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Killing Highlights Dangers for Journalists in Mexico; Fallout from Brit Sailors' Iranian Captivity;

Aired April 13, 2007 - 12:30:00   ET


FINNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Finnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
We begin this week in Mexico where authorities are vowing to punish those responsible for the assassination of a correspondent with the country's leading television network, Televisa. Amado Ramirez's death is the latest in a string of killings and disappearances of journalists. Attacks against media professionals have earned Mexico the honor of being the second most dangerous country in which to be a reporter.

Family and friends at the funeral of report Amado Ramirez in Acapulco, a resort that has become a violent battleground between Mexico's rival drug gangs, so much so that local reporters say the turf war is affecting the way they operate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): All of the colleagues are scared of transmitting information, of making some commentary. Not even the government is capable of stopping this crime wave that is affecting all of us.


SWEENEY: Amado Ramirez, a radio and television correspondent for Mexico's Televisa network, had covered Acapulco for more than a decade. He was shot three times in the back as he left a radio interview on April 6th.

Ramirez's colleagues say he had received anonymous threats in the months leading up to the killing. His family is demanding action.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Don't let this go unpunished. Search for the truth, make justice, give him a handsome tribute as he would have wanted, as he deserved.


SWEENEY: Journalist groups say Mexican reporters have often been targeted after reporting on alleged links between drug gangs and officials.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): You can be sure that this is an assassination that will not stay unpunished. We are going to find the guilty and apply the full weight of the law.


SWEENEY: The group Reporters without Borders now lists Mexico as the second most dangerous place for journalists. For more on the situation there, I'm joined by Benoit Hervieu, the head of the Americas desk with Reporters without Borders. He is in Paris. And in Mexico City, by CNN's Harris Whitbeck.

Harris, what is the latest on the situation there?

HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Finnuala, in terms of the latest killing in Acapulco, the killing Amado Ramirez, who was a correspondent for Televisa, the local TV station here.

The government reported two arrests in that case. Now many here are not -- are wondering whether those arrests are legitimate or if they were basically -- if they basically took place to appease calls by family members and by local journalists for justice in this case.

One interesting point is that there is a special prosecutor in Mexico for organized crime. And that special prosecutor's office decided not to handle the Ramirez assassination case because they say they have found no evidence of links between organized crime and the assassination of this reporter in Acapulco.

Now Acapulco is in the state of Guerrero, which is one of the most violent states in Mexico. It is where a lot of drug trafficking activity takes place. And there have been a lot of accusations of local government corruption.

SWEENEY: And, Harris, is it a surprise that essentially the authorities have decided not to pursue this?

WHITBECK: It is when you look at the circumstances. As I say, this reporter was working in a state where there is -- I mean, it is known for a lot of organized crime activity, a lot of drug trafficking there.

So one would think that the circumstances would at least draw the attention of the special prosecutor's office. So in that sense, yes, there is some surprise.

SWEENEY: Benoit in Paris, Mexico, according to your organization, has become like the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists. How has it become so and why?

BENOIT HERVIEU, HEAD OF AMERICAS DESK, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: It is linked to the drug trafficking, of course, especially, you know, in the border states with the United States.

Also now in -- more in the interior of the country, a state like Michoacan, Guerrero, Veracruz. And the problem also is the impunity.

SWEENEY: And we have seen, Benoit, protests in Mexico, because of this assassination, by journalists. But why -- how much impact to they have, these protests. And what can an organization such as Reporters without borders do?

HERVIEU: Well, we (INAUDIBLE) four federal commissions inside the federal parliament to investigate in the state -- in different states where there is a big violation of press freedom like Oaxaca, Sonora, Guanajuato, Puebla, Guerrero.

And well, there are normally -- well, their house of representatives - - the federal house of representatives is going to lead a mission this year.

SWEENEY: OK. Harris Whitbeck, you are obviously based in Mexico for CNN and to a certain extent, you are foreign media there. How much different is the situation for local journalists?

WHITBECK: It is a whole different world Finnuala. And I was talking to several colleagues, other foreign correspondents here about the differences between our situation and that of the local journalists.

Local journalists are in daily contact with many of the people they cover, many of the local authorities they cover. They are much more exposed to possible recriminations. Usually when we go, for example -- you know, if I go to Acapulco to cover a story, I will go, drive in, fly in, be there at three or four days, come back, write my story, get it on the air.

It is more of a parachuting type situation. I'm not as exposed as the local journalists are. So it is really a completely different ballgame for us as foreign correspondents. And that just shows how much more difficult it is for local reporters.

Local reporters are much more exposed to acts of intimidation, to the possibility of corruption itself, and to basically just the pressures of living in small communities where everybody knows you, everybody knows your whereabouts, your movements. And that makes it much more difficult.

That is why so many -- there have been seven local journalists killed here in the last six months, eight more have received death threats and at least a couple are still missing or have disappeared.

SWEENEY: There we must leave it. Harris Whitbeck in Mexico City, and Benoit Hervieu in Paris, thank you both very much indeed.

Now the latest on efforts to free the BBC's Gaza-based correspondent, Alan Johnston. International broadcasters joined forces in a global day of action on Thursday in a renewed call for information.

As this program was being filmed, there have been no sign of Johnston, who went missing more than a month ago. It is believed he was kidnapped. The head of the BBC took his appeal to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas told the corporation he had credible evidence that the reporter was safe and well.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I appeal to all of those who may have influence with the kidnapers to use their best endeavors to secure Alan's release safely and speedily, and to ensure his return to his family and friends as quickly as possible.


SWEENEY: In Britain, Alan Johnston's parents also appealed for help.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would like to say something to those who are holding you. You have families, please think about what this is doing to my family, including in particular, the distress and deep, deep concern Alan's mother and sister have had to endure for all of these long weeks.


SWEENEY: Alan Johnston was due to leave his Gaza post this month.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, their stories at a price. The media frenzy and backlash after sailors held by Iran were allowed to profit from their experience in the Gulf. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The advantage of hindsight. That is how the British government is treating its response to the media storm surrounding the sale of stories by sailors held by Iran in the Gulf.

A decision to allow crew members to profit from interviews sparked an outcry from opposition leaders, former military commanders, and relatives of British service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The criticism resulted in the decision being reversed. Britain's defence secretary, Des Browne says the blame ultimately rests with him.


DES BROWNE, BRITISH DEFENCE SECRETARY: I think people need to understand that as these young people who have come back from detention and come back safely, were being debriefed, a view was taken by the navy that it was in their interests to have an opportunity to tell the story to counteract the propaganda that the Iranians had put out using them.


SWEENEY: Faye Turney, the only woman out of the 15 sailors held by Iran for almost two weeks, struck a joint television and newspaper deal estimated to be worth almost $200,000.

While some took up deals, others spoke to the media without receiving payment. Well, to discuss how this issue played out, I'm joining in the studio by Toby Helm, chief political correspondent with The Daily Telegraph; and Charlie Beckett, the director of POLIS, the journalism think-tank of the London School of Economics.

Toby Helm, what is your take on all of this?

TOBY HELM, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH: Well, I think this has been a giant embarrassment for the British government, a giant embarrassment for the navy, and pretty embarrassing for the troops themselves, actually.

I think it is a -- I think it is more mistake, or as we would say in Britain, cock-up, rather than conspiracy. But I think there was an element of the navy and the ministry of defence trying to steer the story away from what they feared it would become, which was a story about what really went wrong in the Gulf before these people were seized, and put it on to the great human story of the hostages.

I think that was what drove the initial media deals here.

SWEENEY: And this, Charlie Beckett, is where Des Browne, the defence secretary, says on Monday he realized that this decision, which had been put to him, you know, at the weekend, really was something that should not have been done in hindsight. And then subsequently he says he is taking the blame.

But effectively is what Toby suggests is the reasoning behind the navy allowing these interviews to be sold, then it really has worked for them, because it has distracted from what happened in the Gulf and it has put the whole question back onto the government, and media spin.

CHARLIE BECKETT, DIRECTOR, POLIS: I wish it was that simple. I think what has been extraordinary about this whole saga has been he had a real diplomatic incident, which has been played throughout -- through the media from the very minute these people were taken hostage by the Iranians.

The Iranians started to play a game of spin and publicity seeking and bluster through the international media. So it is no surprise, really, that this administration in Britain, which is supposed to be utterly brilliant at spin, was desperate to be able to readjust the message.

And it got that fantastic opportunity when finally the sailors were brought back home. Something then, as Toby said, possibly by mistake as much by calculation, went horribly wrong.

I suspect in the eagerness of the politicians and at least some of the higher-ups in the MOD who were desperate to try and put what they saw as their story out. Unfortunately they completely misjudged it over elements such as paying these people.

And also I don't think they quite understood that the story itself wasn't quite as cast-iron as I think they might have believed.

SWEENEY: And what do you mean by that?

BECKETT: Well, I think in the sense that the MOD wanted to play out a story of great heroism, and in fact, these were quite ordinary, low-ranking ratings who were caught up in, I think, what was probably going to turn out to be something of a military cock-up as well as a publicity cock-up.

And these weren't people who had actually mastered the situation or were necessarily in control of it. And by using them and trying to build them into heroes who had suffered great grief and torment, I think they were over-selling the story.

SWEENEY: Could you imagine, Toby Helm, this kind of scenario, once the sailors had got back from Iran, happening in our media 10 years ago?

HELM: Not to the same extent, no. I doubt -- I really don't think you could have done.

SWEENEY: Is that because we have become we have become much more celebrity-obsessed and everybody is selling or telling their story?

HELM: Yes. I mean, I think the role that the modern media plays in politics and international diplomacy and all major forms of government activity is so huge now that everybody is really, really acutely attuned to the tactics of using the media, the tactics of how to exploit the media, and the tactics of how to fend off the media.

And that is what you are seeing here, you are seeing acute awareness. In this case they may have got it wrong in the navy and the MOD. But they thought they had a smart tactic of how to use the media to their benefit.

And I think we have all learned. I think public have learned a bit, actually. But I think certainly government has learned and press offices have learned the tricks of the trade. Sometimes they screw up. And in this case they screwed up.

SWEENEY: And by screwing up, it might seem as some kind of domestic screw-up within Britain, maybe some altercation between the navy and the government about how this story should be handled.

But the ramifications internationally for Britain and the.


SWEENEY: . are much worse.

HELM: Yes, deeply embarrassing. I mean, I think that you have -- you have a picture -- this would have been a big story abroad. I mean, it is a story about massive mishandling of a crisis.

I mean, Blair is not a popular politician for what he has done in Iraq, in Europe or many other parts of the world. And there will be a lot of people actually wanting to point to this as another dimension of Blair's fallibility and Blair's errors.

And also, you know, people are very aware of the British government's reputation for spin and publicity. And they will be laughing their socks off that this has all collapsed around them.

SWEENEY: Which leads me to the next question. What is the fall-out from all of this when it dies down?

BECKETT: Well, I think one of the sort of sad things has been that it is partly generated by the media, but the tone at the anger on the part of the British public and media whipped up by some people was very much a kind of old-fashioned imperialist anger that our dignity had been hurt and our pride had been hurt.

In diplomacy, pride and dignity don't actually stand for much. What really matters is getting your way in the world. And I think that the really dangerous would be if the Brits somehow now feel that they have got to go out there and be more aggressive and be more powerful, if you like, and more full of pride in their dealings, because I'm not sure that will project anything more helpful in a very, very sensitive zone like the Middle East.

SWEENEY: All right. We have to leave it there. Charlie Beckett, Toby Helm, thank you both very much.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, life as a war correspondent, and the motivation behind it. We speak to journalist Anthony Lloyd. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. He served time in the British army during the first Gulf War, before turning his hand to writing about wars. Anthony Lloyd has covered conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has written two books on his war reporting.

It was as a freelancer in Bosnia where Anthony Lloyd got his break. I recently spoke to him and asked him whether he thought he was prepared or naive going into that conflict as a journalist.


ANTHONY LLOYD, WAR CORRESPONDENT: Everybody is načve about war before they see their first proper war. Certainly nothing had prepared me -- put it this way, having been in the first Gulf War and in Northern Ireland in the late '80s as a soldier, nothing I had seen was similar to what I saw in Bosnia. It was a very naked, intense violence there, the levels of hatred were quite unlike anything I had seen in my life at all before.

In hindsight, though, I had set myself up as best I could (INAUDIBLE) sort of learn the rudiments of Serbo-Croatian. I had a little bit of money which I was going to, you know, invest into being there for as long as it took, as long as the money lasted.

You know, I had studied how the war began, the history of the place and, you know, the maps and all the rest of it. But in terms of the violence, the killing, the hatred, no, the -- but I could only have been naive until I saw that.

SWEENEY: And that then propelled you onto, you know, quite a vivid, varied career. It is very difficult to generalize about wars and memories that people have of wars. And often people want to talk to you because you have great stories to tell about your experiences of being a war correspondent.

What do you say to them?

LLOYD: Less and less. I find when I was young and had just started the profession, I would come back from a job and people invariably do ask about it. And I was quite eager when I was in my 20s to talk about it because it was very exciting.

But it seldom leads one during such conversations into an avenue that makes me feel comfortable. Very quickly people start second-guessing you or -- for example, now, with Iraq, everybody says, oh, have you worked in Iraq? And as soon as you say, yes, they just start venting their spleen about what they think about Iraq rather than wanting to discuss it at all.

So I find it easier now, if people say, what do you? I say, I'm a reporter. Then if they follow it further by, oh, what do you report on? I say, I'm a foreign correspondent. Then if they take it further still, then maybe we will get into it. But.

SWEENEY: You would be hard work at a dinner party.



SWEENEY: Let me ask you about your relationship with war and is it in any way linked to your relationship with journalism?

LLOYD: That is a good question. Journalism to me was of secondary interest to war in that I have been a soldier for this length of time, all of the males in my family had either been soldiers or in the air force, you know, during wars. And I was fascinated by war.

And I thought as a young man that war was a place in which you proved yourself as a young guy, where you hopefully find yourself to be brave and perhaps as importantly, were seen by others to be brave.

And the army left me, you know, sort of lacking in an answer to that. So then I went to Bosnia, still sort of to prove myself, but on the ticket of like, well, you know, journalism sounds like an interesting career, and more to the point, a ticket in which to experience war.

This was a long time ago now, it was 1993. So 14 years later, now the two have sort of merged in that, yes, I still find war a very interesting environment in which to work, but it is also -- now at age 40 it is, you know, my job to be there. And I recognize that.

So the relationship between the two has often been imbalanced, but now it is pretty well balanced.

SWEENEY: I know that you have just written a book at the moment which is called "Another Bloody Love Letter." And while we don't necessarily need to dwell on it very much in the interview, I mean, essentially it is about what?

LLOYD: Essentially it is a memoir, it is a tribute to two great friends I was lucky to have in my life. One was from the world of the wars that I work in, it was Kurt Schork, very famous iconic voices, reporter who was killed in Sierra Leone in 2000. He was a great friend and very inspiring man, both as a friend as a reporter, someone who was physically and morally brave.

And I think in anyone's life they are lucky to meet one or perhaps two individuals who really shine. And Kurt was one of the people -- was a such individual. And a deeply, deeply impressing man.

And the other was from the world of peace, at home, is my mother. I was very lucky to have the mother I did. She is a very graceful, strong, compassionate woman. And she died to cancer, actually, a couple of years ago.

And I wanted the chance really to thank those two people for their input in my life.

SWEENEY: And a final question, as you write this memoir, you are 40 now. You recognize what your job is as a correspondent. You worked out your relationship with war and journalism. What do you think the future holds for you in terms of the kind of work you have been doing in the past?

LLOYD: I would say it would go on pretty much the same. I mean, one has to recognize the way that life does change as you get older. In some ways, I think that if I carry on doing this work for another 10 years, I will be entering this sort of optimum window to work as a reporter in war in that journalists in their, you know, 40s to early 50s who have some experience in this line of work, you know, they mature, they have more to offer based on that experience.

In other ways it becomes an increasingly awkward job to manage when skin gets thinner and the pressures and weight of it sort of gnaw at one more. I have got a young family. I have got a daughter who is 7 months old. And which all sort of leads to sort conflict in one's motivations, you know, the desire to be at home, to stay alive as a father, and also the appetite to sort of risk it in one's work abroad..


SWEENEY: War correspondent Anthony Lloyd speaking to me earlier.

Well, 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 Finnuala Sweeney, thanks for joining us.



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