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Reporting from Zimbabwe; Middle Eastern Newspapers; How the Press Sees the Vatican

Aired April 18, 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, undercover in Zimbabwe. Despite a ban, journalists report from inside the country. The pope on an historic visit to the U.S. We assess the media's relationship with the Vatican. And the new newspaper for the United Arab Emirates. Can the nationals succeed in a climate of declining circulation and falling revenues?

First this week to Zimbabwe and the release of two foreign journalists held for reporting on the country's election illegally. "The New York Times" correspondent and a British national were released on Wednesday after a magistrate said the state failed to prove reasonable suspicion the two were practicing at journalists.

Despite the ban on many foreign news outlets reporting inside Zimbabwe, some reporters are doing so. Whilst we can't tell you how we got these pictures, CNN's Paula Newton was in the country in the days after the vote. She ventured outside Hirari and into the rural areas to gauge a sense of what has taken place.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One U.S. dollar is now worth $40 million Zimbabwean dollars. But here on the land, they rate the country's hyperinflation not by some ridiculous number, but by hunger.

We began passing mile after mile of land that really should be cultivated and isn't.

Except the Zanupia (ph) farm. Mugabe's own party cultivates lush citrus groves and much more for its own use. But on many ordinary black owned farms, the government isn't tilling the fields for farmers like it used to. There's barely anything growing here. Rich soil goes to waste.

And where it's not, especially on the few hundred white owned farms still left, they are dreading what comes next.

(on camera): But we've just come back from speaking to a white farmer. This is his property. Of course, he wasn't willing to say anything on camera. He's incredibly nervous. What he did say is that the situation to try and farm here, of course, gets worse and worse really by the people.

(voice-over): The owner here went on to say the government has already seized three-quarters of his farm. He tells us as long as they've left him with something, it's worth fighting for.


SWEENEY: Paula Newton reporting from inside Zimbabwe. She joins me now in the studio. Back in London, what kind of experience was it?

NEWTON: It certainly was an enlightening experience. We're thankful to be able to get into Zimbabwe, to get any glimpse of what was going on. It was incredibly unsettling as a journalist to, at that point in time, not be able to do what your sent in to one of these places to do, to tell stories.

We heard stories from many different people. Because we didn't want to get arrested and because we didn't want to put these people in danger, we were unable to actually report on it in a traditional way. As you can see from the clip we just showed you, that video was not obtained in a traditional way. We couldn't speak to people for very long amounts of time.

SWEENEY: Were you able to tell people that you either worked for CNN? Or were you able to tell people you were journalists at all?

NEWTON: At times, we told people that we did work for CNN, but not often. We always told people that we were journalists unless we were having just a casual conversation.

The problem here is that when you do tell them that you're from CNN, because CNN appears on the front pages of the state media as being - we are accused of being meddlesome, as the BBC is, as other news organizations are. We are seen as being partisan in that environment. We are banned from reporting in Zimbabwe.

We didn't want to people to fear us immediately, because they would become very, very suspicious.

SWEENEY: What is the impact, do you think, of the foreign journalists reporting immediately after the election? I mean, there were so many in there after the vote from all around the world.

NEWTON: It was interesting. I think at first, most of us were lulled into a sense of complacency. Some journalists, not us, were going to events and actually putting up their hand and saying the organization they work from, even though they didn't have accreditation.

Then a few days after the vote, when it became clear that Robert Mugabe most likely had not gotten enough votes to actually win vice president, that he would have to face a run-off with the opposition leader Morgan Chandry (ph), the crackdown happened, Fionnuala. And that was very unsettling day and night in Zimbabwe after that point in time.

And then we decided to react and act in a much more covert way throughout the country.

SWEENEY: But in terms of the number of journalists from overseas working in Zimbabwe illegally, why do you think Robert Mugabe let that happen, given his distaste for international journalists?

NEWTON: I think there are a couple of things. One is he just couldn't possibly control the flow of us coming in. He can't. They are in dire need of foreign currency. Anybody posing as a tourist cannot really be seen to be distinctive from anyone who is a tourist. And they need those tourists in the country. They need that hard currency.

So we come in. We explain ourselves as tourists. We come in without camera equipment or, you know, equipment that is not of professional quality. And they let us through.

I think, though, that that's why the crackdown happened, Fionnuala. When the Robert Mugabe regime understood that what was at stake was then staying in power, that they could see it all unfold and that Robert Mugabe might someday be out of power, that's when the crackdown happened. And we felt that. We felt that noose definitely tightening around us.

SWEENEY: In what way?

NEWTON: There were certain places where we were staying. Of course, rumors spread. There was a lodge that was raided, which is where the two journalists were arrested. From that lodge, we got stories of others actually running away from that incident.

The rest of it we can't confirm. We have some reports from other journalists having to run away from other situations. At that point in time, the key here, Fionnuala, was not to get arrested. If we're arrested, then we can no longer report at all in any sense. We cannot report on what's going on in Zimbabwe.

SWEENEY: When you speak to Zimbabweans, the ordinary Zimbabweans, how willing were they to talk to you? And how much do they know about what's going on in their own country?

NEWTON: Two things here. They're incredibly willing to speak to us. Came pouring out of them. That was one of the most fascinating things. Even if you told them you were a journalist, they came pouring out of them. They want to tell you what is going on in their country.

But the key thing is I was struck that even just outside of Hirari, how many people you speak to and you'd ask them do you know what's going on. And they'd say no. I don't have a radio. The newspapers, they were running out of the state newspaper, let alone any kind of independent media.

They were craving information. They were in the state of limbo. And they didn't know what was going to happen. They knew it was going to impact them, but they didn't know how.

There is a state of chaos right now. And that chaos breeds the sense of insecurity on everyone there. And you really get that kind of vulnerable vibe from people when they're speaking. They're constantly looking over the shoulder because they don't know what is real from what is fiction. And that's very unsettling as you can imagine.

SWEENEY: And again, it raises the question of how do they ascertain what is going on? Is it through rumor? Is through word of mouth because presumably, the state organ - broadcast media, they can't trust.

NEWTON: A lot of it is through rumor. A lot is through word of mouth. Some people there do have access to television. A lot of them have bought these illegal decoders, where they bring in television signals from South Africa.

And of course, you can see CNN and BBC in Zimbabwe. That will filter through and filter down to other people, which is why CNN made the decision and other broadcasters made the decision that it is important for us to go and witness these events.

SWEENEY: You know, there are many dangerous situations around the world. Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world to report from, but I mean, Zimbabwe obviously had its risks for you personally. How did you weigh that out when you went there?

NEWTON: I don't think that in terms of other risks that me and other correspondents take at CNN, that there was a huge risk to my personal security. It was unsettling at times mentally, because you were trying to get your job done. And you had to be so covert about it. And it is very difficult to feel that it is a job well done at the end of the day when you have to be so covert.

SWEENEY: It's not that you feel for your personal safety. It's that you realize that the minute that you're arrested, you've become the story. And the last thing that any journalist wants is to become the story.

I was able to at least get some snippets of what was going on in the rural communities. People, laborers, moving from farm to farm looking for cheap food. Never mind work. They didn't care how much they made per day, as long as it was enough to pay for the grain that they were going to get from the farmer at the end of the day.

Fionnuala, things are desperate there. And if you get arrested, how can you possibly portray that desperation? You just can't. It was key that we did what we did in a very cautious manner, so that we could stay in the country and actually get those stories out.

SWEENEY: Paula Newton, we have to leave it there. Thanks very much.

Well, to Iraq now and freedom for two journalists. The first, a British reporter rescued from kidnappers, the other an Associated Press photographer held by the U.S. military without charge for more than two years. Bilal Hussein (ph) was freed on Wednesday. The 36-year old had been accused by the U.S. military of having links to insurgents. This month, an Iraqi judicial panel dismissed all proceedings against Hussein and ordered his release.

Photographer was part of the AP team that helped earn the news agency a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I want to thank all the people working for AP, ever last one. They all helped me get out of this difficult situation. I spent two years in prison without any guilt.


SWEENEY: Bilal Hussein was detained by U.S. Marines in Rimadi in April 2006. Since then, the Associated Press and media groups have campaigned for Hussein's release.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After two years of detention for no good reason, finally, the U.S. military, thanks to the Iraqi court system, has seen fit to do what should have been done two years ago and set him free.


SWEENEY: CBS reporter Richard Butler is also celebrating freedom after being rescued by Iraqi soldiers. Officials say how the discovery came about is a lucky coincidence. Jill Dougherty has the story.


JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The rescue was big news on Iraqi state TV. CBS journalist Richard Butler, in apparently good health, ecstatic at his rescue in Basra by Iraqi security forces.

RICHARD BUTLER, CBS: The Iraqi armies stormed the house and overcame my guards. And they burst through the door. And I had my hood on, which I had to have on all the time. And they shouted something at me and I put my hood up.

DOUGHERTY: An Iraqi military spokesman said Iraqi troops came upon Butler unexpectedly as they carried out a search operation at a house in Basra, looking for weapons and what he called outlaws.

The spokesman says four men in the house opened fire. The troops responded, arresting one of them. Three fled. Iraqi TV showed Butler being met by high level members of the Iraqi government and military. They were beaming, too. And for good reason. The Iraqi military was strongly criticized here and in Washington for an ill-planned operation last month in Basra, ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Iraqi army brilliant.

DOUGHERTY: Saying they were delighted at the news that Butler was freed safely, the British ambassador and the consul general of Basra issued a joint statement, saying, "We wish to pay tribute to the alertness and professionalism of the Iraqi army units, who recovered Mr. Butler."

The rescue was good news for Richard Butler and his family and badly needed news for the Iraqi government.

Jill Dougherty, CNN, Baghdad.


SWEENEY: Six years ago, the Catholic church in the United States was rocked by a sex abuse scandal. Now Pope Benedict the XVI is in the country trying to make amends. Is his visit winning over the faithful and the media? That story when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The trip is designed to energize the Catholic church. Pope Benedict XVI from his historic visit to the United States. Well, this week, the 81-year old became only the second pontiff to visit the White House, and the first to do so in almost three decades.

One of the questions that hung over the visit was how and if the pope would address a sex abuse scandal that robbed the church in 2002. He spoke about it early in the visit, expressing deep shame.

Well, to discuss the pope's visit to the U.S. and the relationship between the Vatican and the media, I'm joined from Washington by Robert Blair Kaiser, former correspondent with "TIME" and "Youzu" (ph) magazines, author and commentator on the Catholic church. And here in the studio, Lou Copen, who's the editor with Britain's "Catholic Herald."

Robert Blair Kaiser in Washington, the pope mentioned the sex abuse scandal so early on on his trip that he was still on the plane from Rome. Why?

ROBERT BLAIR KAISER: I think he wanted to get the subject out of the way and on the table. You know, for about five or six years, the Vatican has been in denial about the sex scandal. So this pope is a very intelligent man. And I know that he was told that by John Allen, our CNN correspondent in Rome, that the people of America wanted to hear what he had to say about this.

And so, you know, role of a good reporter is to reflect public opinion, as well as to enlighten it. And I think that's what John Allen was doing.

SWEENEY: This is John Allen, our religious correspondent here with CNN. I mean, it raises the question.

KAISER: Right.

SWEENEY: .how disconnected is the Vatican in general from what is taking place on the ground and among its flock around the world?

KAISER: Well, 75 percent of the American people, according to a recent ABC News poll, say that the church is out of touch. And when they say the church, they mean the pope and the bishops are out of touch.

And that's startling now. What's happening here in Washington, we're seeing an old kind of traditional church celebrated with pomp and pageantry and organ music and choirs and funny costumes. And it takes us all back to 1,000 years ago. And is that the image that the church really wants to convey? Is that possibly the reason why 30 million American Catholics don't go to church any more?

SWEENEY: Lou Copen here in London, do you believe that the Vatican is disconnected from its flock? And if so, why?

LOU COPEN: I think that obviously to an extent it is, because it's location in one particular part of the world.

SWEENEY: But is it aware of media and the importance of media?

COPEN: I think it is. I would say that that isn't - is primary consideration. It's raised on (INAUDIBLE) to change in relation to public opinion as so many other institutions are really designed to do.

But public opinion is nevertheless a factor of the Vatican. And they do become aware of sharp changes in public opinion, as we saw at the time of the American sexual abuse crisis.

SWEENEY: But we heard from Robert there those sort of a denial about it for a number of years.

COPEN: Yes, that's right.

SWEENEY: And if Robert is correct, I mean, it took a lot of effort on the part of the media, particularly perhaps on journalists, to have the pope address this. It raises the question, Robert, if I may ask you in Washington, how much planning do you think in terms of the media went on in the Vatican for this particular trip to the U.S.?

KAISER: Good deal of planning. You know, all of these events are micromanaged from the beginning. People had to line up three hours ahead of time to get into the papal masses and the other events. And they were thoroughly searched and wanded for security and so forth.

Now everything is very, very tightly organized. And at both the mass in Washington and the mass later this week in New York City in Yankee Stadium, we've got 80,000 people at Yankee Stadium. And every one's supposed to go to communion. And the pope has said he doesn't want any laypeople distributing communion. So they've had to call on priests. They're coming from as far away as Australia in order to distribute communion.

SWEENEY: The question Lou Copen is in terms of public relations, how much is that a factor or not in terms of the planning of a trip like this?

COPEN: I think it's a secondary factor. Some people have said that Pope Benedict isn't particularly media savvy, in contrast to his predecessor John Paul II. And I think there's truth in that. He's - comes from a professorial background. He doesn't have that much experience directly with being in the glare of media certainly before he was elected pope. So he's really learning on the job.


SWEENEY: Go ahead, Robert.

KAISER: I think he's frightened of the media. Instead of getting a news conference, the Vatican told the Vatican press corps, the reporters, to put their questions in writing. And he got 20 - the pope got 20 questions and chose to answer four of them. It was all very, very canned, very unspontaneous, let us say.

SWEENEY: Well, I suppose what I'm trying to understand here is whether or not the media, without overstating the importance of the media or anything, is - how it works in relation to the Vatican. Is there a symbiotic relationship going on here? Or is it really dependent as far as the Vatican is concerned on spreading the word of God, the Catholic faith through its - through the bible, through its works, rather than through a media channel, for example.

KAISER: You've used a very interesting word, symbiotic relationship. You know, the media needs celebrity. It thrives on celebrity, especially television. And so, that's why John Paul II was so much on the tube for 24 years of his papacy. He was very media savvy. And he became a celebrity. And his successor, Benedict, kind of has to follow in the same footsteps. He's an icon. And he helps draw audience.

COPEN: I think we should recognize that the media has changed quite dramatically since - really since the death of John Paul II. And now when we speak of the media, we have to include the new media, the Internet bloggers.

And some people have said that Pope Benedict is really a pope for the Internet age because he's such a sophisticated thinker. Perhaps his ideas are really best understood by reading them on the Internet, rather than seeing him out there on television.

SWEENEY: I seem to recall once, Delia Gallagher, one of our Vatican correspondents, faith based correspondents, telling us that the Vatican press office only opens for a few hours a day. Is that true in the morning?

COPEN: Yes, I think that's right. And I think it's quite difficult to really deal with them unless you're trusted. And I believe, and Robert might be able to confirm this, it may take a very long time for them to actually trust you.

SWEENEY: Does that necessarily mean Robert Blair Kaiser then that the church is out of touch with its people? Or it just doesn't see the media as a necessary tool?

KAISER: Well, it uses the media for its own purposes in order to get across the message that they are the divinely instituted hierarchical church. And I think that's the Vatican's agenda. They want everyone to think they're high and mighty and holy.

SWEENEY: Well, I'm afraid we have to leave it there. Very interesting discussion there. Robert Blair Kaiser in D.C., Lou Copen here in London, thank you very much indeed.

Now starting a new newspaper, the English language publication that's being set up in an Arab speaking country. Will it succeed when the industry is suffering from falling readership and revenues? We meet the team behind "The National" when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Some might say it's a brave move, starting a newspaper when publications around the world are suffering from a drop in readership and falling revenues.

It hasn't daunted the team behind "The National," a new English language publication launched this week in the United Arab Emirates. Wolf Dennick reports.


WOLF DENNICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The headline in the newsroom, this is history. 200 journalists building a massive English language newspaper in an Arabic speaking country. The goal? To portray the United Arab Emirates, which has highest per capita income in the world, as something much more complex than simply a nation of wealthy Arabs.

Martin Newland, former editor of "The Daily Telegraph," is in charge.

MARTIN NEWLAND: In the west certainly where I come from in Fleet Street and the U.S., print media is dying.

DENNICK: Newspaper readership is falling and printing costs rising. And news is going online. But here, veteran journalists are signing on. From "The Wall Street Journal," "The New York Times," "The Daily Telegraph," and "The New Yorker." This new newspaper is funded by the oil rich government in Abu Dhabi. And most media outlets here in the Gulf are cautious to say the least.

So can this government owned paper really stand out and tackle the top issues?

"Seven Days" knows the pressure. This scrappy little paper has a big voice. It's a rare independent based in the Gulf, but even they choose their stories carefully.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What will happen if you've run a particular story, and understanding that if you run the story, there may be consequences and how to deal with those consequences.

DENNICK: Like having their publishing license revoked. So papers rarely criticize government leaders or policies. 22-year old Talia al Ramahi (ph) from Abu Dhabi is one of the few local hires. And her new job made her father nervous at first.

TALIA AL RAMAHI (ph): Right now, I'm dealing with hard news, but you know, in the future maybe writing my own opinions about issues dealing with the Middle East. So he's worried about that.

DENNICK: None of this worries Newland as long as his journalists do their jobs.

NEWLAND: It's very hard to argue with a properly constructed news story. So I'm less worried about censorship than perhaps most people are.

DENNICK: The paper's budget is a secret, but the government backers promise this is a long term investment.


SWEENEY: 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 archive, 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.