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Somalia Under Scrutiny; Blackout in Thailand

Aired January 19, 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.
This week, Somalia under scrutiny. The government asserts authority after years of anarchy and bloodshed. We look at the reporting conditions.

Blackout in Thailand. The ruling junta blocks a CNN interview with the country's former prime minister. What he said and the diplomatic row it's triggered.







SWEENEY: Uproar in Britain and India amid accusations of racism on a reality TV show.

And we begin this week with one of the world's most dangerous and unstable countries, which remains a focus of press attention. Somalia has seen major upheaval in recent weeks, as the Ethiopia and the United States intervened in support of the government driving back Islamist militants and al Qaeda suspects.

With the country under martial law, the government banned a number of major broadcasters it accused of causing unrest. Restrictions were relaxed amid complaints of censorship, but the security situation imposes constraints of its own.

To discuss this, I'm joined by Somalia's deputy representative to the United Nations, Idd Beddei Mohamed. And here in London by Pierre Lesourd of the news agency Agence France Presse.

If I may turn to you, first of all, Idd Beddei Mohamed in D.C., why did the government impose restrictions on journalism and broadcasts in Somalia in the first place?

IDD BEDDEI MOHAMED, SOMALI DEPUTY UN REPRESENTATIVE: The reason is very clear. The Somali government want to regulate, as another member (INAUDIBLE) has done before on how the media conducted its own business.

We are not doing censorship. We are not restricting the freedom of speech. We are basically exercising, in order to create (INAUDIBLE) news outlet. A news outlet that are critical to my government is fine. It's acceptable. That is what makes us a good country. And that is what we'll make us in the future a very good country.

We wanted the media to have a freedom of expression. We wanted them to expose our weaknesses, but at the same time, we have to regulate because we are new government. We just arrived in Mogadishu. This are various localized media. They are leaking news to the rest of the Somalis. Some of them were not accurate. Some of them were very biased.

SWEENEY: Let me turn to Pierre Lesourd of Agence France Presse. How has operating in Somalia for AFP journalists changed or evolved in recent months?

PIERRE LESOURD, AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE: Well, the situation is - we have two main challenges over there. It's first a security. How to be sure that our journalists are not becoming casualties.

And the other issue is how to get the facts. I mean, how to get reliable sources to figure out what's going on. If you take, you know, basic facts like the number of casualties, even the Red Cross, International Red Cross cannot give any real figures.

So we have very challenging times to check it out the facts and to understand, and - what's going on. And to give out balanced facts.

As a news - as an international news agency, we are not taking sides.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you how many international journalists are there working for AFP in Somalia? Because of course, in wartime situations, there is a tendency to spend in reinforcements for want of a better word, to beef up the coverage.

LESOURD: Absolutely. The - in the recent months, it has been very difficult to send reinforcement from the outside. Because I mean, from Nairobi, I mean, there were no plans for a long time. So we have been able to send people in through Addis Abbaba with the Ethiopian army recently.

We did organize press trips for foreigners. And we have a team of photographers, cameramen, and text journalists at the border with Kenya, working on some subjects of refugees.

But basically, the coverage is on the charter of our bureau in Mogadishu. We have a permanent bureau there. And for the last 15 years, we have been the team of Somali journalists. We know we are in confidence with. And we are trying to help them as much as we can from Nairobi or from the other country around.

SWEENEY: Idd Beddei Mohamed, let me clarify one thing. Is it a requirement for journalists to have visas to enter Somalia to work there?

MOHAMED: One simple question that I ask is (INAUDIBLE) when they come to Somalia now, where not before, but now. They should have to register the offices of the Somali government.

They should ask the Somali government that they are coming this country. They are free press. They are covering the situation. And they should register.

In terms of the visas, you can go our embassy in Nairobi. We are full embassy functioning. They will give you the visa. You can go our embassy in Addis Abbaba. They have full functioning Somali embassy. They can give you a visa.

But the fact remains Somalia lacked government for the last 50 years. The media was going to Somalia, simply hiring flight. And then landing some way in Somalia, covering this story without even getting the visas.

The situation has changed, my dear friends. And we have to reflect the reality. There's a government now, she want to come to Somalia, please respect the sovereignty of that government.

We are much more willing to accommodate and to even provide security if you need. But you have to - you are under obligation of international law.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, if I may. It isn't within your government's power to refuse a visa or perhaps if somebody doesn't register with ministry information to allow them to travel freely around the country.

MOHAMED: Not I can assure you - we need the international media this time to cover for the pride of the Somali people, so the international community can reengage in Somalia. We were abandoned by the international community.

Our criss cross in the last five years in New York and Washington, trying to win the hearts of the minds of international media. So my people and my government can receive the attention of international media.

We desperately need them. And we will accommodate everything possible. We will never refuse to give them a visa because we believe at the end of the day free press, free democratic expression is the best interest of our country and our people.

SWEENEY: Obviously, time will obviously bear out how easy or difficult it is to be in Somalia and cover the story, given obviously the stability of the situation.

Pierre Lesourd, there is a point there Idd Beddei Mohamed is making that the government - there was a lack of governance for 15 years, and that it's only right and proper now that some order be restored and that journalists get their visas and register.

LESOURD: Yes, we'll be very happy to go to send people, reinforcement in Somalia. This is our duty as a news agency.

The - I mean, but many impediments these days. I mean, remains security. I mean, when you are a Westerner, it's very unsafe to work yet in Somalia. Not only, I mean, in Mogadishu, but you know, as soon as you go further in the country, it's very, very difficult.

I mean, I think it was late June, I mean, you have a Swedish journalist who has been killed over there. I mean, since 1991, I was looking the figure of the CPJ New York, the Committee Protect Journalism. I mean, there have been 13 journalists killed in this area.

SWEENEY: Well, thank you very much, indeed.

LESOURD: Thank you. You're welcome.

SWEENEY: Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Thailand unplugged. How an interview with the country's deposed prime minister led to a military crackdown on the airwaves. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. This week, the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra granted CNN an exclusive TV interview. The deposed leader took aim at Thailand's ruling military junta, which responded by blocking transmission of the interview there.


THAKSIN SHINAWATRA, FMR. THAI PRIME MINISTER: Everyone knows that who is - who am I? I come from Malaysian. I come from the people. I owe gratitude to our people. I do everything for the good of the country and the people.


SWEENEY: It's also triggered a diplomatic row with Singapore, where the interview was conducted and renewed concern over press freedoms in Thailand.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined from Bangkok by CNN's Dan Rivers, who conducted that interview with Mr. Shinawatra. And here in London by Leonard Doyle, the foreign editor of the "Independent" newspaper.

So quite a bit of fallout from that interview, Dan. Were you expecting it?

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We knew it was going to be very controversial. And we've been trying to get the interview for a really, since the coup, for several months. We didn't quite realize that it would precipitate this massive diplomatic row between Thailand and Singapore.

Now in part, that was also caused by Thaksin having a meeting with a senior Singaporean politician. And the Thais got very angry that he was given such high access, given that he holds no official position.

But that meeting would thrust into the limelight, as it were, by our interview, which was then subsequently, you know, plastered across the front pages of all the papers here, and very much thrust Thaksin's visit to Singapore into the spotlight in Thailand.

SWEENEY: And Dan, how do you explain the military's fear of him?

RIVERS: Well, he's an incredibly popular politician. That's the bottom line. I mean, he won a landslide election in 2001. He commands huge support in the north and east of the country. He called the snap election in April that was heavily contested and was boycotted by a lot of the political parties here. And that was later nullified.

But I think the military really is scared that if they return to democracy, and Thaksin chose to stand again, that he'd win the election.

SWEENEY: Leonard Doyle here in London, all this achingly familiar, perhaps, with other countries in Asia?

LEONARD DOYLE, FOREIGN EDITOR, THE INDEPENDENT: Well, it's extraordinary, really. And it does have echoes of Burma, of course, where the generals have been in charge for a long time. And when one is of the Thai generals looking over the border and saying, well, that's how we need to do things. And it shows to us, I think, it's an extraordinary story, but it really just reveals how useless generals are at ruling countries.

I mean, they're pretty good at tanks and shooting and square bashing, but when it comes to the complexities of running a modern economic system, which is Thailand, there are showing just total incompetence and making themselves a laughingstock.

The idea that they blame CNN for the popularity of the former democratic elected leader is just outrageous.

SWEENEY: Dan, let me ask you, have you received any official criticism from the Thai military about the interview?

RIVERS: Nothing official. I mean, one can imagine they're pretty furious with us. Nothing official so far.

The - all of the media had been requested a few days before we did this interview not to carry any messages from Thaksin. And it's been very interesting the way this has been handled by the local media here. Some newspapers have chosen to publish and be damned and put it on the front pages any way, irrespective of what the military leaders want.

A lot of the local TV stations, though, have towed the party as it were, and have not shown excerpts of our interview with Thaksin. So there's been a bit of a division. Outspoken to Thai journalists here, who say that especially in the TV stations here, they are practicing self censorship was the phrase she used, and that they still have soldiers at TV stations nominally to be there for security. But obviously, it's quite intimidating for the journalists. And I think a lot of the TV journalists here are under no illusion that if they did try and put out large swaits (ph) of our interview with Thaksin with his messages, that they could risk some sort of sanction or repercussion from the military.

SWEENEY: And Leonard, this in a country where you describe the media as pretty lively certainly before the military coup?

DOYLE: Definitely. I mean, it's got very vibrant lively media in Thailand. But they also practice and have practiced for many years a kind of - a degree of self censorship.

The one area - the one person you would not criticize is the royal family, is the king. So they're kind of familiar and used to navigating the difficult shows of having a liberal lively press and just being careful part of the country.

But I think this is clearly taking it a step further into kind of degrees of absurdity.

SWEENEY: If the media as Dan suggests, or the military rather as Dan suggests is very afraid of Thaksin Shinawatra, and yet it said it hopes to bring democracy back to Thailand before the end of this year, what role do you see the media playing in Thailand? How do you think - see it shaping out, squaring off between the military and the media?

DOYLE: Well, you can't really have democracy without the media. And the media's job is to be a check on the democratic process or on the military rulers in this case.

So it's an interesting struggle. And they're going to have to - the media - I mean, if there is going to be return to democracy, the media's going to have to be free. And the military leadership is going to have to wake up to that fact, otherwise as is possibly sadly all too predictable, democracy will be delayed. And the country's economic problems are continuing, even without Thaksin. The bogeyman is gone, but the problems are still there. He may or may not have been corrupt, but who are the military to talk about corruption? They've been logging illegally for decades and running their own economic zones.

I mean, there's a lot of corruption in the system and plenty of people to point the finger at.

SWEENEY: Final question to you, Dan in Bangkok, have you noticed any difference at all in your ability to do your job in the four months since Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed from the political throne?

RIVERS: So far, no. I'd say, you know, we're still allowed to pretty much move around where we are. We're still able to get visas to come and go from Thailand as we'd like to.

You know, there have been since this interview a few incidents in our bureau, for example, of sort of slightly menacing phone calls of people ringing and hanging up. Now that may be nothing to do with this at all, but it's obviously a bit of a coincidence.

And I think the big worry for media organizations like us, and you know, the other ones here, the BBC, and other big American networks is that this might be the beginning, you know, of a slippery slope, that suddenly the army will use, you know, the fact that we have carried an interview with Thaksin as an excuse for example not to renew visas, or to make life difficult for us.

And I think that's a big concern as we go into 2007, you know, about really what is happening in Thailands, and you know, is there really going to be a restoration of democracy?

SWEENEY: All right, something we'll be following closely. Thank you, very much, Dan Rivers in Bangkok. And here in the studio, Leonard Doyle.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the bullying of a Bollywood star. Accusations of racism fly, as a reality TV show triggers uproar in India and Britain. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. A notorious reality TV show is sparking controversy from Britain to India. It centers on the alleged racist bullying over Bollywood star. Politicians have spoken out. Companies have withdrawn sponsorship and protested, have burned the producers in effigy.

Satinder Bindra has this story from New Delhi.


SATINDER BINDRA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The treatment of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on the reality TV show "Celebrity Big Brother" in Britain is also big news in India. This program refers to the way she's been treated by fellow contestant as racism.

Shetty's fans have taken to the streets, demanding an apology from the show's producers and the British government.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I think it's really unfair and really sad that they pass all these racist comments on her. It's not good at all, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But the whole India is with her. She should come back. She should kick that - she should spit on that female. She should come back.

BINDRA: Coming back to India is a decision that Shilpa Shetty's mother says only her daughter can make.

SUNANDA SHETTY, MOTHER: We are not parents who want to clip our children's wings off, you know, tell them what to do or what not to do. They're grown up kids.

BINDRA: Thirty-one year old Shetty, who's been paid almost $700,000 for participating in the show, is a seasoned Bollywood actress. She's acted in over 40 films, and with a black belt in karate, some here believe she could have been mentally tougher.

But many Indians say her co-stars and celebrity big brother ganged up on her. And she's handled all the hostility with grace.

(on camera): Given the media coverage of the story and the growing reaction across the country, the Indian government has now asked the British high commission in New Delhi for details. Some Indian ministers have also been speaking out in favor of Shilpa Shetty.

(voice-over): And the row has erupted just as Britain's finance minister Gordon Brown is visiting India. He told reporters the British government deplores racism of any kind.

GORDON BROWN, BRITISH FINANCE MINISTER: I understand that in the United Kingdom, there have been already 10,000 complaints from viewers about these barbs, that people see rightly as offensive.

BINDRA: In an effort to calm such growing protests, British officials in India say they expect U.K. broadcasters to be "responsible." The Indian media has already decided Shilpa Shetty's story deserves more coverage, coverage that will probably do Shilpa Shetty's movie career no harm.

Satinder Bindra, CNN, New Delhi.


SWEENEY: Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by media commentator Toby Young, who's also the author of the international bestseller, "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People."

So is Britain losing a friend in India this week?

TOBY YOUNG, MEDIA COMMENTATOR: I sincerely hope not. It would be a mistake if any Indians watching this show or looking at the issue thought that Jay Goody was in any way representative of British attitudes towards India.

I mean, first of all, she's proving incredibly unpopular. I mean, she's caused a furor in the national press with her comments. The show's principal sponsor has withdrawn. Ofcom, the main broadcasting regulator, has received more complaints about this show than any other show.

I mean, you know, even by British standards, Jay Goody is fantastically ignorant. I mean, on the first "Big Brother" show she did, which would created her as a.

SWEENEY: Four or five years ago.

YOUNG: .celebrity. Four or five years ago, she came out with some incredible errors. She asked whether people in Portugal spoke Portuganese. She thought that Sherlock Holmes invented toilets. She thought that Mother Theresa was German. I mean, you know, she's not in any way representative, I think, of British people or their attitudes in general.

SWEENEY: Then again, you know, you mentioned that Jay Goody being the product of the reality TV show.


SWEENEY: This show is what made her. And it also may be the show that will break her. Again, but it's sort of artificial surroundings. You know, people who are artificially chosen by the managers.


SWEENEY: .of the production company, psychologically profiled to bounce off of each other and create entertainment. I mean, how - are we in danger of taking it all too seriously? And to what extent does the media driving that? Or are there some real core underlying serious issues?

YOUNG: Yes. Oh, I think that Channel 4, the makers the "Big Brother" have probably - it's probably a slightly bigger issue than they anticipated.

I mean, of course, they try and design the "Big Brother" house in order to create a pressure cooker environment, to create fault lines, to create dispute, which they hope will explode and generate headlines and attract viewers.

But I don't think they could have actually wanted this outcome. I mean, it's too big, even for them.

SWEENEY: Do you think this story would have been as big as their chance, Gordon Brown, having been visiting India at the same time?

YOUNG: I think that, you know, that definitely doesn't help. I mean, politicians from every side of the political spectrum in Britain have weighed in on this story. Of course, none of them have seen the show. I don't imagine the people protesting about it in India have seen the show.

I mean, actually, one of the most - one of the best ways perhaps of diffusing this issue of General (INAUDIBLE) would be to make the show available perhaps on Youtube. Two people in India so they could see, you know, just how minor and trivial an incident it is.

SWEENEY: But minor and trivial, and again, the power of the press. I mean, in India, it has been picked up by the mainstream press. Some say that she - Shilpa is acting as a truly wonderful representative of her country. Others are saying that she's cow towing to Britain, a former colonial power, by even staying in the house.

YOUNG: Well, I don't think she's hurting herself or the interests of India by remaining in the house. I think it's actually very likely because of the extraordinary public outcry in Britain against the way she's been treated in the house that she'll actually win this series of celebrity "Big Brother." And that will do - some way towards repairing the damage between relations in Britain and India.

SWEENEY: We'll have to leave it there, Toby Young. Thank you very much.

YOUNG: Thanks.

SWEENEY: 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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