this point, because although we think Iraq is in a terrible state, we think that if you pull out now, that would merely make things much worse.

So largely for that reason, we back the idea of taking a little bit longer to try and make it work. It's not a great solution, but it's better than the alternative. And that is what we think is worth fighting for.

SWEENEY: Just to change tack a little bit, you talk of "The Economist" as a global newspaper. How - who are you writing for in terms of - are you writing for maybe a businessman in America? Are you writing for a civil servant in Malaysia or maybe a teacher in South Africa?

MICKLETHWAIT: We're writing for all three. And I think all three bias. There is no typical "Economist" reader. And "Economist" reader can come from anywhere. And they - all we really looking for is for people who want to look at the world, who aren't just perhaps interested in their own little bit, although we try and cover America as well as possible from just an American standpoint.

SWEENEY: One of the distinguishing features of course of "The Economist" is the covers. And you say in Baghdad or bust this week, but we've had some real crackers of covers. For example, the `axis of feeble.'

Who comes up with those? And is the idea to make - they're almost like the British tabloid "Sun," but obviously, I think you can argue in a slightly different vein.

MICKLETHWAIT: Well, they're designed in some ways to be provocative. I mean, `axis of feeble" was commenting on Bush and Blair. You know, we've gone for other people.

I think if you put message on your cover, you're sending - you're firstly saying this is what we ought to tell you about this week. But then we also want to give you a slight - in some cases, make you laugh.

But in other cases, you know, make you think. You know, is organic food a good idea? Is Putin a good idea? You want to challenge readers right from the start.

SWEENEY: Well, speaking of Putin, another cover with Putin, "Don't Mess with Russia." On a personal level or I mean on a professional level in terms of the magazines or newspapers' interests, are you worried that, you know, with Putin in power, that perhaps relations - your relations, the newspaper's relations with Moscow are impacted any way? Have you had any negative feedback from the Kremlin as a result of.

MICKLETHWAIT: No, nothing direct. I mean, we do, you know, we do, as with all people, we criticize. We get some response back. That's - you're bound to get that. But no, nothing specific. Some of our, you know, journalists say it's a difficult to operate in Russia. But that's what we do.

SWEENEY: One of the other graphic headlines from last year covers where's North Korea. "Rocket man," of course a reference a song by Elton John. When you look ahead to the rest of 2007, given that we're in mid January at the moment, what do you believe are going to be the big stories of this year?

MICKLETHWAIT: I think one big think about 2007 is it sets a sort of vacuum of leadership. You know, there is some leadership problems. And I meant you can have Blair and Chirac departing the scene during the middle of the year. Two of the sort of old mainstays of European foreign policy.

You've got Bush obviously much weaker, although as he's shown this week, he's still prepared to take big, strong gambles. Bush still much weaker. Angel and Merkler (ph) I think becoming rather an interesting figure on the international stage. All those things going on in terms of changing personnel. Bush is about to become the oldest member around the G-8, which is an interesting - longest serving member of the G-8.

In the background also, you've got this bigger shift, which we've written about a lot, which is a shift in terms of the developing world coming up. You know, the most interesting thing about 2006 arguably was the statistic. First year in which the developing world, as we used to define it, produced more than the developed world.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there, John Micklethwait. Thank you very much indeed.

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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