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Teddy Teacher; Intelligence on Iran; Hamas Turns 20

Aired December 7, 2007 - 20:30:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Becky Anderson in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
Just weeks after linking Iran's nuclear program with the possibility of World War III, President Bush is trying to explain a major turnaround in U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear ambitions. We have the fallout from Tehran and Jerusalem.

Teddy teacher controversy. She was paraded in the British media as a victim of Muslim extremists, but did the Sudanese have a different take?

And Hamas turns 20. We have the strategic insight into the political and media evolution of the Palestinian-Islamic organization.

Well, for months, the White House has been warning that Iran is rushing to produce nuclear weapons. This week, a new U.S. intelligence report is telling a different story. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran says the country stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003, and that it did so because of international pressure.

Well, the report weakens the administration's case for tough sanctions and pretty much tables talk of any U.S. military strike against Iran. President Bush says the report shows the need to be vigilant about Iran's nuclear ambitions.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.


ANDERSON: Well, Israel's defense chief isn't convinced that Iran's killed the program. Amid Barak told Israeli Army Radio that although the program was suspended in 2003, it has likely been restarted since then.

Well, to discuss media reaction to the story in Jerusalem and in Tehran, I'm joined by Ben Wedeman, CNN's senior correspondent in the region and our Middle East correspondent Aneesh Raman.

Let's start with you, Aneesh, how did this story play out in Tehran?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT: It was pretty uniform, Becky, to the degree that there's variation in the Iranian press. You know, reformists and moderates have had their papers silenced to different degrees over the past few months, but everyone really saw this as validation for what Iran has been saying. The hardliners called it a victory, but that is interesting in itself.

The reformists and moderates had been, over the past few months, starting to openly criticize Iran's president, saying he was part of the problem, that while there is broad based support for nuclear energy, he was pursuing it the wrong way. Controversial statements.

He had started calling anyone who questioned his new compromise strategy a traitor. They were starting to push back on that.

Then comes a report, and then comes President Bush not changing his stance at all. Now it seems to all Iranians something personal with President Bush. And the reformists and the moderates are having an even tougher time at saying that there's a better strategy ahead. And people are going to have to rally behind this Ahmedinejad crisis notion because President Bush has basically given him more power.

ANDERSON: Ben, any surprise in the way that the media in Israel reported this story?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Yes, actually, there's a good deal of consternation and shock here in Israel in reaction to the National Intelligence Estimate. One column is calling it an American fantasy. Others say that sooner or later, the Americans are going to simply have to bite the bullet and take military action against Iran. So by and large, Israeli police reacted very negatively to the American report.

Most Israelis still believe that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

ANDERSON: Given the upshot of the report, Aneesh, which was that although the program was halted in 2003, the U.S. believes that there is still the possibility of the knowledge to enrich uranium and convertly, a concern about what the Iranians might do next. Has this improved or damaged Iran's profile in the region, do you think?

RAMAN: Well, I think outside of Israel, it has enhanced it greatly. You had a lot of Sunni-Arab states that were U.S. allies on the fence when it came to this program, getting pressure from the U.S. to pressure Iran. Some even coming out and saying they thought in their own press that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

That's now all been undercut. And so, you have these states really have no other option but to support Iran. And Iran is pushing them in its own papers, saying that this is now a broader issue. This is the U.S. president, who don't forget in 2002, put an axis of evil, where he attacked one country with the pretense of weapons of mass destruction, another North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and then was dealt with trade deals, and Iran was the third one listed.

This is personal between Bush and the Middle East and the Muslim world. And now, this is something you have to support us on. That's what's in the Iranian press more and more now.

ANDERSON: But Ben and Aneesh, alluding there to the issue of the weapons of mass destruction, a false report ultimately that led to the war in Iraq, that is a story that's been reported alongside this one, this sense that the Americans got it wrong once. Now they've got it wrong again.

Again, give me a sense of how if at all, that part of the story is playing out in Jerusalem?

WEDEMAN: Well, some people are calling into question the value of American intelligence, saying that in fact that the U.S. got it wrong on Iraq by saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when it actually didn't. And they got it wrong on Iran by saying that they don't have - they're not pursuing nuclear weapons, when in fact Israeli intelligence officials still believe that they are.

So really, it's a whole question of the value of American intelligence. One Israeli columnist saying, for instance, that American intelligence is really second rate, compared to for instance, British intelligence, or of course, Israeli intelligence, which they believe to be the best.

So really, it comes down to the value of the United States' ability to know what's going on in Iran. And most Israeli analysts seem to think that the problem is the Americans simply don't have the ability, the resources, the knowledge, the background to understand what the Iranians are doing.

ANDERSON: How prominent a play, just finally, did this story take, Ben, given the other issues that are going on in the region at a moment? I mean, was this big headline stuff or not?

WEDEMAN: It was huge headlines. In fact, it was the main story for the last three days here in Israel. I mean, for instance, last week, you did have the Annapolis media - Middle East Peace Summit in the United States. And that was a big story. But really, Iran has been an Israeli obsession now for more than a year.

Let's not forget that the prime minister Ehud Olmert said that Iran is an existential threat to the state of Israel. And therefore, when the United States suddenly changes course, and comes out and says that Iran ended its nuclear program, its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the Israelis are left grinding their teeth or with their jaws dropping, wondering what has happened to the United States, which was singing the Israeli tune for so long, suddenly has changed its tune.

So it's been a big story, a very big story, bigger than Middle East peace by far.

ANDERSON: Ben Wedeman in Jerusalem, Aneesh Raman in Tehran, we thank you very much indeed, both of you, for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, the teddy row teacher is home from Sudan after being jailed for insulting Islam. It's a story that's caused a media frenzy. Should the press have been religion neutral when reporting on public outrage?



GILLIAN GIBBONS, BRITISH TEACHER: I'm just a normal middle aged primary school teacher. And I went there to have a bit of adventure, and got a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for. I don't think anyone could have imagined that it could have snowballed like this.

ANDERSON: Well, a British schoolteacher returns home this week, after eight days in a Sudanese jail. She was pardoned from blasphemy charges, allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed.

Well, their mobs of hundreds in the streets, calling for her execution. It's a case that echoes the controversy over a Danish newspaper's printing of cartoons of Mohammed in 2005.

Let's talk about how such events can become an international incident and the focus of media attention. I'm joined by Dr. Michael Nazir Ali, the bishop of Rochester and a cogent speaking scholar of Islam and Dr. Jenny Taylor. Ms. Taylor is the founding director of Lapido Media, a new media consultancy specializing in religion and world affairs.

So both of you to start with, what role did the media in promoting the story of Gillian Gibbons in Sudan? Let's start with you, Jenny.

JENNY TAYLOR, DIRECTOR, LAPIDO MEDIA: Well, I thought, actually, in this particular story, the media were generally pretty responsible. I think they had a great story. And I think they reported the facts.

I - my only regret is that they don't go more deeply into issues to do with Sudan, and that it's always sort of skimming off the surface, when there are cultural clashes like this. But I mean, I think by any standards, by any journalistic standards, this was a great story. And it spoke for itself. And.

ANDERSON: Great stories and reported the facts.

MICHAEL NAZIR ALI, BISHOP OF ROCHESTER: Yes, I think it did report the facts, but it didn't go behind them. And the question about Sudan, obviously, is one.

But the other is the whole question about blasphemy laws, because they exist in many different countries, the Sudan, Iran, Pakistan and so on. And sometimes, the punishment is ferocious. I mean, in Pakistan, it's a mandatory death penalty for blaspheming the name of the prophet of Islam.

Now in that sense, Ms. Gibbons was getting off rather lightly, you might say. But I think that question needs to be asked. Muslims themselves that their prophet, when he was insulted forgave those who insulted him.

So how can you have laws in the name of a person, who forgave those who were insulting him? I mean, this is a question that has to be answered.

TAYLOR: And I don't - yes, I don't feel that the media actually tackled that all. I think that they could have gone more deeply precisely into that. And that's what Lapido Media's been set up really to encourage.

ANDERSON: And let's talk about that, because let's talk about whether the media should or can be neutral when reporting religious events, and how important (INAUDIBLE) it might or does play in promoting prejudices, as it were, if indeed an event is then reported from one side. How do we do on this story?

TAYLOR: Well, I think that's a very good question. I think you answer it by just saying go more deeply. I don't think you have to promote a faith in order to go more deeply into the facts of the matter. And all over the world, there are amazing stories crying out to be reported with greater sophistication and greater attention. And the trouble with the media, of course, is that it is too easy to sort of, you know, parachute in, parachute out, and miss the suffering and the roots of the suffering.

ANDERSON: How does the media then avoid, bishop, the sensationalizing of a story like the Sudanese story, the grabbing of headlines one day and the dismissing of it as a story and a headline grabbing story the next?

ALI: Yes, I think you have different levels, don't you? I mean, you have to report what happened. And I think that was done reasonably responsibly. But what perhaps has not happened yet, and it's not too late, is some investigative journalism about why these things continue to happen. And that is important if we're not going to have another Ms. Gibbons somewhere else in the same predicament.

ANDERSON: When it comes to the media, who is winning at presenting the true face of the Islamic faith? Is it moderates or extremists?

ALI: I think the temptation with reporting on faith, particularly Islam, is either to be politically correct, or to go for polarization, rather than actually reporting what is significant.

Now with Islam, I think there are two things that are significant. Islam is a faith for many Muslims, by which they live. And that's fine because that's also true of other faiths by which people live.

But there is also an emergent ideology in the name of Islam, if you like, which is emerging, which is actually a challenge to many societies, including people in this country and elsewhere in the West. It is perhaps the first organized ideology since the demise of Marxism. And I think it has to be treated in that way.

TAYLOR: Could I just comment and say that I think that actually what has happened so much in the past is that media have gone for the self appointed men within Islam, who have their own personal political agenda, who are not necessarily representative. Representation, I think you'll agree bishop in Islam, is a different thing from democratic representation of a traditional kind that we're used to here. And I think that journalists really need to root out more thoughtful, younger Muslims. They need to work harder to find a much more nuanced range of ideas.

There is a very strong internal debate among young people in Islam. And it's not - simply not getting reflected at the moment.

ANDERSON: Is it any surprise that Christianity is reported in a completely different way without perhaps prejudice, compared to Islam?

TAYLOR: I would say there's far more prejudice about Islam. And in actual fact, I would give you an example of that. The dispatchers documentary Strand has been doing some superb work, actually, on a number of Islamic issues in this country. It's Channel 4 documentary Strand. And in a recent documentary called "Unholy War," they tried to create moral equivalent between very aggressive attacks on those who convert - moral equivalence between those attacks and American evangelists in this country, who may not be culturally appropriate in their methods of trying to help women and children.

Nonetheless, they're not forcing people out of their homes or threatening them with death if they convert or don't convert. But there was - it was this moral equivalence that somehow you've got to condemn on the left hand and condemn on the right, and then you've been neutral and you've been fair. You haven't. And that was the point that we were trying to address with our launch event this morning.

ALI: But it's not just moral equivalence. I think there's also the question about treating all religions the same, as it were, which seems to be a kind of assumption.


TAYLOR: .in the media.

Whereas of course for a country like Britain, for example, all the values, all the customs, all the institutions, the laws, art, literature all depend on the Christian faith. And not to recognize that itself is a kind of prejudice. And I think we've got to get beyond that and say well, yes, this is where we are coming from. And of course, this is the basis on which tolerance and greater inclusivity can be built.

TAYLOR: The secular state actually draws its insights and its strength from Christian insights. But in order to offer hospitality and protect the civil space that is created.

But when the secular state starts to act like a religion in its own right, and feel that therefore has to legislate for all the other religions, which it pushes out, then you're in trouble. And that's where I feel that we constantly stray into that in this country.

ANDERSON: And the role of the media and (INAUDIBLE), we thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

ALI: Sure, thank you.

ANDERSON: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, in Palestinian politics, Hamas may have the upper hand, but is it making errors in the media world? Well, I'll ask a man who's tracked the organization since day one. Stay with us. You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS here on CNN.


ANDERSON: Well, this is December marks 20 years since the founding of the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement Hamas. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the religious and political organization founded in Egypt.

Now the public face of Hamas has in the past been more often than not that of a masked government or a suicide bomber. And the group has long known that it needs to show the world another face. Hamas has described the media as "the decisive weapon." Yet Zaki Chehab says that Hamas' public confessions have all recently just been window dressing.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by Mr. Chehab of "Inside Hamas: The Untold Story."

Let's just give a little historical context to this. How has or did the communications wing of Hamas get started and change the face of an organization that was ultimately too many, if not all in the Western world an unacceptable one?

ZAKI CHEHAB, AUTHOR, "INSIDE HAMAS": As you mentioned earlier, Hamas is a branch of the International Islamic Brotherhood movement. And just to be part of such an international movement, it means a particular - specific that any single Islamic brotherhood anywhere in the Arab or Islamic world would be sympathetic to Hamas.

To start with the media, I think Islam is worldwide, were the first to use the Internet as a main - the mean of communication to avoid being like, you know, Hamas or observed or followed by different intelligence agency. And for Hamas, you know, to be in contact with their final members and leadership of the organization, either in territories or outside using e- mails and the Internet was one of the best communication they have adopted before any of the moderate organization.

ANDERSON: How seriously did they take the role of the media and the role of their communications wing from the beginning?

CHEHAB: It was in, like you know, up to date at some stage, but was main movement within the Palestinian. They were like, you know, open, have very good relationship with the media worldwide, you know. So this kind of relationship, Hamas was lagging behind.

What they have done the last few years, they - you know, the use of the Internet, the use of the footage, the kind of technology which has been developed over the year, has been really used in a very powerful by Hamas and their fellow Islamic organization. They understand that if a Hamas website with a concise acts you will find the same message, you know, on everything in a website worldwide.

ANDERSON: Since the elections of 2006, the democratic elections of 2006, has Hamas changed the way that it deals with the media, given now that it is a democratically elected, political party that runs an area in the Middle East? Does it - has it changed?

CHEHAB: Particularly I've never seen any change. It was the tone which was changed. Hamas leadership, either in Damascus or in Gaza, they try to play in different play.

But they - the message was there was no recognition of the state of Israel. Nobody have the right to give Israel a clear bill of health in terms of like, you know, they are the occupier. They have to give up on Palestinian territory, because they think no one in Hamas or outside Hamas, especially in the present generation, have the authority to make any peace with Israel, who can give Israel the right to take whatever territories, including 1948.

ANDERSON: So what you say is despite the fact that, to all intents and purposes, Hamas appears in public at least to have conceded on some points through the media and with the media, you are saying that is just window dressing, are you?

CHEHAB: Definitely I can say this because they always said they would never - they have, you know, even when at some stage the offer what so- called concession, you know, the maximum they want to give the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, during Mecca Accord like a support to say OK, he is entitled to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people with the state of Israel.

But they never mentioned how far he can go in terms of this negotiation. They recognized all the agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority with the sake of Israel, but they never once step ahead to say we recognize the state of Israel.

So they left all the options open. What they have recognized was similar to Sheik Hamadisean (ph), the founder of Hamas, said the maximum we can go is reach a ceasefire or what so-called hotna (ph) for 10 years or 20 years or for 30 years, and leave it for future generation to find the best solution for the Palestinian cause.

ANDERSON: We leave it there. We thank you very much indeed for joining us.

CHEHAB: Thank you.

ANDERSON: .Zaki Chehab.

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS is now available 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 all

Well, that s all for this edition of the program. Do tune in again time, though, for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Becky Anderson. Thanks for joining us.