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Reporting in Iraq; CNN/YouTube Debate

Aired July 27, 2007 - 18:30:00   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, bombings, kidnappings, and killings, the challenges for freelance reporters in Iraq, the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist.

And later, old media meets new media. CNN and YouTube team up for a political debate with a difference.

We begin with the risk to reporters in getting the story. As July draws to a close, it's been another deadly month for journalists in Iraq. Recently, two employees of Reuters were killed in what the U.S. military says was a fire fight with Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad. July also saw the death of "New York Times" reporter Hali Hassan (ph), who was shot dead in the Iraqi capitol. And two journalists were among at least 80 people killed in a massive truck bomb in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk this month.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says more than 150 journalists and their support staff have died since the U.S. led invasion in March 2003. The majority of them, Iraqis.

It's often Iraqi journalists, those without the protection of Western reporters, who venture out to get the footage and the stories that news outlets bring to the world. It comes with enormous risks. Local journalists or stringers as they're known are increasingly the target.

So what motivates them? And how can they better protect themselves? Well, earlier, I had an opportunity to speak to Iraqi journalists, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He writes for "The Guardian" newspaper and is the co-author of "Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq."

I was also joined by Rodney Pinder, the director of the International News Safety Institute and CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Baghdad.

I began by asking Frederik how dependent are Western news organizations on freelancers.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN: You can't really over stress how important these journalists are for us, for our work here. Basically, when I try to report from a place like here, I have very few options. I can try to venture out myself in a very restricted sort of way, only to very few places because most places are just too dangerous.

I can go out with the American army. But basically, then, you're playing by their rules. You go where they go. And you see what they want you to see. And then there's the stringers. There's the stringers that we send out to go to places where we can't go to get the story. And it's really very, very integral part of what we do. And sort of the way we try to piece together the way things are working here and the way often regular Iraqis see what's going on here, not just the U.S. military side of it, not what I see, but really what regular Iraqis see. They talk to the stringers about what - the way they feel this country is evolving.

And it's very, very an integral part of what we do here. And the risks that these people face are just so great, it cannot be overstated under what sort of pressure and under what sort of risks they work, because basically, there's the risks of them going out to places. I mean, Iraq is a very dangerous place. And then when they - when they're out there, when they shoot things, they're often in an environment that's just completely lawless. I mean, you have to imagine there's hundreds of people out here with guns who really don't have to face retribution if they kill somebody. And venturing out there with a camera and actually trying to get things on film is a very, very dangerous things, because people that don't approve of that can just take a shot at you. And there's basically no one they could stop them from doing that.

SWEENEY: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, you are Iraqi yourself. You write for "The Guardian" newspaper, among other things. But being Iraqi, does it guarantee you any kind of safety at all when you go out or give you any greater access?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, JOURNALIST: Well, not at all. Being an Iraqi facilitates the way that you move around the city. You look Iraqi, you speak the language, so you move around. And that's the only access you have.

Once you stand on the street, there's no difference between a Western journalist or Iraqi journalist or an Arab journalist, because as the - in the reporter in Baghdad was saying that the moment you stand in the street, the moment you carry a camera, that's a threat. No one likes a camera now. No one likes a journalist, not the insurgents, not the militias, not the Iraqi government.

So then you are a threat. Now the level of the threat is different. Western journalists would get kidnapped. And Iraqi journalists doesn't get same price tag. So you'll be killed immediately on the ground.

Now adding to all these dangers, there's one other danger that Iraqi journalists get, which is it's not only the six hours when he's working the streets, or seven hours when he's shooting the footage. He has to go back to his home. He has cousins. He has family. And that's the biggest kind of threat he's facing, actually.

SWEENEY: I mean, this faces the question, Rodney Pinder, how much protection can be provided for stringers?

RODNEY PINDER, DIRECTOR, INT. NEWS SAFETY INSTITUTE: It's very difficult issue. You know, just to put this whole thing into context, we now count 220 news media people killed since the start of the war. Since the opening invasion fees, almost all of these have been Iraqi. 50 dead this year and 49 of them are Iraqi. 20 Iraqi journalists kidnapped and 12 of them murdered.

Now these are the unsung heroes of coverage. Without their work, we'd be blind and deaf in the rest of the world. They live there. So how can you protect them? There are one or two things you can do. You can provide them with safety training, which enables them to better understand if they're being followed, if they're being trailed, basic measures to take that sort of practical advice.

But given the extreme dangers through the families, through their friends and acquaintances, as we mentioned, through all the people in the neighborhood and the fact that most are killed going to and from work or near their homes, it's difficult. It can provide them with a degree of safety and security, but it's so dangerous for them. And the numbers tell their own story. A lot has been done to no avail.

ABDUL-AHAD: I think at this moment, kind of three, four years after the war, we're still facing the main thing. There are two kinds of journalists. We're not treating everyone equally. There are the Western journalists or any journalists, and Iraqi journalists who can get the - enough protection to stay in a hotel and get protected by hotel, where no kidnappers can get into the hotel and kidnap them from the hotel.

And the majority of others who, as we know, they are the people who are underground, get the information, get the footage, and everything. And those people are in many cases, not all cases, lots of Western media, especially the agencies keeping (INAUDIBLE) are really well treating their staff.

But in many cases, they're underpaid, undertrained, with lack of infrastructure that protects them. If we are sending someone into the street to get us this valuable images, we might as well kind of put him in a hotel, put his family out of the country, provide a safety network.

We're still dealing with two, I think, at this moment, there are two levels of dealing with journalism.

SWEENEY: And of course, there's a question then about the dangers to these stringers, to these journalists. And they're only called stringers because they're not working full-time for an organization, but they are still journalists over an incentive to actually work as journalists.

I mean, Frederik, the stringers that you would be familiar with, I mean, do they talk to you about their concerns about safety? Do they talk about whether or not it's possible for them to be journalists in Iraq these days?

PLEITGEN: Certainly. I mean, a lot of them say that they do have a lot of trouble covering certain things. And I want to elaborate on one thing that you were saying there. How do we protect these people? I think one of the main things and one of the better protection ways is just to try not to put too much pressure on them, to tell them that, you know, if you can't get the story, don't go there. If you feel it's too dangerous, don't go there.

I think that's something that's a very key element. And that can also bring you a lot further, because a lot of the stringers that I have known, that are very experienced, they know when sort of danger is coming up. They know what situations are dangerous. And really, the key thing is to try not put pressure on them, and to make them understand that if we don't get this, it's all right. We'll survive without it. I think that's one of the main things that we can actually try to protect these people because it is a very dangerous world out there.

SWEENEY: But on a wider level, I mean, assuming this situation in Iraq continues for some time, what can be done to help news organizations get the best of the stories that are available in Iraq without endangering stringers? I mean, what is the long term prognosis for continuing to report from Iraq when stringers are being killed and kidnapped at the rate that they are?

PINDER: Well, I frankly don't think that it is a safe way of doing it. I think if we're going to have to rely on stringers, on local journalists. And don't forget - there are hundreds of Iraqi journalists working for Iraqi news outlets that have exploded as a country enjoys press freedom for the first time.

I think one thing that should be done, and we call on all news organizations to do, is that Iraqi journalists should be given the same facilities, the same safety training, the same safety equipment, the same insurances. And so.

SWEENEY: How does that work in theory? How does that work in practice, rather, you know, to get journalists - local journalists out of the country? Is that what you're.

PINDER: Well, we have conducted safety training within the country. And by (INAUDIBLE) in Basra. And we've conducted outside of the country as well. But of course, traveling to and from is dangerous. All sort of movement is dangerous. But it can be done.

We've done seven safety training courses now in Iraq for journalists.

SWEENEY: But I got the sense from you that you're talking about a wider issue here. It's not just a question of safety training for journalists. It's a question of, you know, what are their standards?

ABDUL-AHAD: I fully agree. I mean, I agree that it's kind of like the whole issue insurance training, many other issues. But then the wider topic, it's kind of everyone should be treated equally and provide everyone with the same kind of way of treatment, the same way of facilities.

Yes, maybe he's not in step. You know, maybe he hasn't signed the contract yet. But he is so valuable that he is getting the source of information. So I kind of now having trouble with this kind of - not discrimination, but kind of looking into two kinds of journalists, you know, the staff journalist, the reporter, the Western journalist, or (INAUDIBLE) Iraqi, and then the stringer who's working in the street.

Because the levels of dangers are so extreme, because I mean, all what we are doing in Iraq, all the media outlets collectively - I don't think we're covering the whole story with the whole picture. There are hundreds and thousands of little stories and anecdotes and people getting killed that we don't know about, that just happens in different street and different alley ways because we can't get answers to these things.

So it's very, very dangerous. But to treat the thing with this kind of - to treat this story in - with same kind of level of danger, we have to look into the local journalists as Western journalists, the same way.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there, but thank you very much, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Robbie Pinder here in London, and also CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Baghdad.


SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a unique bond forged because of the Iraq War. The story of an Iraqi translator finding a new life in the U.S. That story when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. We've been discussing the protection of journalists who operate in Iraq. The violence has claimed the lives of more than 150 news workers, including that of American reporter Steven Vincent.

But his memory endures in his New York apartment. Now sharing that home are two women, who due to the war, were nearly married to Vincent at the same time. Richard Roth explains.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After watching the attack on the World Trade Center from the roof of his apartment, Steven Vincent, an art critic, decided to head to Iraq to work as an investigative journalist. He would later work with a female Iraqi translator.

LISA RAMACI, WIDOW OF STEVEN VINCENT: What struck me was that it was a woman. He said that she came up to him and stuck her hand out and introduced herself, which was the first time that had happened to him in this Islamic country.

ROTH: But Vincent's probing about corruption made him and his Iraqi translator, Nour al-Khal, unpopular in certain circles.

NOUR AL-KHAL, TRANSLATOR: Vincent was the bravest man I ever seen in my life.

ROTH: But Vincent was warned that once he left Iraq, his translator would be a dead woman.

RAMACI: What he said to me was I've put her life in jeopardy. And I can't leave her behind. What do I do?

ROTH: So the couple devised a scheme to get Nour out of Iraq. Vincent would convert to Islam and marry Nour. The pair would then fly to London and divorce.

But after Vincent reported insurgents had infiltrated the Basra police department, he and his translator were abducted, beaten, and Vincent was killed.

AL-KHAL: He didn't move. He didn't talk to me. And I was bleeding.

ROTH: The translator was shot several times, but survived. After the los of her husband, Lisa Ramaci went on a mission to bring Nour to America.

RAMACI: I felt that it was the least I owed her.

ROTH: Since 2003, fewer than 800 Iraqis have been granted asylum. Lisa battled American bureaucracy for 18 months, even testifying before Congress.

RAMACI: And please, let me help the woman who helped Steven and in so doing, greatly aided me by being with him in his final moments.

ROTH: In late June, success.

RAMACI: You're eating standing up. That's a time honored American tradition.

ROTH: Nour is now enjoying exploring New York City.

RAMACI: I know that wherever Steven is, he's happy. He's looking down on this and he's smiling.

ROTH: Richard Roth, CNN, New York.


SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a change to the format. U.S. presidential debates get a makeover. The role of new media in politics after the break.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It was billed as a landmark event. CNN and YouTube teamed up to mix up the traditional political debate in the United States. The results was this. Televised debates between Democratic presidential candidates. They fielded a series of questions from the public that were uploaded from the video sharing website. The format will be tested again in September, when Republican presidential candidates take part in a similar debate.

So old media meets the new. Will we see more of it? To discuss this, I'm joined by Rachel Sklar, media editor with "The Huffington Post." She's in New York. And here in the studio by Dan Hill, the director of web and broadcast with Monocle, the magazine with a major web based broadcast component.

Rachel, let me turn to you. How much of this was hype? And how much of it was truly showing the way forward?

RACHEL SKLAR, HUFFINGTON POST WEBSITE: Well, there was so much hype beforehand. So that really did put a large bar for CNN and YouTube to meet. But I do think it was met - I mean, if you just look at the conversation that's been generated after this, there's been - you know, there's been a huge debate about the debate about whether or not this format was groundbreaking and what it really meant.

And I think that what it boiled down to is that yes, this was definitely a new element. There was a flattening here of who has access to the candidates and how those questions are posed. But the flip side of that is that it's still the same old candidates responding. So it was still a very classic debate format with questions posed and the answers forthcoming from the candidates, but what was really different was the way those questions were phrased and posed to the candidates. That's sort of - that's what was really interesting.

SWEENEY: Dan Hill, I mean, what was the difference between posting a question on YouTube and being in a town hall meeting posing the questions?

DAN HILL, DIRECTOR, WEB & BROADCAST, MONOCLE: I think as Rachel says, it's the - it's more the way that they were (INAUDIBLE). There's an intimacy sort of videos that were being posted on YouTube that is very different. So they're very structured format that we usually see in the broadcast media. And they were very raw, you know, which was quite compelling in a way, the sort of visceral moments when the guy pulled out an assault rifle and started talking about gun control. And that would not have happened previously.

I sort of agree that.

SKLAR: They wouldn't have been able to get into the building.

HILL: No, exactly. You know, and they sort of - I do agree it wasn't necessarily a new format in itself. Obviously, we've had questions and answers from the public and went years and years and years. But there was this new element to the way that they were posed and the quality that the questions had.

I think the responses from the politicians were largely the same. There what you'd expect - almost to be prepared in effect. And that's why the format failed a bit for me.

SWEENEY: And where do you think the format could have improved, Dan?

HILL: Well, let's no longer talk about the role of CNN as a filter on YouTube.

SWEENEY: Or the gatekeeper.

HILL: Or the gatekeeper, exactly. And I think that's missing the point a bit, because you always need a filter and a gatekeeper.


HILL: Either YouTube does it itself, in which case it's the raw YouTube audience voting things up or down. And the end results are the most popular results on YouTube are Lindsay Lohan getting arrested or Beyonce falling over and such like.

Or we have CNN.

SKLAR: That is important.

HILL: That is important. You have CNN being a professional broadcaster and journalist being the gatekeeper. And I think that's a perfectly valid role, which persists. On top is a layer on top of YouTube really. The difference is that I would like to have seen more of unfiltering process. I'd like to see how CNN decided which 39 questions or 50 questions out of the 3000 that were posted got chosen.

We only saw a brief glimpse of that, really. It was alluded to almost as the secret room at CNN HQ, where there's a team deciding which questions are asked. And for me, making that journalistic process transparent would have been an interesting new angle on this format.

SWEENEY: Rachel?

SKLAR: Sure. I totally agree with that. I think that would have been really fascinating actually. And also, sort of a discussion that as between these two questions, this was why we chose this one and not this one, and why, you know, this one would have been appropriate maybe for an after 11:00 broadcast.

I mean, it just - they're all available on the Internet. So you know, if you really want to know, you can go and you can look at all 3,000. But that would have been just another angle to debate. And as Dan says, more transparent.

SWEENEY: Well, I think that CNN's.

SKLAR: And more interesting.

SWEENEY: .viewpoint was that it chose a sampling of the question. They went through all the questions and videos.

HILL: Yes.

SWEENEY: And they threw the quirkiest or chose the people - the questions that they thought were the most representative.

SKLAR: Sure.

SWEENEY: .and appropriate for the debate. But obviously, it raises a question. You can (INAUDIBLE) all the three kinds of video submitted on YouTube, but obviously, the presidential candidates might not be looking at them after the debate.

SKLAR: Right.

HILL: And.

SKLAR: But their aides might be.

HILL: Yes. And I think they ought to, because - and again, I think this was a - the way that the debate could change. Those candidates could be engaging with those videos right now. They could continue to do so. They could make their own videos. I think it's interesting to think about how.

SKLAR: But they do make their own videos.

HILL: Exactly. But I think the sort of - what people like Jeff Jarvis call big camera videos and little camera videos, sort of the big camera's.

SKLAR: Exactly.

HILL: .the studio that we're sitting in now. And then at the very intimate little cameras that these guys were posting questions on in their living rooms. And how politicians engage with that is fascinating. There's this sense, I suppose, that this event comes from a perception of the U.S. citizenship is disillusioned with politics in some way. And what -- can desperate desire to do something about that?

And I wonder how U.S. specific that is, as well. If we look at the recent French presidential election, at an 85 percent turnout rate. And they didn't really use a YouTube like CNN tie up in order to achieve that.

But people like Sarcosi did engage with these new talks to some degree. And they only made their own short videos in responses to other videos, as well as doing the traditional thing that politicians do.

SWEENEY: Rachel, one of the objectives indeed of this YouTube/CNN venture was to bring in younger people or hopefully attract younger people. Do you think it succeeded on that front?

SKLAR: I do think it succeeded. And I think the demographic information following the debate backed that up that CNN had a terrific turnout in that kind of youth demographic. And I think it is - it's engaging. It's engaging to have that opportunity to create something. I mean, listen, not everybody can go to South Carolina to be in the audience of the debate, but anybody with a - you know, with a camera and a modem and a dream can make a YouTube video and upload it to the site. So those barriers to entry are really low.

As for kind of a country specific situation, I do think that what's happening in the U.S. right now is really interesting. You've got a sort of eight years of kind of the Bush administration. A lot of - very polarized country. Sort of elections are very contentious. And this field is really wide open on both sides.

So it's sort of - anybody can come up. And there are all these new things - these new paradigms are now challenging the old ones, but when you've got Obama girl, that sort of user generated videos, Obama girl, Hillary 1984, the kind of anti-Hillary Clinton video. And these are coming from - not from highly paid consultants. They're coming from the grassroots. So it's just an interesting time.

SWEENEY: I'm sure there are many lessons to be learned. And we will see, I'm sure, some improvements. It certainly changes (INAUDIBLE) anyway in the Republican presidential debate in September.

Rachel Sklar in New York.

SKLAR: Should be interesting.

SWEENEY: Dan Hill here in London, thanks very much indeed.

SWEENEY: And that's 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.