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Fighting in Lebanon; Pulitzer to Iranian Photographer; Reporting on Iraq

Aired May 25, 2007 - 14:30:00   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, violence flares between the Lebanese army and militants in Palestinian refugee camp. We look at the media's treatment of the story.

Worth the wait, an Iranian photographer is awarded a Pulitzer prize, more than a quarter of a century after capturing his image.

And Iraq, on the frontline and online. We speak to a former U.S. soldier turned author Colby Buzzell.

We begin this week in Lebanon, a country that's seen fierce gun battles between the army and members of the al Qaeda inspired group known as Fatah al Islam.

Clashes at a Palestinian refugee camp resulted in the deadliest fighting since Lebanon's civil war. Thousands of Palestinian refugees fled the violence during an uneasy truce, as militants remained holed up inside the camp.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Senora accused Fatah al Islam of trying to destabilize the country. Many Lebanese and Arab media commentators said Syria was behind the violence. Others expressed concern about where the conflict could be heading.

Let's get more on this now. For that, I'm joined from Beirut by journalist Lena Sayeedi. Here in the studio by Zaki Shehab, the London bureau chief for al Hayat and LBC Television. And Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor with "The Times" newspaper.

Lena, you were at the camps earlier this week. How difficult or easy was it to get information about what was taking place inside?

Well, in fact, it was very difficult because the situation was very dangerous. The army had limited our access to the camp because it was a (INAUDIBLE) in this situation. The guys in the camp, beside Hez Islam group are not known. And the army didn't want any foreign reporters or for that matter Lebanese reporters wandering into the camp for fear of being kidnapped, let alone been shot at.

SWEENEY: It raises a question, Richard Beeston of "The Times," about what kind of story gets put out, because obviously the Lebanese authorities are quite forthright in putting across their point of view, but when one has difficulty getting information from the other side of events like Patel Islam not being willing or able to communicate difficulties getting inside the camp itself, it really does lend for a difficult story to report.

RICHARD BEESTON, DIPLOMATIC EDITOR, THE TIMES: Yes. And Lebanon's always going to be prone to conspiracy theories. It seems to be the overriding theory making the rounds at the moment is that this group is allowed to assemble in northern Lebanon in the power vacuum that exists without the strength of a central government, and cause mischief. And that's only the interpretation most Lebanese are putting on it.

Although it is unusual, the fact that they're actually Sunni militant groups normally, you know, the problems in Lebanon are blamed on the Shi'ia militant groups. So it's a hugely complex issue. And I think it just underlines really how unstable Lebanon continues to be.

The war is meant to be over nearly 15 - more than 15 years ago. And yet, we still have, you know, less than a year we've had two major emergencies - Iraq and Lebanon.

SWEENEY: Zaki Chehab, how does LBC cover this?

ZAKI CHEHAB, AL HAYAT, LBC: In fact, we had usual correspondents on the ground, which like, you know, keep the situation reported up to date.

The fact is there is like a general understanding among Lebanese and within the Palestinians as well. There is no need for such groups to take place in the camps.

What happened is this al Fatah stamp is something new to the Palestinian camps even, you know, we're not going to hear about it year ago. Just the first time, we have such presence for a group like this is only after some of the explosions, which took place in the mountains.

SWEENEY: But let me ask you, if I may. Would LBC have reported about these bus explosions a couple of months ago? Of course, they would have reported on them, but did they report the movement of Fatah al Islam into these camps? Was it widely reported?

CHEHAB: There was for us in this group in the past. And we have covered it as even world agencies, Reuters and other journalists have traveled to the camp, but their leaders. They made their statements quite clear.

SWEENEY: Lena Sayeedi in Beirut, was what has taken place in this past week at the camp, was it unexpected as far as journalists like yourself were concerned there?

LENA SAYEEDI: Not totally unexpected, but timing was unexpected. "The New York Times", who I occasionally work for, went into the camp earlier this year and interviewed, in fact, the leader of this group. And I mean, we found out that their ideas were very similar to that of al Qaeda, although he totally denied having any al Qaeda links.

And also we heard from other people in the camp that this group kept to themselves. They did not integrate with the other groups in the camp.

SWEENEY: The fact that they're not willing to speak now, and obviously they've been preoccupied in the last few days, but what does that tell you about what usually one regards as a media savvy al Qaeda linked or otherwise group?

SAYEEDI: Well, this is it. How much linked they are all, whether they are al Qaeda, is questionable. For sure, they are al Qaeda like thinkers. I don't know how organized they are. They didn't seem to be exactly very, very organized when we met them.

They do have a media spokesman. They did do a few press conferences. When they first emerged in late last year, they gave a press conference in the camp.

So they do have some media connections. Now since then, during the time that the fighting's been going on, we have had different statement coming out, but none which could be authenticated.

SWEENEY: Richard Beeston, Lena mentions the timing took journalists by surprise in Beirut, but in terms of your newspaper, were you also taken by surprise internationally?

BEESTON: We had a tip off from a senior Arab intelligence source outside of Lebanon, pointing us in the direction of something happening regarding al Qaeda in northern Lebanon and some of the other camps. And in fact, we just told our correspondents to go and check it out when the violence happened.

So this act, if you like, this incident I think was expected by - in some quarters.

SWEENEY: Zaki Chehab, as we seem to be entering another period of instability in Lebanon, do you feel that the press in Lebanon are capable of being able to adequately reflect all the various different strands? I put this question in this way because they're united at the moment, but do you imagine a united press system in Lebanon should things continue to fragment?

CHEHAB: I think what I do expect to happen in the near future, if you're already started happening, that you would see the views would be polarized, depending on which side you are, you know, supporting, as you know there's the government which is determined to root such groups. And there are the opposition, which looked at the kind of situation, although they give clear support to the army to defend itself, to protect and to get rid of these (INAUDIBLE).

But at the same time, they give also they make some connection with what let's say the United States is planning towards Iran and to (INAUDIBLE) some kind of a changes in the region. They made some connection that, you know, the kind of support the American administration would give to the Lebanese army might be, you know, conditioned.

Well, some certain steps. The same thing they would talk about when they make connection with the situation in Gaza. So I expect the newspaper, the commentators specific to try to each one look at the situation from the point of view, which really reflects the kind of leverages Lebanon is living at the moment.

SWEENEY: A final word to you, Lena, who is actually in Beirut trying to cover the story as best you can.

SAYEEDI: Well, I mean, what I'd like to say is that most of the press and the Lebanese people and the Palestinians are behind the army's actions. And they do not want to see such groups living in places like the Palestinian camps.

However, we must remember that the Palestinian camps are very densely populated areas. And also, we don't want civilian casualties. And the humanitarian aspect is very depressing.

SWEENEY: Well, there we must leave it. Lena Sayeedi in Beirut, Richard Beeston, and Zaki Chehab here in London, thank you both all very much indeed.

Staying in the Middle East and more than 100,000 people have now added their names to a petition, calling for the release of the BBC's Gaza correspondent Allen Johnston. The only Western reporter permanently based in Gaza, Johnston went missing more than 10 weeks ago on March 12th. It's believed he was kidnapped. There has been no word on the reporter's condition or confirmation on his whereabouts.

The BBC launched its petition last month, coinciding with the full page appeal in Britain's "Guardian" newspaper. It's being backed by leading correspondents, editors, and presenters from the U.K. and overseas.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, more than a quarter of a century after he took an award winning picture, an Iranian photographer is finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize. We'll tell you how it came about after the break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It is a prestigious honor winning a Pulitzer Prize. The awards in print journalism, literary achievements, and musical composition were handed out as a ceremony in New York on Monday.

This year, two photographers were among the recipients. For one of them, it has been a long wait to be recognized.

A lone woman attempts to hold back a line of Israeli security officers as they evacuate settlements in the West Bank. It's an image captured by Oded Balaty, one that earned the Associated Press photographer the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography.


ODED BALATY, PHOTOGRAPHER: I didn't thought about it as a winning picture of any (INAUDIBLE). I was trying to think about this more as a front page of the day after tomorrow.


SWEENEY: This year's ceremony had special significance for one photographer. Iranian Jahangir Razmi was finally honored for his chilling image that showed 11 blindfolded men before a firing squad. The photo won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

It was awarded anonymously as Razmi's identity was kept secret based on safety concerns.


JAHANGIR RAZMI, PHOTOGRAPHER: Twenty-seven years ago, the situation was not suitable. The revolution was going on. There wouldn't have been the right time for me to come out with the story. And now after 27 years, I felt like the right time had come. I knew one day I would get my reward. I would get my prize. It turned out to be the Pulitzer Prize.


SWEENEY: Razmi's identity was revealed in a "Wall Street Journal" article by reporter Joshua Prager last December, a piece that was more than four years in the making.

Well, Joshua Prager joins me now from New York.

First of all, what prompted you to go back all those years and track down the real photographer of a photograph, which resonated around the world, but which many other photographers claimed to have taken?

JOSHUA PRAGER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, I was on vacation in June 2002. And just serendipitously happened upon a book of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs in the house I was renting. It was called "Moments." And when I flipped to the 1980 image, one word struck me. It said anonymous in black bold letters. And I said to myself, wow, there must be an incredible story behind this. And I want to find he or she who took it.

SWEENEY: And how did you go about then trying to track down an Iranian photographer, who presumably had wanted to keep his identity secret, at least for a time?

PRAGER: Well, it was a long process. I happened to have been on book leave. And so I had time. And the first thing I did was I contacted a photographer I had gotten to know writing my book, a man named Scott Dyne, who worked at UPI. In time, he put me through to a man named Charley McCarty, who had run the UPI bureau in Brussels during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

I spoke to Charley, who remembered very, very well the moment that this picture came to his bureau. But he had no idea who took it. And he had said he'd always wanted to know.

I ended up speaking to a whole group of photographers, who'd worked in and around Iran during that time. And finally, it was a man named Alfred Yagobzada (ph). In January 2005, an Iranian ex pat living in France, who told me the name Jahangir Razmi. So it was from June 2002 to January 2005 that it took me to finally get his name.

And then, seven months later, in August of - excuse me, in - it was in August of 2005 that I then went to Iran and was able to meet with Mr. Razmi.

SWEENEY: And when you met with Mr. Razmi, first of all, had he been expecting you? Did he know what the purpose of your visit was? And how did he react when you asked him about the photograph?

PRAGER: It's a good question, because I had been under the impression that he was expecting me. I had been under the impression because I had contacted him, I thought, through someone - another Iranian expat living in London.

Much to my surprise when I got to Iran, this person had not told me the truth. And so, Mr. Razmi was in fact surprised by my visit. So in a sense, I had to start from square one. And I impressed upon him that for several years, I had been researching this photograph. And I think he was impressed by that, not with me, but by the fact that I had - that I knew in a sense more about the photograph than he did.

Not of course about how what had been taken, but about its life after it appeared in the newspaper. So he trusted me. And I was with him for six days.

And it was only in the last few hours of the last night I was in Iran that he actually showed me the contact sheet that he'd kept hidden all these years, the sheet that showed 27 images of this execution, some of them taken just before and just after the iconic photo that won the Pulitzer Prize.

SWEENEY: Joshua, you say that you were shown the contact sheet on the original - of the original photograph, or the photos taken just before and immediately after the execution. What is it about this particular photo that you think makes it so outstanding?

PRAGER: Well, you can see that the photo editor at al Halat knew what he was doing. It is this one image out of all of the images that captures the moment when some of the prisoners have already been shot and some haven't. And all the way on the far right of the image, there's a man, Nasser Salimi, who has not yet been shot. And he's standing sort of proudly with his arm up, as if in salute, a bandaged hand.

And the executioner is poised like this. And he hasn't yet fired. And he's the only executioner who's face isn't covered. And so, you can see this incredible sort of pas de deux between the person who's about to be shot, and the man who's about to shoot him.

And just behind the soldier is Mr. Razmi standing. And so, it is an incredible image. And from an artistic, in a sense, or cinematic point of view, as well as from a political point of view.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there. But Joshua Prager, thank you very much indeed for joining us from New York.

PRAGER: Thanks so much for having me.

SWEENEY: Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, sourcing information from the ground. New limits apply to both journalists and U.S. troops in Iraq. We'll talk to a former soldier, who was awarded a prize for his book based on a blog. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Protecting journalists or limiting their coverage, new restrictions are now in place in Iraq, limiting reporters access to the scene of bombings. Journalists are now barred from attack sites for one hour, a move the Iraqi government says is to safeguard evidence and protect news workers from secondary attacks.

That's prompted concerns from the U.S. based Committee to Protect Journalists, which is calling on the Interior Ministry to reverse the decision. The CPJ says journalists, not governments, should determine whether a story is too dangerous to cover.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon says it won't back down on its move to block access to websites like Youtube and Myspace from Defense Department computers. The U.S. military says it needs to keep its network clear for operations.

Those so-called recreational sites that prove popular with troops in sharing information in hot spots like Afghanistan and Iraq. So given the new limits on journalists and soldiers, how will it affect the way we get our information?

Let's get some perspective from someone who served time on the ground on Iraq. Colby Buzzell is a former soldier turned author. And he's recently been awarded the Lou Lou Blooker Prize for "My War: Killing Time in Iraq."

It was voted the best book of the year based on a web log. He joins me now from San Francisco.

Thank you very much for joining us, Colby. Obvious question is what prompted you to start the blog?

COLBY BUZZELL AUTHOR, "MY WAR: KILLING TIME IN IRAQ": What prompted me at first was boredom. I needed something constructive to do between missions. And I came across an article in a magazine, explaining what blogs were. So I decided to start one.

And then, after like a couple days, I started going down to the Internet caf‚ every day, writing about what I was experiencing. I found it to be therapeutic for me to write about what I was seeing and experiencing. And then, later on, it became a way for me - from hanging out the Internet cafes, I found I was paying attention to how the news reported the war. And the whole time I was in Mosul, I didn't see a single embedded reporter there the whole time. So it was like a way to get our story out of what we were doing in Iraq.

SWEENEY: And did you find that what you were seeing and experiencing differed very much from the kind of television news you were watching, American television news presumably?

BUZZELL: Correct. A lot of it seemed to be Green Zone reporting or cut and paste military press release. And it seemed like they didn't even double check or look into any of the press releases. They were just reported as fact back to the people in America. And a lot of times, these press releases would be on missions I participated and took part in.

And a lot of the times, it read like a work of fiction or it read like an entirely different mission. It was - a lot of the press releases were saying that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police were doing all the fighting and U.S. forces were in support roles.

But the entire time I was in Iraq, it was the complete opposite. They were either in support or nowhere to be seen. And we'd be doing all the work and all the fighting.

SWEENEY: And when did you begin to get feedback to your blog? I mean, you could have written just a personal diary, but you chose to put it on the Internet and it then took off. But at what point did you realize that this was actually something quite massive that you were writing?

BUZZELL: When I wrote about an attack that happened August 4th, 2004. I went to the Internet caf‚ after the attack, saw that there was no mention of it. Well, hardly any mention of it. And I knew the big news sites. So I just wrote about what I experienced that day. And the very next day, I went to the Internet caf‚ and I was flooded with e-mails and comments. And people were messaging everyone about it. And the blog just kind of exploded after that.

SWEENEY: As you're well aware, the Defense Department has decided to ban the U.S. military soldiers and personnel from using communal websites. Some 13 communal websites, including Youtube and They say that it might affect morale and endanger the mission. What do you think?

BUZZELL: I understand a little bit of the military's concerns. You don't want a lot of these blogs and videos give a whole bunch of information up on the Internet. And if just one soldier gets hurt or killed, it's one too many.

But I suspect that it's more - I think it's more that they want to control what information gets released back home.

SWEENEY: Colby Buzzell, we're out of time, but I want to thank you very much indeed. And congratulations on your award for your blog.

BUZZELL: Thank you.

Before we go, an update on the story we brought you in January. Britain's television regulator has harshly criticized Channel 4 for broadcasting racist comments in the program celebrity "Big Brother". Offcom says the station should have halted offensive behavior, which included racist attacks against Bollywood actress Shulpa Shetty (ph). The controversy resulted in more than 44,000 viewer complaints and saw groups in India burn effigies as protest.

Channel 4 has apologized. It now must broadcast the regulators findings before the beginning of its next "Big Brother" program.

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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