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China and the Media; Photographs of War; Reporting More with Less

Aired April 11, 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, as protests greet the Olympic torch relay, we assess China's handling of the media. Bearing witness to war, the photographic exhibition marking five years of the Iraq conflict. And reading between the lines. Can we trust today's media as the industry tries to do more and more with less and less?

First this week, reporting the protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay. It's been shrouded in controversy, as demonstrators take aim at Beijing and its human rights policies. In a moment, we look at the Western media's relationship with China in the lead up to the summer games. But first, Eunice Yoon on how the message is managed at home.


EUNICE YOON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Thousands of people waved Tibetan flags and shout anti-China slogans, protests during the Olympic torch relay in London, as the flame makes its way around the world for the summer games in Beijing. One man tried to snuff out the torch. Another nearly snatched it out a runner's hands.

Yet this is what the main broadcasts on China's state run CCTV showed of the relay. Tourists at London's famous landmarks, no sign of the protests.

The Chinese newspapers also played down the demonstrations. This headline declared the Olympic torch arrived to a warm reception.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: James Monroe reports.

YOON: The Chinese government is carefully managing the media coverage here, blocking out broadcasts on Western channels like the BBC and CNN, calling demonstrations over China's human rights record and its crackdown on protests in Tibet vile misdeeds.

In the past, the authorities have said the games are about sports, not politics.

UNIDENTIFED MALE (through translator): Not to politicize the Olympic Games is required by the Olympic charter. For those people who attack China, they often talk about the importance of laws and regulations. Then why are they violating the Olympic charter?

YOON (on camera): The government considers the Olympics China's coming of age party. After centuries in the shadow of other nations, Beijing wants people to view China as a country on the march towards economic greatness with little or no internal dissent to its plans.

(voice-over): Eunice Yoon, CNN, Beijing.


SWEENEY: The president of the international Olympic Committee Jacques Rogue says the turmoil surrounding the torch relay posed a crisis. He's also urging China to respect what he calls its moral engagement to improve human rights and to fulfill promises of greater media freedom.

Well, let's get more on this now. And for that, we turn to Bob Dietz, theater program coordinator with the Committee to Protect Journalists. He's in New York. And here in the studio, Rob Gifford, London bureau chief with NPR and author of "China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power."

Bob Dietz, this relay protests, I mean, what's your take on it now in terms of the impact it's having on the Chinese authorities?

BOB DIETZ: I think they're shaken. I think they're quite angry, obviously. I think they're relieved that they're able to still carry this off. And they still seem determined to go ahead with this and not alter it in any significant way. I think the more shaken partner in this situation is the IOC. And clearly, they're very concerned about what's going on.

SWEENEY: Bob, in terms of media freedoms, I mean, what do you understand that the Chinese are learning about this?

DIETZ: I think that they made a whole series of promises in 2001 when they were given the Games. And one of the specific promises they made, almost word for word if I can reconstruct it, is that there will be media freedom in China for the Olympic Games.

That's just not the case. You can ask the foreign journalists there. And you can also ask the Chinese journalists. Things have not changed significantly in terms of how the media can operate in China at this point.

And with this - with a few months to go and 120 days to go before these games start, it's hard to believe that anything will - those promises will be met.

SWEENEY: Rob Gifford, do you concur?

ROB GIFFORD: I think China's in a difficult position, because it's trying desperately show that it's open. And now these things have happened that it knows that it has to suppress. You've got these contradictory currents going in China. They tried to show they were open. They've loosened all sorts of regulations for foreign journalists, but not for the local press. I think Bob is probably right that they're not going to allow any loosening certainly. I think there's some question now as to whether they're actually going to tighten up for foreign journalists. They were so trying to allow more freedom because they wanted to show this openness.

But are they going to allow foreign journalists to be running around Tibet or the Tibetan areas of Citron (ph) and Ganzu (ph) Province? I think probably not over the next few months.

SWEENEY: It must be a huge challenge to the psyche of the Chinese authorities?

GIFFORD: I think it is. I think as has been said a lot in the press, you know, this was the great coming of age party for China. They wanted to show they've become a great power. They wanted to show that they were a new and open power. And if you like to get rid of that sort of human rights - bad human rights image, and then all of this has blown up with the things going on in Tibet and the attacks on the torch.

And I think, actually, there is some - in something of a dilemma, because they can't let the protests go on in Tibet. And yet, they're desperately trying to continue to say no, we're open, no we are the modern and much freer country that we say we are.

SWEENEY: Bob Dietz, as you survey the international press in terms of covering these protests, what is your take? Do you think that they've been covered, these protests have been covered fairly and accurately in the international media?

DIETZ: It's a bit amazing to me that China's complaining about the press coverage and some of the errors that were made in the press coverage, having closed this entire area off to foreign media. And frankly, to Chinese media as well.

That - they then proceeded to complain that oh, some of the facts were gotten wrong. I think there was a miscaptioning on AFP picture in which it showed police in Nepal or India. And they were identified as Chinese police. I think CNN came under some criticism for the way it cropped a photo on its website.

China took this very offended attitude. It was irate. It was astonished that these things would be said and China be denounced in this way. This - a bit disingenuous in that they allowed no one into that region to cover it in any sensible or meaningful way.

The facilities trips that the tacked on at the end when they thought they had a calmed down situation were fairly laughable, and I think even more discrediting to China than to just completely keep the place sealed off.

Fionnuala, I think our greatest concern now is that when this torch passes through Tibet, what will the media coverage be like for that? Are they going - are there going to be foreign journalists allowed to cover that? I don't think so. Frankly, I'm not aware of the plans. And I'm not sure that China has completed its plans yet.

But I think you can be assured that it's going to try and keep this under as tight a lock and key as possible.

SWEENEY: Rob Gifford, who is - who are the Chinese authorities afraid of more, the international press or media coverage at home in terms of its own population?

GIFFORD: I think definitely media coverage at home. Of course, they do want to project a good image. They've been trying to court the international press, try to present this new shinier, friendlier image to the world. But in the end, the foreign press can, to some extent, say what it likes, as long as the domestic press, which is much more important, which is read by almost every single literate Chinese person, does not get hold of anything, does not start reporting anything that it shouldn't.

And there's a very important point to make about this. And that is that within China itself, I've just spent six years living in China. And within China itself, where you think that the new urban middle class might be pushing for more freedoms, might be a little bit more anti-government, might be a little bit more willing to challenge the government on some of these issues, amazingly, they have actually been to a very large extent co- opted by a very clever Chinese government campaign, pressing all the right nationalistic buttons, spinning the media reports of all these kind of things, to make it seem as though it's an attack on China. But these are people in the West who are trying to contain China, and to try and stop China's rise and make China look bad.

So quite to the contrary of what we might have thought of the new middle classes in urban areas in China, those urban middle classes are actually coming out remarkably pro-government, especially in Tibet , which they've been told has always been a part of China. So the government is the chieftain of keeping China together.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there, but Bob Dietz in New York and Rob Gifford here in London, thank you both very much indeed.

Images etched in history five years since the fall of Baghdad. We visit an exhibition showcasing iconic photographs taken during the Iraq War.



SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's the most dangerous assignment you can get in this business. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, working in Iraq has cost the lives of 177 media personnel since the invasion.

Well, to mark the fifth anniversary of the war, a new exhibition has opened at London's Idea Generation Gallery, showcasing iconic images taken by Reuters photographers. I caught up with Sonny Nahule (ph) in April Caributa-Escher (ph), who showed me around.


SWEENEY: Describe this photograph for us, just before the war and the invasion.

APRIL CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Well, this is the last - the plane with U.N. weapon inspectors leaving Baghdad. So it's the last moment of calm before the war. And you can just see, I think this picture shows that this woman's looking into, you know, an unknown future. She doesn't know what it is. It's a lot of question marks. And it's for us - it's the beginning of something.

SWEENEY: Five years ago, just over five years ago.

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Five years ago, absolutely. And then you know, it takes these images that now we know very well, but when they were taken, were moments that we didn't, for example, this very iconic image.

SWEENEY: And this was reprinted in practically every newspaper around the world?

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Hundreds of front pages around the world moments after it was shot.

SWEENEY: I mean, of all the images that were taken that day of that statue falling, and we all remember it very well, those of us who were witnessing it and watching it, why do you think this is the photo that every newspaper editor wants to put on their camera?

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): It's just got everything right. You know, the soldier, the way it was framed, the action. It's just the perfect moment. And from that on, you know, you have a series of violence of things unfolding, getting more complex.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm.

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): And the only thing that is really, you know, constant is people suffering basically. I mean, that's what you see all through the imagery.

SWEENEY: I would like to ask you what you think makes a good photograph. For example here, one looks at this photograph initially, there isn't anything particularly stirring or striking about it until one looks at it closer. And then you see all the emotion conveyed between the husband and the wife. I mean, there's a lot going on in that photo.

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Well, I think you can relate to it, because it's a family situation. And you know, it's very hard not to think about your - I mean, there's always a child, a woman, a man in your life. And you know, you certainly when you look at it, you relate to it. And it's a very calm picture. Many conflict images can be very calm, but still very, very powerful.

SWEENEY: And as this timeline continues here, and we continue to look at what is taking place. So I mean, here is an image of a young man in the street clearly just after a car explosion.

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Yes, I think that is a really - it's an important picture because this is the repetition of what's actually happening practically every day, you know. And some of these images become symbols for other events. This is one of event. But you know, it's constantly repetition of events.

That's the great problem with conflicts that, you know, that is every day's the same thing. So.

SWEENEY: Well, that's what I was about to ask in terms of individuals or an audience becomes numbed by the images that they see continuously.

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): I think that's really the challenge for a photographer is to say how do I shoot something that's happening all the time? And how do I make a difference?

SWEENEY: I mean, this photo here, beautifully in some ways illustrates the relationship that many Iraqis had at times with the American military.

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Absolutely. And that picture's from January 2008. So it shows that everything continues basically. And I think we put it there just to say OK, you know, this is one more question for one more civilian. And in a way, where is it going to take us?

SWEENEY: A final question. Do you think that there will be an exhibition Iraq 10 years on?

CARBUTA-ESCHER (ph): Well, that would be very sad. But I think that many of the journalists we have talked - we have been speaking to before this project are scared of that happening, yes.

SWEENEY: I'm joined now by Sonny Nahule (ph), who is a journalist with Reuters. And he was actually based in Baghdad before the invasion by the coalition and shortly there afterwards. I guess this exhibition raises very personal experiences for you, brings them back to you?

SONNY NAHULE (ph): Yes, it brings - you know, it's a flat work of all the times in Baghdad and all the events. Every picture has a story. And every image, you know, is connected to what we have seen there and what we covered, and what we taught the world about it. So yes, it brings back a lot of memories.

SWEENEY: You were injured in Baghdad the day the city fell. What happened?

SONNY NAHULE (ph): This is a day when Baghdad fell. It started at dawn when U.S. troops were advancing into Iraq. And you started seeing the tanks pushing through the (INAUDIBLE). So we went to our balcony. And we started filming live and reporting to what we were seeing, that Baghdad was falling, that the Iraqi troops were fleeing, and there was no resistance.

And suddenly, we saw an orange glow. And that was the tank shell that our officers. And immediately, our colleague, Talis Soup (ph) was killed on the spot. And another cameraman from Telesinko (ph) was killed. And I was seriously wounded. Shrapnel went into my brain. And two of my colleagues were wounded. And it was, you know, a total panic scene. And our colleagues were trying to rescue us.

So we were living on the 15th floor. And there was no electricity. They were trying to get the generator to work, to get us to hospital. And we were ferried from one hospital to another, you know, because some hospital were not equipped with scans to monitor the brain or to do head scans. So under shelling and bombardment, because it was (INAUDIBLE), we were being taken from one hospital to another. And I ended up at the neurosurgical hospital in Baghdad, where I was operated at midnight that evening.

SWEENEY: You fortunately fully recovered from your injuries, but how has your experiences in Baghdad, working as a journalist and being injured, of course, affected you personally?

SONNY NAHULE (ph): It's - it has affected me. You know, I cannot deny that. It took me a long time to recover, not only from my injuries, but also psychologically. I went through therapy. And it took at least like a year with medical help that I could overcome it. But you know, the scars are always there. And what happened to us and losing your colleague just standing next to you could have happened to me.

And the see - offer to see during a war, wars are ugly, but this war particularly, we saw really a horrific, you know, images of people mutilated by these charred body. You know, I covered war before, but - Lebanon War and other wars. But I haven't seen anything like this war. And it's still continuing.


SWEENEY: Sonny Nahule (ph) speaking to me there.

Read all about it, lifting the lid on what's wrong with the media. Speak to journalist turned author Nick Davies about his new book on the state of the news industry.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Multi platforms in print, online, and broadcast. In the era of news on demand, most media outlets are finding themselves under pressure to fill more content with fewer resources. Journalist Nic Davies argues it's all having a detrimental effect on the news trade, creating an environment where reporters are unable to make contacts, go out on stories, and check facts.

His new book, "Flat Earth News" examines the state of today's media.

So should we believe what we see, hear, and read? Well, Nick Davies joins me now in studio. Thanks for joining us. What prompted you to write the book?

NICK DAVIES: The immediate trigger, they're not the subject of the book was those notorious weapons of mass destruction. Because I thought it was upsetting that as it became clear that those weapons didn't exist, the media generally, almost without exception, analyzed that as though it were just a problem of governments and intelligence agencies.

Well, it was, but there was a third corner to the global misinformation, which was the media ourselves.

SWEENEY: Now I know the media in the States has got quite a lambasting because of the weapons of mass destruction issue, but it's generally accepted as not that the British media was somewhat more astute about. DAVIES: I think you get that idea. Not at all. Like for example, there was a survey of the stories put out by the BBC. BBC is a great news organization. 86 percent of those stories in the build up to the invasion of Iraq took it for granted that the weapons of mass destruction existed. In the book, I did a big analysis of how it was that the prestigious left of center Sunday newspaper like "The Observer" should have become a vehicle for high profile, aggressive, misinformation, astonishing stories running through that newspaper.

For example, blaming Saddam Hussein for the terrorist attacks of September 2001 or for the anthrax letters that were subsequently distributed in the U.S. Utter fiction running through the columns of this particularly fine newspaper.

SWEENEY: And yet am I right in thinking that a reviewer from "The Observer" of your book said that you did get some aspects of "The Observer's" editorial decision-making process as well?

DAVIES: No, I don't think - there was a reviewer within "The Observer." Whilst it was particularly brave and generous to me, writing in the paper that one of the papers that I've attacked. And she said that I'd misunderstood the editor's personality, which I disagree with.

But no, on the substantial facts about the extent to which, and the way in which that newspaper was manipulated, partly by the Central Intelligence Agency, and party by the British government through Downing Street, I don't think anybody's quarreled with a single fact. It's a shocking story.

But the point - the British newspapers all across the developed world, newspapers got that story wrong. And that in itself isn't unusual. You see, we get lots and lots of stories wrong. And instead of brushing it aside and saying oh, well, we weren't right about ourselves, we'll just blame this on the governments and the intelligence agencies, we should be asking questions of ourselves. We should be exposing what it is that is wrong with our mechanisms that could lead us to do lots of.

SWEENEY: Well, let me ask you about the rise of celebrity journalism in particular. I mean, do you think that journalists should be held accountable, as much as the people that they're writing about?

DAVIES: But that's not particularly related to (INAUDIBLE). So yes, the newspapers and journalists should be held accountable. As it is, we are not. So in Britain, there is a flimsy little organization called The Press Complaints Commission, which is supposed to adjudicate on our affairs. I did this big analysis of 10 years of decision making. And I found that they had something like 28,000 complaints. And more than 25,000 of them, they rejected without adjudicating on technical grounds. So they don't begin to monitor some grotesquely bad behavior by the British press. And even if they do make adjudication, the worst thing that can happen to a British journalist in this country, who for example fabricates a fictitious story, is that they have to run an apology.

Whereas doctors and lawyers can lose their careers if they're caught up in.

SWEENEY: So how do you think this should be addressed? There should be another body in your opinion with more teeth?

DAVIES: I don't know. I'm getting more and more pessimistic about it. You see, the big structural thing that's happened is that ownership of the media has moved into the hands of big corporations. And those corporations own us to make money. And so, they've cut our staff. They're increased our output. They've changed the whole logic of the kind of stories we select, the angles we choose, the way in which we write and talk.

And that commercial pressure is so insidious, so pervasive, I think we're finished. I think the idea of mass media organizations as a reliable source of information is slipping into the past. And you may think this is too pessimistic, but I think it's true that we're going into an age of information chaos. If the mainstream media becomes less and less trustworthy, the Internet isn't the trustworthy source of information. There's some wonderful stuff out there. And there's a massive incoherent battle.

Where do ordinary people go for reliable information?


DAVIES: Well, I think we're heading for information chaos. And if you can see it bubbling up - so good journalism in the developed world is not yet dead. It's just terribly ill. But I think the illness which is caused by this commercialism is probably irreversible. And over the next 10 or 20 years, you'll see us continue to decline, doing our job worse and worse, failing to report whole areas of the world, misreporting those subjects that we do cover, more and more activity on the Internet where there's no monitoring and no filtering between truth and falsehood.

And I don't quite see how we reverse that decline. Nobody's got a new financial model to create a new kind of mainstream media, which would be sufficiently profitable to hire decent reporters and let them do their job.

SWEENEY: You don't think the mainstream media will be able to rectify the situation for themselves?

DAVIES: No, no.

SWEENEY: We'll have to leave it there. I'm afraid we're out of time. But Nick Davies, thank you very much indeed.



SWEENEY: We want to know what you think. Our question this week, do you trust the media? And go ahead, be honest. We can take it. Register your vote on our website, And while you're there, you can see all or part of this week's show again, view our archive, and read the blog. It's all at

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.