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Harsh Sentence in Saudi Arabia; AP Photographer Branded a Terrorist; McClellan Dishes the Dirt

Aired November 23, 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 harsh sentence in Saudi Arabia. A victim of rape now faces jail after speaking to the media.

Branded a terrorist, the U.S. military plans a criminal case in an Iraqi court against an Associated Press photographer.

And later, back in the headlines, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan dishes up dirt on his old bosses in a new book.

We begin this week in Saudi Arabia and the story that sparked outrage among human rights groups around the world. A 19-year old woman is gang raped, her attackers are jailed, but the victim is then prosecuted too and sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes. That's her punishment for meeting with an unrelated male, a crime under the kingdom's strict Islamic law.

The woman's lawyer has also had his license revoked after speaking to the media. The case has sparked intense media scrutiny of the Saudi legal system. And the government is standing by the court's decision.

The Saudi justice ministry says the system has ensured a right to object to the ruling without resorting to what it describes as sensationalism through the media.

Let's get more on this now. For that, we turn to Etihad Mubarak, a journalist with the English language Arab news, who covered the trial. Also with us, CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson and Mark Hollingsworth, journalist and author of "Saudi Babylon: Torture, Corruption, and Cover-up Inside the House of Saud."

My first question to you Etihad, how has this case been covered in the Saudi media?

ETIHAD MUBARAK, JOURNALIST: Well, it's been different for the first coverage and recently the second coverage. The first coverage, when the case was found out, and it found its way to the media, and the first verdict was announced, the media covered that extensively.

But as for now after the second verdict announced on Wednesday, doubling the sentence for both the assaulters and the rape victim and her companion, there hasn't been much coverage actually in the Saudi-Arabic press. They've taken only the side of the ministry and the judge, but nothing was published on behalf of the lawyer already has been to the victim or the victim herself.

SWEENEY: And Ebtihal, could it be argued that the lack of coverage in the last week about this case might be to actually protect the rape victim and the lawyer, because it was media coverage in the first place that allowed her sentence to be increased and his license to be revoked?

MUBARAK: No, I don't think so. There's some human rights cases when it - especially when it has - when it's with the criticizing the judicial system, sometimes it fires back. But I don't think that's the case here.

I think it's a case of the editors themselves not willing to take chances. And as the international media coverage was big on that, I think it's their decision not to cover that extensively recently.

SWEENEY: Nic Robertson, you've been to Saudi many times. What is your take on the Saudi media there?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think over the past few years, they're becoming bolder. They're becoming more willing to criticize the government in certain areas. It's very limited. And I think you have to say that this is very, very relative in Saudi terms.

But as King Abdullah has talked about reforms in certain areas, you hear echoes of that in the media. But certainly, you will find them covering some sensitive issues, but not in the way that you would get it perhaps in the Western media.

SWEENEY: Mark Hollingsworth, there's been a lot of international media coverage of this case. And it could be argued by some in Saudi that it's actually causing more damage to the girl involved here and also her lawyer. Is that fair comment in your view?

MARK HOLLINGSWORTH, JOURNALIST/AUTHOR: Well, I think she didn't have any options in terms of going to the media. I think she obviously felt that the odds were stacked against her. And I think in those situations, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia, that is your last resort, your option as a former protection. And I think she - that's why she did it.

I didn't think - I don't think she had any - because these cases in Saudi Arabia, the judiciary is once they've made up their minds against the victim or the defendant, then you know, you don't have much recourse of action. I think that's really why she did it.

SWEENEY: Ebtihal, as a journalist yourself, did you have to make a personal decision about whether or not to speak publicly about this in the media?

MUBARAK: Not really, no. Nothing has told me. I haven't been told anything. And if it wasn't for my editor being supportive of this, even the coverage should - wouldn't make its way out in our newspaper.

SWEENEY: Do you have any fears at all or concerns for your own safety or your professional abilities to conduct your work?

MUBARAK: No, no, I don't think so. I don't believe so. That's not the first case I cover concerning human rights and women issues. And you know, we did publish a big story about the first fully divorced couple. It got a lot of attention. This here, too. And a journalist who was detained briefly and I haven't been informed of, you know, any objections or from the Minister of Information or any other party.

SWEENEY: Nic Robertson, to what can we attribute the lack of coverage?

ROBERTSON: I think Ebtihal has it right here that there was a lot of coverage when the trial first came about. Now editors are making their own decisions on what's in the best interest of their papers. And the conclusion that might be the easiest one to draw is that they feel if they criticize the second decision by the judiciary here to increase the sentences, that this might have a negative impact.

SWEENEY: Mark Hollingsworth, do you think this is a reflection of a debate within Saudi society?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Well, not really. I mean, the Saudis are a very conservative, very devout society. Things move very slowly, very conservative. The current generation of - in the Saudi royal family, you know, King Abdullah is 82, 83. The Crown Prince is 81.

SWEENEY: This hasn't been - speaking out against the king at all, which I gather is treason. This is actually specifically (INAUDIBLE) case. And it's about the judiciary.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, but the judiciary is also very conservative institution in Saudi on to Shiria (ph) law. You know, the victim or the defendant has been a very little judicial rights, you know. They cannot cross examine witnesses. And so the odds are stacked against people when they're in these situations.

And I think that's why she has gone to the media, because I think she felt in a way the media was her kind of lawyer.

SWEENEY: Do you think if she had - this was her only option, is it one that might bear fruit or bring about change?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Well, I think it's - it is high risk. I mean, I think it can help, but it could bring about change. I mean, I think the Saudis definitely concerned about the image and reputation. But when it comes to it, they're very cautious people. Particularly the Saudi establishment, very cautious, very slow. I mean, talk about reform. Nothing really happens except very slowly.

SWEENEY: Ebtihal, a final word to you, if I may. Much of this case being talked about in Saudi society, I mean, talked about coverage in the newspapers, but what about television? I presume it has not been mentioned in the last week or so?

MUBARAK: The government and news channels - no, nothing has been mentioned as far as I know. No, nothing has been mentioned.

But I'd just like to make a point. The story is already there in the media. And you know, I'm not saying just to take the lawyer's side or the victim's side to take both sides, so the Saudi public can make their mind up in this case.

I think there have been some sort of misleading. Recently, no one knows the news exactly. People have called me and said well, we've heard - we see the story in CNN, what's been going on. And it's very hard to contact anyone from the Ministry of Justice. Before the statement, I tried to call the (INAUDIBLE) court. And the general - the judge there referred me to an administrator, who refused to give his full name. He said as - unless he wants to propose to me, he - that's what he said in (INAUDIBLE) him.

But when we contact the Ministry of Justice, they have no spokesman who can reply to us immediately. We have to send them a fax. And to wait for a week or two. I did in some stories before send them fax. And the story was - the fax, their replies came to me two weeks afterwards. And the story was already dead.

So there are no means of communication - (INAUDIBLE) communicating between the media and the Ministry of Justice. And that's what make things not clear sometimes.

SWEENEY: OK, as to the complexity of the story. Ebtihal Mubarak, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Jedda (ph) in Saudi Arabia. My thanks also to Mark Hollingsworth and Nic Robertson.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the case against a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. The U.S. military says there's evidence to suggest Bilal Hussein is connected to terrorism. That story when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. For 19 months, he's been held without charge in Iraq. The U.S. military says there's now evidence to suggest this man, Bilal Hussein, is a terrorist.

It's planning a criminal case against the Associated Press photographer. This shot taken in November 2004 shows insurgents launching an attack on U.S. forces. The photo, by Bilal Hussein, was part of a series of Iraq War images that won the AP a Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Hussein has taken hundreds of pictures for the AP, documenting war. The U.S. military says some are taken at the side of insurgents, raising suspicions the photographer had advance knowledge of attacks.

The case could be brought to the Iraqi justice system as early as November 29th.


GEOFF MORRELL, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: They characterize him as a terrorist media operative, who infiltrated the AP. They found IED devices or materials in his home, as well as some other discomforting evidence. And as a result of that, they've held him. And now they're recommending that he be tried.


SWEENEY: The AP says its own investigation shows the accusations against Hussein are false. It says there's no evidence to suggest the photographer took part in insurgent activities or bomb making.

U.S. officials say Bilal Hussein could still be held even if an Iraqi court acquits him based on classified evidence. Well, let's get more on this now. And for that, I'm joined from New York by Santiago Lyon, the director of photography with the Associated Press and from Baghdad by CNN's Michael Ware.

Santiago Lyon in New York, are you 100 percent convinced of Bilal Hussein's innocence?

SANTIAGO LYON, DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY, AP: Absolutely. Everything that we have seen surrounding his work as a photojournalist in Iraq leads us to believe that that's what he is and nothing more.

His photographs over the 20 months that he worked for us in their vast majority show the effects of the war on the civilian population. And we have no reason to believe that he's of anything other than a committed photojournalist telling the story of his country.

SWEENEY: But according to the U.S. military as you are well aware, and I'm quoting here from the sound byte earlier, he's characterized as a terrorist media operative who infiltrated the AP. What about the IED devices or materials allegedly found at his home, Santiago?

LYON: Well, it's interesting. When Bilal was picked up in April of last year, he was in an apartment that he was renting in Ramadi, where he was working. And after a time, the U.S. military came on the scene. And they handcuffed him and they brought him downstairs to an electrician shop below his apartment and photographed him above his objections with a bunch of electrical equipment, wiring equipment, the type of stuff that could conceivably use - be used to make an improvised explosive device, but that had nothing at all to do with Bilal Hussein. It wasn't even his store rom. He had nothing to do with it.

SWEENEY: But correct me if I'm wrong - he was also found in his apartment with two relative strangers, who he says he was helping escape from the insurgency or from a bomb attack minutes before, one of whom apparently is an insurgency leader.

LYON: Right. Bilal Hussein was coming back from buying bread the morning of his detention. And an explosion went off in the street. And as is often the case, people ran out of the street and into buildings. And these two gentlemen ran into his apartment. And as is customary in Iraq, he offered them hospitality and breakfast. And according to Bilal, did not know them before.

SWEENEY: Michael Ware in Baghdad, you have been many times in the environs of insurgents as you've gone about your work in Baghdad and throughout Iraq over the years. Is this something that conceivably could have happened to you either as an Australian or perhaps even as Iraqi?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I would expect so. I mean, at any given time, I mean, a matter of circumstance can change your fate. I mean, for example, here in what we're using as a live shot position, there are materials with which you could make a roadside bomb. And I mean, if you go into any room virtually in the CNN bureau, you would find insurgent material or propaganda of some sort, be it stuff downloaded from the Internet for study, be it CDs with films that perhaps going to be used for stories.

So yes, this is something that you expose yourself to by trying to explore the other voice, the other side of the story of this war. It's just inherent we're trying to tell that tale, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: And at that time in Ramadi, when Bilal Hussein was arrested, is it fair to say that there was a kind of lockdown that no journalist could enter there independently? And indeed that was part of AP's problem. They had to hire locally people such as Bilal?

WARE: That's very much true. And if that was Bilal's employment situation, as I understand it was, that's very typical of the way things operate. It's difficult to get somebody from one place into another when an incident happens. I may have to cross sectarian dividing lines. They may have to go through military cordons. So people employ people in those areas.

Now if you're an Iraqi, a professional photojournalist, if you walk onto the street with a camera, be it stills or video for television, then you must have some kind of relationship or identity with the insurgents. You cannot exist there without their permission.

Now it's up to the individual how they forge that and how they frame that relationship.

SWEENEY: Santiago Lyon, isn't one of the issues for AP here is that Bilal was really trained by you as a photographer? He owned, if I'm not mistaken, an electrical or a computer shop. And when you began to first use his services, you helped him train as a photographer. It wasn't so much that he came to you as a photographer offering his services.

LYON: Well, we initially made contact with Bilal in the middle of 2004 when we were sending people into Fallujah at that time to see what the situation was.

The city of Fallujah was at that time being bombarded constantly by coalition forces. And we wanted to tell the world the story of what was going on inside.

We met Bilal through a driver who was in our employment. And he offered to act as a guide for us. And he showed our reporters and photographers around Fallujah. And then he expressed an interest in making photographs for us. Apparently he'd had a passion for photography from an early age. And so, we gave him a camera. And he started to make pictures for us and started to deliver those images by taxi to our Baghdad offices. And we saw that, you know, he was able to move around quite easily, being from Fallujah and knowing people in Fallujah. And gradually, his photography began to improve.

And you know, we made very clear to him what we expected from him as a journalist and as a photographer for the AP. And he understood that. And we trained him in the use of his equipment. And he gradually began to produce a steady stream of images for us from Fallujah, which was really quite unique at the time, given the military situation there.

So he was, in effect, a unique set of eyes onto the situation in a very challenging environment in Iraq. And we believe that that's really the reason behind all of this, that the photographs that he was taking showing the effects of the war on the civilian population and showing insurgent activity in and around Fallujah became an inconvenient truth for the U.S. government. And they decided to silence that.

So they arrested him. He's been in jail for the last 19 months. No charges, no evidence produced. And we think it's completely outrageous and goes against everything that the United States stands for in terms of democracy, rule of law, and a free press.

SWEENEY: Michael Ware, Santiago Lyon says that Bilal Hussein was a unique set of eyes in what was an inconvenient truth for the U.S. military. In this changing nature of combat as we've seen with the Iraq War since the invasion, is this a very common phenomenon for journalists, particularly local ones?

WARE: Well, yes. More and more, you're seeing the Western media rely on local photographers, cameramen, and indeed reporters or journalists to gather the material they need to tell the story to impart the news.

Now that's because in this conflict more so simply than any other I've been involved with, or that I'm aware of, journalists are considered legitimate military targets by almost all of the sides out there on the Iraqi battlefield.

If you look at their targeting profiles, journalists are considered either part of the problem or they have a bias one way or the other for a particular sect, for the worst, anti-Islam, whatever it may be.

Or your value in terms of propaganda purposes is a kidnap victim or a death is so great, that it outweighs anything that you might be able to offer as a journalist in their mind.

So yes, more and more, we're seeing Iraqis being used. We're seeing journalists specifically targeted here in this war. So that has thrown up a whole conflict series of questions and ethical dilemmas about the nature of the way this war is covered.

Although at the end of the day, you still want to get out there and see it with your own eyes. And as much as you can, that's what you still do. Fionnuala?

SWEENEY: Santiago Lyon of the Associated Press in New York, Michael Ware of CNN in Baghdad, thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, what the spokesman saw. A former White House press secretary points the finger about deception at the highest levels of government. The upcoming book and the controversy it's caused when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Former White House Spokesman Scott McClellan is again creating headlines. Now he's dishing up dirt on his old bosses in a new book. McClellan's allegation that top government officials, including the president and vice president of the United States, were involved in his misleading the public about the leaking of the name of a CIA operative. John King reports.


JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Flashback to the fall of 2003 and a White House under siege.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY: The president has made it very clear that the leaking of classified information is a serious matter. And he takes it very seriously.

KING: At issue was the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame and rumblings that top White House aides Karl Rove and Scooter Libby might have been involved.

MCCLELLAN: They're important members of our White House team. And that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved. I had no doubt with that in the beginning, but I like to check my information, make sure it's accurate before I report back to you. And that's exactly what I did.

KING: Now Scott McClellan says he was mislead. "It was not true," he writes in an upcoming book. "I had unknowingly passed along false information."

Then comes the potential blockbuster. "And five of the highest ranking people in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff, and the president himself."

Libby was convicted of obstructing the investigation. Rove was not charged. Given McClellan's new take, Plame's husband says the president and vice president have some explaining to do.

JOE WILSON, VALERIE PLAME WILSON'S HUSBAND: It's incumbent upon the president, the vice president now to release the transcripts of their statements with the - to the special prosecutor so that we now have a fuller understanding of what they knew, when they knew it, and what they said to Justice.

SWEENEY: McClellan is declining interview requests until his book is finished. His publisher, though, tells CNN the former top Bush confidante is not accusing the president of lying to him.

"Scott's not suggested that the president was himself party to a conspiracy to mislead," Peter Osnos of Public Affairs Books said, "but it's pretty damn clear that other people knew what they had done and didn't tell the truth."

Back in March, McClellan suggested to CNN's Larry King that both he and the president were mislead.

MCCLELLAN: I said what I believed to be at true at the time. It was also what the president believed to be true at the time, based on assurances that we were both given. And knowing what I know today, I would have never said that back then.

SWEENEY: McClellan's new account raises fresh questions about what Mr. Bush knew and whether he was lied to, not to mention the vice president's role. The book, a rare behind the scenes look from a former Bush insider, is due in April.

John King, CNN, New York.


SWEENEY: 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.