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NATO's Information War Against the Taliban; Somalia's Deteriorating Situation; CNN/YouTube Debate

Aired November 30, 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, fighting a war in the information age - how NATO is taking on the Taliban. Political debate for the new generation, Republicans face off in a CNN/Youtube debate. And news as it happens. A cameraman is (INAUDIBLE) by these images. It highlights the deteriorating situation in Somalia.

We begin in Afghanistan and a new front in the fight against the Taliban. NATO is trying to match the group's public relations crusade with one of its own by using the Internet. It's a component of the war that wasn't possible when the conflict started six years ago, mainly because video sharing websites weren't available.

Here's our international security correspondent Paula Newton.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They have the bullets, the bombs, and the high tech weapons of war, but NATO now admits what's missing is the Youtube factor, a consisted coordinated assault on the Internet so it can give as good as it gets from the Taliban. Because the weapon of choice these days in Afghanistan is video.

Canadian soldier Norm Tremblay describes what he saw a couple of weeks ago under attack from the Taliban.

WARRANT OFFICER NORM TREMBLAY, CANADIAN ARMY: It was a well set ambush where we encountered at least four of them. And the fifth one holding a camera.

NEWTON: A camera wielded like a weapon, inflicting its own kind of collateral damage.

JAMES APPATHURAI, NATO SPOKESMAN: The Taliban, who are actual literal cave dwellers, are doing better than we are on a key battleground, and that's video. They deploy videographers. We don't. They have DVDs out in an hour, we don't.

NEWTON (on camera): NATO concedes it's already lost the upper hand when it comes to the information war. The Taliban has spent years carefully cultivating its extremist video and using it as a recruitment tool.

(voice-over): NATO says all of this slowly erodes the world's perception of how the Afghanistan mission is going. And more than that, what security experts warn these videos are the life blood of recruiting campaigns.

GLEN JENVEY, CYBER-TERROR EXPERT: One point somebody has actually bring most of these people to become terrorists. And this is where the recruiting sergeants actually take hold. And that's - the online part is an important part of it.

NEWTON: So NATO now says if you can't beat them, join them. This is video just declassified by NATO and made available to CNN. Shot from a helicopter, NATO says this is an armed Taliban fighter. Watch now as he disguises himself in a burqua, head to toe, weapon concealed. NATO says burqua clad fighters take refuge with women and children like they have in this video.

And there's more. NATO claimed a high level Taliban meeting was going on at this house. Their helicopters take aim. And then NATO says a small boy is callously posted at the front door, the perfect human shield. NATO was forced to hold its fire.

APPATHURAI: There are hundreds of videos like this. We should show them to the public. We're in a sense winning the tactical battles, but we're not focusing enough on the strategic battle, which is public opinion.

NEWTON: And more and more, that battle fought on the thorny terrain of the Internet will be the decisive one in Afghanistan.


SWEENEY: Terrorism in the information age, CNN's international security correspondent Paula Newton reporting there.

Well, she's with me now in the studio. And also joining us is Jason Burke, foreign correspondent for "The Observer" and author of the books "On the Road to Kandahar" and "Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam." He's in Paris.

Jason, in all the time you've been covering Afghanistan, you must have seen a few changes in terms of what is not only happening on the ground, but in terms of how it's portrayed in the media internationally?

JASON BURKE, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, "THE OBSERVER": Yes, I started covering in the mid to late `90s. And then, it was effectively a black hole in media terms. In fact, when I decided to go out and work predominantly in Afghanistan, one of my editors in London just said, you know, why do you want to go there? There's nothing happening.

Clearly, the end of the decade into the `90s, we saw an amazing interest all over the world, the war, 2001, 2002. Then again, we saw things shift away. The interest has come back again in recent years. But it's fairly intermittent. When there's a big increase in troops numbers, something like that, then Western media become interested.

Otherwise, there's a sense of we heard it all before. It's very difficult now to say things that are new about Afghanistan and interest Western audiences in many ways.

SWEENEY: And Paula Newton, this raises the question of who is NATO involved in this propaganda war for. Is it for its own constituency back home? Or is it really having it out with the Taliban?

NEWTON: Well, you know, NATO wouldn't call it a propaganda war. They want to get their information, what they call the truth, out. Yes, they are engaging the Taliban. And the reason is, as you pointed out, it's the constituency back home. NATO is under a lot of pressure to show some real development in their mission in Afghanistan.

What they're not doing, Fionnuala, is they are not convincing their constituencies in Europe, in places like Canada, not to pull out their troops. And with the constituencies back home, as Jason just described, it's a kind of sense of OK, what have we done there? What could we possibly do if we stay any longer?

SWEENEY: And is there a disconnect, do you think, between what people on the ground think about Afghanistan? Or is there indeed a real connection with troops? I mean, it's hard to believe in Britain, for example, at least in my world, although it's media connected, that you know, this is a country at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NEWTON: It's very difficult to bring that home to people in Western Europe, to people in the United States and Canada. And NATO is having a very hard time. And it is also very difficult on the troops, NATO says. And for that reason, they say that they have to get out of what they call the `stone age.' They need to step up to the plate and really display what is going on in Afghanistan.

You know, a lot of it is the good, the bad, and the ugly. And they say they do want to show all of that, but they want to show it more on the Taliban's terms.

And the Taliban's terms means that you do show some of that very compelling video on platforms like Youtube and other web platforms.

SWEENEY: Jason Burke in Paris, do you think it's right for NATO to decide to fight its PR offensive on the Taliban's terms?

BURKE: I think you got to look at who NATO is addressing. And NATO has a significant number of different audiences that they're trying to spread across. The Taliban are far more specific in their audience, if you like.

And when they're addressing that audience, i.e. the people of Afghanistan, more particularly the people of southeast Afghanistan and Western Pakistan in some ways, the Taliban hold all the cards.

The - what illustration. We look at the coverage of the - what's going on in Afghanistan in Western Europe, in America and elsewhere is that it is very military based. What you see a lot of is soldiers fighting, bombs going off, rocket attacks, whatever. You see far less of what's going on in the ground. Part of that is because the soldiers and the people that - with whom a lot of the journalists are, are very isolated from the people on the ground.

Taliban don't have that problem. With the people on the ground, they're the people they're communicating with. They've got the languages, obviously. In fact, you know, we're talking a lot about television. There's something like only three people in a thousand in Afghanistan have access to television.

So while we're talking about media strategies or NATO talking about media strategies, getting the right pictures out, getting the right images, the Taliban are out in villages talking to people or passing leaflets around, sticking notices on the doors. And that is a pretty effective way to communicate with a population, if you are an insurgent.

SWEENEY: Yes, but the Taliban, Jason, is still are taking NATO on at their own game by uploading and putting information on Youtube, for example.

BURKE: Yes, I mean, it's stuff that they've learned. I mean, they've learned a lot. I mean, I go back to the times when I was sort of kicking around in Afghanistan with the Taliban actually in the late `90s. Then a lot of them could barely point their own country on a map. They'd not heard of Osama bin Laden. They barely heard of Iraq or any of these other issues that we hear so much these days.

They have come a long way in many ways. One of the things that strikes was how quick they are now to respond. So when you had a bomb in the north of the country recently, which killed a large number of children, the Taliban were straight onto local correspondents, saying that was nothing to do with them. And they condemned this kind of attack.

Actually, their messages are often quite confused. But there, they were straight there saying well before NATO had said anything, that this wasn't - had nothing to do with them. May or may not have been, we don't know.

But they've learned a lot. They're a lot quicker. They've developed strategies. They are taking on NATO at their own game. And of course, NATO has to take the Taliban on, on their terms, too.

SWEENEY: Paula Newton, you've recently been in Afghanistan. I mean, how easy is it to get around unfettered and have unfettered access to people? Or do you find that when you're traveling with NATO troops, that you're restricted in any way?

NEWTON: It is absolutely not easy. The security situation, especially in southern Afghanistan, is still precarious if you're a journalist in order to get around. It takes a lot of security around you. Then you tend to go with the military.

The only thing I would say is that NATO does have these forward operating bases, relatively new. And you can go up to those forward operating bases.

What Jason says is key. What you do see, because most of journalists with the televisions cannot really get to the places we want to get to because the security situation is so dire. And in terms of what NATO's told me in the last couple weeks, I always go back to them and say look, we still cannot go into these villages unfettered. If we do, we take on great risk. And it's of great cost to us to go into these villages.

That is the problem, the media problem, right now in Afghanistan. Any good news stories that are there are very difficult to tell, because of that security situation.

SWEENEY: All right. Well, listen, we have it leave it there, but Jason Burke in Paris, thank you very much indeed. Also, Paula Newton here in London.

And that brings us to our quick vote for the week. We're asking whether you think like some experts that the war in Afghanistan has been lost to the Taliban. You can take part through our brand new web page. The address:

Well, we've been talking about the Internet and the way it's used in the war on terror. When we come back, the web and U.S. politics. It's revolutionizing debate there, but is it drawing more people to the campaign? That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It is a political debate for the new generation, one that puts the public in control. On Wednesday, it was round 2 of the CNN/Youtube debate. This time, it was the Republican candidates on stage, answering a series of questions, not from journalists, but users of the video sharing website.

Well, there's a growing trend for old and new media to join forces in this way. In the past week, the social networking site Facebook teamed up with ABC News, a move aimed at drawing more people to its political coverage.

So will these experiments have the desired effect? And is the Internet the key to getting more voters to the ballot box? For more on this, I'm joined from St. Petersburg in Florida by CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider and Nico Pitney, national editor with "The Huffington Post." He is in Washington.

Bill Schneider, you have covered many, many elections in your time. What contribution, if any, do you think the Youtube phenomena has made to the debate so far?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Voter involvement. I mean, people watch these debates, see, even though it only - there's only room for the inclusion of 15, 20 of these short questions. The fact is people see people like them.

Normally when they've watched debates in the past, it's been a debate between them and them. Them, the journalists, professional journalists asking them, the professional politicians questions. And people don't feel very much involved in that process.

This - in this case, and I think they feel much more directly involved, because they see people very much like themselves asking the questions.

SWEENEY: Nico Pitney in Washington, D.C., what is your view of the contribution of the Youtube phenomena to the debates in the U.S.? Do they actually give more air to the discussions and the serious issues? Or is it more just an emotionally charged contribution to the debates?

NICO PITNEY, NATIONAL EDITOR, HUFFINGTON POST: I think Youtube and other technology, it's playing a huge role in this election. Although I think the Youtube debate was just the tip of the iceberg. The questions were chosen by CNN producers and Youtube officials. So I think they still had a large role. You know, folks, not voters, but media people still had a large role in choosing the questions.

That said, Bill is absolutely right. Seeing, you know, the guys up in the Youtube videos with the guitar or the snow man, it gives people a much different sense of who's asking candidates these questions. And certainly does give people a sense that they're involved.

SWEENEY: And Bill Schneider, is it too early to say whether or not the Youtube debates is going to contribute to more people going to the ballot box?

SCHNEIDER: Oh, certainly, it's too early to say. We don't know how many people are going to vote. But they have gotten a good audience. And they've introduced subjects that haven't really been part of the campaign.

Nico mentioned the melting snow man, that was a questioner that somebody put in in the earlier Democratic Youtube debate. The snow man asked the question about global warming. I attended a conference in Los Angeles about global warming in which the people there were very angry that it hasn't been part of the campaign, because it's not part of the Washington debate. There are no big conflicts on the issue, but there are a lot of voters who are very seriously interested in hearing the candidates address what they want to do about the issue.

Well, that got in because it was part of the Youtube debate that voters wanted to hear about.

SWEENEY: Nico, as you already mentioned, CNN producers did sift through the questions. So there still is a gateway. Do you imagine that this will change four years from now with the next presidential debates?

PITNEY: Oh, it's already changed significantly. I mean, certainly in the early primary states, you have ordinary citizens out there with their video cameras. Many of them are able to get interviews with the candidates, who want as much media time as possible. And if they - you know, and now there are so many outlets online and through, you know, Internet radio that, you know, these outlets are proliferating at a massive rate. And the Youtube debate is just one small part of it, really.

SWEENEY: Bill, if I may ask you, what do you think of the Facebook/ABC hook-up earlier this week?

SCHNEIDER: Well, my understanding, I'm not certain exactly how that's going to work so I don't want to comment without a great deal of knowledge, but it'll be a similar, I think, approach to the one that CNN and Youtube used. It'll involve ordinary voters, probably with some selection process. The questions could be abusive and they could even be irrelevant. So that there has to be some professional judgment used.

Let me point out that I was talking to a lot of professional journalists at the CNN/Youtube debate. And quietly, they told me they hate it. They said we just hate this kind of debate. These questions should be left to us, the professionals. We know how to ask hard hitting, tough questions and follow-up. And we can say to the candidates, you said in 1992, and you said something else. And we can follow-up on these things. And these people are just asked by ordinary voters.

Well, yes, that's exactly the point. And ordinary voters feel excluded from those questions that the professional journalists ask. So they serve that very important function of opening the gateway.

SWEENEY: Final question to you, Nico. Do you think that we're ahead of the new technology intellectually? We know what we're doing with it?

PITNEY: No, it's very much still in the experimental phase. And if you compare how the Internet is being used today versus 2004, I mean, it's shocking to acknowledge, but Youtube didn't even exist back then. Really, the campaigns would try and make their own websites the centers of activity.

In 2008, in 2007, they're moving away from their own sites into these communities that already exist on Youtube and on Facebook, and trying to figure out how to get people there to get interested in their candidates.

It's a brand new way of interacting with voters. And this is certainly the very first try. I'm sure it will develop immensely, even by 2010 and the midterm elections then. It's a fast changing field certainly.

SWEENEY: 2007 equivalent of the printing press perhaps. Thank you very much indeed, Nico Pitney in Washington, D.C. and also of course, Bill Schneider in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, helping to make the world aware of the crisis in Somalia. We meet cameraman Farah Roble, awarded a Rory Peck Award for his footage from the war torn country. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Living and working in a war torn country. Arrested several times, equipment confiscated, that's what freelance cameraman Farah Roble had endured when he freelanced for Reuters in Somalia from last December until June.

His footage from the front lines helped earn him this year's Rory Peck Award for hard news. The pictures show fighting in Mogadishu after Islamists were ousted by Ethiopian backed Somali troops.

The U.N. now estimates more than a million people have been displaced as a result of the fighting.

Well, the Rory Peck Award for hard news recognizes freelance coverage of an event where the focus is on the immediacy of the action. I spoke to Farah Roble Aden earlier. And I asked how difficult it is to be a freelance cameraman in Somalia.


FARAH ROBLE ADEN: Somalia really to be a journalist in Somalia is really risky. It's very dangerous. And you don't know what happen next time. You take your camera going out everywhere there is fighting, going to both sides of fighting. They don't care about you. To be a journalist or not. They will shoot you if they see you there.

The (INAUDIBLE) of fighting. There's a problem we have it.

SWEENEY: And as a photojournalist or cameraman, have you had your life threatened?

ADEN: We did really in threat in Mogadishu.

SWEENEY: From who?

ADEN: We don't know. You know, if you are a journalist, you are well known in the town. Someone, he doesn't - you are mobile phone threatening to kill you. Or you can get a warning if you transmit or roll some photo stories about - seeming against him. That's what's going on in Somalia.

You know, one month ago, my colleagues was shot dead because of what he's explaining or what I'm telling the truth. That is my - the (INAUDIBLE) radio did a (INAUDIBLE) the same day. And now even the threatening is going on.

SWEENEY: What does winning an award like the Rory Peck Award specifically for freelance photographers and photojournalists such as yourself mean for you? Will it help you with your work back home? Will it make your life, professional job any safer?

ADEN: It means to me - to (INAUDIBLE) now. I get some award (INAUDIBLE) award. I say fine. And the procedures of a Somali journalist. But our side, it makes me (INAUDIBLE), because really I get some threatening - people threatening to my family and saying yes, Farah got an award from (INAUDIBLE) because of our stories. That's what's going on in Somalia.

SWEENEY: There are those who say that in some ways, the security situation was more stable under the Islamists, whether they were in control. Is that something with which you'd agree?

ADEN: During the ICU times, six months. In that time, Mogadishu was a this rule. But in terms of this rule, because some of the - Islamists believe that the fighting is going on, some (INAUDIBLE) jihadism to the (INAUDIBLE). And the (INAUDIBLE) now entered Mogadishu. That's what's going - it's not a stable security.

SWEENEY: And you clearly feel that it's important to continue work for freedom of expression?

ADEN: Yes. And you know, now I'm nine years in Somalia has a freedom of expression, and into radios, into TVs, establishing individuals from the outside. But it will be - to be continue not to stop it.

And I think nobody can stop it. Not (INAUDIBLE) freedom of expression Somalia. It's new. And people are realizing it's - they need it.


SWEENEY: Farah Roble Aden speaking to me earlier.

Well, before we go, some news of our own to tell you. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS is now online. Logon to to see all or part of this program again. Take part in our quick vote and watch out for our weekly blog. You'll find it at

That's all for this edition of the program. 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.