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Hong Kong and Freedom of the Press; Nigerian Media Criticism; Anna Nicole Smith Coverage

Aired February 16, 2007 - 01:30:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello. I'm Becky Anderson in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
Well, this week there is nothing like an exclusive. A CNN correspondent is criticized by the Nigerian government over his reports on the Niger Delta.

Almost a decade after Britain handed over Hong Kong to China we will look at how journalists view freedom of the press in the territory.

And the ongoing media frenzy surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith. It's showing no signs of easing so is it all too much?

Well, first, the story that sparked a huge response from viewers, officials and governments alike. CNN's Jeff Koinange filed exclusive reports earlier this month from the Niger Delta where rebels have launched a violent campaign against the oil industry there.

He went there after receiving an e-mail invitation from the leader of the militant group believed responsible for much of the violence.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We were an hour and a half upriver from the delta town of Warri when suddenly out of nowhere, masked gunmen in powerful speedboats surrounded us, shooting over our heads and demanding to know who we are.

ANDERSON: Well, the rebels ended up taking Jeff to a group of 24 Filipino hostages that they have kidnapped who have now been freed. Jeff spoke to them prior to their release in his exclusive report.

KOINANGE: Just to show us how confident these MEND militants are, they brought us here, deep in the heart of the Niger Delta, to show us their latest hostages. Twenty-four Filipino sailors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (inaudible) but only we want to be free. Yeah. We want to be released.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a family. And we need to communicate with them. But our communication is closed.

ANDERSON: Well, the hostages were freed the day after the government accused CNN of staging that report.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have evidence that some of these people were actually paid to put on a show, they were counseled on what to do. They were set on what to do and we thought that this runs against the grain of every practice of responsible and objective news reports everywhere in the world.

We have evidence to this effect. It was a paid job.

ANDERSON: Well, CNN denies those accusations. The network says it did not pay for any part of the report nor does it pay for interviews. We will delve into this a little more. Let's bring in the man at the center of the controversy, our Africa correspondent Jeff Koinange who is in Johannesburg and Uche Nwara (ph), a Nigerian journalist who is now based here in London.

Jeff, I want to start with you. Is there anything that you believe that you did in making that report that would be deemed unethical?

KOINANGE: Nothing whatsoever, Becky. And when people talk about us staging this whole story, look at this pictures. When we were out in the middle of the river and suddenly these masked men in speedboats came at us, shooting at us, that cannot conceivably be staged. We hit the deck. We shouted, "Press, press." We thought we were going to die, basically.

I was - we were fearful for our lives. Up until they came close and we identified who we were, you cannot in any way stage any of that.

And then when they took us to one of their hideouts and started parading the Filipino hostages in front of us, we didn't even know what we were going to see until we came up on the them. That cannot be staged.

And then saying that we paid for interviews. For what possible reason, Becky? CNN does not and never pays for any interviews. There was nothing at all that was unethical about that report.

ANDERSON: Jeff, before I bring in Uche, I just want to ask you this question for the viewers. What is or was your relationship in the past and what will it be in the future with that militant leader?

KOINANGE: None whatsoever. We just happened upon him in the middle of the water. He identified himself as General Tamuno Godswill. He said he was MEND field commander and we did our interview and after that, boom, he disappeared. Never saw him again.

And then if I was walking down the street and he passed me, I wouldn't even know what he looks like, because they were all masked men. I wouldn't even know one from the other if I ran into them today.

ANDERSON: Uche, your reaction to the reports and the outcry afterwards?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, when I saw the report, actually, and then I saw Jeff's report and I also listened to the response from the honorable minister of information, Frank Nweke. Now speaking from the point of view of a journalist, I mean I can quite understand what Jeff must have gone through to even get into the Niger Delta area, considering that the area is a big - more like a hot spot at the moment.

Well, being that I hadn't spoken to the minister and I hadn't spoken to Jeff, as well, so it was quite difficult to know who to believe.

Now, Jeff raised some issues and the minister raised some issues so it will be interesting to see exactly who is telling the truth.

ANDERSON: Jeff, is it possible to report objectively from that region?

KOINANGE: Very, very difficult, Becky.

In fact, just like Uche just said, the Niger Delta region is a no-go area. If you were to rent a boat in the port of Warri and tell the driver, hey, take me to such and such a place, a lot of them would be fearful of going there.

It is so difficult to report from. And that's why you find even Nigerian journalists, they tread - they do not go to that place because they fear it so much. For us to go there and we didn't know what we were going to expect but the fact that we belong to this organization and most of the people in Nigeria do watch CNN, we thought, you know what, maybe we have a better chance and we can go deep into the delta.

And we were lucky. Basically we were lucky on that day. Very difficult to report from there. And when you do you must be prepared for the backlash because some people don't want you to know what's going on down there. I'm glad we went and we exposed the facts and our people do know that this is a reality.

ANDERSON: The information minister, Uche, is on record as saying, "These reports are a conscious effort to malign our people and create the impress that we are less human. We reject such negative reports completely."

It doesn't talk there about whether those reports are objective reporting or not. What he is upset about is the negative image that is being portrayed about Nigeria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think we have got to put this into perspective. See where the other side is coming from.

But in the past there has been cases where the international media is putting out one-sided reports about Africa and about Nigeria in particular.

Now last year we had an incident, I remember I interviewed the honorable minister last year. He is very passionate about Nigeria. We are all passionate about Nigeria. So what we expect in a way - that's being fair (ph) to Jeff as well, some kind of objectivity.

Maybe looking at it from the two perspectives, what the honorable minister was saying was - probably (ph) Jeff, I don't know how possible it was for him to maybe move into other areas within Niger Delta region to see what little effort the government is making.

I guess that is probably what the point the honorable minister is trying to make.

ANDERSON: Let's just put this question .

KOINANGE: Can I jump in there?

ANDERSON: Of course you can, Jeff. Go on.

KOINANGE: What I just wanted to say is even my own country, Kenya, I talk a lot of - I do a lot of stories about Kenya and many of them are negative, but you know what? They are the truth. Also here in South Africa where we are based I do a lot of stories about the townships, about poverty, about crime and you don't hear the government up in arms, saying, hey, CNN is being subjective.

People have to take the truth into consideration. These are the facts that we portray and people make their own conclusions. If people are going to start attacking the messenger for reporting the truth, that is pretty uncalled for.

ANDERSON: Uche, do you believe that these - from what you know about Nigeria, that these hostages were released as a result of this piece?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't delve into that being that I'm not aware of the whole circumstances of the release. But what I know is probably like the honorable minister said, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he had commented on the efforts the government was making to secure the release of the hostages, at the time of the report, probably could have jeopardized it. So I wouldn't know because I wasn't a participate in the discussions.

ANDERSON: What was he supposed to say? That's question. I wonder whether we should be shocked or surprised by the reaction of the Nigerian government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, to be honest. Jeff, I'm on your side. I'm a journalist as well but I am also a Nigerian. I am an African. So what I think, it's probably the concentration of media institutions (ph) on (inaudible) in the west. So we do feel sometimes that we're not getting as much positive coverage as we should. So maybe that is what is causing - what caused the minister's reaction here.

ANDERSON: Jeff, given the outcry and given the fact that you must be concerned about your own safety, would you do that report again?

KOINANGE: In a minute, Becky. And I wouldn't change a thing. The fact that we did expose those facts, the fact that we ran into these hostages, 24 Filipino hostages that had been held for the better part of a month. Good Lord. I feared for those guys when I saw them and all these masked man dancing around the.

You wouldn't - you just don't know what's going to happen next. The good thing is, this story ended well and they were released unharmed.

Would I change a thing? Would I go back there? In a minute.

ANDERSON: Jeff Koinange in Johannesburg and Uche Noira (ph) in here with me in London. We thank you very much.

KOINAGE: Thank you, Becky.

UNIDENTFIIED MALE: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

ANDERSON: Grateful for you joining us.

Still to come here on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, press freedom in Hong Kong. Journalists have their say almost 10 years after the territory was handed over to China. That's next.


ANDERSON: Welcome back to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN. Now, it has been almost a decade since Britain handed over control of Hong Kong to Communist China.

Ten years on, a random survey of local journalists there has found more than half believe press freedom has deteriorated since the transfer, while 30 percent admit to exercising some sort of self-censorship in the past year.

Well, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association says its survey shows the press is increasingly playing down negative news about the Chinese government or issues believed to be sensitive to Beijing.

Well, let's talk more about press freedom in Hong Kong and the extent of self-censorship there. I'm joined by Francis Moriarty. He is the chairman of the Press Freedoms Committee of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong and a radio journalist there.

Francis, we thank you for joining us. I've got to say I'm not necessarily surprised by the findings of this report, though that doesn't suggest I'm not shocked. Are you?

FRANCIS MORIARTY, HONG KONG FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS' CLUB: I'm not shocked. I'm a little surprised that 30 percent of those who were polled would admit that they were doing in and in a certain sense if you want to draw a comfort from such bad statistics, at least 30 percent of the journalists polled were willing to admit it and know that they're doing it.

Worse would be if people were self-censoring themselves and had so internalized it that they weren't even aware that it was going on.

ANDERSON: Let's get some sense of what then is going on. How would you describe self-censorship as manifesting itself across editorials in Hong Kong?

MORIARTY: Well, part of the difficulties of self-censorship is that it doesn't manifest itself. You can't look at the newspaper or listen to the radio or watch TV and say, oh, look, I just saw that. That's not right.

It's something that's missing. It's something that's not there. It's coloration. It's shading. It's what got in and what didn't get in and the spin that was put on it. And that's the way things really get affected. Who gets interviewed. Who doesn't get interviewed. Whose opinion gets played down or doesn't get played at all or gets played less frequently.

That's the way things are slowly and very carefully calibrated.

ANDERSON: We're talking here about downplaying issues and information unfavorable to the central government, or at least believed to be unfavorable. And downplaying those issues that are unfavorable to media owners and their interests.

Just talk a little bit more about that, if you will.

MORIARTY: Well, the media owners have a lot of connection with China. Hong Kong is 7 million people. It is quite small. China is 1.3 billion people, an enormous part of the earth's surface and people here have connections. Increasingly we have people from the mainland who own actual percentages and sometimes very significant percentages of the media in Hong Kong.

Also, the owners here have financial interests in China and so they are always carefully looking over their shoulder to be sure that what their papers and radio stations, TV stations do here is not affecting too negatively what is going to be happening with their interests in China.

ANDERSON: Would it then be correct to suggest there are no press freedoms in Hong Kong? And if that's the case, what are journalists doing about it?

MORIARTY: Well, of course, you can't say there are no press freedoms in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has on the whole a very free press and the important thing is that in the context of China, it has by far the freest media anywhere on Mainland China and it's among the freest of media in all of Southeast Asia.

So the question becomes really if there is self censorship going on if reporters are censoring themselves and their editors are censoring them and their editors are censoring them in some way, however subtle it may be, are we exercising all of the press freedom that we really have available to us?

And I think the answer to that has to be on the whole, no, there are too many people who feel constrained or in some way really are constrained because of fear. Fear of upsetting China. Fear of upsetting the Hong Kong government. Fear of consequences that are completely unknown.

And it's getting to be an atmosphere, a rather suffocating atmosphere where you feel the oxygen is slowly moving out of the room and as that increases, of course people just begin, in a sense, in fact, if you use the metaphor, they are breathing less deeply and exhaling less broadly. And everything is sort of just tightening down and that's the general feeling in the media here of Hong Kong is this constriction.

ANDERSON: Francis Moriarty, we thank you very much indeed for joining us there from Hong Kong.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN, famous for being famous. More so now because of the scandal following her sudden death. We'll look at the media's fascination with Anna Nicole Smith. Up next. Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back. You are watching CNN. Now, it drew more coverage in the U.S. than events in Iraq. We're talking about the death of the former model, Anna Nicole Smith. The circumstances behind it, the subsequent paternity battle and fight over where the centerfold's body should be buried. Well, in a moment we'll look at whether the wall to wall coverage is warranted and examine the public interest in the story.

First, though, CNN's Randi Kaye on the celebrity circus over Anna Nicole Smith.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What began with an emergency call.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She is not breathing and she is not responsive. She is actually Anna Nicole Smith, if you guys can .



KAYE: Has given way to a frenzy of finger pointing and promises of paternity, magnified by a media blitz catering those who must know all things Anna.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The autopsy was able to exclude any type of injuries such as blunt force trauma, gun shot wound, stab wounds, or asphyxia as a cause of death.

KAYE: One day after her death, few clues into what killed Anna Nicole Smith, but the fight for custody of her baby girl, Dannielynn, heated up. No surprise. The surviving parent stands to inherit millions.

Former beau Larry Birkhead filed an emergency order requesting DNA from Smith's body. A judge ordered the former playmate preserved until the February 20th hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is very important that the DNA connect Anna with the baby being tested. We do not want a bait and switch.

KAYE: That same day, so called Prince Frederick von Anhalt, actress Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband, says he could be the father too, apparently exposing a 10 year affair with Smith. Get in line, Howard K. Stern, you may be Smith's lawyer and longtime companion, but you've got company.

PRINCE FREDERICK VON ANHALT, CLAIMS COULD BE FATHER: There are lots of people who could be the father.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could you be the father?

VON ANHALT: I don't know. Sometimes I am a bad boy, yeah.

KAYE: And the list keeps growing, even from the grave. "The New York Daily News" reported Anna Nicole's half sister suggested Dannielynn may have been fathered by frozen sperm from Smiths' billionaire late husband, J. Howard Marshall.

Even a bodyguard who once worked for Smith told the TV show "Extra" it is possible he is the dad, bringing the grand total of daddy wannabes to five.

From paternity to pictures. This one released Monday from inside Smith's Bahamas home. A diet of sorts, Methadone, Trimspa and SlimFast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I look at it as a set up. It is kind of interesting how all the bottles are pointed right to the camera.

KAYE: And this one published in the "Tribune of Nassau" showing Smith embracing the Bahamian minister of immigration in bed.

Critics are quick to point out Minister Shane Gibson is the one who approved Smith's residency last year and are asking for his resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were innocent. They were all, like I said, taken by Howard Stern.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


ANDERSON: Well, the frenzy rolls on, early (ph) showing no signs of letting up. So is there enough public interest for the level of media coverage of this story? Well, for more I am joined here in the studio by Ashley Pearson.

It's a simple question. Is there enough public interest?

ASHLEY PEARSON, "OK MAGAZINE": Absolutely yes is the short answer. I mean, look, what you have here is a woman who became famous by virtue of her appearance. She had no particular talent to speak of. It was who she married, it was who she was connected to and she rose to the top, she was battling for something like 200 million dollar and died of what looks to be a drugs overdose at the age of 39.

In the meantime, there are three different men saying they are the father of her child. Her son died of a mysterious death, possible drugs overdose five months earlier. There are so many different things at play here. It is like a soap opera.

ANDERSON: OK. So that answers the question, is there enough public interest for this sort of media feeding frenzy. I guess that begs the next question, which is this, should there be that sort of public interest?

PEARSON: Well, that's a much harder question to answer. This is the kind of story that fuels our tabloid media. I mean, you couldn't actually make this up if you tried. You have a beautiful, busty blonde who is very sexual, very sexy, the "Playboy" playmate of the year. All of this drama. Really, very similar to kind of the Marilyn Monroe frenzy to some extent.

And it's interesting because Anna Nicole Smith was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe throughout much of her life, often dressed up as her and to die in what looks to be a very similar fate, as well.

ANDERSON: We've got to ask, though, what this says about public interest and the state of the media, not just in the U.S., of course, because this story hit the headline in most tabloid newspapers around the world, didn't it?

PEARSON: Yeah, absolutely. But this is a story about human interest. This is a story about human beings in a very bizarre situation, but it's things that people are fascinated by because it has to do with sexual, potentially, infidelity, it has to do with a secret paternity, it has to do with an awful lot of money, more than most of us will ever see in our lifetime, and a beautiful woman at the center of this who has tragically died.

So there is so much human drama associated with this that I don't think the public is going to turn away any time soon.

ANDERSON: What's the next part of the story.

PEARSON: Well, the first question, of course, is who is the father of this baby. Right now Larry Birkhead, the photographer who claims to be the father, has been asking for and pushing for a DNA test. That will be done soon.

Once that is determined, this baby will either be given to Larry, to Howard K. Stern, possibly, or even to Anna's mother but someone will take responsibility for this child.

Then the next question is, will this child inherit something like $200 million as this other separate course case rolls on. I mean, it's a drama, and I think this baby Dannielynn is going to be the focus of a little bit of attention for some time to come because of the bizarre and tragic circumstances of her mother's life.

ANDERSON: Ashley Pearson with "OK Magazine." We 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 Becky Anderson. Thanks for joining us.



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