Return to Transcripts main page


Saudi Blogger Detained; Christina Lamb Interview; Sarkozy Wants to Shake Up France 24

Aired January 18, 2008 - 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, detained for what he posted on the Internet. The campaign to free a popular blogger in Saudi Arabia. Working in zones of conflict from Pakistan to Afghanistan, we spoke to award winning journalist Christina Lamb. And changing channels. Nicolas Sarkozy plans to shake up France's public broadcaster.

But first this week, the case of a blogger in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for more than a month because of his postings on the Internet. Fouad al Farhan has sent cyberspace abuzz and highlighted concerns about free speech and media freedom in the country.

Senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has our report.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fouad al Farhan's face smiles out from the websites calling for his release. His friends, fellow bloggers, want him out of Saudi jail, where he's been since last December 10th without charge.

AHMED AL-OMRAN, SAUDIJEANS.ORG: All the man did was exercising his right of free speech. He didn't threaten anyone. He didn't call for violence or hate. He just called for what he thinks was his rights and freedom of expression and justice.

ROBERTSON: Al-Omran, who like al Farhan, blogs in his own name, is spearheading the campaign.

AL-OMRAN: All the bloggers and his friends are campaigning. We started a campaign online, a new website for And also we have face the group with more than 800 members now from all around the world, calling for his release.

ROBERTSON: A 32-year old businessman, married, with two children, al Farhan took up blogging several years ago. From top end Internet cafes, to low cost web access outlets, al Farhan was popular, but not apparently with everyone.

Last summer, officials advised him to stop. He restarted several months later, publishing a list of 25 reasons to blog. Top among them, "because we believe we have good opinions that deserve to be heard," "because societies do not progress until they respect the opinions of their members," and "because blogging is our only option - we do not have a free media and freedom to assemble is not allowed."

Then in December, he published a list of 10 least favorite Saudi personalities.

(on camera): About two weeks before he was detained, al Farhan told friends he thought he might be in trouble what he'd written about political prisoners. He said he heard that he was going to be asked to apologize and wasn't sure if he was ready to that. And he told his friends that he thought he might go to jail for as long as three days. But if it went any longer, he told them, he wanted publicity because the last thing that he wanted to happen was to end up in jail and be forgotten.

(voice-over): But despite the websites and blogosphere's support, al Farhan's friends are making little progress getting him freed.

MAJ. GEN. MANSOUR AL-TURKI, INTERIOR MINISTRY SPOKESMAN: He's being investigated for violation of local laws, which is an insecurity problem. An insecurity problem. His case is not related to the government. It's not related to the Ministry of Interior or to the police, or to the security situation.

ROBERTSON: Under Saudi law, al Farhan can be held for six months before being charged.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


SWEENEY: The Internet and blogs have boomed in recent years, particularly in Arab countries banned by strict media controls. So is there evidence suggesting governments in the region are using their influence to target bloggers?

Well, to discuss that, we're joined from Cairo by Wael Abbas. He's faced pressure from the Egyptian government over material he's posted on the web. And also with us is Joel Campagna, senior program coordinator for the Middle East with the Committee to Protect Journalists. He's in Austin.

Well, first of all, you have become quite well known as a blogger in Egypt and indeed in the region. What prompted you to become a blogger?

WAEL ABBAS, BLOGGER: There was a need for an alternative source of media in Egypt since the - all the traditional newspapers and television channels are under the censorship and they are - they suffer from the interference of security. So there was lots of news that are not really covered by the traditional media. And they needed to reach the people. And I thought Egyptian people needed to know what is really going on. They needed some source of information to tell them what is really going on. So that's why I started blogging.

SWEENEY: If I can turn to Joel in Boston. Joel, the Committee to Protect Journalists, how much research have you done about blogging in the region? And is it a movement or a trend that is continuing apace?

JOEL CAMPAGNA, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: We followed it very closely in the Arab world and also globally. If we look at statistics over the last decade, it's been rising persecution of bloggers throughout the world, including in the Arab world.

Just last year of the 127 journalists in prison worldwide that we documented at the Committee, 39 percent were bloggers. And in the Arab world currently, all of the journalists in prison at the moment, there's three of them by our count, are all bloggers.

SWEENEY: And is it too early to tell how much this movement in the region might have ultimately on the social and political situations in the individual countries?

CAMPAGNA: I do think there has been an impact. We've seen it - blogs are very influential in the sense that journalists read them, activists read them. And they take these ideas to do their democracy promotion, activism in places like Egypt, I think, Wael Abbas' blog is a great example of that. Some of the reporting that he has done on torture. And it has helped energize people in Egypt following those issues.

SWEENEY: Wael, do you feel that you're having an impact on Egyptian society with your blogging?

ABBAS: Kind of. I cannot claim that I have a great impact. But at least I was successful in exposing some cases of torture in society and disencouraged a lot of people who were subject to torture and (INAUDIBLE) to harassment from the beliefs to come forward and accuse the officers who did that to them, and take this - take them to court. And some officers were actually convicted and sent to jail for that.

So this is a good thing because we never had that in the past. We never had officers being sent to jail for torture. And people were too afraid to say that they were subject to something like that.

So this is not really the change I wanted to make, but at least it is - this is something.

SWEENEY: Wael, you've had your Internet accounts with Yahoo and Youtube closed down temporarily. They've since been reopened. How do you view or what did you hear from those service providers about why your account had been closed down?

ABBAS: Concerning Youtube, they sent me an e-mail saying that we closed your account because we received lots of complaints saying that you had inappropriate material on your account, especially torture videos. And Yahoo just shut down my account without giving any explanation. And I had to contact both. Youtube never answered, but they answered only to journalists when journalists asked them why did they shut down my account. And Yahoo just returned my account silently.

SWEENEY: Joel in Boston, this is - raises another issue for the service providers themselves. Do they have a coherent policy or is it your understanding that they react to each blogger and each sensitive account individually?

CAMPAGNA: Well, you know, it's something groups are, like CPJ, are starting to address and to look at issues of how groups like Yahoo, Google are handling issues of free flow of information. The case with Youtube was one we looked into when his account was closed. And the response was that this was a normal complaint process, and that there was no intention to censor him, and that his account was restored.

But of course, as Wael will tell you, much of the information he had stored over one period of time was lost. So it is an issue that press freedom groups like CPJ and others are looking into as to how these big companies are managing the information that they control or provide to people who use their services.

SWEENEY: There we must leave it. But Joel Campagna of the CPJ in Boston, thank you very much indeed, and also Wael Abbas in Cairo. Thanks for joining us.

Well still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, reporting the world's untold stories. We'll meet journalist Christina Lamb on her career that's taken her to Zimbabwe, Brazil, Afghanistan, and more recently Pakistan. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. She first settled from England at the age of 21. And for the past two decades, Christina Lamb has traveled the globe, reporting not only on major news events, but also on covering untold stories.

Now writing for "The Sunday Times," Christina Lamb is regarded as one of the most talented British journalists at work today, and has been named foreign correspondent of the year five times.

The job doesn't come without risk. Lamb survived an ambush from the Taliban in Afghanistan, and more recently in October, survived an assassination attempt on the now late Benazir Bhutto during the former prime minister's homecoming to Pakistan.

A collection of Christina Lamb's best reportage is contained in her new book, "Small Wars Permitting." Through her writing, she tells what it's like being a war correspondent and a mother.

Christina Lamb joins me now in studio. When we last spoke in the autumn, it was just shortly after that ambush on Benazir Bhutto's bus. And of course, since then, she has been assassinated. And you wrote very eloquently about that in "The Sunday Times." What are your thoughts now, having been with her when that assassination attempt happened in October?

CHRISTINA LAMB, AUTHOR, "SMALL WARS PERMITTING": Well, it's strange. You know, she's had lots of threats. And she talked about it before she went back. But it was still a huge shock when the bomb went off on the bus. And then having narrowly escaped that, I still was incredibly shocked when I heard the news that she'd been killed in December. I just - I don't know, somehow didn't think that that would actually happen. And I didn't think she thought that.

SWEENEY: And so do you think that she thought because once she'd been once bitten, that she wouldn't actually - it wouldn't actually happen to her again?

LAMB: It's strange. I talked to her about it afterwards. And she said then that she felt that she believed very strongly in God and that when her time came, that that would be it, and there was nothing really she could do about it.

Because I felt, well, you know, if you're going to sort of stand on top of her car in crowds, then you're an easy target. And I would have thought you could do something.

SWEENEY: You say at the beginning of your book, which has just been published, that Pakistan changed your life, essentially. It really changed your professional life. How did that come about?

LAMB: It did. I interviewed Benazir just after I left university. And I was working in London as an intern. And went and interviewed when she was here in exile. And then she went back to Pakistan. And we kept in touch.

And one day, I came home from work, I was working as a trainee local reporter covering events in the Midlands in England, and came home and there was this invitation on my - all engraved in gold. And it was to her wedding in Karachi. And of course, that was an incredible introduction to Pakistan, because the wedding went on for over a week. And everybody who was anybody was there. And it was also very political occasion, too. And there were all these long conversations late into the night about what to do to fight the then dictatorship of General Zir. So.

SWEENEY: And did you know anybody at that wedding?

LAMB: No, I didn't know anybody except Benazir.

SWEENEY: So it was - it was really quite something then to go there on your own? And from there, you kept on going into Afghanistan and places in the late 1980s, when the Soviet invasion was still in full swing, but winding down? Looking back now, do you think it was particularly risky?

LAMB: Now when I look back at some of the things I did, I think that was completely crazy. And I also think you couldn't do it sadly because.

SWEENEY: Well, I was going to ask.


SWEENEY: .is it possible - well, (INAUDIBLE) the job, but given the dangers of Afghanistan, first and foremost, would it be possible to go into Pakistan now in 2008 21 odd years later and do what you did then?

LAMB: I don't think it would be. I mean, at that time, it was so hospitable, so friendly. And I - because I was just starting out, I didn't have much money. I used travel on all the local buses. I'd hitch hike. I'd stay in people's houses. I never once in two years of living there felt threatened or scared.

I'm afraid now when I go back to some of those places, like Pitchar (ph). There's no way that I would walk around the old city on my own the way I used to. I wouldn't even walk around the old city with other people. It's become a much more hostile place to the West. And that's very sad.

SWEENEY: And what impact do you think that has on the profession of journalism itself, that inability to go to these places any more?

LAMB: Well, it does make a huge difference because obviously, you can't then, it never occurred to something happened. I'd just go there. Now I have to think well, actually, can I go there? Is it safe? Is it worth the risk? You know, a lot of things that you didn't need to think about.

Because of course, the other thing that's happened to change things is that journalists have become targets in a way that they weren't then.

SWEENEY: You also are a mother and also at the beginning of your book, you talk about how you came back from another time, actually, we had just done an interview. The first time we met was when you had been with the British army in Afghanistan and had almost been shot. And the British army soldiers you were with were actually talking about saving their last bullet for themselves.

And then you arrived back in London. You head straight to the supermarket and pick up some groceries and start making sandwiches for your son's birthday party. And it's such a contrast to what you'd been through 24, 48 hours earlier.

LAMB: No, it does feel like having a double knife a lot of the time. I mean, I literally keep a flack jacket in my wardrobe. And in some ways, it's good because it's very grounding to come back from all of that and be frustrating to doing school run, and living a normal life, and not kind of wallowing in what you've seen and all the horror and.

SWEENEY: And do you think it has any impact on your son, because you wrote about how your son was watching TV the night the bus was ambushed in Pakistan. And he knew you were on it.

LAMB: Yes, I mean, that was very difficult. I had phoned, because the bus we were on it for nine hours. So - and I - and it was a very kind of joyous atmosphere initially. So I'd phoned home and said hey, Mummy's on the bus. And see if you can see me.

And he and my husband were watching when the bomb happened. And he said to my husband do you think Mummy survived?

SWEENEY: In a very matter of fact way, I think?

LAMB: Very. And I found that very difficult. And it did make me really think about, you know, whether to carry on doing this job.

SWEENEY: And your book you ask the question, why do I do it? Every day I run away from that question. I have no excuses.

LAMB: It's very difficult just, I mean, I care passionately about the places that I cover. And once you've gone to a place a lot and got to know people there, it's no longer just a story or a place. It's a place where, you know, x, y, and z. And you think of them when something happens and hope that they're OK. And I feel very strongly that maybe the West has done wrong things in some of the places. And I want people to know and feel that people should be aware of what's happening. And if I can even just do a little bit to shine the light on the place, and I hope that that's a useful thing to do.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there, but Christina Lamb, thank you very much.

Well, up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, changing France's media landscape. President Nicolas Sarkozy plans reforms using Britain's public broadcaster as a model. We'll assess the winners and losers of the proposed shake-up when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. France's media landscape is in for a change if President Nicolas Sarkozy has his way. He's outlined plans to reshape the country's public service broadcaster, one that could be modeled on the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr. Sarkozy says he wants public television to be reviewed and for advertising to be removed from state owned channels. The president also announced that the English language channel, France 24, will be scrapped in favor of a new French speaking operation. France 24 was set up in 2006 to give a French perspective of global news.

Well, for more on Mr. Sarkozy's plan and what impact it might have, I'm joined from Paris by Christian Malard, senior political analyst with France 3 TV.

Thank you very much indeed for joining us. This shake-up.

CHRISTIAN MALARD, FRANCE 3 TELEVISION: Nice to talk to you, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Thank you. This shake-up, how unprecedented is it?

MALARD: Yes, it's unprecedented. But I have to tell you first, Fionnuala, that you have to understand in this country, France, which is a very conservative country, the umbilical cord between public television and central power at the Elysees Palace has never really been cut. Since the goal of Giscard D'Estang, there was always kind of control of the Elysees Palace and the French government over public television.

But it seems this time there is a will that President Sarkozy side to change really to make a break with the past, and to make French public television look renewed with a new face. Definitely, he wants to change a lot of things.

And I must admit that around me, public television, there is a lot of worry from my colleagues and everybody about the upcoming future. Because the president, as you know, wants to suppress the all commercials, all commercials on public television, which is amounting to 800 million Euro.

And the question is how are we going to find a substitute to have this 800 million Euro, which are going to miss? It is a question.

SWEENEY: France 24, it's currently broadcasting in English and in French. He wants to see it scrapped and broadcast only in French. And a news service, France Monde, he calls it. What's been the reaction to that?

MALARD: I know I have been meeting myself - my colleagues from France 24 on the Arabic language side and the English language side. And everybody is worried about the future because it's still the - this week again when we had the chance to talk to the president, he showed his determination to stop the Arabic language program, and the English speaking programs.

So which means he wants to have a French CNN, a French CNN for the future, not called France 24. He wants to call it France World. But it would be only French speaking language used there. No more Arabic language, no more English language.

And people I have met say but the French president is very open to the world. He wants to have new relationship with the Arabic world. He wants to be a good partner to Great Britain, to England. Why he wants to suppress these two languages? So I saw the worry of people trying to find maybe for new jobs with other international TV channels.

SWEENEY: I can imagine. A final question, if I may. Mr. Sarkozy has been - very much in the press in France and indeed around the world of late for his personal life, as much as anything else. How is the French media coping with this very public and seemingly quite flamboyant figure?

MALARD: Well, it seems that the overall French medias are so not used to this way of doing things by a French president. All of a sudden, they realize that there is a real break with the recent past. We had Mitterrand. We had Jacques Chirac, two people who had their way of doing things, of ruling the country in a kind of slow motion, I should say.

And all of a sudden, breaking up on the stage, on the international stage and French political stage, you have this baby boomer called Nicolas Sarkozy being (INAUDIBLE) to a new generation of politicians, who wants to change the country quickly and address - at all levels. Socially, economically, politically, audio visual programs as you said. And everybody says but he's everywhere. How can we - how is he going to do the reforms? He cannot be everywhere at the same time.

They are so not used to the pace he wants to give the reforms. He wants to go quick and well. And the people here are really not used to this kind of things. It's a revolution which is starting the in the country.

SWEENEY: Sounds like you'll all be kept on your toes. Christian Malard, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Paris.

MALARD: Thank you, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: And that leads us to our question of the week. We're asking do you think the media gives too much coverage to Nicolas Sarkozy's private life? You can take part on our website,

Before we go, we pay tribute to a man who braved mine fields to escape from Communist Hungary and then went on to become a top photographer with the Associated Press. Charles Tasnadi died on January 10th after a stroke. He was famed for his skills as a photographer and revered as a great gentleman. During his career, Tasnadi covered seven presidents, including a return to his homeland aboard Air Force One with George H.W. Bush. Charles Tasnadi was 82.

And 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.