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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

Internet and French Elections; Palestinian Paper in Israel; Reporting in Afghanistan

Aired March 30, 2007 - 14:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SARAH SMITH, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Sarah Smith from Britain's More 4 News. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, embedded in Afghanistan. Frontlines in a battle against the Taliban. Finding a market, a new newspaper is on the stands in Israel. This one, to provide a Palestinian perspective.

And the online election, how French presidential hopefuls are using the Internet to get their message across.

First, under attack in Afghanistan in a rare glimpse of how dangerous the so-called forgotten war has become. For three weeks, ITV News international editor Bill Neely and cameraman Mark Nelson were embedded with British troops. They were witnesses to an ambush on one company of Marines and caught the heat of the battle on camera. Here's a part of Bill's report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL NEELY, ITV NEWS, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR: The Taliban were waiting for their moment. It came when we and the Marines were in open ground. Their gunfire very close.

We crawl along the ground, dragging the camera with us. There are 10 of us exposed to the Taliban fire. The Marines desperately trying to find the firing point.

They see not one, but two Taliban positions and call us forward into cover. Often the Taliban will shoot and scoot, this time they stay put.

(on camera): For the Taliban, this is like two hours before springing their ambush. There are two compounds over there. And we're seeing heavy bursts of automatic fire and rocket propelled grenades, two or three of which flew over our heads. But as you can see, the Marines here are firing back in kind.

(voice-over): The compounds are 150 yards away, but what none of us knew was that the Taliban were in at least 12 other positions. Then the assault compounds. Marines running for their lives across the open killing ground.

(GUNFIRE)

The Taliban hold their ground and hit back. A second wave of men go in. Now the Taliban are out, retreating along deep irrigation ditches. After a fire fight that had lasted two hours, the troops began to withdraw.

(on camera): The problem for the Marines is there was only one way into this village. And there's only one way out. And this is it.

(voice-over): We left passing the poppy fields that provide the world with most of its heroin. Poppies and trenches and the sign of artillery shells whizzing overhead.

It could be Flanders in World War I, but here, there were no British casualties.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SMITH: That's ITV's Bill Neely reporting. Well, Bill has just returned from Afghanistan. And he's with me now to talk about reporting from the frontlines there.

Also with me is the BBC correspondent David Loyn. He was granted exclusive access to Taliban forces in Helmund Province last year. And Raymond Whitaker, the foreign editor of "The Independent on Sunday", who's also reported extensively from Afghanistan.

So Bill, welcome back. Tell me, did you actually expect to get quite so close to the frontlines and to the battlefield?

NEELY: Frankly, yes, because that's what you're aiming to do. You're embedded with these troops for that precise reason - for access to the battlefield, which is often so very difficult, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

So we want out with one of these patrols. In fact, I've spent three weeks there going out with patrols. And that's why you do it.

SMITH: And what problems are there being embedded with forces like that? I mean, we saw the obvious danger that you were in there, but when it comes to being with the U.K. military and indeed the Afghan authorities, what additional problems do you have?

NEELY: Well, embedding is a very contentious thing because it brings up associations of being embed with cooperating with somehow losing your objectivity. In fact, I think there is a compromise to be made. You don't get everything you want. But you have privileged access. It is a trade off, but I think ultimately, the gains are better than the losses.

SMITH: Do you find yourself on the other side of this with the Taliban - how did that compare to being embedded with British forces?

DAVID LOYN, DEVELOPING WORLD CORRESPONDENT, BBC: Well, they're obviously different questions that are asked. And I think there are different rules that apply. The one thing the BBC said to me was that if there were any military activity against British forces that I heard about, then I would have to report that when I came back. That would be a - something I would have to legally do, whereas obviously if you're with British forces going out looking for the Taliban, that's - it's quite the opposite.

So I think there are slightly different rules. But the name of the game is the same. You are a reporter trying to find out what's going on on the ground. It was very controversial, that reporting, a few months ago. The British Defense Ministry didn't like it much. And they said we don't need to send a BBC reporter to find out what the Taliban think. We know what the Taliban think.

Well, frankly, I don't think they do know what the Taliban think. I think it's our job - I thought that's what broadcasting organizations were for. It's our job to find out what's happening on the ground and to report it.

British forces went in there expecting in the words of one Defense Minister to not have a shot fired against them. And early last year, well as we've seen, they've been in some of the toughest fighting they've ever been in.

And Raymond, if I can bring you in here for a newspaper's perspective as well. What difference does it make to the coverage of a conflict like this, that no one really can report it without being embedded with one side or the other?

RAYMOND WHITAKER, FOREIGN EDITOR, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY: Well, it's incredibly frustrating, you know, if you're trying to achieve some sort of balance, some sort of rounded approach. When you're embedded, and I've done it in Iraq and Afghanistan, you feel like there's no independent point where you can stand and sort of try and judge for yourself what's going on.

So yet, you're having to offset everything you're told by trying to imagine what your opponents of the military would say.

SMITH: And Bill, of course, the military, if they don't like what you're saying, they can retaliate. ITV can be banned from being embedded.

NEELY: Yes, we ran a series of reports on the treatment of soldiers back in the U.K., primarily at civilian hospitals. Ministry of Defense didn't like that and decided to take out its wrath by banning a major news organization, like ITN, from Iraq and from Afghanistan.

I think that was a major mistake. I think the MD and indeed the Pentagon, if they tried it, will always lose when you're seen to crush a media organization in that way. It was a very stupid thing to do, in my opinion. But sometimes, the Ministry of Defense and indeed the Pentagon - well, as I said before, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

They can screw up quite monumentally sometimes in their dealings with the media.

LOYN: Well, it's partly because these are very unpopular wars. I mean, you know, particularly in Britain. And there are real problems British forces face. And I remember one occasion when there was a British contingent, the Black Watch, in Iraq were sent on an unpopular assignment. And there was a question as to whether they'd be home by Christmas. And there was a young British soldier interviewed. He said well, you know, Tony Blair says we'll be home by Christmas, but we know he always lies.

Well, now getting access to soldiers who say that kind of thing about (INAUDIBLE) leaders is obviously what the Ministry of Defense doesn't want. They want, you know, their own message out.

I think there are differences with American forces, where American commanders will say go onto my base, talk to any soldier, and you know what you won't get those kinds of opinions expressed.

But even with that, I think there is a reluctance on the part of the British Ministry of Defense to give people the kind of access that Bill got in that extraordinary report from Afghanistan.

As we saw from, you know, my opportunity to interview the Taliban on the other side, if you - if they invite you, and they invited me in on that occasion, they want their side of the story reported as well. And I think it's our duty to do both.

SMITH: And of course, the problems with embedding aren't the only problems with covering these kind of wars. Raymond, if I can bring you in again here. It's very expensive, isn't it, when you have to undertake several weeks at a time. You're going to be embedded with some of these forces. Does that prevent these organizations from covering these battles?

WHITAKER: Yes, it does, quite frankly. I mean, Bill having been embedded for three weeks, you know, we simply can't afford the time, the manpower to do that. So we're very unlikely to get anywhere near the combat as a result.

I think the same is true for a lot of smaller news organizations than ours.

SMITH: Getting near the combat is not only expensive, I mean, it's dangerous, Bill. I mean, what we were looking at you doing there, you and your cameraman were at serious risk. You must have to consider that as well, the balance between your own personal safety and to inform people what's really happening?

NEELY: Yes, you do. But I mean, I think you partly sign off, you know, as soon as you step on the plane from our (INAUDIBLE) Norton. You have taken that first step.

I find it amusing sometimes when you're told that you can't go to a place in Afghanistan because it's for your own safety. I mean, but why do they think we're there? But when you point out to them that, you know, we do this all the time, that I - last year, 194 journalists were killed, you know, jaws begin to drop when they suddenly realize that, you know, it is a dangerous game. And yet, we accept that we're there with a pen, not with a gun.

SMITH: Raymond Whitaker, David Loyn, Bill Neely, thanks all for coming in.

And still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a Palestinian perspective in Israel. "The Palestinian Times" hits the newsstand in the holy city. Will its message reach readers? That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMITH: Welcome back. A new newspaper has entered the market in Israel. Now that might be nothing out of the ordinary, except that this one is a Palestinian publication. The first to go on sale there in more than four decades.

Atika Shubert has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "The Palestine Times" is printed in Ramallah on the West Bank. But now, you can buy it in Israel, the first Palestinian paper to be sold here since the 1967 War.

Othman Haj Mohammad, the editor in chief, started the paper late last year with his own money. The aim, he says, to bring the world a Palestinian perspective, especially to Israelis.

OTHMAN HAJ MOHAMMAD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE PALESTINIAN TIMES: This is the first time I think a newspaper trying to show the Palestinians as a human beings, rather than just enemies. You know.

SHUBERT: But as an English language daily, "The Palestine Times" has limited reach, especially in Israel, where Hebrew is the language of most.

(on camera): A quick glance of the headlines shows how different "The Palestine Times" is to its Israel's competitors. While others go with news of a nationwide strike and anti terror drills, "The Palestine Times" provocatively reads "East Jerusalem is Occupied Territory." But will Israelis pay to read a Palestinian point of view?

(voice-over): Many Israelis we spoke to welcomed it as an opportunity for dialogue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it would be very important because people are getting more extreme on both sides. We can see this both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side.

SHUBERT: Others were not pleased, but declined to say so on camera. This woman was the only one to express her reservations to us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not 100 percent sure that I feel good about this concept of a Palestinian paper in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land.

SHUBERT: We tried young and old, men and women, many declined. One person snapped at us off camera, "Palestinians can take their papers and go to Jordan."

Even these student musicians declined to be interviewed, but asked rhetorically who would pay to read what Arabs think. "The Palestine Times" is ready and available for Israelis, but is Israel ready for "The Palestine Times?"

Atika Shubert, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SMITH: And seeing in Israel where Polish state radio has begun broadcasting a daily program in Hebrew. It's partly funded by Poland's foreign ministry. And the 30 minute show, called Poland, is designed to give Israelis an up to date picture of the country.

Poland was home to an estimated 3.5 million Jews before the second World War.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a new political stage. French presidential candidates reaching out to voters online. So is this the future of election campaigns? Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMITH: Welcome back. It is a contest that could come right down to the wire. And the candidate in the French presidential election are using a new medium, the Internet, to reach out to the voters.

In a moment, we'll examine whether this is the ballot that could be decided online. But first, this report from Jim Bitterman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM BITTERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a country that claims to have more blogs per citizen than anywhere else on the planet, presidential politics have captured the imagination of the web obsessed or "Internauts", as they're called here.

JULIAN PAIN, MEDIA ANALYST: The new thing with the Internet is that people have the feeling that they can participate, that they're no longer watch what's going on, but they can maybe have some input, and tell what they think, and take action.

SMITH: Socialist candidate Segoline Royal has perhaps gone the farthest to demonstrate their approach. For months through a number of blogs and websites, Royal has been vacuuming up French opinion and hope under a web campaign called "Desires for the Future."

But her center right opponent is no slacker on the web either. Nicolas Sarcosy's slick site includes a digital clock counting down the seconds to the moment he hopes to be elected. And at every public appearance, his web address is always in the background.

But does any of this cyber commotion really amount to anything in real world politics? Author Alexandre Jardin, who runs a political blog called "How Do We Do It" says that politicians are using the web incorrectly and they're just after publicity. He says it's much better if they use the collective expertise of the Internots.

ALEXANDRE JARDIN, AUTHOR AND BLOGGER: For example, if you ask them how can we do to push experienced teachers in the suburbs? The answers are incredibly serious and passionate. And it's like if we were discovering a very clever country.

BITTERMAN (on camera): But Jardin adds it can also work against candidates, especially if they get tempted into exaggeration or misrepresentation, because there's always someone out in cyberspace who will call them on it. In other words, live by the web, die by the web.

In fact, there have already been new media victims, including Segoline Royal, who was secretly taped talking tough to teachers. And one of France's top political reporters, who thought he was off the record when he told students he was going to vote for (INAUDIBLE) candidate Francois Biroux (ph).

Both got into trouble when their gaffes appeared on the Internet. And the political battles are not only being fought on the streets of France, but on the flyways and beaches of the virtual world "Second Life." All the major French candidates have campaign headquarters here, although there was some debate at first about whether the extreme right candidate should be allowed in.

But in the end, no one was denied the right to buy their private islands and even sell virtual t-shirts to potential virtual voters.

And through an exacting recreation of French election newscasts, the web even offers something for voters who aren't satisfied with any of the choices, believing as pundits say everyone here does, that he or she is the only person really qualified to run the country.

Jim Bitterman, CNN, Paris.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SMITH: So it's less than a month to the first round of voting. And will this be the election that is determined because of what the candidates do online?

To discuss this, I'm joined by Derek Thomson. He's the editor in chief of France24.com. And he's joining us from Paris.

And here in the studio is the political writer with "The Guardian," Ros Taylor.

Let me ask you, first, Derek, is one candidate noticeably doing better online than the others in this first web-based election?

THOMSON: I would say the website that has the most technical skill in (INAUDIBLE) is Nicolas Sarcosy's website. He's spending a lot of money on this. He has a huge team, about 20 people, working on it every day. The website has a lot of bells and whistles. It has widgets, which are little games that you can download and put on your own site, if you're a supporter of Sarcosy.

Segoline Royal's site is also very sophisticated, very advanced, and is getting quite a lot of traffic.

And then Paul (INAUDIBLE) site, he's the third candidate who has sort of come out of nowhere in the last couple of months, his site is actually more Internet friendly. Hardcore Internet bloggers rate his site the highest because it's set up more like a contemporary blog, which is - which stresses interaction, where the other sites are a little bit more promotional.

SMITH: And Ros, interaction, of course, is the key difference, isn't it, when you're campaigning online, rather than through the television or the newspapers? It makes voters feel as though they're having some input. But are they? Is any of this online stuff actually changing what any of the politicians say?

ROS TAYLOR, GUARDIAN UNLIMITED: I think it is beginning to do that. And in fact, Segoline Royal was the person who wouldn't kick start it - this big Internet campaign in France when she asked people to go to her site, which was all about hope, she said, and hope for the future, and suggest ideas that she would then consider for her manifesto.

And sure enough, when she came out with her manifesto a few weeks ago, quite a lot of it had picked up on ideas that were suggested online by those people.

SMITH: The Internet's a dangerous tool, though, isn't it, Derek? In the last U.S. election, we saw a couple of political careers pretty much destroyed by things that ended up on the Internet. Has there been a down side for any French candidate so far?

THOMSON: There was a little bit of a hullabaloo about Segoline Royal before the primary for the Socialist party, before she became the candidate for the Socialist party. A video turned up on the web that showed her at a meeting with teachers, suggesting that they should spend more time teaching the kids they're supposed to be teaching and less time earning extra money by providing private tuition.

Now teachers are very, very powerful lobby in France. And there was quite a lot of controversy about this. But obviously, it didn't stop her getting the nomination. So it didn't end up having much effect at all.

SMITH: The Internet can drive news events as well, can't it, Ros? For instance, you get pictures of riots ending up on the Internet that you wouldn't necessarily see on the television? And that drives events in itself?

TAYLOR: Yes, absolutely. In fact, in the last couple of days, when there's been a lot of rioting in the Gardinot (ph) in Paris, we found that mobile phone footage that people have filmed has turned up very, very quickly online. And the even more interesting issue around that is that Nicolas Sarcosy, of course, is the leading candidate in election has passed a law when he was still in the government that could make it illegal to actually show those kinds of images.

So it's almost gone forbidden quality now, putting those kinds of scenes online. And it means that we have seen a bit more video in this campaign. And so far, apart from the video of Segoline Royal that we were talking about earlier, this hasn't been - there hasn't been a lot of short, gas prone videos of the kind that you tend to see (INAUDIBLE) U.S. election sites.

SMITH: So how has the Internet changing this election then, Derek, if it's not by destroying people by showing them doing stupid things?

THOMSON: I think it is - I'm not sure how much it's going to change this election this year. I've been looking at figures for how important the Internet is as a way of promoting political news. And according to the latest - according to a survey last month, only nine percent of French Internet users say that they get most of their political news from the Internet.

Most of them are getting it from where everyone's always got the last 20 years their political news, which is television. Television and radio are really, I think, going to be the dominant media force in this campaign.

I think the Internet is interesting because it's a sign of the future. And I do think that the Internet political community, which is quite small and quite tightly knit, does have an influence because politicians read these blogs. And then, also that the - I'm sorry the journalists read the blogs. And the journalists also put the blogs on television.

So a lot of the French television companies are following the web campaign very closely and showing that on the evening news. So even though it's a small audience online, I think that the Net effect will be quite big. Although how influential it is on the final result, I really can't tell you.

SMITH: Derek Thomson in Paris, Ros Taylor here in London, thank you both very much for talking to us today.

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 Sarah Smith in London. Thank you very much for joining us.

END

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