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Returning to Fallujah; Condemned to Death in Afghanistan; Spitzer Scandal Reporting; Launch of BBC Arabic

Aired March 14, 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, a sex scandal of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer sparks a media frenzy. Sentenced to death, the campaign to free an Afghan journalist condemned for blasphemy. And returning to Iraq. Almost five years after the war began, journalists travel to Fallujah to see how things have changed.

But first, take a governor with a squeaky clean image, add some call girls, and you have one great story. That was the case in the U.S. this week, when New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was linked to a prostitution ring. It was big news as soon as the story (INAUDIBLE). News outlets scrambled while (INAUDIBLE)


.to play out big. To help put it all into perspective, I'm joined from London by Brook Masters, Lex writer of "The Financial Times" and Eliot Spitzer biographer. Also, with us, John Friedman, senior columnist with media web section of Marketwatch, the financial news website. He's in Los Angeles.

First of all, John Friedman, I mean, this story has everything. Are there going to be any boundaries at all in terms of the pursuit of all the angles?

JOHN FRIEDMAN, SENIOR COLUMNIST, MARKETWATCH: I think it's got to stop with his wife and children and family because there's so much fear to expose Spitzer about in terms of wrongdoing and immorality, that it's got to stop at some point.

I think the family's a place where it stops. They are just victims in all this, too. They didn't know what was going on. It's not fair to charge them, or to include them in the coverage to a large degree.

SWEENEY: Brooke Masters, what's your view about the media coverage and spotlight on his wife?

BROOKE MASTERS, AUTHOR/LEX WRITER, "FINANCIAL TIMES": I feel terrible for her. And I think it's kind of cruel to do these, you know, how dare she stand by her man columns. You know, "The New York Post" did a story by Andrea Pizer, which they basically said you should dump the guy. And you know, this is her husband of 20 years. Don't attack her personal decision. She's trying to help her kids. And I really do think the coverage of her has gotten a little out of line.

SWEENEY: Brooke, you've of course written a biography of Eliot Spitzer. I mean, there are some journalists in the last few days who've been saying that actually the word `journalist' perhaps yourself, who helped Eliot Spitzer in the past.

MASTERS: Well, I think it's true that he got extremely favorable coverage. And that's for two reasons. One, he was a really good user of the media. They leaked out information, including to "The Wall Street Journal," which has been the most critical of the coverage.

They would give information and make it salacious and give you the best quotes and put on really great press conferences. So he looked great in the media.

He also, at the time, he was bringing his Wall Street cases, was tapping into a sense of resentment in the country that, you know, rich people in finance were taking advantage of small investors, who just lost a lot of money in the tech boom.

And so, he got adulation because what he did really did fit a need and what people wanted in the country.

The criticism (INAUDIBLE) is that in his.


.did push legal boundaries, would use old laws, you know, things from the 1920s, to go after mutual funds, which hadn't yet been invented when the laws were written.

And so, there was some sense that he saw himself as, you know, using any means to get to the good end. And people didn't criticize him as much, because they also supported the end.

SWEENEY: So where does that leave the media, John Friedman, journalists themselves? You know, seeing a great story, going with the flow, people who might have protected in the past? I mean, does it make the media seem fickle?

FRIEDMAN: Well, not really fickle, but the main problem here is he was too good to be true. He was too good to be true because he was (INAUDIBLE). He was so correct. He was so upright. And now we find that our hero, Eliot Spitzer, was a fraud. It's very just hard being through media members to realize that somebody you believed in, somebody you backed on the cover of "TIME" magazine was actually a total fraud. And it makes us have to rethink ourselves in terms of people we idolize in the press, too. It's a very disheartening moment for us.

SWEENEY: Well, he certainly had a lot of enemies, but if it's disheartening moment for the media, I want to raise the point of whether or not anybody who's in the public domain, be they governor of New York or a byline of a journalist that gets published, who can be held accountable? I mean, do journalists police themselves?

MASTERS: I don't think that.

FRIEDMAN: I think we do. But again, we, you know, we are now part of the public trust, the same way the governor of the state of New York is going to be, especially a guy who is so, as I said before, so pious in his campaigning. Hypocrisy here is the main problem with Spitzer's image.

If he was the kind of a guy who was questionable from the start and say, well, what do you expect? Eliot Spitzer. But he was so much of a campaigner and a sense of right of wrong. It's really disgusting.

SWEENEY: Brooke, I suppose I'm wondering, Brooke Masters, whether or not journalists can hide behind a publication in the way that perhaps the former governor or New York hid behind his office? And is there any sort of community standard here?

MASTERS: Newspapers do. You know, in some small communities, where they have small local papers, they actually do publish ordinary people's names who are involved in things like prostitution or drunk driver. And in those cases, I think journalists have to be - their names have to be published as well.

The question is do we have a different standard for people who are, you know, national figures? Certainly our libel laws and invasion of privacy rules do have different standards for public figures. There's a sense of if you either put yourself in the public eye deliberately by running for office, or you know, by being a rock star, then you're sort of fair game when you do things.

A journalist is simply writing articles. The byline is on the story, but they're not necessarily sticking themselves up there. I think the line starts to blur with people who are, say columnists, who put their picture in the paper and write about their personal lives.

You can then see how this stuff can bleed over. And you lose your privacy.

SWEENEY: John Friedman, it's a great tale of human tragedy, personal tragedy for him as well as professional tragedy. But I'm wondering where you think this story's going to end up, because there are so many angles to it, you know, with the naming of the prostitute. There are so many issues coming on here. Where do you think it's going to finally wind up?

FRIEDMAN: To the courts? I mean, he may be charged with a lot of serious crimes, though. Could put him in prison. It's very possible. He could wind up behind bars himself, which would be the ultimate tragedy in this case and the ultimate irony that Mr. Clean would wind up in jail himself. It's too early to say that definitively right now, of course, and still be negotiated. But it's a definite possibility.

You know, the main thing we got to talk about here too is the sex angle. This is all about sex. If this were about money laundering for other purposes, it wouldn't be so exciting to reporters and the public. But because sex is here, this story, it's really special.

SWEENEY: And that leads me to my next question, Brooke Masters, is that on that particular angle of the story, how far is it going to go, the naming of clients? Should that be in the public domain? If they're not public servants?

MASTERS: Well, it's interesting. I think they're going to get named. If people can figure who they are, they're going to get named. There's so much interest in this story.

And I think maybe that's a shame. And there's no evidence that these other people did anything other than patronize an online prostitution ring. And in general, johns are not prosecuted in the U.S. We have a general theory that the bad people are the ones selling the sex.

I don't know if that's right. If you want to deter prostitution, which presumably prosecutors do, if you went after the (INAUDIBLE) people who pay for it and humiliate them in public, they might be less likely to do it.

SWEENEY: John Friedman, I'm wondering, America has a huge (INAUDIBLE). Is there any disconnect between the media's reporting of this story and what Joe Public thinks?

FRIEDMAN: I think it's pretty typical. The reporters in this case are a proxy for the public. And we're outraged, amazed, surprised, all the words that apply to how a public is going to feel about this, too.

And again, the main issue I see here is that Spitzer was so hypocritical in the way he showed himself to the public during his campaigns, attorney general, and governor. And now he's getting his just due.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there, but John Friedman in L.A. and Brooke Masters in London, thank you both very much indeed.

Now the case. Testing the freedom of the press in Afghanistan. A journalist sentenced to death by handing out articles that questioned principles of Islam. His story and the campaign to have him freed, when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Condemned to death for blaspheming Islam. That's the sentence handed down to journalist Pervez Kambash in Afghanistan, convicted for downloading and distributing an article which discussed whether a Muslim man should have the right to marry more than one woman.

The 23-year old's plight has attracted international attention. Reporters Without Borders said the charges against Kambash are in retaliation for his brother's investigative journalism articles on human rights abuses.

Kambash's brother Yahud Ibrahimi told a news conference in Paris this week that he had assurances from the Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he will not sign any execution order. Mr. Ibrahimi says the jailed journalist is now expected to move to a prison in Kabul ahead of his appeal.

Britain's independent newspaper has (INAUDIBLE) a campaign calling for the release of Pervez Kambash. It's petitions attracted more than 95,000 signatures.

Well for more on the story, I'm joined by Kim Sengupta, defense and diplomatic correspondent with "The Independent." He was able to conduct a face to face interview with the jailed general last month.

Also with us, from Washington, Lucy Morillon from Reporters Without Borders.

Kim, first of all, how did you hear of this story? How did you manage to (INAUDIBLE) in jail?

KIM SENGUPTA, CORRESPONDENT, "THE INDEPENDENT": Well, the story came about because I had met Yahud Ibrahimi before on a previous trip to Kabul when I saw his colleagues. And in fact, it was another Afghan journalist who e-mailed me saying that Pervez came back, who I had not met at that stage, and had been arrested.

And then, this was followed up by further information that the Afghan senators in fact highly unusually confirmed the sentence, and urged it be carried out.

So that's when we really started looking at the story. And as you pointed out, Fionnuala, the response was quite extraordinary. You know, we had a lot of phone calls, a lot of people signing this petition. So that's how the thing started.

I was back in Afghanistan in Helmut (ph) a few weeks ago. And we decided to try and speak to Pervez in person in prison. So I first met him as a member of the public, you know, but my skin color helped. I went in with an Afghan friend and spoke to him.

And then, we.

SWEENEY: You were just saying was (INAUDIBLE) brought up to the cell?

SENGUPTA: Well, this was, you know, will not actually the cell itself at that stage. They're kind of a holding pen. You know, whereas the inmates come out to meet their visitors.

So we did that. We had quite a lengthy chat. What we could not do at that point was take a photo of him. We went back in the afternoon. And I spoke to - well, rather by then, they had discovered that I was a journalist. And I was holed up before at (INAUDIBLE) at Taj Mohammed, who's a director of (INAUDIBLE) in Afghanistan. Told me off going in the first place.

But then, much to my astonishment. He actually said he approved us being campaigning, the international media.

SWEENEY: And then proceeded to help you out?

SENGUPTA: Putting it up to help me out and quickly divert it. But that was - quite an extraordinary experience.

SWEENEY: Lucy Morillon, what is the legal status of this case now? It is going forward for appeal very soon.

LUCY MORILLON, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: Well, it looks like the appeal has been granted. And Pervez came back should be moved in the coming weeks to Kabul, where his case should be actually looked into by a non-religious court.

It's a good point. It's a positive development, because we're really afraid of the appeal being hailed in (INAUDIBLE), where obviously, local officials are trying to get Pervez to come back further.

Again, in this case, Reporters Without Borders believes that Pervez is only a scapegoat, that the real target was his brother, who was investigating local warlords and human rights abuses.

SWEENEY: How common are cases such as this in Afghanistan, Lucy?

MORILLON: Well, there have been a few cases since the fall of the Talibans, where journalists were sentenced to death or prison for blasphemy. It's just a few cases. And this is actually very worrying for us. We believe it's a threat to freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is one of the few achievements in Afghanistan since the fall of the Talibans. And journalists are under increasing pressure because of the security situation, which is deteriorating.

We've had more and more death threats against journalists coming from warlords, coming from religious leaders. The government itself is also putting some pressure on the journalists from time to time.

What we need to see is a new media law, to be adopted. And we want blasphemy law not to carry out the death sentence for journalists.

SWEENEY: I mean, Kim Sengupta, how likely is that to happen, given all the pressures and conflicting interests facing the authorities in Afghanistan at the moment?

SENGUPTA: I think that will be almost impossible. I mean, President Karzai's under tremendous pressure from the religious right in his country. He's trying to portray himself, you know, as a staunch Muslim. You know, an Afghan who's not going to bow to national pressure.

So I think it's unlikely that this particular provision would be scrapped. Having said that, I don't think we're going to see in a rational hangings either. And I think, you know, this particular statute was probably still on the - in the legal books.

SWEENEY: Lucy Morillon, obviously we have no insight that - it's thought that Pervez's brother was actually the target for his investigative journalism. Do we know what kind of writing, if any, he's been doing since?

MORILLON: Well, that's a question. And right now, his brother is in Europe. He's trying to raise awareness on his brother's case. And we understand how worried the family is.

I believe it's a signal sent to some journalists who are trying in the same area, in the same region, the coverage in Northern Afghanistan to - you know, to do some investigative work about what local officials are doing and civil wrongdoings.

So it's definitely a singles hint. And one of the consequences could be a function of this being foreseen to censorship.

SWEENEY: What I'm wondering here, Kim, is there's an international journalist going into Afghanistan. You're probably concerned with the British Army, what's taken place, native forces.

Do you feel that you operate under anything like the (INAUDIBLE) local Afghan journalists?

SENGUPTA: Certainly not. You know, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, journalists have to act under tremendous pressure, as you know. Under threat of - they're killed. So no, I mean - and we are, you know, very fortunate in the sense because you know, we don't - we're not exposed to that kind of intimidation and violence.

Having said that, you know, what I've found in Afghanistan, certainly, and also illustration to Iraq is that, you know, journalism is quite vibrant. And the journalists are, you know, pretty good at standing up for themselves.

In Maza, for example, what Pervez is incarcerated. The local journalists there have formed a group. And they do challenge the local authorities quite robustly.

So although they're under pressure, they're certainly not buckling under.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there, but I want to thank you, Kim Singer here in London. And Lucy Morillon in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much.

MORILLON: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Well, from Afghanistan to Iraq now. And already identify it as the most dangerous country to be a reporter. Almost five years after the start of the war, how has life changed? To those living in areas considered off limits to reporters? Some journalist will be finding out.


TIME STAMP: 1852:00

SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's a subject that's dominated countless news bulletins and newspaper headlines around the world. From the fall of Saddam Hussein to last year's surge, March marks five years since the war in Iraq began.

While much of the country remains off limits to journalists, some international media workers are now returning to the country to assess how life has changed.

Well, that was the basis behind Affront's "24" film by Lucas Menget and Gio Matin for the Reporters program. Our visit included a trip to Fallujah, a city where television crews have been unable to roam freely. Here's a sample of the report.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The city of Fallujah has lived and suffered through these past five years. From the U.S. led invasion to sectarian strife. This sunny stronghold has weathered the worst of the war.

The biking has stopped, but reconstruction is yet to begin. Half the city's 600,000 inhabitants have fled.

Amid the rubble, those who have stayed behind are slowly emerging from their state of limbo. In Fallujay, the Iraqi police and al Sawa (ph) military co-exist. Power has changed hands.


SWEENEY: Nick Menget is one of the journalists behind that report. He's been in and out of Iraq several times since the war began.

I spoke to him recently and asked what it was like to go to a place like Fallujah, which has been off limits to Western journalists for some time.


LUCAS MENGET: Well, Fallujah is very interesting, but it's hard to go there. The hard thing's to imagine is that Fallujah is very close to Baghdad. It's only 72 kilometers far from the West of Baghdad.

Which on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, I counted 27 checkpoints. And at the end, the kind of numb and slum with absolutely nobody on the road. Because the capital by that is protected by Shi'ia militias. And Fallujah is protected by Sunni militias. At the end, there is a no man's land. And an American checkpoint, just at the entrance. So it's quite hard to go there, mainly because Fallujah is also a symbol of all the periods of the war, the civil war, the war against the Americans. And everybody inside Fallujah, is a bit afraid. And it's a tense situation. So people don't go there because they're afraid that something could happen in Fallujah.

Basically, the city's control, either by the police, the Iraqi police, and the Iraqi militias, the al Sacua militias.

So to go there, you have to have the agreement of both sides.

SWEENEY: And you were able to get that agreement without any difficulty before you went?

MENGET: Well, it took time. See, it takes time to have an agreement to go there. And it's mainly a question of security because you don't want to go there on your own.

And so it took us a few days to have that agreement of everybody, the police and al Sacqua members, to be sure that we could go inside Fallujah with the agreement of the Security persons inside the city.

The only person we didn't ask for was the Americans, because basically, the Americans' army is trying to provide any people to enter Fallujah without their own authorization.

SWEENEY: Right. And were you placed under any kind of restrictions maybe caused by the security problems or otherwise?

MENGET: No, we didn't have security problems. Basically, if - the thing is in Iraq now, if you want to work normally, you have to be very quick and fast to meet the people and not staying at the same place for too much time, but Fallujah was impressing us. And (INAUDIBLE) especially in Fallujah, because people are stuck inside this city.

So they're pretty eager to speak to people. They want to explain what's going on in the city.

SWEENEY: A final question. As a journalist, having been in and out Iraq many times, what are your thoughts now about being able to work there?

MENGET: I think it's been a few months ago and a year ago. It was almost impossible to work in Iraq. The situation for journalists, Europeans or Americans any nationalities. It was very hard because it was too dangerous to go outside on the streets.

You were a target, easy target. But the sense that now, as long as you have security, I mean detail, which I won't go into that detail. But as long as you have your own security, and that you know the country, it's possible to work again.

But it's still very hard. There's some places inside Baghdad, inside the capital, where it's absolutely impossible to go. Otherwise, you're a target. I mean, you have - you've got your life expectancy of 10 or 15 minutes in some places of Baghdad, when you're on your own.


SWEENEY: Lucas Menget, of France 24, speaking to me there.

Well, there's a new edition to the news channel market. Up to the British Broadcasting Corporation launched its Arabic language service. Broadcasting initially for 12 hours a day, BBC Arabic will be available to viewers with a satellite or cable connection in North Africa, the Middle East, and Persian Gulf. It's being funded by Britain's foreign office and will compliment the BBC's radio and online Arabic operation.

Station bosses reject suggestions the television service will reflect the agenda of its financial backer.

HOSAM EL SOKKARI, HEAD OF BBC ARABIC: The Arab world has known the BBC for quite a long time. And we expect to be judged from what we do, rather than non perceptions.

SWEENEY: The BBC announced plans for the Arabic channel in 2005 as part of a $60 million restructuring of the world service. That resulted in the closure of many while (INAUDIBLE).

Now a reminder 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.