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Unrest in Tibet; French President Visits Britain; Filmmaking in Lebanon

Aired March 29, 2008 - 09:30:00   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, touring Tibet. China's controlled visit by foreign reporters to Lhasa is disrupted by Buddhist monks. A fictional story set in reality. The challenges of making a feature film during the 2006 war in Lebanon. And the French president on a diplomatic trip to Britain, but how the First Lady stole the media spotlight.

But first, it was meant to show journalists that calm had been restored to Tibet after days of violent protests. Instead, China's perfectly choreographed tour by foreign reporters was disrupted by Buddhist monks. Shouting and weeping, they told the journalists there is no religious freedom in Tibet. China's Foreign Ministry organized the Lhassa tour two weeks after riots ruined the country's plan for a peaceful lead up to the summer Olympics.

Ahead of the Beijing Games, the major media freedom group took direct action against China's Human Rights policies. Reporters Without Borders says three of its members were arrested at the official Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Greece. They evaded security and ran onto the field as the head of the Beijing organizing committee spoke.

Well, for more on this story, I'm joined from Paris by Vincent Brossel, who took part in the protests in Greece. Also with us in the studio is CNN's Beijing based correspondent John Vause and CNN's Dan Rivers.

First of all, Vincent Brossel, what do you think your protests achieved?

VINCENT BROSSEL, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: I mean, first of all, we achieved to disturb not the Olympic ceremony, but the speech of Mr. Luchi (ph), who is the president of the organizing committee and also a leading member of the Committee (ph) part in China. So it was the main objective of our protests.

We are not against the torch really. And we did not attend to disturb the torch really. We just try to get the Human Rights situation during the ceremony. And that's why we targeted the speech of Mr. Luchi (ph).

SWEENEY: You and your two colleagues got into the torch lighting ceremony with your press cards, is that correct?

BROSSEL: That's correct.

SWEENEY: Do you think then that that might have implications for other journalists trying to cover other Olympic events in the run-up and indeed during the Olympics?

BROSSEL: I don't think so, because first of all, we did it on the name of an organization that exists. So it mean that every journalist who has the back-up of a major organization can do so.

Of course, it's - it can have - create suspicion, but I mean, so far, we didn't use any sort of violence wave. It was very peaceful. And even Mr. Rug (ph) said that he was happy that just a peaceful demonstration happened during the ceremony. So I think that the main importance is to get the debate of this human rights situation before the Olympic Game in the international media, and to get - I mean, position a statement from government about what is going on and how it will affect the Olympic Games as a sport event.

SWEENEY: John Vause, you're based in Beijing. And you've been following this story in Tibet very closely. You're unable to get into Tibet, but journalists were allowed this week by the Chinese into Tibet. And of course, that in itself was also disrupted. What kind of impact do you think these destructions have on encouraging the debate about Tibet?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in China, absolutely nothing, because you know, the Chinese government does not want to talk about Tibet regardless of the protests that they had at the lighting of the Olympic flame, regardless of the monks who scream at their very tightly controlled and scripted tour of Lhasa by a very small group of journalists.

So these protests, while they bring international attention to issues like Tibet and other issues along the way like Darfur, that kind of thing, internally and for the Chinese government, it's just a non starter.

SWEENEY: But President Bush this week, as a result of what has taken place in Tibet, actually picked up the phone and called Beijing. That in itself have any impact, do you think?

VAUSE: Well, that's what these guys are hoping to do is define, you know, use their protests to put a spotlight on issues like Tibet, to get world leaders like the U.S. president to call Hujin Tao (ph), to express his concern.

That does have some impact when enough world leaders, be it Condoleezza Rice, George Bush, or Gordon Brown actually get on the phone and say, hey, what's going on there? What are you people doing? That's when they do take a little bit of notice.

But actually internally, as far as that debate goes, it just doesn't happen inside China.

SWEENEY: Dan Rivers, you're based in Bangkok, but you've got covered, what to place in Myanmar, Burma recently. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between Tibet and Myanmar. Where has that story gone in recent months?

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Myanmar government is totally closed down journalist operations there in effect since the crackdown in September. We've applied just recently to go into cover the Army data, which is a big set piece event where the Army come out and parade. And normally, journalists are allowed in most years. This year, no one, to my knowledge, has been allowed in at all.

So I think the government there are very mindful of what's going on in Tibet. They're very mindful of the people that slipped under the radar last time in September into Myanmar. And they simply don't want to let anyone in at all.

SWEENEY: And in terms of it falling off the international news agenda, why is that? Is it because journalists can't get in? And is it because information is difficult to extract from the country?

RIVERS: I think that's something to do with it. I mean, it's one of these stories that, you know, is difficult to get networks interested in some of the time. There was a big peaking interest in September, when the monks came onto the street. And everyone suddenly thought this is the moment the regime is going to collapse.

Now I think there's a kind of feeling that the momentum has been lost a little bit. And I, you know, certainly speaking to kind of Western diplomats, they're also very frustrated by the fact that there seems to be a lack of focus on Myanmar now that that kind of momentum has (INAUDIBLE) to see conditions improve for the people there.

But at the moment, the Myanmar government has played a very cunning game. They cut out the Internet. They block CNN. They kicked out all the journalists. And they're still in power.

SWEENEY: I mean, isn't that quite depressing for people like you, Vincent Brossel, when it comes to countries like Burma, Myanmar, and also the Tibet issue, that it really is, as Dan says, about keeping the momentum going?

BROSSEL: Yes, of course. I mean, which is true that when you are faced with government that have totally no respect for press freedom, and that is trying to deal with the news on the (INAUDIBLE) way, I think that it's legitimate to use all sort of peaceful means and demonstrations.

I mean, if I have the chance to demonstrate in Burma or in China, I will prepare to do it there. But I mean, we cannot go to China. We cannot go to Burma. We had to do it in Greece.

And of course, I think that the fact that the Tibet was sealed off and Burma is very hard to get access is one of the reasons why the news media like CNN are putting a lot of focus on trying to investigate the human rights issues, because I mean, when you close down a country, it mean that you have something to hide.

SWEENEY: But realistically, what do you expect to achieve in the run up to the Olympic Games? And once the games are over, then presumably one might expect that Tibet falls off the international agenda?

BROSSEL: I mean, first of all, we want the release of political prisoners, including journalists, cyber dissidents, and freedom of expression activities like Hoagia (ph).

I think that it's not acceptable that the Game starts in Beijing with all these people in jail, sentenced about just putting thing online and things like that. I mean, and the second thing is to get a - the handle at least a limit in the censorship of the media, of the Chinese media and the Internet. And so, it would be get a regulation for foreign journalists that give them (INAUDIBLE) at least to work under normal conditions in China.

SWEENEY: John Vause, being based in Beijing and hearing Vincent there mention censorship of the media, what's your experience of the Chinese media in terms of censorship?

VAUSE: Well, the local media, the state run media, just simply toes the party line. Every morning, when newspaper journalists or television reporters or radio reporters turn up for work, there is a list of topics which are not to be touched upon. And all and for other contentious areas, there is the government line, which is repeated across the country in hundreds of newspapers and on dozens of television broadcasts.

For international broadcasters or journalists who are based in Beijing, the censorship issue is difficult on a big story like Tibet, when you simply can't get to it. I mean, that's a very blatant form of censorship.

But on a day to day basis, we are given a lot of latitude to go out and cover the stories that we want to cover. But there is a great deal of suspicion, especially now amongst the average Chinese people when it comes to trying - when it comes to speaking, not just to foreigners, but foreign media in particular. They're scared.

SWEENEY: Finally to you, Dan Rivers. I mean, in terms of the Burma story, which dominated the headlines towards the end of last year, what are your thoughts about where that story's going to go? And if it is an authoritarian regime that will withstand all kind of pressure that survived that?

RIVERS: I mean, I think everyone accepts at some point that this regime will fall. It seems inevitable when the economy is in meltdown, when people are earning less than $20 a month that at some point, people will be pushed to a point where they say enough is enough, and will come back out in the streets again.

A lot of people are talking about the beginning of the Beijing Olympics is on the eighth of August, 2008. Now that's 20 years to the day since the last big uprising in 1988 in Burma. And all of the people are saying is this going to be the opportunity again where people come back onto the streets of Burma to mark that anniversary and to use the international spotlight that's going to be on the Olympics to try and cash in on that, and stage their own protests.

SWEENEY: I suppose it means to the Chinese authorities and Burmese authorities and also Reporters Without Borders a very busy couple of months ahead. Vincent Brossel in Paris, Dan Rivers and John Vause here in London, thank you very much.

Now a fictional film meets reality. We speak to the director Philippe Aractingi about his feature about the 2006 war in Lebanon.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Filming in a war zone, it's something more suited to news crews instead of those behind a movie. "Under the Bombs" is set during the 2006 summer war in Lebanon. Filming for the production began in the final days of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. It tells the story of a Lebanese woman living in Dubai, who with the help of a taxi driver, travels to the site of Lebanon in an attempt to find her missing son and her sister.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can anyone help me?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can even forget your own children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I left mine behind to get into a van. We were 15.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I took two kids and left the others in a garage.


SWEENEY: Well, the director only hired two actors for the film. The remaining characters made up of refugees, journalists, and soldiers playing their own roles. To discuss the challenges in making "Under the Bombs," let's bring in director Philippe Aractingi. He is in Paris.

Thank you very much for joining us. Where did you get the idea for the movie?

PHILIPPE ARACTINGI, DIRECTOR: I had an idea of putting two actors in the middle of the chaos in my previous war role, because since I'm Lebanese, I've lived through many wars. And my previous was in '89. But at that time, I was too young. I didn't - I wasn't experienced enough.

And then in 2006, the war starts again. And I feel like I have to say something. Either I do a film, or I take my camera, or I start crying. I have to react. I have to do something.

And I knew that the documentary would talk to people, but it talks to the mind. I needed to talk to the emotions. And I think if you put actors and you let them - you let your viewers feel with them, and have - identify with them, you get to the emotions much - in a much stronger way, in a much more impactful way.

So this is why I decided in 2007 - in 2006, sorry - to go on and put my actors and start shooting straight forward.

SWEENEY: You hired only two actors to the role, as we said in the introduction. But you were shooting against the backdrop, first of all, of a ceasefire that people weren't sure would actually hold at that time. How much was improvisation along the way? And how much were you able to actually script this movie?

ARACTINGI: Both of them. I knew that we needed a script film. So I knew also that we couldn't have all this set, which is truthful to what war is, which is the bridge destroyed, the helicopters, the refugees. All this spontaneous things that you see when the war is on or just finished.

I knew that we had to film that right away. So we shot three days after the end of the war for ten days. We did a lot of improvisation. Improvisation meaning writing on the spot, working with the actors. The actors didn't have to, you know, work a lot, because we were living this film. We were actually on bridges which were destroyed. We were actually among journalists and among all this mess and chaotic situations.

So we would write and shoot directly. And then we took all these elements that were done spontaneously, brought them back, and started writing a script that would fit all these elements as a puzzle that you fit inside a script. And we went back in December and shot again the rest of the film.

SWEENEY: How easy or difficult was it for you to put an actress in a situation where people were clearly feeling very raw pain themselves displaced, looking for loved ones and have an actress? I ask this, because sometimes as a journalist, it's difficult enough to ask refugees about their problems or indeed for information about a story one might be trying to follow up. So I'm wondering how easy or difficult was it using an actress in this scenario?

ARACTINGI: I mean, she wasn't really acting. She was being. You know, when this - these women or these refugees would start speaking, and would tell them of their own stories, we would feel bad because we were Lebanese as they were. And we were listening to stories that concerns us.

So we were all shaken by these so-called interview, which were not interview, which was part of the film because I've integrated these interviews in a way that it's part of the - of her looking for her own time inside these refugee schools.

And it wasn't very difficult for her, because she - as I said, she wasn't an actress. She was partly, she was partly being - living this thing. And the thing is, I, because I have a lot of experience in documentary, I did somehow the interviews. And she was staying in her role as a mother, looking for her child.

So it was the refugee talking to me, but looking at her. And her staying in her role as a woman looking for her child. It was different piece. I've used a lot of techniques to make this film, you know, truthful to what we were really living...


ARACTINGI: ...which is war.

SWEENEY: Well, I'm afraid we'll have to leave it there on that note. But thank you very much indeed for joining us.

ARACTINGI: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Philippe Aractingi in Paris.

Now French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to Britain looking to polish his image a little bit back home. But it was a racy image of a new wife that has people talking. How super model turned singer Carla Bruni Sarkozy inadvertently stole the limelight during the couple's visit to Britain.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It was billed as a tour to herald the new era of Anglo French relations. This week's trip to Britain by Nicolas Sarkozy was the first state visit to the U.K. by a French president in 12 years.

Mr. Sarkozy met the Queen and held talks with the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on issues ranging from nuclear energy, defense, immigration, and the economy.

Well, despite the diplomatic agenda, much of the focus was on the new French First Lady, former model turned singer Carla Bruni Sarkozy.

Well, for more on the media's coverage of the visit, I'm joined in the studio by senior international correspondent Jim Bitterman, usually based in Paris. Also with us, James Blitz, the diplomatic editor with "The Financial Times."

First of all, James Blitz, how would you describe overall the reception in the British media to the Sarkozys?

JAMES BLITZ, DIPLOMATIC EDITOR, FINANCIAL TIMES: I think it's been very respectful. There's no question that when it comes to Anglo French relations, the British media can often tend to be very vitriolic, very visceral in the way it treats the French and talks about French leaders.

But it's been a highly respectful approach. It's obviously been very focused on Carla Bruni because she is obviously a figure like that. And in many ways, when you've got something like a colorful state visit, then in many ways, the focus is on the color rather than the substance.

But I think this has been respectful, an enormous contrast with the way in which the British press dealt with President Jacques Chirac, against whom it had an absolutely vitriolic campaign in the period around the Iraq War.

SWEENEY: Jim Bitterman, the Elysees power should be very happy with the coverage?

JIM BITTERMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think they must be in the main, I think. I'm not so sure they're happy about that nude photograph that appeared on page - a couple of the pages of the British tabloid papers.

But I think overall, the fact that it concentrated on her maybe is not such a bad thing, because it does help him get his message across in this particular instance.

SWEENEY: But I was going to say, it's actually the opinion polls in France against or quite against him because of his recent turbulent love life?

BITTERMAN: It has - I mean, his private life has been something that the French have dwelled upon. And in fact, there's an opinion poll that was done by some Canadians that indicates that something like - that Sarkozy has one of the most prominent reputations in the world. He's been covered by the media moreso in the first three months of 2008 than any other world leader.

However, 80 percent of the coverage has been about his private life. So they're not very happy about the fact that nobody's concentrating on the message, that they're all concentrating on the stuff around the message.

SWEENEY: So what you're saying is in France, they've more or less gotten over their whole relationship marriage. And here they come to Britain...

BITTERMAN: Exactly. And then suddenly, it explodes again with Carla Bruni. But I think this has been very positive, the coverage of her here has been very positive.

SWEENEY: James Blitz, what do you - why do you think the focus has been on her, apart from the fact that she's very attractive and sophisticated? How much do you think she's actually helped him get his message across here in Britain, if not in France?

BLITZ: Well, I think she's helped to a certain extent. I mean, one of the reasons why I think there's quite a focus is that it's quite a big contrast with what you see with Gordon Brown in Britain. I mean, Gordon Brown is a much more somber and somewhat greyer figure in many ways than Sarkozy. And so, I think it's almost refreshing for the British press to sort of have a chance to focus on a European leader who really does have a colorful past, sorry a colorful present.

Has it in any way helped him to get the message across? Well, I don't' think that's - I think the message is a substantial messages. I think there are very substantial issues about the Anglo French relationship that are going to come up over the next 12 months. I don't think she contributes to that.

I think in general, she's just given the whole of the state visit a kind of left, a kind of likeness, which I think is probably helped. And once again, the contrast with Chirac, enormous.

BITTERMAN: I mean, some of these state visits are pretty boring affairs. And it is pretty amazing how this has taken on a life of its own, I think, in the coverage.

SWEENEY: And in terms of how it's being covered in France in the media, how has it gone...

BITTERMAN: Well, this is a similar story. In fact, the French started off - and I've only seen a little bit of the coverage because I wasn't here - I was back over here in London while most of it was going on. But they started off with some very state coverage. It was very British coverage, you know, looking at the royal family, looking at the carriages, looking at Windsor Castle, that sort of thing.

But then they started looking at the way the British press had been covering the whole story. And at first, it looked a little bit like it might turn into a controversy because of the nude photograph and all that sort of thing.

But then I think it changed slightly in tone, because all of a sudden, the British press seemed to be admiring. So then the French press kind of liked that.

SWEENEY: And Jim Bitterman, whether or not you believe that this (INAUDIBLE) cordiale is now an ensemble amicable?

BITTERMAN: Well, it's interesting to see what Sarkozy had to say to the parliament. I mean, it was a similar message that he - made in the United States when he talked to the Congress. And it's had the similar effect. That is to say, it seems to have a very positive reaction among British public and among British legislators.

So I think that, you know, it hasn't been just all about Carla Bruni. As James indicated, some very serious issues here. And Sarkozy's done very well with them, I think.

SWEENEY: Just a quick final question, Jim. How is Carla Bruni viewed in France? I mean, she's had a hugely favorable reaction here.

BITTERMAN: I think the French are getting used to her. I mean, there was a moment, I think, when people were dealing with the tawdry sign. One of the signs of it to me is what the media has been doing. And that is the Elysees Palace put out the word. They wanted no longer to hear Carla Bruni mentioned, but rather Carla Bruni Sarkozy. And it seems like the French press is adhering to that.

SWEENEY: All right, we'll have to see what happens. James Blitz from "The Financial Times," thank you very much indeed.

BLITZ: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Jim Bitterman also, thanks to you.

And 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

Well, 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.