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Incest Case in Austria; Saudi Blogger Released; World Press Freedom Day

Aired May 2, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, a shocking case of abuse. The world's media swarms on a small town in Austria. We assess news coverage of the story.

And later, his imprisonment sparked international outrage. Now after four months, the Saudi blogger is released from jail.

We begin this week in Austria, and a shocking case of abuse uncovered in the town of Amstetten. The world's media descended on the region, as the story and the extent of the crimes that took place began to unravel. Police say 73-year old Josef Fritzl confessed to keeping his daughter Elizabeth in his cellar for 24 years, where he repeatedly raped her and fathered seven children with her, six survived.

The media dubbed Fritzl a monster and his home, the house of horror.

News coverage of this case echoes that of 2006 involving the Austrian teenager Natascha Kampusch. She was held prisoner in a basement for eight years until her dramatic escape.

For more on the media's handling of the Amstetten abuse scandal, we're joined by Eric Frey (AUDIO GAP) story.

First of all, Eric Frey, when news of this story broke over the weekend, how did your newspaper react or believe that it was going to unfold?

ERIC FREY, MANAGING EDITOR, DER STANDARD: Well, it kind of - it started Sunday morning the first reports coming out of from Austrian TV or radio, reporting there's a case. It was late in the afternoon. It was confirmed by police. So it took us about just a couple of hours to wake up and to realize the full extent of that story.

By the time the paper was put to press, everyone was aware that this was perhaps the biggest story Austria has seen in years in the case. And we really started to put full - our full team and all the resources just to cover this one story, knowing that it's a difficult story to cover.

SWEENEY: Difficult also because of the kind of reporting restrictions that might be in place in your country. What are they?

FREY: Well, the reporting restrictions are really tough when it comes to names showing photos, naming names, anything that can violate the privacy of those affected. And this includes both the victims and the suspected perpetrators until they have been convicted legally.

The problem is most of the Austrian press is not following these rules anymore. There's heated competition, kind of getting closer to that, what you see in London. What you didn't have before in Austria. So a lot of the top line press has really been just showing everything, naming everything, not caring at all about the privacy rights, risking huge lawsuits, but they think it's worth the respective costs just to be here in the forefront.

SWEENEY: And to date, your newspaper might not publish the name?

FREY: Paper - we have a different - we tried to keep not only a quality audience, but our readers generally are very suspicious of tabloid press. And they are interested in ethical standards. So we have been overly cautious in some way. We haven't shown any photos. We also have not given the name of neither of the victims, the last name nor of the perpetrator Josef Fritzl, who didn't - we never put in print. We also use F., just his initial, because not only we have by law, we are still obliged to protect his privacy, but also you can from his name, you can always know what the name, you can always know the identity of his children.

And there are - we go even further. We haven't shown pictures of the house because it's also something of there's a privacy involved. And even the photos that were released by the police, which shows the seller, the basement, where the daughter and the children were kept, we made sure that the - those photos were some private belongings like a bathrobe and some toys. And we cut those out because from a previous case, we learned that there is a legal aspect there, that if you show private belongings of somebody who once doesn't want that to be shown, you're also in violation of privacy laws.

SWEENEY: So (INAUDIBLE) outlining the difficulties by the Austrian press and his newspaper in respect to the standards and laws there. How did it affect you as part of the international media there?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For most foreign media outlets that arrive in a country like that to cover a story, the local laws that govern these things don't apply so much. However, to CNN it is an issue because we are broadcast into that particular jurisdiction. So it's an issue that we have to consider.

Initially, we took the same decision to not name the suspect in question. It began to take on a more practical aspect when we were taking news conferences live. We saw the police naming him. They were encouraging the public to know who this man was, to know his name, to know his identity. They said in order to assist them with their investigation down the track, so eventually we changed tack under some guidance. We took the decision to name him in the end.

SWEENEY: And in terms of how the international media around you were reacting, I mean, from - when you weren't busy doing live shots and compiling reports, what were you able to gauge about how the other media were handling it?

BLACK: There's certainly no doubt that this is a significant story of global interest. The international media presence there was vast. There were long convoys of satellites surrounding this particular property. Many journalists, dozens of cameras, all this sort of thing.

Why is such a story of global interest? Well, the police there, the authorities there themselves were saying this is an unprecedented crime in Austria's history. And it's probably fair to say that given the facts of this case as they have come out, it is unprecedented in scale for most countries of the world as well, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Eric Frey, I would like to ask you about the composite picture of the daughter that has been published in many newspapers in Austria, and indeed overseas. That was a decision that you didn't have to make since you weren't even naming the father?

FREY: No, no, we didn't even come close to doing any of that. And it's - it was done in a way to - what - to satisfy the curiosity of the readers and of the viewers who would like to know what does this woman look like. There is no - they don't really - there are drawings of the way she would look today, which are just a way of - just a speculation. So it's not clear whether you can actually identify her from it. But still, it is - I don't know whether it's actually illegal, but I - we regard it as certainly unethical.

SWEENEY: It is a question, Phil Black, is it not, of what's in the public interest, as well as the victim's interests?

BLACK: No doubt. There are certainly vast public interest in this. Viewers have asked me why we haven't showed pictures of the children. It's a decision that we took because some of the Austrian press, the tabloid ones that have been mentioned here, they have showed blurred images of some of the children who were allowed to live openly in society.

We decided not to go near that, because although there may be some public interest there, and it may be genuine, certainly the victims interests here are already significant. And you have to weigh up whether or not this could potentially contribute to their already significant suffering further down the track.

SWEENEY: I suppose in a way, Eric Frey, that laws exist to be broken as some people would argue quite successfully. I mean, really, how far do you believe this story is pushing the boundaries, the limits in Austria in terms of what can and cannot be reported? For example, if the tabloids aren't pursued for publishing his name and the composite picture of his daughter.

FREY: Well, unfortunately, it is pushing the limits. What we have seen in Austria was just at the same time, two of these spectacular huge cases erupted in the last two years. Two years ago, the case of Natasha Kampush (ph) was held in prison by - in a cellar for eight years. And now this most recent case. Just at the same time the Austrian tabloids scene has become more lively, more competitive. A newspaper arrived, which was breaking - which was going even further in violating laws and going to the limits.

And it seems to be a commercial decision by all these papers to say we are breaking the laws because they're not criminal laws. These are civil laws. So they are facing lawsuits, which for - they have to pay for which they would have to pay compensation.

SWEENEY: A final word to you, Phil Black. How long do you think the international media appetite, intense media appetite for this story will continue?

BLACK: Well, for as long as there is a flood of information coming out. Certainly, the first few days after this story broke, the police were quite generous in the information that they released. As it came to them, they released it publicly. Not long after that, they have now said that there won't be any more daily press conferences. From here on, the investigation will be a lot slower and a bit more tedious. And they don't expect such information to flow out with the same amount of regularity.

They have also asked the media to back off a little bit. And that is essentially out of respect to the victims in this case.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there. Phil Black here in London, Eric Frey in Vienna, thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

Now allowing killers to get away with murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists releases a report on the countries it says are doing little to solve reporter homicides. Securing a free press when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Getting away with murder and creating a climate of impunity, that's how the Committee to Protect Journalists describes the countries which are failing to take action to solve the killings of media workers.

To mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd, the CPJ has released an impunity index. And it says democracies like Colombia, India, Russia, and the Philippines are among the worst at prosecuting journalist killers.

At the top of the list is Iraq. The report notes the majority of reporter deaths are homicide and not as a result of crossfire. Sierra Leone and Somalia, countries which have both been mired in conflict come in at number two and three. Then there's Colombia and Sri Lanka. The CPJ lists the Philippines at number six because journalists covering corruption, crime, and politics have been targeted with violence.

Afghanistan, Nepal, Russia, Mexico, Bangladesh and Pakistan make up the top 12. While India, the world's largest democracy, comes in at 13 because there are five media worker killings, which are unsolved.

The CPJ calculated its index on the number of outstanding journalist murders as a percentage of the population in each country. Cases are classed as solved if no convictions have been recorded.

CPJ says individual countries should be doing more to demonstrate a commitment to free press. Well, for more on the report and its findings, I'm joined from New York by Joe Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Also with us, Rodney Pinder, the director of the International News Safety Institute.

First of all, Joe Simon, I suppose really, you know, there are some countries that ought to be expected that make this list every year, like Sierra Leone and Somalia and Iraq, but are there any countries that jump out at you that surprised you, either because they weren't on the list, or because they weren't higher on the list?

JOE SIMON, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: Well, I think what jumped out at me is that nine of these 13 countries are democracies. They're either established democracies or they're fledgling democracies, but they're democracies.

And in order to be on this list, you have to have a record growth of violence against journalists. And you have to have a demonstrated record of failing to solve these crimes. So for democratic countries to be included on this list, it's our hope that they're embarrassed to be included. And the common thread that's missing in all these countries that's political will. And that's what it takes to solve these crimes.

SWEENEY: And is there a common (INAUDIBLE) through all of these countries that contribute to the killers of journalists not being prosecuted?

SIMON: I - they're very different countries. They have very different countries. They have very diverse media cultures. The problems are somewhat different, but I think what they have in common is a failure on the part of the authorities to fully comprehend what's at stake. And what's at stake is quite simply that when journalists are killed, and these crimes are unsolved, fear permeates the society. Issues of vital importance, corruption, human rights abuses, those issues don't get covered. So we're hoping that countries that are on this list understand that this is a serious issue, and devote the resources and the political will to solving these crimes, and reducing their standing on the impunity index.

SWEENEY: Rodney Pinder, your organization like the CPJ has just returned from Mexico, which is also a democracy, which has the worst number of killings of journalists in Latin America. Why?

RODNEY PINDER, INTERNATIONAL NEWS SAFETY INSTITUTE: Well, it's a mixture of criminality, of corruption, of lack of political will as Joe mentions. It's very worrying in Mexico, because not only is it the worst country in Latin America for journalist deaths, as you say, but out of something like at least 24 deaths in the past seven or eight years, not one conviction has resulted. And this whole question of impunity is deeply troubling.

We reckon it's one of the most important underlying factors beneath the constant rise year on year of journalist killings around the world. The more people get away with it, the more they will continue to do it. It becomes a chance (INAUDIBLE). You kill one journalist and you intimidate 100 others into silence.

SWEENEY: But obviously, I would suspect the Mexican government would say of course there is a political world to solve these murders. I mean, what are the ingredients that go into the high number of killings of journalists in Mexico?

PINDER: Well, you might ask the Mexican government if the political will is there, why aren't we seeing some results? And this is the interesting question. And we found during that mission to Mexico that there is specific gulf between federal will and what happens in the independent states that comprise Mexico.

We'd like to see a federal solution to this, making moderate journalists a federal crime. So the full resources can be brought to bear.

SWEENEY: Joe Simon in New York, I was somewhat surprised when I saw India on that list.


SWEENEY: What contributes to that country being on your watchlist, so to speak?

SIMON: Well, you know, this is - one of the things that we thought to do when we compiled this list was to make it entirely objective. And India's on this list because it meets the criteria. There are five killings of journalists in India which have not been solved. And India, of course, has a very vibrant, crass. It's a vibrant economy as well and a strong democracy, but there are areas in the country, Kashmir is an example, but other areas as well, where there is violence continues. And these crimes are not solved.

So it's an objective measure of the level of violence and the level of impunity of India.

SWEENEY: I mean, when I look at Pakistan and the Philippines that have been Philippines notoriously known for its corruption and crime and political assassinations of journalists involved in the Mexican politics, what is the distinction with Pakistan? Is that to be expected (INAUDIBLE)?

SIMON: Well, I mean, I don't want to complain about this. I don't expect it. I mean, look at - there are eight journalists who have been killed in Pakistan and those crimes unsolved. And yet there's one case that was solved. Which one was it? Danny Perl. It wasn't solved, but there were arrests, there were convictions. Why is that? Because there was enormous international pressure put on Pakistan. And when that pressure was applied, the Pakistani government acted. Why won't it act when its own journalists are being killed?

SWEENEY: I want to ask Rodney Pinder, first of all, how can you apply pressure on governments to act?

PINDER: Well, you know, we didn't inquire into journalists deaths. And we interviewed people in Latin America. And they said they'd like to see much more exposure of these killings worldwide. One journalist from Mexico, actually, said most tellingly that one editorial in "The New York Times" that focused on that problem in their country is much more effective than all the publicity within that country itself.

Governments are sensitive to international opinion. And this is one way in which the news business, if you like, can help our colleagues and try to stop this. Because it's not only in the interest of the news business. For everybody who believes an open societies and open and free press, which is vital to all of our democracies, good governance and everything else, if people believe in that, then we have to do something about it. And no more so than our own industry.

SWEENEY: I want to ask Joe Simon about the U.N. resolution about this, which was passed at the end of 2006, has it made any discernible difference?

SIMON: You know, I think that the resolution, what it accomplished once again reinforcing the standing that journalists covering conflict have, which is they are civilians. They cannot be targeted. They have a right to be there.

Are these rights respected around the world? They're not. And that's why resolution was so (INAUDIBLE). I mean, we've recently saw the killing of a Reuters correspondent in Gaza. This is a very disturbing incident in which an Israeli tank fired on a film crew. He was killed, along with a number of other civilians. That's certainly a very troubling incident, which suggests that these rights, the rights of journalists to report in conflict zones, are not being respected.

SWEENEY: On this final note, on the U.N. resolution, I mean, Russia makes the top 12. But actually, as much (INAUDIBLE) than perhaps one might expect given previous years. To what would you attribute that, that U.N. resolution.

PINDER: You know, well, no, I think there is a flaw in the U.N. resolution. And we helped draft it. It addresses only journalists killed in conflict. And Joel knows this, too. The vast majority of journalists murdered around the world are not in conflict zones. They're in their own countries in peace time, like in Mexico, like in India, like everywhere else. And the U.N. resolution doesn't actually address that.

Now we tried to get a broader resolution, which covered killing of journalists everywhere. But it was geared specifically to conflict. And you can maybe guess why - how in the end we got it through the Security Council, because most countries are not conflicting.

So in that sense, it's a political declaration. And it's very, very good to have that at the highest level, but it doesn't actually hold a lot of countries faces to the fire.

SWEENEY: We have to leave it there. Joel Simon in New York, Rodney Pinder here in London. Thank you both very much indeed.

Now as the world observes Press Freedom Day, one blogger in Saudi Arabia is celebrating his own freedom after spending four months behind bars. His story when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now an update on a story we brought to you in January, the case of Fouad al Farhan, the blogger in Saudi Arabia who was detained for four months without charge. Al Farhan is now celebrating freedom after his release from prison. And he says his time behind bars has given him a new focus.

CNN's Mohammed Janjim (ph) reports.


MOHAMMED JANJIM (ph), CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A popular blogger in Saudi Arabia, free after four months in prison. Fouad al Farhan, who's detention sparked international outrage, says he's happy to be back with his wife and two children. As to exactly why al Farhan (ph) was held in the first place, questions still remain.

The 32-year old businessman was arrested back in December, but not charged (INAUDIBLE) January, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry said al Farhan was the being investigated for violation of local laws, but did not elaborate.

MAJ. GEN. MANSOUR AL-TURKI, SAUDI INTERIOR MINISTRY: His case is not related to the government. It's not related to the ministry of interior or to the police or to the security situation.

JANJIM (ph): After al Farhan was detained, an e-mail posted on his website told friends he faced arrest for backing 10 reform advocates the Saudi government accused of supporting terrorism.

A fellow Saudi blogger, who fought for al Farhan's release, he says his friend did nothing wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The government actually did not provide a clear (INAUDIBLE) why he was detained exactly.

JANJIM (ph): Many feel they can't speak freely in Saudi Arabia. One of the reasons blogging has grown so popular. Al Farhan is one of few Saudi bloggers to use his real name. (INAUDIBLE) published a list of 20 (INAUDIBLE) blog. Top among them because we believe we have opinions that deserve to be heard, because societies do not progress unless they respect the opinions of their members, because blogging is our only option - we do not have a free media and freedom to assemble is not allowed.

Al Farhan supporters in the blogosphere and beyond pushed for his release from prison with online letter writing campaigns. In January, the Bush administration even took the issue up with Saudi officials.

SEAN MCCORMACK, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: And wherever people are seeking to express themselves via the Internet or via other means, whether that's in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere around the world, we stand for that freedom of expression. And that was our message to the Saudi government.

JANJIM (ph): The Saudi government has not (INAUDIBLE) comment on al Farhan's release. But (INAUDIBLE) bloggers are celebrating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lots of bloggers are happy that one of the most important bloggers in the country is now free and his best to his family and his friends.

JANJIM (ph): Al Farhan says right now, he's working to keep Saudi youth from getting involved in terrorism. But he hasn't said much about his case.

Mohammed Janjim (ph), CNN, Atlanta.


SWEENEY: 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.