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Reporting on Zimbabwe's Elections; Reporting on American Elections; April Fool's Day Reporting

Aired April 4, 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, Zimbabwe votes. The reporting on the country's historic elections. Talking politics, CNN correspondents share their thoughts on the media's coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign. And pigs might not fly, but how about penguins? The one day when news outlets stretched the truth all in the name of tradition.

First, this week to Zimbabwe and coverage of the elections. Confusion reigned in the days after the ballot, with mixed reports emerging from the country where many international news outlets, including CNN, have been unable to report freely.

Well, let's get more on the media climate in Zimbabwe, past, present, and what the future might hold. For that, I'm joined from Johannesburg by CNN's Robyn Curnow. Also with us, Andrew Meldrum, a reporter who covered Zimbabwe for 23 years before the government expelled him in 2003. He's now a Neiman fellow at Harvard University and comes to us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. And here in the studio, Forward Maisokwadzo, a Zimbabwean reporter and coordinator of Exiled Journalist Network here in the U.K.

First of all, Robyn Curnow, you spent much of the week up at the border with Zimbabwe. You've been there before in 2000, covering the land invasion. How have your experiences been different?

ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the simple fact that this time, we weren't allowed in. CNN is banned from reporting in Zimbabwe. So it was rather frustrating. We had to stand, you know, outside the border post and have to rely on text messages and the word of ordinary Zimbabweans who are coming in and out of the border post.

But all in all, very frustrating compared to 2000, of course, when I was allowed in. I wasn't reporting to CNN then. I was working for the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

But in those days, there wasn't any legislation forcing journalists to be accredited, which is one of the reasons why we're not allowed in.

SWEENEY: Forward Maisokwadzo, in - Robyn mentions text messages there. I'm wondering how easy or difficult it is to get information from colleagues, your journalistic colleagues, in Zimbabwe at the moment?

FORWARD MAISOKWADZO, JOURNALIST: It's not very easy to get information, but you can only rely on mobile phones. That's the only, you know, option that you have. And those who could, you know, access, you know, (INAUDIBLE). And again, it's not easy to get through for - for mobile phone. And you can only manage to get those who are in the main, sort of, you know, city centers. But Zimbabwe's a big country. You also need, you know, stories from the rural areas, sort of the ordinary people. It's difficult to access those kind of, you know, people. But overall, you tend to rely on (INAUDIBLE) and phone.

SWEENEY: Andrew Meldrum, when you were in jail, you had - in Zimbabwe, you had been covering the story for some time. I'm wondering now, as you look at the situation from Harvard University, whether or not you think that the information we're getting with the lack of international journalists in there is true?

ANDREW MELDRUM, JOURNALIST/AUTHOR: I think that the journalists who are in Zimbabwe, and remember there's a very good corps of Zimbabwean journalists working in the country for the two independent weekly newspapers in the country. And then there's a really hardy band of Zimbabwean journalists who write for the foreign press. And actually, I think they're doing an extremely good job, particularly writing for the British press, telling us what is going on and what is the feeling in Zimbabwe at the moment. When really, we're witnessing a historic change in the making.

SWEENEY: But let me ask you, Forward Maisokwazdo, how easy or difficult is it for these journalists in Zimbabwe who write not only for the Zimbabweans press, but I'm thinking particularly of the international press about the situation in their country?

MAISOKWADZO: The difficulty, you know, comes in effect that, you know, the Internet is one - is so slow in Zimbabwe. Secondly, like I said, the telephone, you know, conversation is - nobody can rely on texting (INAUDIBLE) concerned about that bread and butter issues. They want - heaven to send a story. It takes a great deal of time.

But also, you have to look at yes, in the national (INAUDIBLE), is actually, you know, being fed with information from Zimbabweans and the locals. But it's actually the ordinary Zimbabweans there, who are not getting their story. We're reading the story in the international media. But there is no local news. People are not reading from what is - except for the, you know, Zimbabwe Independent, which comes out when - on Friday and they send it on. So they, sort of a very big vacuum in terms of the actual Zimbabweans getting the story.

SWEENEY: Robyn Curnow in Johannesburg, I mean, reading some of the reports that have been written in the international press about the days after the election, I mean, obviously, we're reading here that the managers of Zimbabwe and television clearly vexed as to what to do, given the results of the election that hadn't been announced showing Premier - English Premier Shaput (ph) matches before turning to old B movies. How can you get information about what's really going on there, when you have that kind of information on state television and presumably followed in state newspapers?

CURNOW: Just to add to that as well, after speaking to somebody just 20 minutes ago in Zimbabwe, who said that the state television continues even this week, to run old 1940s Disney cartoons. So there's quite a lot of denial that appears in terms of the state media. And I think the concern is that locals Zimbabweans are not getting the information.

We are the network. We have various NGOs. We have civil society. We have other journalists. You know, we're journalists. We're pretty good at finding ways to get information, I mean, in all different ways, whether it's, you know, by technology or just ordinary talking to people who are walking across borders.

But what I found when I was up at the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe is that Zimbabweans were crowding around me and us constantly asking me for information. And there was a real sense that I found that they were desperate for any sort of news. And they weren't getting it from the South African media as much as they were getting it from us, the international media. And the local Zimbabweans who were coming across the border, they often come to South Africa just to shop for day trips, and they were using as information and then relaying what they'd heard us saying back to people in Zimbabwe.

SWEENEY: Andrew Meldrum, what do you think is the nature of the role that the media plays in Zimbabwe? I'm talking here about the Zimbabwean press, who obviously can't seem - or either self censoring or being censored?

MELDRUM: I think, you know, Zimbabweans being starved of a free press, being fed a diet of propaganda from the state media, which controls all the daily newspapers, all the broadcast, radio and television, they are - they really value a free press. People bitterly remember when "The Daily News," the independent daily newspaper was closed. And so they really do value - they see that journalists have a role to play in holding governments accountable. And they eagerly await the day when they can have a restoration of the daily news and of a free press. And I think it's - it should be - make for a very positive climate in the near future.

SWEENEY: Andrew, again, do you think Robert Mugabe fears the international press?

MELDRUM: Yes, I do. In fact, I think he fears it because he cannot control it. And he was happy when the international press reported on the seizures of white farms, because that's why he - that's how he wanted the world to see him was getting rid of white colonial farmers.

But he did not want the international press to report on the fact that he was systematically torturing black members of the opposition party. He didn't want to be seen as a torturer of his own people. And so, when he could not control it, that's when he really cracked down on the foreign press.

SWEENEY: Forward, do you know exactly what kind of monitoring of the press goes on in Zimbabwean, be it obvious or perhaps more undercover? And I'm thinking particularly, given that there are many international journalists who are in Zimbabwe at this time, without obviously government press accreditation?

MAISOKWADZO: It's very difficult, because you know - you went there knowing that you're operating illegally. So you're not free (INAUDIBLE) so you are concerned about your welfare. At the same time, you are, you know, running to get a story. So you know, (INAUDIBLE) they took, it's very difficult. But you know, people are soldiering on.

I think what I wanted to say is I think let's also not forget the exiled media. For example, SW Radio Africa and the Voice of America. Those kind of, you know, media houses have held quite a lot in terms of telling the story. Even Beckvolm (ph) in Zimbabwe, although they, you know, people might find it very hard to access it, but at least the exiled media also contributed a lot in terms of highlighting the crisis of government.

SWEENEY: Well, that raises the question I was going to ask Robyn that, you know, in terms of radio, I mean, how easy or difficult is it to get access to radio news in Zimbabwe?

CURNOW: Well, I think Forward mentioned SW Radio. And I think they've done a sterling job, because they actually broadcast from outside of Zimbabwe. And I know from reporting on their work for a number of years now, they've had real problems with jamming. They say that their frequencies are constantly jammed and they're constantly having to stay ahead of what they say is the Zimbabwean security forces trying to block their signals.

So that's another example of how starved ordinary Zimbabweans are for an independent media for discussion. But Zimbabweans by their nature are amazingly resilient. And I think many people find ways of tuning into SW Radio and the Voice of America. And there's also a newspaper called "The Zimbabwean," that is also published outside of Zimbabwe, printed outside of Zimbabwe. And those newspaper copies are shipped into Zimbabwe. They're also sold here in South Africa and in London. So there is a constant movement by the Zimbabwean journalists themselves, people who care, exiled journalists, exiled editors, publishers, constantly trying to push the edges of a very bureaucratic regime, who is stopping journalists from reporting by a lot of legislation and bureaucracy. That is also a way that the Zimbabweans will be very good, the Zimbabwean government is being very good at, you know, controlling the media.

SWEENEY: Forward Maisokwadzo, do you envisage in the near future that some of the exiled journalists that you work to help, who are exiled from Zimbabwe, may be able to return soon?

MAISOKWADZO: Definitely. They are all eager to, you know, go back to Zimbabwe and exercise their craft in Zimbabwe, you know, in Zimbabwe. And, you know, in exile, quite a number of people that I'm in touch with every day, they just - you can see actually the anger that they are missing their newsroom. You know, you talk of this journalists were excited and (INAUDIBLE) of the daily news. People are very angry. You can see the drama that you are not doing a (INAUDIBLE). So they will be actually flocking back home. And you know, hopefully, their environment will be, you know, conducive for them to continue, you know, practicing their profession.

SWEENEY: There we must leave it. I want to thank Robyn Curnow in Johannesburg in South Africa, Andrew Meldrum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also Forward Maisokwadzo here in London.

Now to the United States. Is it the characters or the campaign? What makes this year's presidential race one of the most exciting yet? Reporters give us their insight when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. There is still seven months before voters in the United States decide who will become their next president. With a change of administration guaranteed, there's a huge appetite for developments in the race, not only just in the U.S., but also around the world.

On the Republican side of the spectrum, there's the comeback kid, John McCain, emerging as the presumptive nominee. Well, for the Democrats, it's still a two horse race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Well, with so much at stake, the media is there to report on every twist and turn of the campaign. Recently, I caught up with two U.S. based CNN correspondents, Richard Roth and Jill Dougherty for their take on the presidential race.

I first put it to Jill that as far as campaigns go, they don't get more exciting than this.


JILL DOUGHERTY, U.S. AFFAIRS EDITOR: It's unbelievable. I can't think of anything that is more humanly dramatic and where it's going. We don't know even know. I mean, it's not even over yet, and look what's happened already.

SWEENEY: Richard Roth, there is a school of thought that says when a correspondent is attached to a particular campaign, that they then become attached to the candidate and that somehow is reflected in their reporting. You know, for example, being in New Hampshire, what was your sense of that?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I covered one of Obama's rallies there. And I didn't call it a love fest for the reporters, but you - people were - looked like they were hypnotized. And you felt something was happening. I was sure that Obama would win that primary, even though I had only seen a few of the rallies. And he's still lost. So you can get caught up in this.

There was one reporter in the United States who even admitted on a blog that he was - it was like a fantasy that - how Obama was winning and got criticized.

SWEENEY: Well, this is - brings up the question of the role in the media, because I remember watching British television news the day of the New Hampshire primary. And really, it was all the pictures, all the scripts were written very much against Hillary Clinton. And she was tripping in the snow. She was tripping in her campaign. And yet, the media got it wrong. How big a disconnect or is there a disconnect, do you believe, between what's actually happening on the streets, on the ground, and how the media are reporting it in this sense?

ROTH: I think it's a whole new era now. There's so many different media forums. And the media is just catching up each day, it seems, racing yesterday's story while something happens. I don't think now you can rely on the same templates for judging how candidates are really doing. And we tend to bring up and bring down. We've all talked about it. Hillary is a great target. We're used to her. I mean, if Obama became president, and in his first week had a huge gaffe, believe me, it would suddenly be slumping Obama. He's going to have to really dig his way out of this. And people are going to wonder what happened to the love fest.

SWEENEY: Do you think that Hillary Clinton's claim that the media are treating her unfairly is accurate? Do you think she comes in for more criticism than she should?

DOUGHERTY: Well, she certainly thinks so. But I think when the media begins to look at these candidates, there is, I think, that Stockholm Syndrome, where when you are traveling with someone, 24 hours a day, you're seeing them under all sorts of different circumstances. And the humanity of the candidate comes out. And you're exhausted. And they are, too. And it's a big trudge, etcetera, that there may be a tendency for people to want to understand the candidate more, which puts you emotionally closer to their side. And then there's that other journalistic side, which says don't you dare do that, because you have to be objective.

So there's a push and a pull. And sometimes I think the push away from the candidate makes you want to be tougher or more negative about them.

So how the - I think the media are dealing with this, obviously, would be trying to find that balance. And also, what Richard's talking about is there are little, tiny things or maybe not so little, tiny things that can come up and explode, such as her comment on Bosnia.

SWEENEY: Well, let me ask you, though, about that, because you were with her on that trip.

DOUGHERTY: Yes, correct.

SWEENEY: And is - and from what we see from the TV footage, there was no sniper fire, and they walked quite calmly and moderately towards their destination once they.

DOUGHERTY: They did. But I think it is more complex in that was - that had been a war zone. It was - let's call post-conflict zone. There may have been some warning about snipers. There had been snipers in that area.

But - which is not to say that when you look at the video, there was no sniper fire when she was getting off the plane. And there was little reception. There was a little girl, etcetera. So to repeat that is - which I believe she did, is a problem.

SWEENEY: Richard, I mean, you know, it's often asked whether the public are voting for the personality or the policies. Is that reflected in the reporters' coverage or the media's coverage? Do you think that people are looking - reporters are looking at the personality as much as the policies?

ROTH: I think reporters would like to look at policies more, but their editors or producers want more of the personality. What the candidate wears, says, perhaps about a sexy issue of the day, that's what they're going to be told. And reporters are producing now on so many "platforms," whether through the computer or television or radio, they've got to -- they can't even cover the campaign sometime. I've seen reporters in the U.S. quoted, saying they wonder how they're able to handle this because they are supposed to be on the air so much.

I mean, John McCain, his straight talk express was - drew in a lot of reporters because they had good access on a bus, traveling around. And it helped revive McCain a little bit this time. Some say he hasn't gotten the tough going over that Hillary Clinton has received because there have been access and he has a sense of irony that the reporters do.

SWEENEY: On the subject of John McCain, I mean, he's quietly beginning his presidential campaign now, as the presumptive Republican nominee. And people aren't or the media aren't looking at him at very close quarters. Is it because there might be a perception that the real colorful soap opera is happening on the Democrat side?

ROTH: The Democrats have definitely stolen the show. And it may come back to backfire against them. But I mean, John McCain, there are articles written. It's just in this mass pea soup of coverage, you can't always find them. And you need a real sexy incident or a Jeremiah Wright video, Obama problem to focus on it.

But McCain has had lobbyists. He's talked against lobbyists and other stories. I think it's still going to come down to personality, though. I hate to say it about who do you want to have a beer with, how President Bush won. People are going to go by how they feel about Obama, Hillary, and John McCain. Maybe all three will still be running by the time we get there.

SWEENEY: A lot of very tired journalists, I think, as well as candidates. Final question to you, Jill. In terms of campaigns, it's obviously the campaign managers who tries to set the agenda. How much do the media go along with that? And how much do they want to reflect that? Or do they want to set their own agenda?

DOUGHERTY: I don't think there's any way they can set the agenda right now. They can.

SWEENEY: The campaign managers or?

DOUGHERTY: Campaign managers. You know, that - years ago, maybe. But the - what people are interested in, the issues that happen, the fact that a reporter can be standing there, ready to ask a question, looking at a Blackberry and getting the very latest news of what just broke, it's a very fast tennis match. And you cannot control that.


SWEENEY: CNN's Richard Roth and Jill Dougherty speaking to me there.

Now stretching the truth, the story and the president. The British media makes the most of a longstanding tradition. We'll have that when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Flying penguins, skating dogs, a president undergo pioneering surgery to make him taller. They're certainly eye grabbing headlines, but don't believe everything you see or read, especially on one day in particular. Phil Black explains.


PHIL BLACK. CNN, CORRESPONDENT: High quality major documentaries are something of a British tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This recently discovered colony of penguins is unlike any other.

BLACK: So a practical joke on the first day of April.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because these little fellows do something no other penguins can.

BLACK: This production was made by the BBC, which was also responsible for one of the greatest April Fool's gags of all time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not of course carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry.

BLACK: Back in 1957, the broadcast that aired this story on the challenges faced by Switzerland's spaghetti farmers. Some viewers were outraged, proving not everyone in Britain has a sense of humor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm outlying sun.

BLACK: Looking through some British papers on April the 1st, it can't be hard to tell the junk stories from the serious ones. The smoking tortoise has people divided. But this dodgy picture have dogs racing on ice is classic April Fool's. So is this solution to Heathrow Airport's congestion. And "The Sun" report the French president is seeking a medical solution to one of his biggest challenges, his wife's superior height. The tabloid says Nicolas Sarkozy will undergo pioneering treatment to be stretched around five inches or 12.5 centimeters, making him just taller than ex-model Mrs. Sarkozy, Carla Bruny.

(on camera): I can't reveal which CNN staff member fell for the Sarkozy gag, but he is the latest in a long line of fools, stretching back to the late 1800s. That was when the calendar changed, moving New Year's Day from April to January. Those who didn't accept it were branded fools.

(voice-over): More than 200 years later, the tradition continues. But the jokes are more sophisticated, designed for a bigger, though no less gullible audience of fools.

Phil Black, CNN, London.


SWEENEY: Now if you want to see that story or any of those covered in this week's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, you can do so online. Log on to to watch all or part of the show again, view our archives, take part in the quick vote, and read the blog. That address again,

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.