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Castro's Legacy; Musharraf Defeated; Chinese-Held Journalist Speaks

Aired February 22, 2008 - 12:30:00   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, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf was defeated in parliamentary elections. What will the results mean for the country's media?

Cuba's Fidel Castro calls it a day. We look at the legacy he leaves in the news industry.

And the freedom of speech. A Hong Kong journalist held for almost three years in a Chinese prison speaks about his ordeal.

But first this week, the elections in Pakistan, a result that delivered a blow to President Pervez Musharraf. The two leading opposition parties were the big winners in Monday's poll. The ballot was held after an initial delay caused by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and follows last year's judicial crisis sparked by the sacking of Pakistan's chief justice.

Well, let's look at the media's handling of the elections and how a new government will deal with the media. To discuss that, I'm joined from Islamabad by Candace Rondeaux, foreign correspondent with "The Washington Post". And here in the studio is Aamir Ghauri, the head of news and current affairs for Europe with GEO TV. And Shahed Sadullah, editor of the news.

First of all in Islamabad, Candace, what has been the media's reaction there generally speaking to these elections?

CANDACE RONDEAUX, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON POST: Well, this has been a story for at least the local media here that's moved, not day by day, but hour by hour. The elections were really the first that you saw in Islamabad, where you had a full bevy of media from, not only around the world, but obviously, in Pakistan.

A friend of mine here calls this talk show democracy that sort of evolved over the last five years. And you can really see it happening on the ground. It's obviously been tough for the media here in the sense of the restrictions that have been placed on the media by - under the Musharraf regime, but nonetheless, they've really come out and given energetic coverage to this story.

SWEENEY: Aamir Ghauri, for GEO TV, what has it been like in terms of the restrictions placed on your network, which was off the air for a while?

AAMIR GHAURI, HEAD OF NEWS (EUROPE) GEO TV: I think, you know, mite more than that, it was the big test for GEO Television because if GEO was the biggest television network in Pakistan, election was the biggest story. But before that, you know, we went under the emergency rules. We were banned, banned for almost over 70 days. So there was nervousness.

But before that, I think the government came out with another restriction, which they call blackout period 36 hours, that no, you know, politician would be allowed on television. No television network would invite them to their programs. They can definitely invite, you know, analysts and observers, but not them.

So there was a nervousness that, for example, you know, if we (INAUDIBLE) ourselves according to those rules, which rules are not laid down pretty much on the - such a book, it's pretty much, you know, the word of President Musharraf and his cabinet, you know, the intergovernment. So there was nervous time, but I think, you know, we covered them - covered these elections pretty fine.

SWEENEY: Shahed Sadullah, when Candace makes reference there to talk show politics, I mean, it really does denote the rise of TVs and satellites, television in Pakistan over the last few years under President Musharraf and really highlights the lower literacy rate in Pakistan for newspaper readers.

SHAHED SADULLAH, EDITOR, THE NEWS: Absolutely. And I think the lower literacy rate was always going to be a big factor in the emergence of the electronic media over the print media, especially for an English newspaper like the news. An A.K. is the number of people who can read a newspaper in Pakistan is small, the number of people who can read an English newspaper in Pakistan is infinitesimal really compared to the overall population of 165 million.

So although, you know, judging by the opinion pieces and the editorials that were written in the news, both in the run up to the elections and in the couple of days following the elections, one wouldn't think that there was any great pressure on them, you know, or any restrictions on them.

But yes, I think the electronic media is the media which at the moment guided Pakistan. What I think the Musharraf regime made a mistake in this. They woke up to the necessity of certain rules of conduct they laid. I think of these rules of - if they framed these rules of conduct before the electronic media was allowed on the air, there wouldn't have been that much of a reaction against him.

But they came up with it as a reaction to the criticism against them. And therefore, it looked, you know, terrible from their point of view.

SWEENEY: Candace Rondeaux in Islamabad, do you get a sense that something significant has been sweeping the country with these elections over the past few weeks? Is that reflected in the media in any way?

RONDEAUX: Without a doubt. I mean, I don't think there's any question that this is a - one of the most historic elections in Pakistan's history. And really, a very historic moment for South Asia for the region in general.

You know, in terms of how the West is viewing it, in terms of how just internally the politics are shaking out, this story has just moved so quickly from the, you know, the fall of the judiciary, the restrictions placed on the media. And then of course, now we have the question of what will happen next. You know, it's not quite clear. The mandate is not as straightforward as it would seem.

You have two leading opposition parties who actually have a very interesting history in terms of the personalities that are leading them and sort of the antagonism historically between them.

And so, that's going to be something that's really going to be interesting to see how that plays out in the media because one thing that's fascinating, you know, for a Western reporter is to watch sort of the very personal tack that the media here, the local media seems to take. People are almost sort of like family members or has sometimes a soap opera like quality. And it's quite interesting to see how that will play out.

SWEENEY: And do you notice, Candace, any difference in terms of how you were treated as a foreign correspondent about some of your colleagues in the domestic media?

RONDEAUX: Yes, I mean, I definitely think that Pakistani - the Pakistani media here faces really very significant challenges in terms of just basic rights and security. You know, I think a lot of us here who are from the Western media certainly feel maybe a greater freedom in some ways because we do come with sort of this incriminator of, you know, really bringing this to the world. And I do think that there is some sensitivity, even on the part of the Musharraf regime to that issue.

And maybe less so, maybe less investment, you know, on the part of the government here in seeing, you know, its own people being informed on a regular and daily basis, and really sort of getting penetrating news coverage.

And I think even as late as Friday, you know, just two days before the elections, you know, the restrictions that were placed on broadcast news here really caused a firestorm. And rightfully so, I think. And yet, interestingly enough, you know, the local media here in Islamabad really hit back. They came back immediately with an answer. You know, they weren't going to stand for it. They wanted some clarity. And I really think that that was a huge moment also for the sort of maturity of the Pakistani media.

GHAURI: I would just - media - Pakistani media, they were (INAUDIBLE) across President Musharraf. The level of trust was, you know, really, really rock bottom because this is a man who has promised so many things to the people of Pakistan. And the way Candace was saying I think (INAUDIBLE) in Pakistan feel much more (INAUDIBLE) to the Western media and Western governments, rather than their own - you know, media, their own, you know, people.

SWEENEY: Governments in Pakistan feel more unsupported than Western media?

GHAURI: Yes, and that is why, you know, the foreign correspondents and foreign media in Pakistan, you know, is much more tolerated rather than Pakistani media. And Pakistan media people - journalists have been picked up, tortured, have been forced to leave the country in some cases. There are journalists who were, you know, killed in some cases. There is no word from the government.

So I think that's why media was not really confused in our case in GEO Television and other channels as well. They were forced to change, you know, the main broadcasters they had. The most known faces were, you know, for off the air. Two of our main broadcasters, you know, are still off the air under these rules. So I think this nervousness was there right, you know, going to the moment of elections.

SWEENEY: I suppose the question is Shahed Sadullah, whether or not these restrictions really had any impact on the outcome of the election results themselves? Is it something we'll likely never know.

SADULLAH: No, I think we do know that. I think they did have an impact. And the impact was against the government.


SADULLAH: Didn't make the government any popular. And the result of that is in front of you, the party that was supporting Mr. Musharraf just got 38 seats in the national assembly.

So yes, it did have - certainly had an impact, because.

SWEENEY: It also had low voter turnout as well. Was that impacted.

SADULLAH: Well, I think that was more due to the security situation in Pakistan, which you know has not been some way short of being desirable over the last few months.

But you know, if you enforce these elections on the electronic media, which is a visual media, the restrictions come out and hit the common man who sees that media and has much - and has a much greater impact than such restrictions may have on the print media, say. Because these are faces you see on the electronic media every day.

SWEENEY: A final word to you, Candace, in Islamabad as we look at the - survey the landscape following these elections. I mean, what is your opinion about whether or not President Musharraf has opened a Pandora's box really when you mention talk show politics. Has he opened the bottle and let the genie out in terms of media freedoms despite the restrictions he's imposed?

RONDEAUX: You know, I'm not really sure if it's his sort of impetus here, or if it's really just the impetus of a rising middle class that's at work. You know, it's important to remember that the media worldwide is part of the fourth estate. They represent oftentimes, you know, members of the elite. And that's very much the case here in Pakistan.

We've talked a lot about, you know, in our coverage I think all of us have talked about, you know, sort of the rising middle class and how that's represented in terms of the lawyers movement here.

But what's interesting actually is, you know, a lot of these Pakistan journalists who work here, I mean, they're part of this massive growth in satellite technology, communications technology, business and so forth. And that kind of fluidity is not something that I don't think - I really doubt any man could really stop - one single man could stop, just you know, via sheer restrictions on the media.

So ultimately, while it's true that the restrictions without a doubt have had a major impact, you know, Pakistan has had really quite a few journalists killed here. And that's most unfortunate. But you know, I think the floodgates are already open. I think they have been. They've been opened really in part by sort of the globalization of the media and greater cooperation between Western journalism, I think, and a better understanding on our part of just how hard it is to do this work in countries like Pakistan and elsewhere.

SWEENEY: We must leave it there. But Candace Rondeaux of "The Washington Post," thank you very much indeed for joining us from Islamabad. And here in the studio, Aamir Ghauri and Shahed Sadullah.

Now a future without Fidel. Cuba's commander and chief calls it a day. After almost a half century at the helm, what impact will Fidel Castro's resignation have on the media? That story when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The resignation of one of the world's longest serving leaders is always going to be big news. The official announcement, Fidel Castro was stepping down, dominated world headlines after it fast broke in the online version of Cuba's state run newspaper "Granma."

Fighting poorer health is the reason for his decision. The ailing leader has not appeared publicly since undergoing intestinal surgery in 2006. He then temporarily appointed his brother Raul to lead the country in his absence.

Fidel Castro's rule inspired generations of revolutionaries, but frustrated 10 U.S. administrations. His tenure was also attacked by press freedom groups, who continue to criticize the Castro regime.

Well, to assess Fidel Castro's media legacy, I'm joined by CNN's Havana bureau chief Morgan Neill. Also with us, Stephen Wilkinson, journalist, author and assistant director of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba at London Metropolitan University.

Morgan Neill in Havana, obviously, there was going to be a massive reaction in the media to the news of Fidel Castro's resignation. Was it as one might expect, glowing but also very contrite in sad terms for his resignation?

MORGAN NEILL, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF: Well, it was very interesting the way we found out about this news, first of all. We got a call around 2:30 a.m. from the Atlanta headquarters of CNN, telling us that this had appeared on the Internet. Itself a bit strange in that very few Cubans have access to the Internet.

So by the time Cubans began to see this in the newspaper, it had been out there six hours or so. Now we went out early morning. And many of the first people we talked to didn't even realize Fidel Castro had resigned strange enough in and of itself. But it's because the only newspapers here are put out by the Communist party. They're used to seeing the same thing in the newspaper that they hear on television and on the radio. So a lot of people have just stopped listening.

But yes, as far as what was the coverage like here, the coverage was this is coming from Fidel himself. This is his decision in the terms that it came out in the state media. It was a decision taking for the good of the country, for the good of the Cuban revolutions.

So absolutely, glowing coverage.

SWEENEY: Stephen Wilkinson, on that point that Morgan raises about the Internet, according to Reporters Without Borders, they say communications minister in Cuba, Romero Valdez, spelled out the government's attitude in early 2007 by calling Internet technologies "a tool for global extermination and world cult that must be controlled."

I mean, very few people in Cuba, as Morgan pointed out, have access to the Internet. So what does that say about freedom of speech and access to freedom of speech in Cuba?

STEPHEN WILKINSON, INTL. INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF CUBA: Yes, there is severe restrictions on the Internet access in Cuba.

SWEENEY: It should be said also because of the embargo and.

WILKINSON: Yes, it's not entirely the government's fault. And in fact, Romero Valdez also said in the same speech that they were going to embrace this technology and the web. It's going to take them time. They don't have a cable connection to the mainland. So all of the technology Internet connection goes through a satellite, which is very expensive. They don't really have broadband, even those people who have online access.

So there are severe restrictions. And of course, materially, people are poor. They can't afford the computer technology that one - we can. So ownership is low. And the government does restrict access.

Professional people do get access. I mean, if you're a doctor, if you're an academic, if you're a business person and you need access to the Internet, you can get it. And many people do have it in their homes if they work in those kinds of professions.

But the general population are restricted in access to the web.

SWEENEY: Morgan Neill, don't want to stay on the subject of the web, but it is obviously where things are headed. I mean, I presume you don't have any difficulty using the Internet?

NEILL: Well, we are granted special permission by the government because of our status as foreign press here in Cuba.

Let me tell you something that happened just recently, though. It was very interesting. We saw a video come out just in the last couple of weeks about a bunch of computer technology students here in Havana. This is - and they were meeting with the president of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon. And they were talking - asking questions about some of the things they would like to see change.

Now this video was not broadcast. This is video appeared to have been recorded for close circuit television. So the people there in the meeting could see it, even if they couldn't fit in a room.

One of the students stood up, saying at first this is all from within the revolution. He qualified his remarks. But one of his complaints, one of his questions was why all of a sudden any restrict - as the government restricted Google and Yahoo, why has this happened all of a sudden. Why aren't we told anything about this?

So just to give you an idea of the kind of things that are being asked about, particularly by young people who work in this field right now, there is a great deal of frustration.

SWEENEY: Well, let's look ahead. I mean, it's not been announced that assuming that Raul, Fidel Castro's brother, continues to remain as president, what can we expect in terms of press freedoms and the media can expect in Cuba?

WILKINSON: Well, you know, the longer term, I think, the government has made a commitment and has said that it will extend access to the Internet eventually when it is physically possible to do so.

Since Raul has been in charge, there has been an opening up of debate within the country. And one of the things that has happened is that the media is being asked to be more critical, particularly in terms of pointing out examples of corruption and inefficiency. And this issue is quite remarkable change from what pertained before, in my opinion anyway.

SWEENEY: Morgan Neill in Havana, a final question to you. Do you sense when you talk to your Cuban colleagues, journalistic colleagues, that things are changing?

NEILL: Well, there is -- certainly there has been a form of debate that has gone on. But it's important to know this is a debate controlled completely by the government. That is this formal debate.

Raul has called on Cubans to debate what they think are the problems within the country. But that is - you have to follow an old Fidel Castro saying, which was within the revolution, everything outside the revolution, nothing. And in terms of this debate, what that means is you can debate these types of things - economic inefficiencies, things that seem to be hurting the country certainly in pragmatic terms that Raul Castro has talked about. But you don't hear any debate publically at least about wanting to change the form of government, wanting to see elections with more than one candidate, for example, per post like we recently saw for the National Assembly.

So there is some form of debate, but very tightly controlled, Fionnuala. And no signs right now that that aspect is going to change.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there. Havana bureau chief Morgan Neill, Stephen Wilkinson here in London, thank you both very much indeed.

Now detained for divulging state secrets, the Hong Kong journalist speaks about his time in the Chinese prison. At one point Ching Cheong says he was pushed to the limit. His story when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. He was freed after serving almost three of his five year prison term. His crime, spying on China for Taiwan. Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong has spoken publicly for the first time since his release two weeks ago, saying the espionage charges against him were unfounded.

Angelie Rowe reports.


ANGELIE ROWE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He's a journalist with his own story to tell. Ching Cheong is now free after being held for almost three years in China on spying charges.

Ching is a Hong Kong based reporter for "The Straits Times" newspaper in Singapore. He was accused of selling Chinese state secrets to Taiwan. Now he's anxious to set the record straight.

CHING CHEONG, FREED JOURNALIST (through translator): I have never done anything that endangers national security or harms my country's interests. I said in court that I never intended to work as a spy, and at no times I am in possession of any national secrets, let alone handing them over to Taiwan.

ROWE: Ching was sentenced to five years in prison in 2006, but he was released on probation this month. He was reluctant to offer specifics on his case, which garnered international attention.

Because of the sensitivity of the situation, we were told not to refer to his appearance at the press conference. It was called merely a tea gathering.

Still Ching spoke of his time behind bars, where he says he began to question the principles that has guided his career.

CHEONG: It seems that all this virtue has devalued (INAUDIBLE) of betraying game. And then, a horrible downward spiral set in. When you are psychologically caught in a downward spiral, I think the end result would be committing suicide.

SWEENEY: Ching was detained in April 2005 during a visit to the city of Guanjo. In published reports, Ching's wife has said he was there to obtain secret interviews with Jazian (ph), a Communist leader purged for opposing the 1989 Tianamen Square crackdown.

Ching was held without trial for 16 months before a closed court convicted him of espionage in 2006. His case has reignited the issue of press freedom in a country, where according to Reporters Without Borders, 32 journalists are jailed.

Francis Moriarty is chairman of a group that monitors press freedoms.

FRANCIS MORIARTY, HONG KONG FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS CLUB: If you cross a line, a media line that's invisible to you, you think you know where the lines are, but in fact, some day somebody besides your wrong, you can find yourself in trouble . You can find yourself in prison.

ROWE: As China gears up for the Olympics, there are questions about whether its image improvement drive will extend to relaxing restrictions on the media.

As for Ching Cheong, his ordeal may be in the past, but he says he's grateful for his freedom, freedom denied to so many other journalists in China.

Angelie Rowe, CNN, Hong Kong.


SWEENEY: A reminder. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS is now available online. Log on to to see all or part of it again. Take part in our quick vote. And watch out for 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.