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Goodbye Shock Jocks?; Covering Somalis; Yeltsin and the Press

Aired April 27, 2007 - 14:30:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: 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 all the week.
Well, handling the conflict in Somalia, the difficulties for media outlets in reporting from the region. The death of Russia's first freely elected president, Boris Yeltsin. We'll examine his impact on the press. And racism and radio, could discrimination cases lead to the demise of the shock jock in the U.S.?

Well, first, though, to Somalia, a place of relentless gunfire, shelling, and car bombs and the worst violence in more than a decade. Lawlessness has ruled Mogadishu (INAUDIBLE) insurgents battle Somali and the Ethiopian troops there to support the country's transitional government.

Well, hundreds of people have been killed in recent fighting. Many more injured. Among them, Ali Precinct, a number of journalists.


MOHAMED MOHAMOUD GULED, JOURNALIST (through translator): The mortars hit our station and all their staff members were present. We heard a big bang and then saw black smoke. I'm here with another colleague from my station.


ANDERSON: Well, an estimated 300,000 people or one-third of Somalia's population have fled their homes as a result of this conflict.

Well, some news outlets are being closed or forced to shut as a result of the fighting. And the conditions make it too dangerous for more Western media outlets to report.

Well, let's discuss the challenges then of reporting from Somalia, both for local reporters and for foreign journalists. I'm joined from Brussels by Rachel Cohen of the International Federation of Journalists. Here in the studio, by Mary Gabriel, who is the deputy editor for "Africa" with Reuters. And Nima, a reporter with Britain's More 4 News.

Nima, you've reported from the region. You experienced first hand the dangers of the job. Just describe your experiences, if you will.

NIMA ELBAGIR, REPORTER, MORE 4 NEWS: I mean, the main issue with Somalia is specifically with Mogadishu. It's getting in and out. So I think that's what's definitely taken into account when you go in. How are you going to get out?

And I was there in January when the American air strikes were happening. And our major concern was that the Kenyan border was closed. So if the Mogadishu Airport had been shut down, there was no way out.

On a day to day basis, the intelligence is very, very good. Most journalists operate with a security team. And my experience certainly was that whenever there were skirmishes, whenever there were attacks, my security team knew ahead of the fact and we moved.

I think there is perception that Somalia is very dangerous for Western journalists. And we have Martin Adler last summer at the BBC producer a few years ago who was killed. I don't necessarily think it's any more dangerous than someone like Darfur. I just think that we've now created this myth around Mogadishu and Somalia that's preventing us from going in at a time when we're really needed in there.

ANDERSON: Do you, before this show started, tell me you thought it was perhaps easier for you than others? Why?

ELBAGIR: I look Somali. I'm from Sudan. I'm just, you know, across the road. So if I wear a head scarf and I wear a baya (ph), I wear the black robes, a lot of Somali women wear.

But as you rightly responded to me, Mogadishu's a very small town. Very quickly people knew I was a journalist. They knew I wasn't Somali.

But again, when you read about the way that - I don't want to use this word myth, but there really is this perception that Somalis are very antagonistic to foreigners amongst them. And that wasn't the case. People kept asking me why aren't people here?

ANDERSON: As one of Reuters' correspondents wrote this week, Mary, the courage and suffering in Somalia may be the worst in more than a decade, but you hardly know that from your nightly news. When you listen to news, it's surprising stuff, isn't it because.


ANDERSON: .there isn't anybody there, is there?

GABRIEL: Yes. I think, though, there is perception that it's a very dangerous place. And in fact, the Somali people are dying for coverage. They feel abandoned by the world's media. And they feel betrayed because they think that the West helped start this conflict.

A year ago, we were talking before this show. It was fairly safe in Mogadishu. But as soon as the warlord alliance formed, and the Islamists fought them and throw them out in June, the whole thing fell apart.

So I think that indeed, there is a perception that it's dangerous. But I think that it's gotten worse since you were there. In the city of Mogadishu now, the problem is that the government, the Ethiopians, and the Islamists are firing indiscriminately, not to mention the clan militias.

And because the militias and the Islamists wear civilian clothes, everyone's potentially a target.

ANDERSON: Nima, alluding just earlier to the death of Martin Alder recently and further back, the death of a BBC producer in Mogadishu. You're the editor for Africa for Reuters. How difficult is it for you? You got to cover this fully.


ANDERSON: What are you doing? What are the challenges that you face?

GABRIEL: Yes. Well, in fact, right before Martin's death, our Nairobi bureau chief went into Mogadishu. He - we were invited in by the Islamists, who said they were prepared to be friendly to Western media.

And then that attack occurred during a rally. And it was clear that it was an Islamist, perhaps not sanctioned by any means, but someone took a shot at this guy and he was killed.

So that had a really chilling effect, because you didn't know who you could trust. But luckily, we had Somali journalists working for us, who are absolutely brave, resourceful, and tremendous.

ANDERSON: Now I wonder, Rachel, what you think the responsibility of organizations like Reuters is to the people who work for it, when you also consider that the media has a responsibility to those who live there, to tell the story?

RACHEL COHEN, INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS: Yes, well, I think that as far as media organizations are concerned and dealing with their employees in the country, I mean, obviously, you know, we feel that they should do as much as possible in terms of providing adequate security for the journalists who are working there.

And as well, I mean, part of the problem that's going on in Somalia now is obviously, there's not enough international news workers there. But as well, even local journalists who are even writing for Somalis, they're also being intimidated and targeted. I mean, it's not just violence, but as well, there have been, you know, detention by authorities. Sometimes there are - you know, they're brought to court. And sometimes they're just held by, you know, by the government for a couple of days and then released.

And what we're hearing now from our members in Somalia is that there's a lot of self censorship now, where journalists are just afraid to go to work or to go out in the field and report because they're not sure, you know, who might consider them a target for violence or even just for detention.

ANDERSON: Nima and Mary, I mean, there are local journalists working there, who are incredibly brave, both writers, producers, broadcasters, and cameraman as well. Let's not forget them. Your experience?

ELBAGIR: They were amazing. I actually ended up working alongside a lot of the Reuters cameramen. But I think there is a difference. As news organizations when something comes on the wires, it has its place. And I mean, you probably have experienced this. It does end up on the day.

But when you send in your own team, and you have your reporter on the ground, it tends to have a different impact. And that is a reality. But I totally appreciate what Rachel is saying about the dangers journalists are facing, both locals and internationals. And maybe I come from a different experience, having worked on Darfur.

But I think fundamentally, this is our job. And I think we're reaching a point in this risk averse environment, where people are going to have to either accept that sometimes journalists get killed.

ANDERSON: What's your response to that?

GABRIEL: Well, I agree with what Rachel's saying. And I think it's a really important point, because all of the sides are so suspicious of one another. Journalists at one moment will be accused by the Islamists of being pro-government and by the Islamists of being or vice versa.

So - and what's happened is there is a chilling effect. And a lot of journalists are terrified. And in fact, last Saturday on the 21st of April, there was an attack on Harin (ph) in Afrique, which is one of the two main broadcasting centers that are actually getting these pictures out to the world.

And the head of that said he thought it was an attempt by the government to muzzle. They seem to be coming from Ethiopian positions. So the government says it's not intimidating journalists. But on the other hand, that's just another layer that these people have to deal with.

ANDERSON: OK, with that, we're going to leave it there. We thank you very much indeed, all of you for joining us.

Next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN, Russia's farewell to Boris Yeltsin. We look at the legacy he leaves on the media. Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back. I'm Becky Anderson in London. Now he oversaw the demise of the Soviet Union and was credited with bringing democracy to millions. Russia this week said good-bye to Boris Yeltsin, who died of heart failure at the age of 76.

Well, Russia's first freely elected president leads a mixed legacy. He was praised for opposing a hard line coup attempt in 1991, but Yeltsin also attracted widespread criticism notably for the war in Chechnya and appearing drunk in public.

Well, Yeltsin handed power to his chosen successor Vladimir Putin in the final hours of 1999. Kremlin critics say many Yeltin promises of a prosperous and democratic Russia were never kept, especially when it comes to press freedom.

Well, for more on Boris Yeltsin's legacy and his impact on Russia's media then and now, I'm joined in the studio this week by the former Yeltsin advisor and now freelance journalist, Alexander Nekrassov and by Olexi Solohubenko. Sir, we - both of you, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

The entire 20th century passed without a state funeral for a Russian leader. So extraordinary scenes in and of themselves this week. The threat that we were able to see a man lying in state in a cathedral in Russia, and the fact that it was covered by the media at all.

OLEXI SOLOHUBENKO, BBC: I think the interesting thing was to watch the total mix-up of whether the secular state is bearing its secular leader and secular president, or whether this war's a religious ceremony for somebody who basically ceased to be a secular leader at all.

I think there was a mix-up in how this had to be handled. And the way it was handled, I think, is a good illustration to the mixed legacy that Boris Yeltsin leaves. And I think this legacy will have to be interpreted for many, many years to come.

There's a degree of confusion, a degree of delay in appreciating him or not appreciating him. And I would say a degree of delay was very interesting because the Russian media, I think, were waiting for some kind of signal of how Mr. Putin, how the Kremlin, what take will they have on Boris Yeltsin.

And I think the delay is also symptomatic of this confusion.

ANDERSON: Well, if they were waiting for a sort of sense of where the Kremlin thought they should go next, and I'm talking about the Russian media, then what do we get? How was the funeral and indeed how is his controversial career and political legacy being dealt with by the Russian media?

ALEXANDER NEKRASSOV, JOURNALIST: Well, first of all, I think that the most extraordinary thing was that the television programs were not canceled when the death was announced. And that was remarkable, considering that all television stations are controlled by the Kremlin. So I totally agree there was some sort of a signal then.

Also, I think what was amazing was that the press did - the Russian press did cover that, that there was confusion in the sense who is going to decide what is going to happen? And then, out of the blue comes this report in this (INAUDIBLE) that it's actually his daughter Tatiana who will decide where he's going to be buried, how it's going to be done. This is quite amazing. It shows, not just confusion. It shows that the Kremlin in itself was distancing itself from Yeltsin already. That President Putin wants to be seen as his own man, not somebody who was appointed, plucked from obscurity and appointed by Yeltsin.

ANDERSON: Let's talk about the legacies so far, then as the media is concerned, Alexander. What is the effect of the Yeltsin era on Russian media today?

NEKRASSOV: Well, I think the big difference is that Yeltsin with all his faults and mistakes, he never actually tried to stop the media, you know, writing about him and his policies. That's, I think, a huge difference between him and the current regime.

And I think that is why in a sense the coverage of his death in the Russian press was a big more positive than in the West.

I also picked up a few interesting points from the Western media, saying that he was more of a man of a moment, rather than a politician who was there to change the country.

Yes, he was there on that tank. And that's a powerful image. Yes, he was there to finish communism off. But what did he really have the strength and the power to carry through those reforms? I don't think he did.

And that's the point which was picked up by the Western media. The Russian media didn't.

ANDERSON: One of the presenters on NTV in Russia said, and I quote, sorry this is Channel 1 correspondent, said, "at the dawn of his political career, some would call him a bulldozer amiably, while others would call him the same with distaste."

Many can't forgive him. That appeared to be the line for many in the - many commentators in the Russian media. And yet you say you felt there was less criticism and not more of Yeltsin in the Russian media than in the international press?

SOLOHUBENKO: Yes, I think the interesting thing is that Chekhov once said that the Russian people adore their past, fear their present, rather hate their present, and fear their future.

I think Yeltsin changed all that. Now it changed back again, but I think Yeltsin, along with Gorbachev, made Russian people realize that actually what was in the past was really horrible. And the departure was necessary.

The way he executed that departure from the Soviet system into something that resembled free market with all its imperfections, with all the lack of tradition, a democratic way of life, was very messy, but actually, was very effective in the end.

ANDERSON: But your last word, Alexander, if you will?

NEKRASSOV: Well, I think that the "Commercant" newspaper put it beautifully. It said that Yeltsin himself said that his biggest mistake was Chechnya. But "Commercant" said many people think that his biggest mistake was appointing Putin as president.

ANDERSON: And with that, we leave it there. Gentlemen, we thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN, they're out to shock, but are they crossing the line? U.S. radio hosts are embroiled in a row over their on air comments. That story after this short break. Do stay with us.


ANDERSON: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN. Welcome back.

Now by their name, they're out to be controversial. But to the U.S., shock jocks as they're known are facing criticism for racism and sexual slur.

First, though, we'll see how a profile scandal earlier this month. So radio host on Imus taken off air and fired. And now two New York deejays have been suspended. Dan Lothian is on the story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are a very nice Chinese man.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Probably can't drive for (bleep), but who cares?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What was your initial reaction when you heard what was said?


LOTHIAN: Vicki Shu Smolin, who runs an Asian American advocacy group, is still angry about an offensive stunt by two New York City radio hosts, racial and sexual slurs that she says cross the line.

SMOLIN: You get numb. You just - you sit there and you wonder - and I was wondering, you know, as an Asian American and as a woman, I'm completely offended.

LOTHIAN: It was a six minute phone prank called into a Chinese restaurant by J.V. and Elvis of CBS owned New York radio station WFNY. It first aired in early April, the day after Don Imus made his controversial comments about the Rutgers Womens basketball team.

What's even more shocking, it was aired again a week after Imus was fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I need shrimp fried lice.

LOTHIAN: The seemingly unsuspecting employees accent is mocked. There are sexual innuendos, like hot and spicy references to Asian women, and jokes about kung fu.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have very good kung fu skills.

SMOLIN: To crack jokes on our behalf, no matter what ethnicity, it doesn't - it will not get your ratings.

LOTHIAN: In a short statement, the radio station says, "Following their recent on-air comments, WFNY-FM has suspended JV and Elvis without pay until further notice."

The radio station is located on the 14th floor of this building on West 57th Street. Officials denied us access. But in addition to that short statement, they say that the radio hosts have apologized.

For some Asian American leaders, an apology and a suspension are not enough.

SMOLIN: They have a history of mimicking Asian accents and making fun of Asian Americans. It has to be fired because they're just going to come back and do the same thing again.

LOTHIAN: You want them to be fired?

SMOLIN: I want them fired, yes.

LOTHIAN: But experts say that in shock radio, controversy is just what stations are selling.

MICHAEL HARNSON, EDITOR PUBLISHER, TALKERS MAGAZINE: The fact of the matter is, these are carefully selected , paid and hired agents of these corporations to do a premeditated type of entertainment.

So that's really the story here, not what are we going to do about these shock jocks who are out of control? They're willing to take the risk because they know it gets ratings.

LOTHIAN: Smolin hopes to put pressure on advertisers, and plans to protest until she says what happened to Don Imus happens to JV and Elvis.

Dan Lothian, CNN, New York.


ANDERSON: Well, for more on the shock jock controversy, I'm joined by Howard Kurst, media correspondent, "Washington Post" and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Howard, there was a list of suspended deejays without pay until further notice as long as my arm at this point. Fair or not?

HOWARD KURTZ, "WASHINGTON POST": Fair or not to suspend these guys?


KURTZ: I'm surprised that these clowns didn't get fired. I mean, to engage in that kind of insulting, offensive, ethnic humor, which by the way, is not even particularly funny, you know, calling up a Chinese restaurant and making fun of the way Asian people talk, I would think in the new climate here in the United States, after the Imus firing, that nobody would be able to do that and keep their jobs.

When of course, there is this game that the stations play. They hire these people in order to insult and engage in the shocking behavior. And then when they get caught doing something really awful, they say oh, we're - we don't approve of that. Of course not.

ANDERSON: Yes, who has the responsibility here? And what should be responsible broadcasts limits of the spoken word be at this point?

KURTZ: Well, the truth is it's kind of a market driven economy. Somebody can put up the ratings. They get to keep their jobs more or less. I mean, I don't want to see a climate that is so pc and so constrained, that nobody can ever make fun of anybody. I mean, humor certainly has its place on the radio.

But I don't really think it's necessary to engage in making insulting and offensive remarks about various ethnic groups, whether you're calling African-American female basketball players "hoes" or whether you're making fun of the way people talk in a Chinese restaurant.

And you know why? Because you're picking on little people. That is why Imus got fired. He made fun all the time of politicians, big name journalists. That's OK. We're fair game. You know, go ahead and mock us. I don't have any problem with that.

When you make fun of college students, when you make fun of people who are probably not earning a great salary by serving lo mein at a Chinese restaurant, then you're picking on small targets. And it seems mean.

ANDERSON: Do you see the demise of that genre at this point?

KURTZ: No, absolutely not. I mean, there are a lot of radio hosts, both nationally and locally here in America, who have a strong following because they are funny or politically incorrect and satirize people. And I don't see that genre going away.

I do perhaps see it being toned down a little bit, because in the wake of the Imus firing, I mean, he was a pretty big personality here. Been on the cover of news magazines and so forth. I think either some of these folks are going to have to tone it down just a notch, or might find themselves on the unemployment line.

But I believe that some of them - this is already happened - some other guys who were fired a couple of years ago for pulling a stunt involving a church, ended up - winding up on satellite radio, which you have to pay for, and where there are no restrictions on language and that sort of thing.

So maybe tone it down a little bit on commercial radio, but then there's satellite radio, where a lot of things get said that you and I can't say on television.

ANDERSON: On CNN. Howard Kurtz, we thank you very much indeed for joining us there at "The Washington Post." Right, let's before we go, pay tribute to a man described as one of the world's greatest journalists, David Talbotson, who died in a car crash in a California on Monday. Talbotson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 at the age of 30, reporting in the early days of the Vietnam War for "The New York Times."

He went on to write 15 bestselling books, including "The Best and the Brightest." It documented the Kennedy administration's early steps into the Vietnam conflict. David Talbotson was 73.

That is it for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues of the week.

I'm Becky Anderson in London. Thank you for joining us.



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