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BBC Correspondent Released; Iran's New Enlish Language Channel

Aired July 6, 2007 - 14:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN HOST: Hello, I am Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, free at last. The BBC's Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston is released almost four months after he was kidnapped.

And later, (inaudible) the view from Tehran. Iran launches a new English language news channel.

An appalling experience. That's how journalist Alan Johnston describes his kidnapping ordeal. The BBC's Gaza correspondent was freed 16 weeks after being abducted. The case sparked a huge international effort by journalists and news organization to secure the reporter's release.

More from Ben Wedeman.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Free at last. The BBC's Alan Johnston appears for the first time in public after 114 days in captivity, 114 days of fear, recounted in the somewhat surreal setting in the garden of the British consul in Jerusalem.

ALAN JOHNSTON, BBC JOURNALIST AND FREED HOSTAGE: It was the most appalling experience, on and on, as I said before, it was like being buried alive, removed from life and sometimes occasionally quite terrifying and always frightening in that I just didn't know when it would end or how it would end and when you've lain in one of those hideouts for the three months you wonder why you shouldn't maybe be lying her in nine months or 18 months and just such a relief that it's over.

WEDEMAN: Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza on the 12th of March. A shadowy group called Jaish al-Islam, the Army of Islam.

In early June, the kidnappers released the first video of Johnston.

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 am in good health.

WEDEMAN: The tape laid out demands, including the release from British detention of Abu Khetata (ph), a man described as al Qaeda's spiritual ambassador in Europe. But the most chilling video came a few weeks later when he appeared to be rigged with a bomb.

JOHNSTON: As you can see, I've been strapped to what is an explosive belt which the kidnappers say will be detonated if there is any attempts to storm this area.

WEDEMAN: Since Hamas took over Gaza mid-June, Hamas officials repeatedly insisted that freeing Johnston was a top priority. Part of their effort to impose order in lawless Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are going to implement security for every Palestinian, for every guest, especially (ph) for the British (ph) media and for the (inaudible) people. It's a new era, a new era.

WEDEMAN: Hamas sources tell CNN they were moments away from an assault on the kidnappers' hideout. An assault aborted when another militant faction interceded and defused the standoff.

Shortly after his release, Alan told me on the phone that one of the things that had kept his spirits up during those long weeks in captivity was a small radio provided by his captors, allowing him to listen to the BBC World Service and hear that his friends and colleagues had not forgotten him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.


WEDEMAN: Ben Wedeman, CNN, Jerusalem.


SWEENEY: Foreign journalists and news staff have often been the target of kidnappings in Gaza. All have been released unharmed. Alan Johnston was held the longest by far.

Here are some of the other cases reported over the last few years. In early 2005, two Spanish reporters, Ramon Logo (ph) and Carmen Scanela (ph) were briefly abducted by Palestinian militants. In August of that year, a French journalist of Algerian origin, Mohammed Ortay (ph) was held for a week. In March 2006 three journalists were kidnapped and freed after an Israeli raid on a West Bank jail.

Last August Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wig (ph) were released after being forced to convert to Islam. They were held for two weeks.

Spanish photographer Emilio Morinasi (ph) who works for the Associated Press spent 12 hours in captivity in October and early this year, Jaime Razuri (ph), a Peruvian photographer for the French news agency Agence France-Presse was freed after being held for almost a week.

Well, journalists and news outlets from around the globe joined forces to campaign for Alan Johnston's release. Some 200,000 people signed a petition in support. After the break on "International Correspondents," we'll have more on this huge international media effort to free Alan Johnston and how will this kidnapping impact other reporters covering Gaza. That's next.



JOHNSTON: A job like yours is supposed to be about putting ideas into words but it's really hard to sum up how good it feels to be standing here instead of lying in that room that I was lying in just yesterday. It just is unimaginably good to be free.


SWEENEY: Journalist Alan Johnston speaking to reporters on his first day of freedom. It came almost four months after he was kidnapped. His release followed a major joint effort from journalists and news organizations from not only Gaza but around the world. At the center of the campaign, his employer, the BBC. It organized weekly vigils and rallies for colleagues to call for the reporter's release. Among them was the corporation's world news editor John Williams. He joins me in studio.

Also with us in Ramallah is CNN's Ben Wedeman who spoke to Alan shortly after he was freed. Ben, as someone who's been in Gaza and indeed had a few scrapes there in your time, what was the poignancy of this story for you as you saw Alan Johnston being freed?

WEDEMAN: Really, it was the closing of a very long chapter. Four months for one of your colleagues to be held hostage is really a hard, obviously much harder for him than for us, but the uncertainty of when he'll come out, if he'll come out, it's really painful and so I do feel that now that the situation in Gaza has stabilized with Hamas taking over. Regardless of what you think about Hamas, it's a much calmer place in Gaza now and with Alan free and going home. It does end this chapter and we can look at Gaza the way we looked at it before as a place where we need to work, where we have to work, but it does appear that the threat of kidnapping has receded at least for the time being.

SWEENEY: And there is a sense, of course, that any journalist who has covered the situation in Gaza knows that it could have happened to them.

WEDEMAN: Yes. In fact, we were supposed to go to Gaza the same day Alan was kidnapped, when we had to postpone by a day or two so it really comes home because the first thought when you hear someone has been kidnapped, you think, that could have been me.

And of course I witnessed a kidnapping in December 2004 when my producer, Riyad Ali (ph) was nabbed by gunmen, we don't really know who.

So yes, your first thought is it could have been me.

SWEENEY: There must be a huge sense of relief at the BBC, John Williams, an understatement.

JOHN WILLIAMS, BBC WORLD NEWS EDITOR: An understatement indeed. A real sense of joy. We as a breed, journalists, pride ourselves on being professional but I don't mind telling you that there were a few tears wept.

SWEENEY: Do you know or are you able to talk about the circumstances of his release in any detail?

WILLIAMS: Well, we were very clear from day one that this was a Palestinian problem and it would need a Palestinian solution so we have no idea really about the details of the discussions that were going on. That was something between Hamas and the people that were holding Alan.

My role, our role was to ensure that everybody who could influence the situation was engaged and so our job was to try to force people to keep their feet to the fire and do what needed to be done.

SWEENEY: And in terms of that engagement, how did you keep people's feet to the fire?

WILLIAMS: It was interesting when Alan came out that he said that his greatest fear was about being buried alive and people not knowing what was going on with him and we took a decision very early on that the advice we received was that most hostages know what is going on, that most victims of kidnaps are aware of the situation in the outside world and it was important to us to let Alan know that he wasn't forgotten and the byproduct of that was making sure that everybody made sure that they did everything that could be done to free him.

SWEENEY: And of course, though, in the hours leading up to his release there was intense activity in and around the area where he was being held, Ben Wedeman, and I'm wondering since you've mentioned that Gaza has no stabilized that Hamas has taken over, what are the ramifications not only for the people of Gaza for stability but also for journalists covering the story?

WEDEMAN: Well, it does mean that we can go down there, basically from the day Alan was kidnapped on March 12th we made more or less a decision that it was not safe to go down there. Not only because of the kidnapping but because of the factional fighting. Now that the factional fighting has essentially come to an end at least for the time being and Alan is free, that certainly opens up Gaza in a way that it wasn't opened before and for ordinary Palestinians, certainly life is somewhat less dangerous in Gaza.

We went around quite a lot on the last two trips we took in the last two weeks and you see that life is beginning to come back to normal because the last sort of long trip I made to Gaza was in December of last year and it seems that everywhere we went a gun battle would break out between Hamas and Fatah. We ended up running down the street with a bunch of schoolchildren who were terrified by a gun battle that just broke out in front of their school.

So that, at least for the time being, does seem to have come to an end. The kidnapping is over. So there is a hope that Gaza will enjoy a period of stability. But you know how Gaza is. It doesn't seem to last for long.

SWEENEY: We'll have to wait and see, but John Williams, let me ask you, what's the BBC's policy now about reporting and placing journalists in Gaza?

WILLIAMS: Well, we need to be clear that throughout Alan's ordeal we had a team in Gaza. A team led by Fayid Abu Jemala (ph), a sort of Arabic service correspondent and local producers and while Alan was inside he was hearing his colleagues reporting on the power play that was going on between Fatah and Hamas.

I think it's too early to say whether Alan's successor will base himself permanently in Gaza but the BBC remains committed to reporting the story in Gaza. It's a vital story and one that needs to be told.

SWEENEY: We've talked about Alan Johnston's circumstances, but how is he doing himself and what can he expect in the next weeks and days?

WILLIAMS: I think anybody who saw his interviews and his news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday can see that Alan is a remarkably resilient individual. In many ways he was very well-equipped to spend the amount of time on his own. He lived for three years in Gaza pretty much on his own.

As for the future, he needs to spend the time to reflect on what's happened to him but he's a very talented correspondent and we're delighted he works with the BBC.

SWEENEY: On that note we'll leave it there. John Williams, thank you very much. And in Ramallah on the West Bank, Ben Wedeman, my thanks to you as well.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, offering an alternative. A new English language news channel is launched to give the news from Iran. Will it find a place on the world news market? That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. News you want when you want it. There are dozens of rolling news channels like this one available around the globe and now there is another player on the scene.

Iran's state broadcaster this week launched the country's first 24 hour English language news channel. Operators of Press TV say it aims to quote, "Break the global media stranglehold of Western outlets."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at the station's launch.


MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Today media is the number one tool for world dominance. It paves the way for invasions. It leads and directs invasions and also stabilizes the positions of invaders after the invasions and occupations.


SWEENEY: Press TV says the station is staffed by both Iranian and foreign journalists with offices in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Beirut and Damascus. Programmers say it is a state-owned channel but it is not managed by the state.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we do in terms of output, we have a program that follows global and (inaudible) Middle East.


SWEENEY: Press TV joins a long list of English language news channels that have launched recently. Al-Jazeera International, France 24 and Russia Today among them. So will these stations find a niche? To discuss that, I'm joined by Yvonne Ridley, author, broadcaster and Press TV presenter and Nazanin Ansari, the diplomatic editor for the Iranian weekly newspaper, "Kayhan London."

Yvonne Ridley, let me ask you first of all, what is it like working for a station that has just launched?

YVONNE RIDLEY, PRESS TV PRESENTER: Really exciting. When you've got a new media launch, a newspaper, an Internet site, there is a real a buzz, there's real excitement. It's a great place to be at the moment.

SWEENEY: What drew you towards working with Press TV?

RIDLEY: It was the sort of bringing independent news without an image (ph). You know, I have been quoted as saying this is an antidote to Fox. It doesn't mean to say that we've gone from one extreme to another, we are just reporting the news as we see it.

SWEENEY: Nazanin Ansari, how is this being viewed by, for example, your newspaper?

NAZANIN ANSARI, "KAYHAN" EDITOR: Well, to begin with, Press TV is run by - under the charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran under IRIB, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and it has to abide by the rules and regulations, not only IRIB, but also constitutional of the Islamic Republic. So there are certain news that they are not allowed to broadcast.

Specifically, I mean, just let's take in the past week since the Pakistani students have been demonstrating. It would be interesting to see - yesterday there was a woman that was arrested by the Islamic Republic so there's no news about that. Women's activists in Iran are under threat. There's no news about that. Petrol rationing, no news about that.

So it is not the view - it's not the news that you get really from what's going on in Iran but rather what the Islamic Republic of Iran wants you to see about what's going on outside of Iran.

So we have the news of Mr. - of Pakistan and the broadcaster asked well, Mr. Musharraf, he is a puppet of the United States. That is very judgmental and that is not something that you hear, for example, on BBC or CNN or elsewhere?

SWEENEY: Yvonne Ridley?

RIDLEY: Or indeed why should America (ph), the same (ph) American TV that you work for. All I can see is Press TV is not just about Iranian news. I have .

SWEENEY: But if President Musharraf is called a puppet of the American state, you say that the aim of Press TV is to deliver the news straight without hysteria .

RIDLEY: I - was that said by a journalist of Press TV in a comment piece? Because I did a 50 minute program just a few days ago looking at the whole situation in Pakistan. It's a very, very hot story.

ANSARI: Will you be covering, for example, the student demonstrations in Iran this, in the coming weeks, this .

RIDLEY: Is it high on the news agenda? You're from Iran. Obviously you will focus on Iranian news. We'll take a global look at what is happening on the agenda and rather than looking at a demonstration in this country or that country .

ANSARI: What about Pakistan?

RIDLEY: Because it's a huge news story. It's on every news station. It's a huge story.

ANSARI: You're not seeing, for example, the petrol rationing Iran, that is affecting actually not just inside Iran but also the nuclear negotiations and what is all these questions being asked .

RIDLEY: The nuclear negotiations are in the news. It's a major international.

ANSARI: But what about the petrol rationing inside Iran?

RIDLEY: Why are you obsessed with the petrol rationing?

ANSARI: Because as an Iranian in does make a difference .

SWEENEY: Let me jump in here because .

RIDLEY: You each have your agenda but you can't ..

SWEENEY: The problem Press TV obviously is you have many other networks and newspapers with credibility. That is the line you're constantly going to be asked about.

RIDLEY: I want to know what other news outlets are doing petrol in Iran. I've gone through .

ANSARI: They can't. The state monopoly has said that you should not cover the petrol rationing.


ANSARI: CNN isn't going to be dictated by the Iranian government.

SWEENEY: They have to work within the criteria. They can't get into .

RIDLEY: It doesn't stop the BBC reporting. Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya can't even into Iraq but that doesn't stop Iraq from being high up in the agenda. It's not a news story for a global news station.

SWEENEY: But we can't get into that now but when the country with the second largest oil reserves in the world .

RIDLEY: It hasn't come up on CNN .

SWEENEY: I think it has come up on CNN on occasion.

RIDLEY: On occasion. Are we going to hear about it in the next couple of days?

SWEENEY: I'm not in the position of doing that right now but in terms of you being an Iranian station and under the auspices of the state, although not managed by the state, obviously, (inaudible). Who is your network aimed at?

RIDLEY: The network, I would say, is aimed at very much the Western markets across Europe, across America and we're giving a fresh face to the news without the tabloid hysteria, without the gung-ho headlines. We're stripping away a lot of the propaganda and reporting the news as I said without the frills (ph).

SWEENEY: Nazanin, a final question to you if I may. Obviously you're not a fan of Press TV .

ANSARI: Actually I've been watching in the past few days and I must say the ladies - I am proud to be Iranian and glad to see women there but at the same time if you watch Press TV, for example, you see the woman presenter being miles apart from the male presenter so there are these specific types of things that come into play that you don't see elsewhere.

SWEENEY: Is it a help or a hindrance or do you not see any difference at all?

ANSARI: I think as far as the image of Iran is concerned, it is a hindrance. Because number one, it's not very technically advanced, there's so many technical glitches. And they still have to depend - it's not - they still have to depend on news agencies. It's not as if they get their own independent news.

RIDLEY: Every news station depends on news agencies.

ANSARI: Of course, but you can't say you're cutting through the Western stranglehold.

RIDLEY: If I may put a point in. If you weren't someone who was very much against the regime in Iran, the government in Iran, would you be worried about the advent of Press TV?

ANSARI: Well, I would be worried - I am not worried about it because the news of Iran, the story about Iran, the truth about Iran is bigger than Press TV. And it's a bigger story than Press TV could ever try to damper.

But what I am worried about is for example journalists like me, Iranian journalists, woman journalists, are not allowed to go on Press TV without their head covered. And it would be a test case to see if I would be allowed on Press TV to express what other .

SWEENEY: Well we're have to leave it at that .

RIDLEY: None of our women guests are required to wear headscarves and I'm sorry if you're offended by Islamic etiquette. It's very, very sad.

ANSARI: I'm not at all but .

RIDLEY: No female is ordered to wear a headscarf when they come on .

SWEENEY: Maybe you will be a guest, Nazanin Ansari. I'm sorry, we're going to have to leave it.

And that's 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.