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Reporting from Myanmar; Russia today; Britney's Fall from Grace

Aired October 5, 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, from the outside looking in, the challenges in reporting on events taking place in Myanmar. A year after the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an assessment of Russia's media landscape.

And later, Britney's decline, why the pop star's fall from grace generates so much media interest.

First, to Myanmar, the country in the grip of a military crackdown in the wake of pro democracy protests. Reporting on the situation in Myanmar are Burma, as it's also known, is difficult given the country's isolation, secrecy of the military regime, and the fact foreign journalists are banned.

Images are still filtering through to the world, painting a disturbing impression of what is actually taking place.

Internet access in Myanmar has been cut and flowed down, adding to the difficulties in reporting on the protests and subsequent crackdown. For more on this, I'm joined from Oslo by Aye Chan Naing, the director of DVB, the Democratic Voice of Burma, a pro-democracy TV station based in Norway.

And from Toronto by foreign correspondent and columnist Eric Margolis.

Aye Chan in Oslo, presumably there's been a huge increase in interest in DVB since these protests began.

AYE CHAN NAING, DIRECTOR, DVB: That's correct. I mean, we have lots of phone calls inquiring about what's happening in Burma, the media organization, NGO humor activists.

But at the same time, what we worry is one, the images lately not coming out, the tension kind of disappear. But in fact inside Burma, there has been massive arrests, especially in Rangoon. But we're not getting as much attention like last week, for example.

SWEENEY: And much of this is due to the slowing down in Internet access. How much has that affected your ability to gather news and video from Myanmar?

NAING: It's affect quite much, but it's not like impossible. The problem, I think, is they are arresting people in the middle of the night. And nobody can go out because of the curfew. So that's the main reason that we're not getting any images.

It's a terrible situation. For example, even Wednesday morning, they have raided Buddhist monasteries, and even the local civilian have been arrested, mainly around the (INAUDIBLE) Pagoda, where most of the demonstrations happened.

And these local people supported the Buddhist monks. And that was the reason that they were arresting several dozen people in the early morning.

And it's totally impossible for our reporter to go out on the street, because of the curfew.

SWEENEY: Eric Margolis in Toronto, would you agree with those who say that these protests and the Internet ability to cover these protests has actually affected how we do journalism in future?

ERIC MARGOLIS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT/COLUMNIST: Oh, very much so. You know, totalitarian regimes learned long ago that the first thing you block out are the foreign journalists.

For example, during the 1980s, I was personally hunted by the Soviets when I was covering the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Russians learned later keep all journalists out of Chechnya, so that the story of its destruction would be unknown to the world. And so it's rested.

And the Burmese junta, for all its backwardness, is aware that journalists are a danger. They keep them out. And they've done their best. And every time i've been there, it's been impossible to get stories out. So they're doing more of this. And they're hoping that by putting this blanket on the situation, that we Westerners with short memories are going to forget and go away.

SWEENEY: Aye Chan in Oslo, on a more logistical note, how are you managing to fund the extra broadcasting that you're doing?

NAING: We're requesting extra funding for the Norwegian government and the Danish government. And we're getting funding from the Norweijian and the Danish government.

But we're still struggling for our current operation. We're working on totally under budget. And especially during the last three crisis, I mean, we were like the fund at the time. And we really ought to kind of try to operate while we do with the tight, limited budget.

SWEENEY: Eric Margolis, viewing this from your vantage point in Canada, do you see what is taking place in Myanmar as a struggle, a race against time or by both the junta, as they try to shut down Internet access and the pro- democracy demonstrators, who try to find other means to get the information out of Myanmar?

MARGOLIS: The junta is very worried that the United States and its SCN neighbors, major Asian neighbors, will at some point intervene. And they're worried that the Chinese may drop their support of the junta and intervene to try and force some kind of regime change or alteration.

They were in fact cause a split within the junta. It's happened a couple of years ago to bring out so-called moderate elements.

But the danger remains that the minute the iron grip of the junta is relaxed, you may be faced with another - an Asian Iraq in the sense that five or more major ethnic groups in Burma, non-Burman ethnic groups, for example, Shrans (ph), Korant (ph), Kachens (ph), etcetera, have declared they want independence, a session from the Burmese union. And the minute they can do it, they may go after it. And this will cause a huge - a very difficult situation in the entire region because all of Burma's neighbors have their eyes on resource rich Burma, their many ethnic links across the border. And Burma could really become very shaky.

SWEENEY: Aye Chan, as you try and run DVB, covering events in Myanmar from Oslo, let me ask you, when you watch a journalist colleague, a Japanese video photographer being killed by the junta in Myanmar in the past week, and the possibility Japan says of sanctions as a result, what are your thoughts?

NAING: I think it's quite a positive step. In fact, the Japanese government have been supporting the Burmese military for many, many years. It refused to call for assistance, business investment and so on. But now, they have started talking about cutting the - their aid to Burma, and also taking the polls to get action.

But in a way, it's quite set that they have to wait until such thing happen to the Japanese journalists. And at the same time, we also worry very much about our reporters on the ground. If they can do it to a foreign journalist, I'm sure our journalist would be far too beyond more dangerous.

SWEENEY: All right. We'll have to leave it there. But gentlemen, Aye Chan Naing in Oslo and also Eric Margolis, who will be staying with us for a little while longer, thank you both very much indeed.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. One year after the killing of the well known journalist, we look at Putin's Russia and the search for answers. Stay with us.

(Commercial break)

SWEENEY: Welcome back. Sunday marks the first anniversary of the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The reporter was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment building on October 7th last year.

Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia's most controversial investigative journalists, fiercely critical of the Kremlin and its war in Chechnya. Prosecutors in August announced they had made arrests in connection with the murder. To date, no one has been convicted.

The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Russia as the third most dangerous country for reporters. It lists 47 work related killings of news staff from 1992 until June this year.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya sparked condemnation across the West. Kremlin critics labeled the killing as part of an effort to place pressure on the country's independent press.

To discuss the murder's impact on the media in Russia and the wider picture as the country heads towards Parliamentary and presidential elections, I'm joined in the studio by Darya Pushkova from the news channel Russia Today. And foreign correspondent and columnist Eric Margolis is still with us in Toronto.

Darya, bring us up to date, if you will, on the actual status of those who have been questioned in relation to Anna Politkovskya's murder?

DARYA PUSHKOVA, RUSSIA TODAY: Well, obviously, it was a horrific murder. And pretty much everybody would like to know who was behind it. And the investigation is going on. And the results are being - the public is being updated on how the investigation is going on.

But it has to be said that in a way, if in Britain I approached the British authorities and asked them about investigation that is ongoing, I will probably get a response the investigation is still going on. We will tell you when it is safe to tell you what we know.

So in that sense, some of the Russian authorities have even been saying that maybe it is too early to be updating the people on what is going behind that message.

SWEENEY: There is a question though in some people's minds as to whether or not there is going to be any progress in this, whether any one will actually be prosecuted and convicted.

PUSHKOVA: Well, we all hope that there will be somebody punished for this murder. And regretfully, Anna is not the only one who died in the line of duty.

But we also have another famous killing that happened in Boris Yeltsin's times in the `90s (INAUDIBLE), who was also investigating the - well, he was basically dealing with investigative journalism. And he was also killed. And that case is also sort of pending in limbo.

So there are quite a few cases. And we all hope that they will be resolved.

SWEENEY: Eric Margolis in Toronto, you knew Anna Politkovskaya. One year on, what are your thoughts about the ability to find those who perpetrated this murder?

MARGOLIS: Anger, cynicism and demoralization. I will be extremely surprised if a chain of evidence was ever established to show who killed her. We know roughly, you know, from where her death was ordered, from the upper echelons of the government, gangsters may have been involved, pro Russian Chechens may have been involved. But we really know who calls the shots there.

Anna told me about a year and half before she died, that she knew that she would die. She said she'd been targeted by a number of people in the Russian government, in the Russian military, in the Russian security services. It was only a matter of time.

She fled to Austria for a while, but then like the courageous journalist she was, she decided she couldn't tie it out. And she went back to Moscow and Chechnya, continued reporting and paid the ultimate price.

SWEENEY: And to your mind, Eric Margolis, what do you think her murder has achieved from the point of view of those who would have perpetrated it?

MARGOLIS: It has completed the chilling effect that was designed to shut down all outside media observation of the war and the crimes in Chechnya. Anna was reporting terrible things from that conflict, massive torture, human rights abuses of all sorts. The fact that the Russian army was selling bodies of its killed soldiers back to their families, that generals were selling tanks and heavy artillery abroad from Russian army war stocks of abandoned trade by both sides and terrible acts. And it was a grisly - one of the most ugliest wars that i've ever seen. And i've covered 14 wars in my time.

She - nobody's speaking about this anymore. Anybody who went into Chechnya, human rights groups or borders have been shut down, threatened, or killed. A blanket has been thrown over this terrible atrocity.

PUSHKOVA: You know, I also met Anna, although it was only once. But I think it just, as any journalist who is either reporting on war or reporting - doing some sort of investigations and basically stepping on many toes, on many people's interests. She was prepared for the danger that she was facing.

And it has to be said that if we're talking Chechnya here, that our - of course, there were a lot of reports about what was happening to the Chechens. There were fewer, though, about those Russians who had to leave the country, who had to leave the Republic when it was still part of Russia, about Russians who were raped, who were killed, who were selling their houses for peanuts.

SWEENEY: OK, but back to Anna Politkovskaya. If you say, as you say, there were atrocities against Russians in the Republic of Chechnya, what about - does it really mean that two wrongs don't make a right if she was reporting on what she saw from her perspective, then really wasn't it up to Russians to be also - Russian journalists to also report on the perceived atrocities, and I'm not doubting them for a second, against Russians?

PUSHKOVA: Well, as I'm saying, it is - there were reports from both sides, but there were fewer of those who were reporting on the Russian side. And you decide why it was.

MARGOLIS: May I jump in and say that Anna Politkovskaya also reported extensively on atrocities against Russians and against atrocities committed by Chechen nationalists, as well. She was totally Catholic and universal in the sharpness of her reporting.

PUSHKOVA: That's why we sort of all agree that Anna's death is a tragic death. She was a brave reporter. She was working where she believed - well according to her beliefs, but that she wasn't the only one who died in the line of duty.

And if you look at the, say, how many journalists were killed in Italy during the 17th and 18th, there were over 50 deaths, if I'm right. And that was considered a Democratic country.

Between 1992, you've cited some figures. 1992 and year 2000, 33 journalists were murdered in Russia. And that happened in the Yeltsins times when Boris Yeltsin was considered to be a Democratic president in Russian, mainly perceived by the West.

So in Vladimir Putin's times, we can talk that that figure diminished almost 2.5 times.

SWEENEY: So you're saying it's easier to be a journalist now in Russia than it would have been in the `90s?

PUSHKOVA: All I'm saying that those who are going to the wars and to investigative journalism, they know the risks they're taking.

SWEENEY: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Eric Margolis in Toronto, thank you very much. And also here in the studio, Darya Pushkova.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a celebrity downfall. Under the public glare. Troubles for Britney Spears go from bad to worse. We examine the media's treATMent of the pop star after the break.

(Commercial break)

SWEENEY: Welcome back. How low can she go? That's a question many fans or former fans of Britney Spears are asking themselves after a court awarded custody of her children to her ex-husband Kevin Federline.

Well, 25-year old Spears has been in the public glare for almost her entire life, from Broadway, a member of Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, to chart topper.

Lately, amid rumors of possible drug and alcohol use, hopes for a comeback recently fizzled at the MTV Music Video Awards. And then, Spears was charged in an alleged hit and run incident.

The pop star's fall from grace has dominated the entertainment headlines. And some observers say the attention has contributed to her downfall.

The media's interest in Britney Spears shows no signs of abating. A story that appears to have become a real life soap opera. To discuss this, I'm joined by Ruth Hilton, the deputy editor with "OK" magazine. She's in Los Angeles.

SWEENEY: Ruth, I suppose the question is how low can Britney Spears go? And will the media be there to cover it every step of the way?

RUTH HILTON: Well, my suspicion with Britney is that she's still going to go lower. And yes, the media will be there to cover every step of the way, not least because she invites the media into her life.

Only last night, she was doing it like a snail call, drive by through Beverly Hills, past the "OK" offices on the way to the Beverly Regent Wilshire Hotel with paparazzi literally snail crawling along with her.

I mean, she doesn't seem to know how to live her life without the constant flash of cameras. Arguably, she sees these guys more than she sees her own family.

SWEENEY: Well, when I look at the "OK" website, and I see that article on Britney Spears, this was no chase, the witness explains to "OK." Britney drove well below the speed limit, smiling, laughing and posing for photos, according to the witness. She made two illegal U-turns on busy six lane Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills before finally ending up at the hotel.

I suppose the question is do we really need to know that she makes these illegal U-turns?

HILTON: Well, if you look - if you knew what the road looked like, it's pretty marvelous she didn't actually damage some other people very, very severely. What this is is not just a recklessness within her own life. This is a six, you know, four and six lane road at different points, Wilshire Boulevard. She doesn't really seem to care about anyone else's situation.

The bottom line is Kevin Federline was in court doing exactly the right thing in PR terms. Where was she? Filling up gas, at Starbucks, driving around, smiling, waving at the paparazzis.

I think - you know, it's - I wish, you know, we could cover her less, but she ensures that all we ever do is have to cover her and her crazy antics.

You know, really, she should just go away for six to 12 months, get back in mental and physical shape, and come back. We'd all be ready to have her back. But right now, she's not giving anyone anything good to report on.

No spin required. We're just reporting the facts.

SWEENEY: And it raises the question of how symbiotic is the relationship between Britney Spears and the media. And indeed, other celebrities. And what you're suggesting is that she is - can be in control of the media if she went away, as you say, for six months perhaps.

HILTON: I'd argue right now she's in control of us already, actually. You know, the fact that she has these very close relationships with paparazzi, who argue I'm stalked when you, you know, slow down and go, hi guys, wave for a picture, you know?

I mean, we - you know, she, of course, as many other stars, sells newspapers, sells magazines. But you know, she - if she wants to have a serious career, she needs to go away and come back again.

Most really successful Hollywood stars do not live in L.A. It's full of enablers. It's not a healthy place to be. You know, look at Sandra Bullock, Russell Crowe. They all have homes outside. I think that's sensible. And I think that's really the way to, you know, continue your life.

SWEENEY: Over here in Britain, we're looking at the inquest into the death of Princess of Wales. And there are salacious details coming out as a result of that inquest. And it really begs the question in terms of a parallel. I mean, are we watching the decline of a woman, a very young woman, clearly very fragile at the moment in the full glare of the media? And if you recall 10 years ago, there was a lot of soul searching on the part of the media as to how much they had played a role in the death of Diana.

HILTON: Well, I mean, Diana again, I think, you know, we all remember it then as well, you know, that she had an interesting relationship with the paparazzi, and was just as prone to use them as she was to, you know, get very upset by them.

I mean, with Britney, everyone kind of keeps trying to give her chances. You know, the vmas, the disastrous performance at the vmas. You know, that was yes, another chance.

But she doesn't seem to be able to at any point grasp, well not at this stage anyway, to be able to listen to other people, to take advice, and to get better.

SWEENEY: What you're saying in essence, Ruth, is that basically Britney Spears can be in control of the media, can be in control of her own life. And the media has no responsibility here whatsoever?

HILTON: That's not why I'm saying actually. I think what I'm saying is if she doesn't -- what I'm saying is you have to take responsibility. Say the Ivy in London, this is a good example, and that's probably Howard - or Bond Street. If you go into Gucci on Bond Street, you expect paparazzi to be there. If you go to the Ivy, you know there are paparazzi there. You make choices every day as a celebrity about how you lead your life.

The equivalent of that would be, you know, Rodeo Drive and Robertson and the Ivy we have here. If you keep going to those places, then you keep ramping up the hype.

You know, people like Avril Lavigne live in Santa Barbara. Are there many pictures of her? Actually, there aren't. You know in L.A., very specifically, it's an entertainment hub. And you create your own hype.

You know, I - you know, I think if there's no fodder for the media, they can't write about it. However, if you don't turn up to court in an incredibly important custody hearing, meanwhile stand out in petrol stations, invite the paparazzi to talk to you and take your picture, I don't really think it's the fault of the paparazzi then for taking her picture at that point.

They're involved in the high speed car chase. That's a completely different scenario.

You know, and there are differences in - you have to take responsibility for your own privacy actually. And I'm a big fan of people taking responsibility for their own actions. And that's what I think is missing here.

SWEENEY: All right, we leave it there, but thank you very much indeed for joining us from L.A., Ruth Hilton.

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.