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Harry's Cover Blown; Freelancing in Mexico; New Arab Media Charter

Aired February 29, 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, cover blown. Details about Prince Harry's assignment in Afghanistan are leaked by the media. And remote control, broadcasters seethe over a new Arab media charter.

First this week, he'd been fighting with British troops on the front lines in Afghanistan for more than two months. Prince Harry's tour of duty was kept under wraps after the international media agreed not to release details about the assignment. That was until news of the royal posting was leaked in sensational fashion this week. The news blackout was intended to reduce the risk to the prince and his regiment.

Well, for more on the story and the media frenzy it's generated, I'm joined in the studio by the journalist and media commentator Tessa Mayes. And Mark Saunders, author of "Prince Harry: The Biography."

First of all, the whole question of censorship. Should it have been applied in this case in terms of Prince Harry's going to Afghanistan?

MARK SAUNDERS, AUTHOR: PRINCE HARRY: THE BIOGRAPHY: Yes, I believe this was responsible censorship. When you are in war zone, a combat zone such as Prince Harry's in at the moment, people's lives are at risk. And it's not a game. It's not like the latest antics of Paris Hilton. It's a lot more serious than that.

And the idea of having journalists running around, paparazzi running around trying to take pictures of Prince Harry is unnecessary. And I think that they got it just right to have an embargo like this.

SWEENEY: Did you believe there should have been an embargo?

TESSA MAYES, JOURNALIST/MEDIA COMMENTATOR: No, absolutely not. I don't think there's a difference between censorship and responsible censorship. Censorship is what it is. It's blackouts on news media. And the people that lose out are actually the British public, because how can they decide what they think about a morale boosting exercise, which is what this was, effectively at a time when there's a huge amount of controversy about whether troops should be in Afghanistan at the moment anyway. How can they decide when we don't hear the proper news?

SWEENEY: Well, I mean, there's one thing to have the paparazzi on the streets of London. It's quite another thing to imagine them running around Helmond Province in Afghanistan.

SAUNDERS: It would be fun to put the paparazzi in Afghanistan. It would probably sort that problem out very quickly, but I think that the issue's a little bit more serious than that. You can't operate - the paparazzi couldn't operate in Afghanistan. It wouldn't be possible. The people than can operate in Afghanistan or Iraq are qualified journalists, people w ho have been trained to do the job.

Now it is not uncommon in America for the reporters aboard the plane of the president and have no idea where they're going for security reasons. And the same security is being implemented here in Afghanistan. That's all they're saying, that we can report on it. We are going to report on it.

BBC, CNN, all have done interviews with Harry. And they - that can come out. So there is no censorship. We will be told he was there.

SWEENEY: Well, that's what - that's a good point.

MAYES: I'm sorry, that really is not the point. You know, it sounds so casual to say what's the big deal, his life is at stake, all of this. The big deal in all of this is a very serious issue about the fact that the whole news media voluntarily self censored themselves.

And in terms of lives being at risk, I have colleagues and friends who've been to Afghanistan to report independently of military censorship what is happening there. Now they will be seen, along with the whole British media, as not independent.

We also have the issue of the 26 million lives of Afghanis themselves. A report out today actually shows that most Afghanis view Western troops as a threat to their security. We have to question why we're not getting the truth about a serious issue, which is now about a debate about whether we should pull the troops out, never mind send Harry in.

SWEENEY: Well, Prince Harry is being pulled out. In terms of the leak itself and the origins of this leak, have you any idea where it came from? I mean, it wasn't reported in the British press.

SAUNDERS: I, like everybody else, I was aware that it came from Australia and went to the Grudge Report in America. But this is one of the problems we've got today with the technology and the communication and - that's available. Anybody can become a journalist.

And on an issue like this, whether you agree of censorship or not, most of what - it's a little bit more serious than the latest celebrity nonsense out of Hollywood. And it should be handled correctly by news organizations that know what they're doing, not by someone who just happens to have a website.

SWEENEY: Yes, but there isn't any choice in this any more. People will have websites. People will release information. And people won't feel emboldened or bound by the laws of British/U.K. Ministry of Defense or something like this, right?

MAYES: Well, that's right. I mean, I think for the head of British Army to say he's somehow sort of disappointed by the foreign media is outrageous actually, because (INAUDIBLE) at having power what to do in Afghanistan with military force. And now he wants them how the whole world media to shut down his command. It's outrageous, you know.

Also outrageous that the British public expected to get their news media from Germany, America, Australian.

SWEENEY: But are you.

MAYES: And not British media.

SWEENEY: Are you totally against censorship of any kind, even if the country's security is at risk or a regiment in this case is at risk?

MAYES: I think the British Army to secure its own troops. It's not the responsibility of journalists. They can't have any power over the security of individuals.

So it's almost like casting the buck and in exchange for sort of delayed access of the news. This is not news journalism. This is propaganda. This is the media acting like an information wing of the military. It's a very different thing.


MAYES: The independent news media.

SWEENEY: But it wasn't acting like an information wing. It just actually wasn't providing them any new information about this.

MAYES: Well, that's right, but to the - under the control of the military dictating the terms and conditions. That's my point. And that's unacceptable.

SWEENEY: Mark Saunders?

SAUNDERS: I don't think it's unacceptable at all. I mean, you seem to be forgetting that these are soldiers in a combat zone. I mean, the enemy that they are fighting are not the most sophisticated enemy in the world. It.

SWEENEY: They're certainly giving British and other troops a hard time.

SAUNDERS: Well, I like to think that the British and the American troops.

SWEENEY: They may not be sophisticated, but.

SAUNDERS: Well, yes, but we're not losing the battle of Helmund Province.

SWEENEY: That's a whole other thing.


SWEENEY: That's a whole other thing (INAUDIBLE).

SAUNDERS: But the point being there's - Harry, it isn't an propaganda exercise. Harry is a British soldier, serving alongside his comrades in a combat zone. And he should be given as much protection as everybody else. Not only are we putting his life at risk, we're putting the other soldiers' lives at risk as well by reporting on this, by not holding it back until they're - until he's safely home.


SAUNDERS: It would still be the same report.

SWEENEY: Yes, well, he is being pulled out of Afghanistan as we speak. Thank you very much indeed. Mark Saunders, Tessa Mayes, there we must leave it.

Working as a freelancer, the good and the bad. When we return, hwy one organization says there's a need to improve working conditions of independent news gatherers.


SWEENEY: Life as a freelancer, it's an attractive option for many news gatherers who prefer to work when and for whomever they want. It can also come with great risk as identified in a new report by the Rory Peck Trust, an organization set up to support independent media workers.

Its study specifically focused on Mexico, considered the most dangerous country for journalists in Latin America. Among the findings, 32 percent of freelancers work in Mexico because they have no other option for employment as a journalist. They have an average monthly income of $300 to $500. (INAUDIBLE) say they've been threatened or attacked because of their work. And there's evidence to suggest the lack of respect for journalists among the general public.

The study identifies three initiatives to improve the working conditions of freelancers. They include improving access to medical, life and equipment insurance, safety training to prepare freelancers to avoid dangerous situations and survive attacks, and better communication between freelancers and their editors.

So let's get a sense of what it's like to work as a freelancer. For that, I'm joined by Phil Cox a freelance video journalist, producer, and Rory Peck award winner. Also with us, speaking through an interpreter is Mexico City based journalist Maria Hidalia Gomez, coordinator of the International Press Association Rapid Response unit in Mexico and winner of the 2005 Planeta (ph) Prize for Journalists.

Hidalia Gomez, as a freelance journalist in Mexico, you yourself have been threatened. Why is it so dangerous?

MARIA HIDALIA GOMEZ, JOURNALIST (through translator): This is because track traffic (INAUDIBLE) is strong presence affair, and it is generating self censorship among reporters. They don't write any more about these issues in many places in Mexico.

Corruption, political corruption and financial corruption is also taking a (INAUDIBLE) to this situation. It's been generating violence in reporters. Bad conditions at work also important element. For Mexico, many reporters pay - earn $200 a month.

SWEENEY: Why do you think that the public at large are not aware or don't care about the fate of journalists, particularly freelance journalists? Even full time journalists don't seem to care about the fate of freelance journalists in Mexico?

GOMEZ: We need people to be aware of this problem, because the problem in Mexico has started in the past five years. It has happened in a very short time.

We need the society to be aware, the reporters, the media, and the government. Violence has spread very quickly. Just in the last seven years, 22 reporters have been killed and seven are still missing.

SWEENEY: Phil Cox, you obviously have - former winner of the Rory Peck Trust. Why did you choose to be a freelance journalist? What are the advantages?

PHIL COX, FILMMAKER: Well, I first became a freelance journalist because nobody would give me a job. So I literally took up a camera and started to look for stories.

And - but in that process, I discovered there was a fraternity of freelancers and a way to get stories that was perhaps more accessible in a way - it was more liberating to work that way for me, rather than in on a contract or staff controlled environment.

And I'm not very used to working as a freelancer now. And I think in Europe, the U.K., and North America, as freelancers, we have it tough. Yes, we often work abroad. And we face dangerous situations. But we often forget what it's like for freelancers in the developing countries. And it is a lot harder, there's a lot less support. The risks personally to get a story are to me the same physically, but it's the consequences of stories often for journalists in developing countries.

While we can come home or leave, these journalists face dangers to themselves, to their families. So it's bigger decisions to be a freelancer, I find.

SWEENEY: And Idalia, you know, there's no health insurance for freelance journalists either. It begs the question on Mexico why do they do it, putting their lives at risk so much?

GOMEZ: Because there are no jobs in Mexico. There are no proper conditions. The media there, very few people work for an established station with a clear structure with better conditions at work.

SWEENEY: So why do they do it?

GOMEZ: Because they are heroes. They work as heroes, really every day. Phil was in Mexico a short time ago. And he could see how they've tried to report what's happening. This is mainly (INAUDIBLE) people. And we are at war now. And during wartimes, we need to inform. It's a war that hasn't been declared. It's very difficult what's happened in Mexico.

COX: Yes, I totally agree. I mean, for example, myself here have various resources such as the Rory Peck Trust or people I can turn to if there's problems.

SWEENEY: And what does the Rory Peck Trust, excuse me, do for you?

COX: Well, the Rory Peck Trust is there to provide a service for freelancers, recognition of what we do, if we're injured to provide support, to provide training. The trust is set up with a death of a famous freelancer in the `90s. When really there was no services for freelancers, well, there's no recognition of us.

And the Rory Peck Trust based on the case, it stand with other organizations here to give us more of a voice and really look after us in a sense. And now it's gone to outreach into countries such as Mexico.

SWEENEY: What can the Rory Peck Trust Award do in places like Mexico, where the situation seems to be so nihilistic?

COX: The first, which is what the Rory Peck Trust has done, is to highlight the problem, to raise this awareness, because it's just not being talked about.

SWEENEY: In Mexico or?

COX: In Mexico and further afield and abroad. And I think it's spent time on the ground in Mexico, talking to people who are involved. And really, the freelancers in Mexico, what they're - there isn't exist people who will come and talk to them and help them and say this is this problem. There's isolation. If you work in isolation, people don't trust colleagues, because there's great fear. The narco traffic business, the political corruption. If you tell a story to a colleague, you know, what might happen? Who might know?

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there, but Maria Hidalia Gomez and Phil Cox, thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

Restricting the rights of broadcasters, Arab League countries adopt a charter that channels they could silence them. Detail and the controversy when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. A dark day for press freedom, that's how journalists have described the moment when the Arab League adopted a charter on satellite television channels. Broadcasters fear it will severely restrict what they can say.

Octavia Nasr has details.


OCTAVIA NASR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From Rava (ph) to Riyadh, the Arab world gets its news from satellite television -- al Jazeera, al Arabiyah, and others. Networks that have brought plain speaking to a region where government censorship is the norm and has been for decades.

Now those governments, members of the Arab League, plan to rein in these free-wheeling broadcasters. A new charter adopted by Arab Information ministers bans anything that "undermines social peace, national unity and public order."

This sweeping charter threatens to revoke a broadcaster's license if it defames politicians, national figures, or religious leaders, or if it criticizes religion.

Egypt information minister says it's needed because "some satellite channels have strayed from the correct path." Journalists are up in arms. They say repressive regimes want to silence them and impose restrictions on their editorial freedom disguised as regulation.

SAAD JAHBAR, INTERNATIONAL LAW EXPERT (through translator): This is like going backwards to the Dark Ages. They want to muzzle all opinions that disagree with them.

NASR: Critics say the restrictions could even extend to comedy shows like this one, which pokes fun at politicians. And if the charter is applied with force, cartoons like these, lampooning the head of the Arab League may become a thing of the past.

It could make life even more difficult for bloggers like We Abez (ph) in Egypt. He's already spent time in jail after exposing torture by Egyptian police. Another Egyptian blogger, Hazeh Saleem Solimen (ph) is serving jail time after being convicted of defaming President Mubarek and inciting hatred of Islam.

The irony is that Saudi Arabia is a sponsor of the charter that Saudi financiers run many of the Arab world's independent media outlets, including the satellite news channel Al Arabiyah.

The only countries not to sign the charter were Lebanon and Qatar, home to news pioneer al Jazeera.


SWEENEY: CNN's senior editor for Arab affairs, Octavia Nasr reporting there.

Well, she joins me now for more reaction. And also with us is Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst with al Jazeera.

First of all, Marwan, how does a charter like this affect al Jazeera in practical terms?

MARWAN BISHARA, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, AL JAZEERA: Well, in so many ways, you could say that this was directed at al Jazeera. It is the most important Arab satellite channel today. And it has been the most controversial.

So they're trying to curtail the freedom of al Jazeera's journalists and al Jazeera's reporting of different aspects of what's going on in the Arab world. You would hope that this would be yet another one of those Arab League resolutions/charters that will collect dust on the Arab League shelves, but may be not because I think Arab - certain Arab governments are really worried from the freedom of expression that is going on in the Arab world.

So we're looking - we're not sure, we're hope that it will be yet another one of those that will just dissipate with time.

SWEENEY: Octavia, in your reporting there, I mean, there is a dissonance among various countries towards this charter, but overall enough agreement to pass it in the Arab League?

NASR: Yes, but we have to remember who agreed to this charter. The ministers of information, so this is a government driven charter that was approved by governments themselves. On the street, it's a different story. In newsrooms around the Arab world, it's outrage. Journalists feel that their freedoms are being attacked. And they're saying that they're not going to stay silent about it.

And as you heard now from Mr. Bishara, you're hearing those voices all over the Arab world. Journalists saying this is just ink on paper. And we're not going to give it any more respect than that.

SWEENEY: OK. So Marwan Bishara, how will it affect again al Jazeera in practical terms on the ground? You're talking about individual reporters being targeted in countries? Are we talking about cutting off al Jazeera's signal, for example?

BISHARA: We've had difficulties in the Arab world. Our bureaus have been closed almost in every other Arab country anyway. So this is not going to scare us. It doesn't - it's not going to intimidate us.

The problem with this is that there's so much room for interpretation. So the (INAUDIBLE) wide categories that are subject to interpretation. And they ask us to stick to it.

Well, let me tell you something. We have a code of ethics. We have a charter ourselves at al Jazeera, double the size of that charter. It's a ten long pages of just different things that we adhere to at al Jazeera. So we already have our own ethics and our own code of ethics. We don't need information (INAUDIBLE).

And as Octavia just said, this is very interesting. This is like you folks at CNN trying to adhere to what the Pentagon tells you to do, to cover up, for example, the war in Iraq. You're not going to accept that.

And some ministers are not state institutions. They are government ministers. And these government ministers, of course, are not exactly our friends, because we are al Jazeera. Our job is particularly focused on putting authority in check, questioning power. They are the power we are questioning.

SWEENEY: Octavia, do you think that this charter is directed at al Jazeera and perhaps al Arabiyah and other satellite networks?

NASR: I think this charter is clearly directed at everybody. And Marwan is right, the language of the charter is so vague, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation. So it seems to me, looking at the charter, it seems to me that these governments decided - they're upset about something the satellite channels are doing. And we have to admit the satellite channels, especially al Jazeera and al Arabiyah and others are very popular in the Arab world. People tune in. People tune in to listen to the news, to know - for entertainment as well. And some governments are upset about that. They don't like that. And they want to have some control over them.

But the outrage that's happening is very important I think because governments did sign, like you said, Fionnuala. Only Qatar and Lebanon have reservations and didn't sign. But all the other countries, you know, 20 of them, signed the charter. So now the street is very important and the journalism, what they do with this is very important.

SWEENEY: Well, the street is very important and obviously very popular. Have been al Jazeera and al Arabiyah, among other satellite networks with the Arab street. How much reactional feedback has it filtered down to the Arab street about this charter? And have you been hearing anything back? Because there is a wider issue here about growing democracy and people's voices? And so, are the people speaking about this?

BISHARA: Certainly. I think in the Arab world, of course, they're used to that kind of oppression or suppression of opinion. And the other opinion as we put it.

What's paradoxical is that most of these information ministers run their own state media outlets, whether radio, television, or press. And the problem is that they do a lot of that kind of inciting against those other Arab countries. So they speak about Arab solidarity, but they're the ones who break Arab solidarity consistently.

We in the satellite TV, especially a place like al Jazeera, we depend on our journalists. We depend on that public opinion to feed into our network.

SWEENEY: What has been the public opinion reaction?

BISHARA: Definitely bitter. Bitter, but of course, they expect that. It's more of the same.


BISHARA: Information ministers are police. They are the police of opinion in the Arab world. So do not expect much. We don't expect much else.

But what I'm saying is that if al Jazeera's going to listen to this kind of talk, then we have to close our doors, because we depend on that diversity, on that polarity, that the charter from the Arab League is basically shutting down.

SWEENEY: Well, we'll have to wait and see how that pans out in the coming weeks and months. Marwan Bishara, al Jazeera, thank you very much.

BISHARA: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Octavia Nasr in CNN Center, thank you very much also.

Well, don't forget to check out INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS online. Log on to to see all or part of this week's show again. You can also view our archives, take part in the quick vote, and read the weekly blog. It's all 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.