Return to Transcripts main page


Rape Victim Pardoned; Iraqis Take Over in Basra;

Aired December 21, 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, spared jail and 200 lashes, a victim of gang rape in Saudi Arabia is pardoned. Did news outlets influence the outcome?

Also coming up, Britain hands over security in Basra to Iraqi control. How will it impact the media's reporting of the region?

And later, flying high, an unwelcome visitor drops in ahead of a news conference on Capitol Hill.

But first, it's a story that's sparked international outrage. A woman in Saudi Arabia was raped and then sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes. Her crime - being alone with a man before she was attacked.

Last week, the girl was pardoned by Saudi King Abdullah. And while the story was widely reported by international media outlets, in some parts of the world, it was barely mentioned. Wolf Dinnick has our report.


WOLF DINNICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The king called it an animalistic act and ordered both the woman and her companion to be pardoned. The newspaper that broke the story featured a carefully worded statement. The king did not say the courts were wrong, but the rape was enough punishment for the violation of Islamic law.

State run Saudi TV read the king's statement and interviewed the minister of justice. Some Arab TV stations like al Arabiyah ran the story late in the day and only briefly. A recap of the events and the king's pardon.

And some Arab stations like al Jazeera didn't report it at all. So little coverage for a story that got so much international attention.

One popular Lebanese channel, almost half owned by a Saudi prince, chased this story from the start, airing all sides. The host knew it was going to be a touchy subject.

SHADA OMAR, LBC JOURNALIST: It's a controversial story. It has many elements in it. It has woman, rape, family, the judge, the lawyer, the judicial system, and the reforms in Saudi Arabia. So imagine such a case, which has all these elements.

DINNICK: What made the Arab news was the media in the West and its coverage of the story. Some Saudi reports hinting the West to impress, pressured their governments, who pressured Saudis leaders.

TOM CASEY, U.S. STATE DEPT. SPOKESMAN: We certainly hope it will send a signal to the Saudi judiciary. As we noted at the time, we were rather astonished to see that this kind of sentence was handed down to the victim in the case.

DINNICK: A recent survey taken inside Saudi reveals the vast majority of people thought the woman's sentence of 200 lashes was unjust. On a popular Saudi website, most comments supported the pardon. One cautions what about others who did not get the ability to make a public case of their problems to the courts? Do they not deserve a look?

Wolf Dinnick, CNN, Dubai.


SWEENEY: Let's assess more on the media's coverage of this case and whether it will set a precedent when it comes to women's rights in Saudi Arabia. For that, we turn to Ebithal Mubarek, journalist with the Arab News, who reported on the case. She's in Jedda.

And with us in the studio is Dr. Mai Yamani, Saudi political analyst and author of the book, "Cradle of Islam."

Mubarek in Jedda, did this pardon by the king come as a surprise?

EBITHAL MUBAREK, JOURNALIST, ARAB NEWS: No, it wasn't much of a surprise. There has been a toll for the past two weeks that the king has formed an independent legal committee to take a look at the case. So we were very much expecting that.

SWEENEY: And how has the pardon been reported.


SWEENEY: .in the Saudi media?

MUBAREK: The pardon was first being reported through one of news - Saudi newspapers, through the minister of justice. It's conservative, more to the conservative wing, the Jazeera newspaper.

Then the Justice Minister broke the news again through the Saudi channel run, the government channel at the 9:00 news.

SWEENEY: Dr. Mai Yamani here in London, what do you make of this whole case? And how does it reflect pardoning in the Saudi media in terms of how it's been covered? What does it tell you about Saudi at the moment?

MAI YAMANI, AUTHOR & SAUDI POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the pardoning is definitely a very positive good mood - good move. This case in particular that has gained negative publicity, especially abroad, has also showed the fact that there is an urgent need to reform the judiciary. The King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has promised the reform last October, really needs to move forward and proceed with this - these two reforms and others because this is a case that was pardoned, but there's going to be other cases.

SWEENEY: There are those that say that this case was never going to mean any reform of judiciary. But particularly the newspapers and the television coverage of this case, how do you interpret it?

YAMANI: If we look at the news coverage and in particular the websites and the debates, of course, we see the silence of people because that was like shameful because it's women's honor and you don't talk about these things.

But definitely, there has been a momentum both for the reformers to address the urgency of reform, as well as to confront the religious - have religious establishment in the country.

So now we know that it's an urgent need, especially domestic. Domestic pressure for reform to the end of discrimination, respect for the legal profession, and the changing of the corrupt judiciary and the changing of the - and giving more human rights to women. So this case has been very important.

SWEENEY: Ebithal Mubarek in Jedda, how has the public reaction been to this case in general? Is it reflected in any way in the media in Saudi, either on television, radio, or in newspapers?

MUBAREK: Because of the lack of coverage that the misinforming of the case, reporting it in our newspapers in almost all newspapers in the country, except my newspaper, that's an English one. Because of that, the Saudi public was - `til now is mislead in that case. They don't know all the facts. All they have been received are the ministries - justice ministry official statements. And the statement is, according to the husband and the lawyer and the rape victim herself had some falsity in it and accused the woman of adultery, although they didn't word it adultery in that statement.

YAMANI: The most important thing about this case is that it highlights the double standards, the inconsistencies of the general mass media coverage. We were just watching one Saudi satellite television with the clerics who are sermonizing. You switch another and you watch all the dancing provocative dancing for the - of Lebanese and Egyptian women.

What is missing is what our colleague here is doing. And that is addressing media that addresses the real issues, the demands, the aspirations, the problems of young - the young Saudi population.

We are watching too many inconsistencies in the media. So people do resort to either the Internet and the debate that is less censored.

SWEENEY: Ebithal Mubarek in Jedda, is that a view with which you would agree that there needs to be consistency or at least some form of media outlet that addresses the concerns of young people in general in Saudi Arabia?

MUBAREK: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely right. I couldn't agree more. There should be a consistency and shouldn't be a double standard in issues addressed - addressing women's rights. That is a very masculine way. All the editors in Shezar (ph) are men. We don't have a woman editor in chief or - there's only one deputy editor in chief. And that's the way how things are. There hasn't been inconsistency. And well, ironically, so- called liberal Saudi paper (INAUDIBLE) chose not to raise different case, but instead, they had in the front page, I believe, the case of the Saudi - the American woman who's raped in Iraq recently just to show that well, Americans or the Western world is calling for - is concerned about our rape. And they have issues. They should tackle themselves. And that is so way, you know, backwards. As I said, we - they brought us back to the `80s or early `90s, where people do not or when the press did not question the officials, whether the Ministry of Justice or any other ministry.

SWEENEY: A final word to you, Dr. Yamani, is that a view with which you would agree that the press and the media in general in Saudi has been brought back to the 1980s as a result of this case?

YAMANI: Well, I think that the press in Saudi Arabia is one of the most controlled - is the most controlled in the region. And yes, there have been billions that have been paid for the - as if the battles of heart and mind is abroad.

But there has been a lot of emphasis on Saudi Arabia's public image of modernity and of moderation.

Now the first is very controlled. And we certainly need more action by the journalists, because they will act together with human rights activists, together with the lawyers, together with those among the authorities who are genuinely concerned about reform to bring forward, you know, to bring this system forward because that's the only way we can progress in Saudi Arabia and end this.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there, but Ebithal Mubarek in Jedda, thank you very much indeed for joining us. And Dr. Mai Yamani here in London.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, too dangerous to report, now Britain has handed security in Basra over to Iraqi control. Will the media still be able to cover events happening there? We'll look at that when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It was an historic moment. Britain last week handed back control of security in Basra to Iraqis. Now troops are starting to pull out. What sort of place will the outgoing forces leave behind? It's a subject covered by BBC Panorama reporter Jane Corbin.


JANE CORBIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For months, I've been hearing rumors of terrible things happening here. And I wanted to investigate. But the British army had withdrawn to their camp 12 miles outside Basra. The threat of kidnap for journalists was high and I could no longer enter the city where I'd once worked freely.

(on camera): This is the road that leads from the British military base down to Basra city. But I can't go there now. It's just too dangerous for Western journalists. But Panorama has found dedicated local people who despite the risks are prepared to help us build a picture of what's going on down in Basra.

(voice-over): Some people have filmed for us, collected information, written diaries about life in the city. We had to protect the identities of most of them for fear of reprisals.


SWEENEY: Jane Corbin from the BBC's Panorama program. Well, earlier, I spoke to Jane and I asked her whether she thought it was ironic that now Basra is too dangerous for journalists to report, even though it was deemed safe enough to hand over to Iraqis.


CORBIN: It is a problem because as you say, when you're with the military, you're in armored vehicles. You can move around. But when the military isn't downtown Basra and they aren't right now and they haven't been since September, it is very difficult. And that's something obviously that we thought about very carefully.

It's not that we are afraid. It's just that it is - doesn't make sense to go downtown perhaps with local people and to put their lives in danger as well as our own.

SWEENEY: And this is because of the militias?

CORBIN: It's because of the militias. And it's because of the fear of kidnap. As you know, there is a price on anybody's head, even Iraqis who are believed to have middle class people, professors, doctors, lawyers. How much more so for Western journalists, who it is believed, rightly or wrongly, perhaps would be a rich prize to be ransomed.

There is a price on our heads. And it is dangerous. I think because it is such a random scenario, you may be safe one day, but the next day, you could just bump into the wrong person on the wrong street at the wrong time.

SWEENEY: It's too early to tell again that the handover has been so recent, whether or not it is safe for journalists. Or is it just already quite firmly established that the situation is too precarious?

CORBIN: I think it is too precarious. And even the heads of the security now, the Iraqi services, the Iraqi forces themselves, generals who run the security down in Basra were a little nervous that, you know, we might want to walk around, that we might want to go downtown.

And I think they would say it is too early. They are very optimistic. They are very bullish. They are saying in a few month's time, come downtown. I had lunch with the general in his army camp. And he said next time, Insh Allah, you come to Basra with me. We will go downtown to the Cornish, which is this wonderful waterfront area in Basra where the restaurants are. And we will eat kabobs right downtown. But it's too early now.

SWEENEY: When you were going into Basra before with the British troops, so did you feel that you got enough sense of the story being embedded with the British military?

CORBIN: Yes. And don't forget, we're different from news journalists. We're not just seeking to do the two or three minute item with the truth. We do a huge amount of research. We have our own local people working for us. We walk around the subject. We do a great deal. We have the luxury of time. We can get opinion.

In the film that I've just made in Basra, we had very brave local people who filmed for us, who wrote diaries, who blogged, who sent us e- mails. And I believe that the picture we got of the city was perhaps the truest picture that any Western journalist had been able to get for quite some time.

SWEENEY: Speaking of local people helping you, there is in your film a mention about translators who work for the British military, who were told that if they worked, I believe, two years for the British military, they'd be entitled to a visa to come to Britain because of the dangerous associated with working with the military.

CORBIN: Yes, certainly thousands of people have worked for the British, whether the British army or the British foreign office or training police in Basra. These interpreters we know are at risk. Many of been killed.

The British authorities admitted to us that they believe at least 40 have been killed because of their association with the British. We believe another 50 may have been killed.

Even today, I went onto a website and saw another translator was killed yesterday in Basra. This is an ongoing problem. It's controversial, because other countries, particularly Denmark, have taken all their interpreters out of the south and their families and given them asylum. Right now, the British are imposing restrictive criteria on who they will take. And we don't yet know if they've taken anyone. It's all very much hanging in the balance. There's been a lot of criticism about the British attitude.

And originally, they weren't going to take anyone until there was a public outcry over it. And now they have been forced to look at the rules again.

SWEENEY: It begs the question if Iraq is going to witness a pullout, increasing pullout by the British in 2008 and also the United States, if it makes it harder for journalists to cover the story there, then does that actually help or hinder the governments of both the United States and the U.K. if there's less about Iraq in the paper?

CORBIN: Well, I think that we often hear from the British government that - a sort of regret that there isn't more coverage. But of course, it's chicken and egg, isn't it, because when you have the security to enable you to go, I think journalists have given a great deal to this story.

I, myself, have made nine one hour films now in Iraq since 2003. I'd like to think that Panorama has covered all the major stories in that time from hostage taking, to the capture of Saddam, to the weapons of mass destruction. It is very, very difficult.

But it all depends on the ability, the Iraqi security forces to keep their own country safe. If they can do that, then journalists will begin to work there, even after the British and American troops have withdrawn if the locals can give the security that will enable journalists to move around again on the street.

SWEENEY: And in terms of corporation broadcasting authorities, the newspapers, etcetera, publications, do you think that there is still an appetite for a war that is largely unpopular in the West?

CORBIN: I think the appetite has diminished. And we know that because we see less of it. And you know, the media at the end of the day is sensitive to commercial pressures. You know, are they going to - are enough people going to watch the programs? Are enough people going to buy the newspapers if Iraq is at the top of the headlines?

And I think that what we're seeing as Iraq has slipped down the agenda is the reality that, you know, it is an unpopular war. There is a fatigue. There's an embarrassment factor even. You know, the public perhaps don't want to hear about it as much.

And therefore, it's very important for journalists, wherever they may be, but I think particularly in the nations that were involved in the coalition and invaded Iraq, America, Britain, others, to keep this story alive, to go there, to report it, and to tell the public back home what is happening in Iraq.

The good news is there's optimism as well as the distressing and the bad news. Let's have it all there for the public to find out what's going on.


SWEENEY: Jane Corbin from the BBC's Panorama program speaking to me earlier.

Well still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, dropping in on the U.S. Senate press gallery. Reporters are greeted by an unexpected visitor. That story, when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's a place that usually generates political headlines, not stories quite like this. This week, reporters at the U.S. Senate press gallery were greeted by an unexpected guest ahead of a news conference. The guest that certainly left its mark on one member of the media corps in particular. Jeanne Moos explains.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's shaped like an aviary. And it contains plenty of bird brains. So what's one more? There it was, a bird in the Senate, not to be confused with Lady Byrd or Senator Byrd.

SEN. BYRD: We're being overwhelmed.

MOOS: Actually, Senator Byrd was referring to illegal immigrants, but the bird was treated like an illegal, as security chased it into the net in the press gallery where they hold press conferences.

That exclamation came when the bird collided with a ventilation duct. It survived. Now chasing a bird around the Senate can't compare with say a wallabe chase.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my gosh, no way.

MOOS: Or a herd of escaped buffalo running around on a tennis court, though heads in the Senate gallery swiveled as if watching tennis. And it was pretty exciting when the photographer Matthew Cavanaugh lured the bird to land on his pinky.


MOOS: His colleagues mocked Matthew as the bird whisperer. Turns out.

CAVANAUGH: I crunched up some of the granola bar and put it in the palm of my hand.

MOOS: As the birdie swooped across the Senate gallery, it joined other political flying objects making the rounds, like presidential candidate Ron Paul's blimp. And the Hill a copter carrying Hillary Clinton around Iowa. At least they didn't drop bombs.

The second explanation was when the bird dropped a present on the guy rubbing his head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was going for the bird. Kill it.

MOOS (on camera): How did we hear about this? A little birdie told us. A lot of little birdies.

A flock of frantic e-mails dispersed from Washington, giving blow by blow accounts. Heads up for Senator Charles Schumer, who was already up, looking for the bird.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: But if it flies out, I'm going to stop, OK?

MOOS: That would be an amazing feat to stop the loquacious Senator Schumer. Last we heard, security was chasing the bird down a hallway with a Tupperware container. Someone suggested if we could read that bird's brain, it would say don't tase me, bro.

MOOS: Jeanne Most, CNN, New York.


SWEENEY: A reminder, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS is now available online. Log on to to see all or part of the program again. Take part in our quick vote and read our weekly blog. You'll find it at

And that is 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.