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Myanmar; Ahmadinejad; Zimbabwe

Aired September 28, 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.
This week, a window on Myanmar, how the world has witnessed two events taking place inside the isolated country.

The media and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The controversial visit to the U.S. by Iran's president.

And later, undercover in Zimbabwe, reporting from what is a no go zone for many journalists.

We begin in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. In the past month, Buddhist monks and other citizens have taken to the streets of the capitol Yangon in protest of the military regime.

Half a world away in Norway, a small television and radio network known as the Democratic Voice of Burma has been broadcasting video and audio of the demonstrations back into Myanmar. DVB, a pro democracy station, can only be seen via satellite in the isolated country. DVB says it has reported using tiny hidden cameras on the streets of Yangon, offering a unique glimpse into what is taking place there.


KHIN MAUNG WIN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, DVB: All our journalists are working underground. They never expose themselves as DVB journalists. If they expose themselves as DVB journalists, they will be arrested on the spot.


SWEENEY: The station, which was founded in 1992, is funded by grants from government and free speech groups in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Well, given the situation, the secrecy and the isolation of Myanmar, reporting the story is extremely difficult. Well, for more, I'm joined from Paris by Vincent Brossel, the head of the Asia desk with Reporters Without Borders, and here in the studio by Simon Long, the Asia editor with "The Economist."

Its cover story this week is dedicated to the situation in Burma. Vincent Brossel, do you know how many international journalists are operating or trying to operate in Myanmar this week?

VINCENT BROSSEL, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: According to my information, there is - there are at least 20 foreign journalists inside. Of course, they are all with tourist visa because Burma is denying press visas for many years to foreign journalists. And when they give foreign press visa, it's only to cover special official events.

So the journalists have to come through Bangkok and other places. And from inside, they're to be very careful about what they're doing. And we have been - we learn recently that the Trader Hotel, we have many foreign journalists are watching as been (INAUDIBLE) by the military police. And maybe some of them will be deported.

SWEENEY: And in terms of Chinese journalists covering the situation there, is there any distinction made for them, Vincent?

BROSSEL: Yes. I mean, fortunately, the only foreign correspondent in Burma is Chinese journalist working for the Xinwha News Agency. And it's very unfortunate because he's not reporting about the demonstrations. So it means that once again, the Chinese government is controlling the information about Burma and supporting the PDT.

SWEENEY: Simon Long, given this difficulty of accessing and gathering information about what's taking place in Myanmar, is it surprising that so much information has actually been getting out into the international community?

SIMON LONG, ASIA EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: Well, so far, we have had the - what may in a few days look like the luxury of foreign journalists being there, working very hard, struggling with getting news out.

But in addition, we have, of course, tens of thousands of Burmese very anxious to tell the outside world what their story and finding very resourceful ways of doing so by mobile phones when the lines aren't cut by Internet, before the Internet cafes are closed down, and where some of the caf‚ owners have been quite helpful in directing people in ways around the government's restrictions on access.

So there are lots of ways of trying to get things out. And the government, so far, has not managed to shut them all down.

I'd also like to say in possible defense of our Chinese colleague there that, of course, we can't actually know whether he's been reporting it or not. What we do know is that Xinwha hasn't been publishing anything.

SWEENEY: Hmm. Vincent, let me ask you here. When we talk about technology Internet cafes and such citizen journalism, and we hear from Simon about caf‚ owners trying to help people around the government restrictions on the Internet in Myanmar, is this really a battle between technology and the authorities willingness to try and tamper technology to get information out?

BROSSEL: Yes, true. I mean, it's a real battle. And I think that - I mean, in some ways, they actually send the Burmese journalists are winning this battle of the communication and of the media, because they know that without the international support, they will not be able to get democracy in their country.

SWEENEY: I mean, Simon Long, it really seems like a race against time for both those marching on the streets and journalists, as well as the authorities who are trying to clamp down on the technology just as soon as the opposition come up with other ways of trying to get the information out?

LONG: It's a race against time in the sense that we may find, as days go by, that we have fewer and fewer windows open to what is happening inside the country.

On the other hand, if one looks back nearly 20 years to 1988, then with far fewer technological resources, still news manage to get out. People knew in broad terms, maybe not as quickly, maybe not in as much detail. They knew that something terrible was happening.

And that will continue to go on. The - they can't shut the world out entirely.

And then, it was largely through radio that the information was fed. And it may go back to that, that people will be again tuning into their shortwave radios, listening to broadcasts with Norway, from London, from Bangkok to try and find out what is happening in their own country.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm. That's in terms of getting information in, but again, for journalists trying to get the information out, Vincent Brossel, isn't there a point here to be made about obviously Burmese journalists themselves, as much as foreign correspondents, is there a parallel to be drawn here with Iraq, where international journalists go into a country, but really cannot do very much without local knowledge and local journalism?

BROSSEL: Yes, I mean, it's always hard to make this type of parallel, but of course, the (INAUDIBLE) always the first targeted by all the government or I mean armed groups.

In Iraq, more than 200 journalists have been killed. And they were mostly Iraqi. In Burma, the journalists in jail are Burmese. And the people who have been beaten or under threat in recent days are Burmese. But they know that the price of this honor to try to inform their people through the radio stations, through the Internet, through the (INAUDIBLE) newspaper.

So - I mean, for me it's very clear that these journalists are doing that because they love their job, but also because they love democracy. And they know that they're part of the struggle to get this regime down.

SWEENEY: Simon Long, a question for you without revealing too much, obviously. But how did The Economist get its sources of information from Myanmar?

LONG: Through all the ways we've been describing. That is, through one or more of the foreign journalists in - through looking at what is coming out through the Internet and blogs, through talking to people there through the telephone. That is how we're monitoring what's going on.

SWEENEY: We'll have to leave it there, but Simon Long here in London and Vincent Brossel in Paris, thank you both very much.

And still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on U.S. soil. It was always certain to grab the headlines. We'll examine the controversial visit and the media's coverage of it when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. His visit was controversial to say the least. Iranian President Mahmoud Admadinejad arrived in the United States amid protests and tabloid headlines that labeled him evil and a madman.

The outspoken leader was in the country for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. He also addressed the National Press Club via video link. And he gave a speech at Columbia University in New York.

Mr. Ahmadinejad defended his nation's right to nuclear power and suggested the Holocaust should still be open historical research. The Iranian president also made this claim.


MAHMOUD ADMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country.


SWEENEY: While the Iranian president's comments generated headlines in the U.S., the nature of the visit was also a hot topic in Iran. Namely, how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was received.

Let's look at the media's coverage of the trip now. And for that, I'm joined by Rachel Sklar, media editor with The Huffington Post. She's in New York. And here with in the studio is Nazenin Ansari, the diplomatic editor for the Iranian weekly newspaper Kayhan London.

Rachel Sklar in New York, I mean, this visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York was, and is always, controversial. But did he surpass himself this year?

RACHEL SKLAR, MEDIA EDITOR, HUFFINGTON POST: I think he may just have. It started even before he arrived with his request to lay a wreath at Ground Zero that was denied. So right away, outrage was spurred. And there was fierce debate about what he should be doing and his movements while he was here.

And then, of course, there was a speech at Columbia, which was televised on all three cable networks and really generated quite a lot of coverage.

So yes, he's certainly a man who knows how to make waves and actually physical waves, because it was impossible to move around Manhattan during his visit.

SWEENEY: Ansari, I mean, there's been a lot of controversy over whether he said Iran didn't have "a gay problem" or whether there were less gays in Iran than in the United States. Is this a question of translation?

NAZENIN ANSARI, DIPLOMATIC EDITOR, KAYHAN (LONDON): Mr. Ahmadinejad has a way with words. And he is very astute at using the same words that mean different ways and have different meanings.

But what I think Mr. Ahmadinejad did not expect this time was to be demeaned by the president of Columbia University.


ANSARI: And in that sense, I think even the Iranian population, when they looked at the footage and read about it, they had various different reactions to it.

Of course, there were academics in the United States, Iranian academics in the United States. And in Iran, that thought that this was - it was done - it was a very impolite and action by the president of Columbia University.

But there were other Iranians, actually, who thought that number one, it was disrespectful of Mr. Ahmadinejad towards the Iranian society that he did not get up and leave, and that they were basically very upset that the person representing Iran was someone like Mr. Ahmadinejad.

SWEENEY: Because?

ANSARI: Because of the way he is. He's a - they do not - he does not embody themselves. They do not think that he's a good representative.

SWEENEY: This is a certain section of the population in Iran?

ANSARI: Of course, but it's along - I mean, it's a very big population if you consider those within the regime that do not like Mr. Rafsanjani (ph) and his people who do not like Mr. Ahmadinejad. The educated, who do not like Mr. Ahmadinejad, the people who watch CNN, FOX, and BBC World do not basically think that Mr. Ahmadinejad is a good role model as a representative.

SWEENEY: Rachel Sklar, what do you think this visit did for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the American press? I mean, was he vilified as some claim?

SKLAR: Well, you know, it's a very, very broad press. So the treatment of him ranged from, you know, one blaring, screaming headline with the word `evil' in it as you mentioned, to a kind of a cogent step-by- step treatment of it on blogs or in a more academic journal. So you're going to get the spectrum.

Vilified? He certainly was seen as being - let's just say not being all that there in terms of the sort of rambling address at Columbia. He certainly doesn't speak in sound bytes.

SWEENEY: Nazenin, go back to the speech itself. He did - you would explain it to me earlier in answer to a question about whether or not - a direct question about whether or not he supported the destruction of Israel. He actually did give a direct answer in your opinion from what you said.

ANSARI: Well, if you look at the footage, the first word he uses is `yes.' And then there's a bit of a pause. And then he goes on and talks about something else.

But once again, you see that he can play with words. And - but as far as his speech is, I mean, I think the audience of Mr. Ahmadinejad is the audience that he was speaking to. I don't think it was directly his speech either to Americans, nor to Iranians. They were, I think, the Arabs. And he used the networks to occupy his remarks and his views.

SWEENEY: Very final question to you, Rachel Sklar. I mean, it's kind of a moot point now should he have made the speech at Columbia University? Should he have been asked to?

SKLAR: Well, it depends from whose perspective? From his perspective? Did it enhance him? Did it allow him to get messages there? Certainly. And it put - he presented himself as being almost the victim in terms of showing up and being ambushed by the president of Columbia. That's certainly how it could play out if he wanted to spin it that way.

Should he in general have spoken? I was not one of the people who thought that Columbia should not have hosted him. I feel that, you know, you get the debate out there. I thought it was one of the amazing images I thought from that was something that nobody could have really foreseen or controlled, but it was a wide shot from the back of the room. And in the audience, you saw a sea of yamikas (ph), of Jewish religious skull caps. And that showed that Jews had come out to that speech in large numbers. And that - I found that to be a very moving and interesting image.

So as far as part of the larger debate, I'm for it.

SWEENEY: All right, thank you very much indeed. Rachel Sklar in New York for joining us and also here in London, Nazenin Ansari.

And still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, reporting Zimbabwe. The country's turnaround and the difficulties in telling what's been described as a humanitarian crisis. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Reporting from Zimbabwe, it's something made virtually impossible for most Western news organizations, which are banned by the government headed by President Robert Mugabe.

Well, to highlight what's been described as a humanitarian crisis, crews from Britain's ITV News recently went undercover in Zimbabwe. They witnessed a country crippled by a staggering inflation rate and its people suffering from devastating food and water shortages.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Under cover of darkness, we enter another township on the outskirts of Harari, where the power is off more than it's on, where what food the people can muster is cooked outside on firewood, and where homework is by candlelight.

I come to meet a teacher anxious to tell me how bad things really are here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can say from now onwards, we are just a few tips away from a total collapse. Everyone thinks that it would be better if there's a change of government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He knows by talking to me, he's risking his life, but he feels he must speak out.


SWEENEY: That was Mark Austin from ITV News reporting there.

He joins me now in the studio. Also with us is Tererai Karimakwenda, a producer and presenter with SW Radio Africa, a station that broadcasts into Zimbabwe.

SWEENEY: Mark Austin, why decide to go into Zimbabwe now?

MARK AUSTIN, ITV NEWS: Well, it's a story that we've always wanted to do. But when we've asked for official commission, we've never been able to get it. And I've heard from inside the country that things were getting worse. It was quite clear that the humanitarian crisis was deteriorating. And so we decided that it was a story that needed to be told.

And we found a way of doing it. And so we went in.

SWEENEY: So how much in terms of logistics, how long did you spend there? How much material had you gathered before you went in?

AUSTIN: Some of the material was gathered before. I spent about four days in there working with a cameraman undercover. It sounds very sort of, you know, suspicious, but it means really you go in as a tourist. And you just hope you don't get caught.

And you work out the best ways to film things. I mean, a lot of what's going on in Zimbabwe is quite obvious. And within hours of arriving in Harari, the crisis becomes apparent. The huge queues, the (INAUDIBLE) supermarket, that kind of thing. But.

SWEENEY: Did anybody pick up from you at all?

AUSTIN: No. We - there were a couple of moments where we thought people had, but we - you know, you use hidden cameras, or you get out of the car. You film. You speak to people. And then you move on very quickly. You can't hang around for long.

I mean, Robert Mugabe has his spies and his agents pretty much everywhere. And so, it is too much of a risk to stay in one place for too long. So - but you know, someone said to me the other day, well, it's very brave what you've done. The real bravery, I have to tell you, are the people who agreed to talk to us because there is an enormous fear there. And it is the fear that's very difficult to capture on television.

SWEENEY: Which brings me to you, Tererai. I mean, as an exiled journalist, you must feel some sense of pride watching these reports coming out from ITV News on Zimbabwe. But at the same time, as a Zimbabwean, you're not able to be there?

TERERAI KARIMAKWENDA, SW RADIO AFRICA: Yes. Well, we were banned virtually from the start after our first few broadcasts, they announced in parliament that if you were to come home, you're welcome straight to our prisons. And so it's quite obvious how we are viewed there.

And government officials were instructed clearly not to give us any interviews. So you know, sometimes people who listen to our broadcast or go to our website may think that our coverage is biased, but that's because it's by default, not by design. They were told not to give us interviews as an instruction.

SWEENEY: And how do you gather your information from Zimbabwe?

KARIMAKWENDA: Speaking of brave, the people he's talking about that agreed to talk to them, we have people on the ground. I mean, the citizens themselves as it may have become the correspondents. And thanks to technology like mobile telephones, where people are - who obviously don't use their real names because as you said, the state agents are everywhere. And they would suffer the consequences.

But there are people on the ground in different areas who tell their story themselves. And we use their voices.

SWEENEY: That's really extraordinary, Mark Austin. You know, there are parallels to be drawn with Myanmar in terms of how information is now gathered, citizen journalism in Zimbabwe and both Myanmar.

AUSTIN: Well, there is a parallel quite clearly because Western journalists can't get into Burma. It would be exceedingly dangerous to operate in Burma at the moment.

I mean, there is a problem though with citizen journalism. I mean, it's fine for news organizations to use footage that comes from mobile phones. It's fine for them to use the eyewitness accounts of people who've been there.

But in a sense, it is not proper journalism. You know, you - the organization that I worked for, we prefer its correspondents to be there to witness it and then to report. It's very difficult to say that it is pure journalism in the sense that - I mean, I would rather go to Burma and report what I see, rather than what someone else sees.

There's a lot of vested interest. And it's very difficult to know where the source of the material. And it's very difficult to verify that kind of thing. So there is a problem with the whole citizen journalism thing.

KARIMAKWENDA: Yes, I agree. I mean, you get to a point, if you're doing it regularly, I mean, if it's just a one off and someone tells you a story, you never know how legitimate it is or how authentic it is.

But you know, when you're doing it regularly, like we have people that have developed into - I mean, they're not trained journalists. But in terms of the trust issue, there are people that, you know, a few of them that we do trust.


KARIMAKWENDA: .that you know, they say such and such. We know that it's the truth.

SWEENEY: Final question to you, Mark Austin. Will you be going back?

AUSTIN: To Zimbabwe?

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm.

AUSTIN: Not in the immediate future. I'm not sure that we deal that well.

SWEENEY: A doubter. Well, thank you very much.

AUSTIN: I'd like to go there. I'd like to talk to Robert Mugabe.

KARIMAKWENDA: I'd love to be reporting from there myself actually one day. So.

SWEENEY: Well, hopefully, perhaps not in the too distant future. Tererai Karimakwenda and Mark Austin, thank you both very much indeed.

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.