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BBC Journalist in Gaza; Iran/Britain Incident; Media and the Catholic Church

Aired April 6, 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, handling the crisis between Iran and Britain. Did news outlets play to the beat of a propaganda machine? Reporters rally for the freedom of a BBC journalist in Gaza. And losing faith, the top aides to the pope attacks the media's coverage of the Catholic church.

It dominated world headlines for almost two weeks - the capture by Iran of 15 British sailors in disputed waters in the Gulf. Their release came on Wednesday, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced they would be freed as a gift to Britain. In a moment, we look at the media's handling of the crisis.

But first, this report from Aneesh Raman.


ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a moment made for TV, one by one, the pardoned British military personnel voicing gratitude to a man often vilified by their government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to thank yourself and the Iranian people.

RAMAN: For his part, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to relish the moment in the final chapter of a sophisticated PR campaign.

MARK FITZPATRICK, INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS EXPERT: President Ahmadinejad and the country he represents comes off today as rational, reasonable, someone you can deal with, a smiling man. And I think Iran was rational all along, but many of the statements by President Ahmadinejad were not rational or reasonable at all.

RAMAN: From the very beginning, Iran used the media to its advantage. First, broadcasting this video of the seized British military personnel just days after their capture, showing them in what appeared to be good condition on an Arabic language state run channel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They explained to us why we've been arrested.

RAMAN: From Britain, though, came anger over the staged confessions shown on television. First, of Faye Tourney, then of others. It prompted a warning from British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: We've had, if you like, two very clear tracks on this. One is to try and settle this by way of peaceful and calm negotiation to get our people back as quickly as possible. The other is to make it clear that if that's not possible, then we have to take an increasingly tougher position.

RAMAN: The standoff finally ended on Wednesday with a very public presidential pardon. And from a man known for his provocative statements, a hint of humor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So a kind of compulsory trip they want.

RAMAN (on camera): There are many theories as to why this all played out as it did. One possibility, Ahmadinejad wanted to show the diplomacy breeds rewards from Tehran, a not so subtle sign perhaps that dialogue, not confrontation, is the best solution to Iran's nuclear defiance.

Aneesh Raman, CNN, Amman.


SWEENEY: Well, from the press footage of the captured sailors to their release, let's look at the media's handling of the crisis. I'm joined in the studio by BBC World News Editor Jon Williams, along with Nazenin Ansari, the diplomatic editor for the Iranian newspaper "Kayhari" here in London.

Let me ask you, what has been, broadly speaking, the press reaction in Tehran?

NAZENIN ANSARI, DIPLOMATIC EDITOR, KAYHARI, LONDON: Well, to begin with, the sailors, when they were paraded on TV, it was the al Olan, which is Arabic channel of Iranian television.

And it's very interesting because it doesn't even have a Farsi website. So it is only in Arabic and English.

SWEENEY: And of that being?

ANSARI: That basically the message was towards the Arab street, and that they wanted to project an image of power and influence onto the Arab street that - and they did not want to do that into - within Iran itself.

SWEENEY: Why not within Iran?

ANSARI: Because I think, perhaps, maybe they do considerate it as a lost cause because at the moment, there is a lot of discontentment and within the - three different social circles. You've got the women. You've got the youth. You've got the students, but also the professional classes, such as the teachers, the labor unions, the doctors.

So I don't think - I think perhaps this image was basically geared towards the Arab street.

SWEENEY: OK. So perhaps it wasn't the bilateral discussion that (INAUDIBLE) Britain said. They want - Jon Williams at the BBC, how did the BBC play this?

JON WILLIAMS, BBC WORLD NEWS EDITOR: I think clearly, there's an awful lot of audience interest in this story, both domestically, but also internationally at the point at which 15 British service personnel are taken from the Gulf, and taken to Iran, then clearly that's a big story.

As we've heard, the pictures emerged on the Arabic channel. And again, as we've heard, I think that's significant. And I think we and other broadcasters picked that up in terms of deconstructing the story, rather than simply just reporting the head on story. The implications and what was going on were also explored.

SWEENEY: One Iranian commentator told me that how the British press reacted was in some ways, from an Iranian standpoint, far more conciliatory and better for the pending release of the captured sailors than the reaction of the British government, at least initially. What did you make of the newspaper reaction here?

WILLIAMS: I think whenever 15 British people are taken prisoner, there's always going to be some elements of the British media that say bring or let our boys and let our girls go free.

I think that's quite interesting if people genuinely thought that it was low key. I think clearly, in any discussion around people who are imprisoned, the language and the tone of the coverage is - can have a negative impact.

And I think, you know, we and other broadcasters have been quite careful to - about the tone to ensure that we weren't making matters worse in how we were reporting what was going on.

SWEENEY: Nazenin, how closely do you think British media coverage of this story was monitored in Tehran?

ANSARI: It was monitored actually most of the reports in the first few days. They were quoting foreign sources. And there wasn't any much news coming from within the sources in Iran within the government.

And once the story started to appear, it's very interesting that they started to appear in, for example, one news agency that is very close to the security agency. Whereas the rest of the news agencies or the papers were - either used it, of course, it was the new year holidays. And - but most of the stories were - appeared on the revolutionary voice website or the security services. Whereas the reformist websites weren't covering that story as much.

SWEENEY: Jon Williams, a final question to you. Obviously, this story will be dominating the headlines in Britain for the next few days as the sailors are returned to their families, etcetera and celebrations take place. But do you foresee if it's possible to speculate at this stage perhaps a change of tone when things calm down in the media in terms of taking a good, long hard look at what took place and a look at the British government's handling of it?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think we've already begun to see a change of tone. Clearly, the arrival back of the 15 British Navy personnel coincided with the deaths of four British service personnel in Basra. When Tony Blair came out in Downing Street on Thursday, one of the points that he made was that on the one hand, we've got 15 British personnel coming back from Iran, but is there a hidden hand behind what's going on in Basra?

And I think one of the challenges for all of the media is to explore what's really going on in some of those really difficult places to get to. Only then can we really tell the full story of what was going on in the Gulf 16 days ago.

SWEENEY: Jon Williams, Nazenin Ansari, thank you very much indeed.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the kidnapping of the BBC's Gaza based reporter. Journalists rally and support of one of their own. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now to the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, the only Western journalist permanently based in Gaza, the 44- year old was abducted from his car on March 12th. This week, he became the reporter to be held longest in Gaza.

Well, (INAUDIBLE) Johnston's release, Palestinians released Palestinian journalist staged a three day strike to press the government to do more. Officials have said they know who the kidnappers are. And as this program was being filmed, there have been no word on his condition or claim of responsibility by any group.


SIMON WILSON, BBC MIDDLE EAST OFFICE DIRECTOR: We continue to be optimistic that this will be resolved because we know that Alan has no enemies in Gaza. Alan has only friends in Gaza. We know and we're told and we're promised that there are efforts underway. Everyone is doing everything possible to try and resolve the situation.

And we're just very proud on behalf of Alan and of his family on behalf of the BBC that there's just so much energy in the demonstrations.


SWEENEY: Calls for Johnston's release also extended to London, where BBC's staff held a vigil for their missing colleague. The British newspaper, "The Guardian," also published a petition from 300 international journalists, demanding Johnston's freedom.

Alan Johnston was due to leave his Gaza post this month. Over the past three years, almost a dozen journalists have been abducted in Gaza. None has been harmed and most were released within days or even hours.

Well, for more on this, I'm joined by Jon Williams from the BBC. He's still with us. And from Gaza, freelance journalist and stringer for "The New York Times," Taghreed El Khodary.

Taghreed, if I may turn to you. As we mentioned, this is the longest period of time a journalist has been held. What, if anything, do we know?

TAGHREED EL KHODARY, JOURNALIST: Sadly, nothing so far. Not a word, not an official word coming from the president, neither the government, you know, like Hania (ph) or Abu Mazden (ph) have not said a word on this, not official information.

I even interviewed those involved in the abduction, whoever you know, the people are accusing them of being behind the abduction. I interviewed them themselves. And even them, they denied anything to do with the abduction of Alan.

SWEENEY: And is that normal that they would admit to have kidnapped him to you as a journalist? So you believe those denials, essentially, is that what you're saying?

KHODARY: What's normal that there should be negotiation between the abductors and the president or the government, between Hamas, and the abductors between (INAUDIBLE) and abductors.

But in this case, in the case of Alan, nothing, you know, like that no negotiations. We don't know the demands of the abductors. And when I interviewed those who are accused of being behind the abduction, they expressed their anger at the government. They expressed their anger towards Hamas, towards Abu Mazden (ph), but they have not `til now stated that they are behind the abductions.

SWEENEY: Jon Williams, this must be extremely worrying for the BBC. What can you tell us?

WILLIAMS: Well, clearly it is worrying for us in that Alan has now been held almost twice as long as anybody else has been held, any other international hostage has been held in Gaza.

And the truth is that we haven't had any contact with anybody who may be holding him. And the only contacts that we've had have been indirect members of the Palestinian Unity government, reassuring us and reassuring the British Foreign Office that Alan is OK, and is safe.

But we've seen no definite proof of that.

SWEENEY: And what impact does that have on the BBC's reporting, because Alan Johnston was, as you said, the only permanently based international journalist in Gaza? And he was, as has been said many times, a friend to the Palestinian people and yet he was kidnapped?

WILLIAMS: I think it has a profound impact, not only on the BBC's reporting of Gaza, but of all international reporting of Gaza. Clearly, as an any stage wherever we are, all we can do is manage the risk. We can't eliminate risk. And currently, the BBC and most other international news organizations aren't sending people to Gaza simply because it proves too unsafe.

We've only got to look at what happened to Alan to see that.

SWEENEY: And Taghreed in Gaza, it is almost self defeating for the Palestinians and for their story, if journalists cannot travel there because of the safety concerns. And when you say that you've talked to the people who've been accused of abducting them, let me - of abducting Alan rather, let me ask you about there's a link between the very powerful family clans and the government in Gaza?

KHODARY: These families, these clans with weapons, with many members of male, you know, male members, that they were used during fast times, that they are in a way what they call the `dirty hands.'

And when I talked to them, they said - these officials, some of them, they use us for their interests. And now we feel marginalized. That's what I'm hearing from them.

They are powerful. And they want to prove at this moment that they are a key factor in the political system, that they don't want to be marginalized. They want to be in the political system. They want to be inside these security apparatuses.

And sadly, the president and the government, Hamas, and Fatah have not yet cooperated together in order to impose complete reform all over the security forces.

SWEENEY: And Taghreed, what impact does the continual kidnapping of international journalists in Gaza have on your work and those of your Palestinian colleagues?

KHODARY: It's very frustrating. It's very sad that they cannot come here. It's very important for the Palestinian story, for the Palestinian cause to be observed by international journalists. And sadly, we have reached to this stage that journalists, international journalists and even international who work in the humanitarian organizations, they cannot come to Gaza.

So there is fear, even as journalists, as Palestinian journalists we feel afraid. We feel that we are observed even by whoever, you know, in the political system. And - but we have to keep fighting. We have to keep, you know, sending the story abroad.

SWEENEY: Jon Williams, a final word to you, if I may. I mean, we've seen petitions in "The Guardian" by international journalists. We've seen demonstrations by Palestinian journalists in Gaza. But still no effect. I mean, what does that tell you?

WILLIAMS: I think it's too early to judge. Clearly, the pressure that Alan's colleagues in Gaza is enormously humbling. And Alan's family in Scotland have been very moved by the show of support from his colleagues in Gaza and also around the world.

I think what it does show is that when people stand together, when journalists stand together, actually, they can have an impact. There's no question that the Palestinian unity government is absolutely focused on this and is determined to try and resolve it. And it's determined to try and resolve it because the solidarity that Alan's colleagues in Gaza have shown to him.

SWEENEY: There we have to leave it. Jon Williams here in the studio, Taghreed Khodary in Gaza, thank you both very much for joining us.

Well up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, criticism from the Roman Catholic Church. Tired of negative Western press, the pope's top aide attacks the media. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. As Christians around the world observe Easter, the Vatican Secretary of State has criticized the media for its coverage of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Tarsissio Bartoni accused journalists of misinterpreting speeches by the pope, noting the pontiff's Regensburg address last September, which angered Muslims.

In an interview with France's "Le Figaro" magazine, Cardinal Bartoni was quoted as saying, " The church's messages are subject to a type of manipulation and falsification by some Western media." He added, "I see a fixation by some journalists on moral topics, such as abortion and homosexual unions, which are certainly important issues but absolutely do not constitute the thinking and work of the church. We have to say the press does not write much about the social and charity work of thousands of Catholic organizations around the world."

Well, let's discuss the cardinal's comments on the media's coverage of the church. And for that, Delia Gallagher, CNN's faith and values correspondent joins us from New York. And here in London is Freddie Gray, the deputy editor of "The Catholic Herald."

Delia, do these comments surprise you?

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all. I mean, it's something that we've heard many times at the Vatican. Maybe not given directly to the media. I think Cardinal Bartoni is one of the few cardinals who actually comes out and speaks to the media on a number of topics. I mean, any journalist at the Vatican will tell you that it's not so easy sometimes to get cardinals or anybody at the press office to respond on the record.

And so Cardinal Bartoni is kind of coming out now fighting, but it's something that you heard a lot in cocktail parties and so on. You know, sometimes I think there's a kind of great conspiracy. But sometimes it's just a matter of the Vatican not recognizing what they need to do in order to play the game.

I mean, journalists are under immense time pressure. The headlines have to be sexy. There's a lot that goes into writing these stories that the Vatican sometimes is very reticent to be a part of, and yet they want to complain then that their message doesn't get out there.

SWEENEY: Well, he particularly, Freddie Gray mentioned the Regensburg speech, which of course as we know, caused a fury, for which the Vatican had to roll back. Indeed some time, not immediately. How efficient do you think the Vatican press office? And isn't it fair to say that if the word Islam is going to be mentioned in a speech or Muslims, that it is going to be picked up by journalists?

FREDDIE GRAY, DEPUTY EDITOR, CATHOLIC HERALD: Well, I think the Vatican press office is inefficient. And I think Regensburg showed that. And the relationship between the church and the media has to be improved.

However, it's important that the church doesn't become a PR driven organization. I mean, the church is dealing with things of eternal importance, not flash news headlines that are sensational or otherwise.

SWEENEY: And of course, the church has been some would say conservative, slow to modernize, particularly in relations with the media. But in an age of 24/7 news coverage, can it afford to remain like that if it doesn't want the kind of headlines that Cardinal Bartoni's complaining about?

GRAY: Well, perhaps it does need to make its message clearer. I think most Catholic journalists would agree that the Vatican press office is unable to cope with the demands of modern media.

However, that said, I think that Tony is quite right to point out that there is a media bias against the church, particularly if you look at something like Regansburg (ph), the way the BBC website ran that story. Even before it was really a national story, they spun it. And they inserted quotes quite obviously in a way that was very damaging and harmful to the pope. And in fact, it resulted in a nun being murdered in Africa. So I think the media does need to look at the way it addresses Catholic issues as well.

SWEENEY: Delia, we're two years into this papacy almost. What kind of image do you think they wish to portray at the outset of this? And how well has it achieved that or not?

GALLAGHER: Well, I think that Regansburg (ph) was an interesting lesson in underestimating how some of his talks would come across. And he's not in the university atmosphere and so on. And so, I think that the Vatican press office, which is you know, the press officer has changed. The papal spokesman has changed, but the rest of the people that are working there stay the same essentially.

And I think that they're learning. But they can only do as much as the pope is sort of willing to communicate to them.

So I remember working under Navarro (ph) Bulde. If we had a papal speech, which we only had a few hours before it was delivered, he would come out and say well, this is the way we think, you know, these things should be read, or these are the key points. Because these speeches are very dense. And I mean, something like Regensburg, to put out in a short wire story in 30 seconds, of course they're going to pick, you know, the Muslim fray.

So I think that the Vatican press office is still learning. And indeed, the pope himself is still learning. What's the best way for me to be true to myself in how I want to deliver things, but get it across to the world's press.

SWEENEY: Very briefly, Freddie, I mean, you talk about how the Vatican should not become a PR machine, but the press office that routinely shuts at midday around lunchtime every day during the week. I mean, really, is that acceptable in this day and age for the Vatican's own benefit?

GRAY: Well, I mean personally, I think that's quite charming, but I can see that it's - it will cause problems in the modern media age.

However, I think Pope Benedict is obviously well aware that 24 hour news and religious truths don't go hand in hand. They're not things that work together.

So it's really a problem that might never be solved.

SWEENEY: Freddie Gray, on that well pacifistic note, we will have to leave it. Delia Gallagher, thank you very much indeed.

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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