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BBC Correspondent Still Being Held; Christopher Hitchens Interview; Journalists in Exile

Aired June 22, 2007 - 20:30:00   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.
We begin with the kidnapping of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. By far, held longer than any other journalist held captive in Gaza. Despite intense negotiations and demands for Johnston's release, this week saw the passing of 100 days since his disappearance. And at the time this program was being filmed, Johnston was still being held.

On Wednesday, Johnston's colleagues from around the world observed a moment of silence. BBC staffers joined other news organizations in a joint appeal calling for the reporter's safe release.

In Paris, demonstrators gathered near the Eiffel Tower in a show of solidarity, unveiling the logos of 100 media outlets, which are also backing the cause.

Atika Shubert now with more on the kidnapping and efforts to secure Johnston's freedom.


ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On March 12th, BBC reporter Alan Johnston disappeared, snatched from his car on the streets of Gaza. The only clues to his abduction, an empty vehicle and a business card tossed onto the sidewalk.

He was the only Western reporter based out of Gaza, due to leave his assignment in just three weeks.

For months, there was no word. Palestinian officials indicated they knew who was holding Johnston, but gave no further details. His family in Scotland made an emotional appeal.

GRAHAM JOHNSTON, ALAN JOHNSTON'S FATHER: Please, let my son go now, today. Alan, our heartfelt, warmest love is sent you from all your family. And in the fervent hope that you're released unharmed. Chin up, my son.

SHUBERT: Then in June, a videotape of Johnston. No sign of when or where it was recorded.

ALAN JOHNSTON: First of all, my captors have treated me very well. They've fed me well. There's been no violence towards me at all. And I'm in good health.

SHUBERT: Calling themselves Jaeesh al Islam, the Army of Islam, his captors demanded that Britain release Palestinian born Muslim cleric Abu Katada, detained for suspected links with terror organizations.

But the case was at a standstill until Hamas took control of Gaza by force. Suddenly, Hamas leaders were promising to negotiate his release within days or free him by force.

(on camera): Behind me is the Erez (ph) border crossing from Israel into Gaza, where media have gathered in the hopes that if he is released, this is where he would come across. But despite the promises from Hamas, there has still been no word on the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston.

Atika Shubert, CNN, at the Erez (ph) crossing.


SWEENEY: The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders is calling for the release of other journalists held captive around the world. Among them, it estimates there are 14 journalists still held hostage in Iraq alone.

And still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, forced to flee their home countries because of the work they do. The growing number of journalists living in exile. What happens to them once they leave. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Forced out of their homelands, often because of what they do. The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least three journalists a month flee their countries to escape threats of violence, imprisonment, or harassment. The organization has documented almost 250 cases where reporters have been forced into exile. That stretches back over a six period to the start of this month.

Zimbabwe topped the list. At least 48 journalists say they've been forced out of there. Ethiopia reported 34 cases. 19 journalists say they are in exile from Eritrea. Columbia has 17, while Uzbekistan has at least 16 examples where reporters have fled.

Most find refuge in the United States and the United Kingdom, but the Committee to Protect Journalists says few ever return home. And those who stay in exile find it difficult to continue working in their profession.

Well, to discuss the findings further, I'm joined from New York by Joel Simon, the executive director of the CPJ and Forward Maisokwartzo joins me here in the studio. He's a reporter originally from Zimbabwe, and coordinator of the Exile Journalist Network, based here in the U.K.

Joel Simon, I mean, these figures are really quite astonishing. How difficult was it compile figures of exiled journalists? I mean, are they even coming forward to say what they've been through?

JOEL SIMON, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: I should say that we believe this is a very representative sample, but it's not a complete sample. These are journalists who have had some contact with our Journalist Assistance Program, which provides aide and support to journalists in need, particularly those who've gone into exile.

So I think while the findings are representative, they're - this is not a comprehensive list. There's probably many more journalists who've gone into exile.

And particularly in countries like Zimbabwe, in countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia, it's a significant percentage of the press corps has actually been forced to flee the country.

SWEENEY: Well, mentioning Zimbabwe, that brings me now (INAUDIBLE) to forward, but let me ask you. You've been out of Zimbabwe for five years now. What were your second senses?

FORWARD MAISOKWARTZO, JOURNALIST: I don't think we know the situation in Zimbabwe's increasingly difficult to practice as a journalist in as much as you want to do your work.

But with the introduction of these repressive media laws made it increasingly difficult to freely, you know, practice as a journalist.

SWEENEY: And this is your situation five years ago?

MAISOKWARTZO: Yes, that's what the situation was.

SWEENEY: Were you directly threatened?

MAISOKWARTZO: Yes, the direct threat, you know, come into - when I was doing a story about the family invasions, when I was with a colleague of mine from the (INAUDIBLE), where I was physically, you know, attacked. And it was, you know - and that's the incident that happened.

But you know, those are the issues that you say, you know, the consequence of a (INAUDIBLE), but they're unfortunate.

SWEENEY: And you know, some people will stay in their situation in their country and continue to report despite repeated threats and warnings. I mean, at what stage did the intimidation get to you? Had there been a number of warnings or was there just one isolated incident and that was enough for you?

MAISOKWARTZO: I think incidents where - ongoing incident, and you also have to look in sort of the, you know, the global - the general perspective on what is happening in the continent is certainly that particular incident. You look at the way how - other journalists are being treated, be it in your own newsroom and also in other newsrooms. Then make your own, you know, decision.

But there are also ways, you know, the scenarios, you know, which are even when I say might be, you know, better than other colleagues with, you know, worse situation than myself.

SWEENEY: Joel, how easy is it to discern that a deteriorating situation is developing for journalists in any given country?

SIMON: Well, I just want to pick up on something Forward said because basically, no journalist wants to go into exile. In the threshold in our experience, and we deal with, as you know, hundreds of these cases, it's very high. Why? Because if you look at what this survey suggests, few journalists who leave their country are able to practice their profession. They leave their country. They become - they go to developed countries. And then they often become dish washers, taxi drivers. They're excluded from their profession.

So it's very traumatic experience to leave your country and your profession behind. The threshold is very high. Maybe it's a threat. Maybe it's ongoing harassment, but it's within the context of a massive crackdown or a series of killings where some other very serious threat that makes the exercise of the profession within these countries all but impossible.

SWEENEY: You chose Forward to come to the United Kingdom. What was your experience when you arrived here?

MAISOKWARTZO: It was a shocking experience, as somebody coming into a new environment, where you know, the work day's horrible. And you obviously, in our - so on top of my career in Zimbabwe. And here you are. You are not doing your work. And it's not is when you're going to have, you know, contacts in a new environment. For journalism, you have to have contacts.

And it's difficult to penetrate into the media. And it's not only myself. It's among many of the journalists that I work with is difficult in as much as you might say, you know, you are, you know, OK in terms of yourself.

But in terms of your profession, it's traumatic and daunting because you are in an environment, which you didn't like in the first place.

SWEENEY: And so, what did you do for the first year?

MAISOKWARTZO: In my case, I was likely enough. I went for my (INAUDIBLE) university, where I had my MS that is in - for the journalism. And I happen - what briefly work on a project again, you know, a campaign on press freedom issues with (INAUDIBLE) 19.

So in that, I was sort of a lack (INAUDIBLE) so I can say. But the number of people that I work with or that I'm in contact with, it's - you know, it's quite, you know, shocking.

SWEENEY: Joel, in terms of discerning a pattern when intimidation is beginning to make itself felt in any particular country, I mean, beyond asking these governments not to intimidate or threaten journalists, what can you do?

SIMON: Well, you know, we really have to keep the pressure on these governments, because in some instances, why do journalists go into exile? It's because they feel they don't have the protection of their governments. They feel they are vulnerable and no one is looking out for them.

Sometimes the governments themselves are responsible for the threats.


SIMON: That's certainly the case in Zimbabwe. In other instances like Colombia, the government is simply unwilling or unable to protect journalists. And we need to tell these governments that there's - that this is simply unacceptable. The cost to the country itself is enormous when these countries go into exile. And the cost for all of us is also very high, because we don't know when the best journalists are going into exile, we don't know what's going on within these countries.

SWEENEY: And of course, Forward, experienced journalists like yourself leave behind obviously less experienced journalists. And so that will have a knock on impact in the media in any given country.

Let me ask you finally whether you feel you've been able to at all report adequately on what's been taking place in Zimbabwe to perhaps influence the situation in any way?

MAISOKWARTZO: I think it's difficult when you are now sort of in a far away learned to report what is happening in your country. Like for example, Zimbabwe, you need to be on the ground and to tell their story. And you cannot rely on your contacts when you're now far away.

So it's very difficult in as much as you try to report. But at least to tell this (INAUDIBLE). So you need to go on the ground.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it on that note, but thank you very much indeed for joining us. Forward here in the studio, Joel Simon in New York, thank you indeed.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, he's received praise and condemnation for his controversial views. We speak to journalist turned author Christopher Hitchens when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. He spends much of his early working life as a foreign correspondent, writing for more than 60 countries. These days, Christopher Hitchens is widely known for his often controversial stance on a host of topics. A contributor to "Vanity Fair" and a commentator on radio and television, Hitchens was named in the world's top 100 public intellectuals by "Foreign Policy and Prospect" magazine. He's written a number of titles. The latest offering, "God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion."

One reviewer describes it as Hitchens versus the Almighty. Earlier, I sat down with Christopher Hitchens and I asked him if that's how he sees it.


CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, AUTHOR: Not at all. I'm not angry at God. I don't think as believers do, that God owes an explanation. I don't put God to all this trouble, saying why do you allow child cancer? Why do you allow tsunamis? I don't pester Him in this way. I'm not a God botherer.

I'm quite happy with the idea that we're on our own on a cooling planet, and that there are no mysteries of this kind, and there is no supernatural.

Doesn't mean we lack imagination or we don't think about things that are transcendent, but we don't look for ourselves as the center of the universe.

SWEENEY: There are those who would say that if you want religion to leave you alone, then why don't you leave them alone?

HITCHENS: Well, I think I'd have to answer in the same terms. I know it's a boring reciprocal, but I would. I mean, I go to people's weddings in Catholic churches. And I bow the knee at the right moment. And I will observe and respect the ritual.

I go to friend's bar mitzvahs. If I go to a mosque, I take off my shoes. I'm perfectly - I don't actually respect religion myself, I.

SWEENEY: But you're happy to sit in church, for example.

HITCHENS: .regard it as laughable that - but I will be all means be polite and observe the niceties and the etiquette. All I want is for them to do that and (INAUDIBLE) me. That they will not do. They keep breaking into public life. And if they could, it's my private life, too. You see what I mean? That's the crucial distinction.

If anyone observed a pact.


HITCHENS: .a non aggression pact, then so would I. I have a friend who's a novelist, who's quite well known actually - Salman Rushdie. He's 60 today. He's been constantly threatened with murder for writing a novel. This is an extraordinary level of intervention into the private life and into the life of the free mind and the free (INAUDIBLE). And everything that we cherish, everything that I regard as civilization.

How dare they do this.

SWEENEY: But they will do it because they think that their religion's being (INAUDIBLE)?

HITCHENS: Well, they may well do that. But they have to understand that some of us can say well, we're offended, too. We're not making a big thing of our own self pity, but we will say you've now crossed a line that we cannot allow to be crossed.

For us, free inquiry and free speech are non negotiable.


HITCHENS: We won't let that line be crossed. There's some basis of our - everything's made our civilization possible. We'll defend that frontier.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you about the book sales in America, which have gone very well. What does that tell you - what can you discern about the state of religion in the United States?

HITCHENS: I'm very glad you asked, because it's very commonly though, especially outside the United States, and within the U.S. it's thought about the Southern states that everyone there is a hopeless religious fanatic. The snake handling, (INAUDIBLE) and hollow Pentecostalists - not by - it's not true.

And I'm very happy to defend these Americans, as I am the United States in general.

SWEENEY: Well, you see.

HITCHENS: .against the (INAUDIBLE). But I should say my fellow Americans, yes.

SWEENEY: Do you have a love affair with America? What is it - what is this overtly religious country mean to you? Where do you see yourself accommodated within it?

HITCHENS: Well, I do have a love affair with America. And for that reason, I can't explain it, because I began to develop it when I was about 18 or 19. I knew I wanted to move there eventually.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm.

HITCHENS: Couldn't tell you why any more than anyone can tell you why they're in love. But I did know that. I know why it was. It was to do with my desire to become an independent writer.


HITCHENS: .which was my chief desire. And that's been allowed to me by moving to the United States. I couldn't again - couldn't tell you how.

SWEENEY: Well, let me ask you if I may then in terms of being a writer today in the United States, I mean there's been a lot of talk about journalism in the Bush administration, how journalists are working within the, you know, confines of the Bush administration specifically in relation to politics. How do you view the state of the media in the United States at the moment?

HITCHENS: Well, I think the problem is immediate in the United States at the moment as it takes things at face value. But I'm not sure that's a new problem. In other words, if someone describes - if the government describes something as budgetary reform, it'll be reported as the president's budgetary reform proposal or if it's a peace.

SWEENEY: It's a tough question.

HITCHENS: If they proclaim as a peace initiative, it'll be called the Secretary State left today on her peace initiative. Why do we give it the names? They get it. It's not our job to be (INAUDIBLE) for officially received opinion.

And then I think that's of the elite end, so to say. You know, the opposite end or the contrary end, there's a kind of awful populism, whereby anything found in an opinion poll, often commissioned by the same newspaper is considered actually to be the voice of the people until the next week they find that the approval rating has gone up or down by marginally about 25 percent.


HITCHENS: So all that proves is how volatile and unreliable these measurements are.

SWEENEY: Do - you clearly feel at home in the United States. But obviously, there are many people who have professed beliefs and points of views with whom you would not disagree. And I just ask this because I wonder, given that your friends of people who are somewhat outside the mainstream, coming to mind now Paul Wolfowitz, who's, you know, somewhat outside the mainstream at the moment and Ahmed Chalabi, do you see yourself sometimes as an outsider or taking the contrarian point of view?

HITCHENS: I can certainly say I've never seen myself as an insider. And that if anyone ever called me one, I would think of it as a bit of an insult.

SWEENEY: But you have changed your views over the years, as often as many people do.

HITCHENS: What about Saddam Hussein?

SWEENEY: No, not about Saddam Hussein, but I'm wondering on a broader level, and I know you were a Trotsky-ite.


SWEENEY: .and I know that you have changed your views, except on the war in Iraq, as you say. Do you believe that that's part of the nature of human condition to change one's viewpoint? And I ask this because really what I'm leading up to is I'm wondering if a little like the series "Brideshead Revisited" is on British television a number of years ago. Will you have a deathbed conversion? Could you imagine yourself having a deathbed conversion?

HITCHENS: If - OK, so start at the end of your question - if it was reported that I had had a deathbed conversion, I suppose that unlike every such report, in this case it was true, most of those, as you know, are fabrications, they tried it on Thomas Payne. They tried it on all kinds of - they lied. Suppose it was true, it would prove nothing because it's one measure of the cynicism and nastiness of the religious that they will test someone in extreme when they're in pain, possibly in dementia, and say ah, but when he was in agony and he'd lost his mind, he called for a priest.

Well, if I do it in a moment (INAUDIBLE), it's not me. And no one will be able to claim that it was. That they would want to do this seems to be very strongly condemnatory of the - and that they have done so often.

SWEENEY: Well, in your book, if I may quote.


SWEENEY: .so to go to the other end of the spectrum.

HITCHENS: Mention the book as often as you can.

SWEENEY: .nine - when you're about nine years of age, you speak about a teacher that you loved dearly, a Mrs. Watts.


SWEENEY: .who taught you about nature and also bible classes. And then she made, I suppose you were concerned, the fateful error of saying so you see children how powerful and generous God is. He's made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead the vegetation was all purple or orange, how awful would that be. And then you go on to say and now behold what this pious old trite hath wrath.

And then you say that even at the age of nine, I simply knew almost as if I had the privileged access to a higher authority that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences.


SWEENEY: So in other words, you knew even then you were an atheist before you would have read about it.

HITCHENS: Yes, well, it's - exactly. It's not like being converted to atheism. It's like the realization that one isn't a person of belief. I knew nothing about chlorophyll and photosynthesis. Then I knew nothing about Darwin and nothing about natural selection, but I knew that our eyes adapt to the vegetation, not to the vegetation to our eyes.

SWEENEY: We're almost out of time. So final question, if I may, about as you survey the world around you and you, you know, receive all the troubles that face us at the moment, everyone, what do you think is the biggest issue facing humanity - human kind at the moment?

HITCHENS: I would say that there's a very simple realization that is actually blatant in most of what your bureau covers. The more secular and less believing a country is, or society is, the more prosperous, the more democratic, the more happy, and more free it is. It's very, very, very important that people realize that the emancipation from religion is the condition for all other emancipations, whether it's womens rights, life expectancy, clean water, political party multiplicity, free press, any of these things.

Just look to see which country is the most secular in the region, and you'll have found that all the leading indices, where you would - somewhere near where you would hope them to be.

And I wish the United States, which unconsciously uses that standard to measure other countries, would start to reply to itself.


SWEENEY: Author Christopher Hitchens speaking to me earlier.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune 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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