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China Earthquake Coverage; Football Diplomacy; Memories of a Mideast Tragedy

Aired May 23, 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, the China earthquake. We look beyond the devastation, ruins, and recovery and toward the challenges that lie ahead for that state and its press, as the nation tries to recover from disaster.

Deciphering the horrors of a massacre. Hear from an Israeli director who uses animation to piece together the memories of a tragic day in the Middle East. And football diplomacy. Did the UA Cup Final help Britain and Russia out of a diplomatic deadlock without losing face?

At precisely the moment the quake struck, virtually all of China stopped. Monday, just a quarter of the world's population paused for three long minutes to mark their shared grief, the first time Communist China has ever held a public memorial.

By week's end, the death toll from last week's deadly earthquake in China had climbed to more than 51,000. But the main focus shifted to caring for the survivors. Five million people are now homeless, and many of them don't have real shelter.

Well, to discuss this further, I'm joined by former CNN Beijing bureau chief and senior Asia correspondent Mike Chinoy. Mr. Chinoy is now a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

Thanks very much indeed for joining us from Hong Kong. How much of a watershed is what has taken place in the Chinese media in the last week or two?

MIKE CHINOY, PACIFIC COUNCIL ON INTL POLICY: Well, I think it's really been quite astonishing. There have been considerable progress in many areas in the Chinese media over the last 10 or 15 years, but the impulse towards control and towards managing the news, especially on major stories or sensitive situations remains very strong. And yet what you've had here almost literally since the first moments after the quake has been the Chinese media independently going to the scene and reporting, very much as if it were mainstream Western or international media. The TV has been full of pictures, live reports.

Some of the initial journalists who set out for the scene did so defying official instructions. And when they got to the worst hit areas, they were filing pretty straightforward reports. And so, you've now had kind of saturation coverage.

SWEENEY: What do you think made the breakthrough this time? Was it the scale and scope of this natural disaster?

CHINOY: I think it may be partly the fact that this was on such an enormous scale, that the authorities were busy with other things and simply didn't have the resources to control the press.

Also, information flows much more freely in China today. In addition to newspapers, television, the radio, you have the Internet. You have blogs. And so, it's simply not possible in the way that it used to be for an authoritarian regime like the one in China to simply shut down and manage information flows the way they did before. And so, you had information coming out almost immediately.

And also, this is a natural disaster. This isn't a political story. This isn't an uprising against Chinese Communist party rule or a mass movement for democracy. This is a disaster on almost apocalyptic proportions. Everybody knows about it. You can't hide it. People are desperate for information. And I think another element here is that the performance of the government has been on balance really pretty good so far. The Premier Wen Za Bao (ph) was on a plane within a couple of hours of the disaster. He's been on the scene. He's been featured very prominently. And he's presented a more humane and approachable face on the part of the authorities, who have mobilized the army, mobilized massive resources.

And so, the story line has been the government and the people trying to help the victims, not the government screwing up and making a bad situation worse.

SWEENEY: Well, I'm quoting here from "The International Herald Tribune," or at least paraphrasing, saying that while people and reporters were aware that a propaganda campaign was underway quite quickly by the Chinese authorities, that many journalists approved of upbeat stories based on national unity, and to the avoidance of what they call troublesome issues. How relevant do you think that is?

CHINOY: There's no question, particularly as the authorities establish their presence in the disaster area that there was a bit more of a shift towards consciously uplifting stories, stories that emphasized patriotism, heroism, the Chinese people all pitching in. The TV screens had been full, particularly of the pictures of President Wen, Premier Wen Za Bao (ph) consoling victims, directing relief efforts.

But I think, you know, if you look, for example, at the American media after 9/11, and the kind of let's all rally around the flag quality that characterized a lot of the coverage, I think a lot of this is something that journalists themselves would feel very strongly they wanted to do, particularly, as I say, because the government has done a lot of good work.

I think there are some very tough issues that as the initial shock recedes, are going to come to the fore. The biggest one is going to be the question of shoddy construction. And I think there are going to be some questions about who allowed this. Was it corruption? How far up the line does the responsibility for this go? And I think it'll be an interesting test of how willing the authorities are to allow this relative openness to continue, to see how these kinds of problems are addressed, as well as the broader problems of what kind of social impact you're going to have from five million homeless people.

SWEENEY: Do you get a sense that the Chinese media in this willingness to rally around the government and the flag, so to speak, have come to the conclusion that for the time now, it's not appropriate to ask what one might call troublesome questions? And have you heard anything about the government forbidding Chinese reporters and journalists to talk to their Western counterparts?

CHINOY: I've not heard anything about that. I think it's hard to mandate behavior like that in the field on the ground. It's going to be tricky. At the moment, the focus is really on still trying to find the few remaining survivors, trying to provide immediate relief for people. When it moves to the next phase, I think these other more sensitive questions will come to the fore.

But I think it's really important to keep some perspective here. In 1976, there was an earthquake in northeast China in a place called Tongshan (ph). 250,000 people died. I was a young journalist just starting out here in Hong Kong covering that story, or trying to cover it. No foreigners and no journalists even based in Beijing were allowed to visit Tongshan (ph). The government refused all international aid, treated the entire catastrophe as a kind of state secret.

And that was barely a little over 30 years ago. And so, I think to go from that to what we have today I think is a reflection of the extraordinary degree of openness that we now see in China, even with real limitations and question marks going forward.

SWEENEY: And that extraordinary degree of openness that you talk about is in complete contrast to what took place in Myanmar following Cyclone Nargus there?

CHINOY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the example in Myanmar is one of an authoritarian government that is reclusive, that has consciously cut the country off from the rest of the world. It is clearly much more interested in preserving its own power than allowing international press coverage, or international aid. So the reporters who have gone to Myanmar either have slipped in some way, or gotten tourist visas, posed as tourists, gotten in. It's been very, very tough for journalists to get around the country to file. And so I think we have a sense of the scale of the disaster, but it's a very incomplete picture.

SWEENEY: Finally, do you think that there are any broader long term implications for what has taken place in the Chinese media over the last couple of weeks?

CHINOY: There could be. You might not want to read too much into it, but the media has now had a taste of what it's like to operate with relatively few restraints on a major breaking story. And that kind of experience is going to stick, both with the reporters who did it, and with the audiences who watched and read it.

And one of the other interesting things that's happened as a result of this earthquake has been kind of real emergence of sort of civil society, NGOs, citizen groups - citizens groups, people outside the writ of the government, getting involved, getting mobilized as their stories are spread through the media.

So I think there may be some very interesting long term implications that may help accelerate this trend towards openness in China, despite all of the continuing political restrictions and the uptightness of the central authorities in Beijing.

SWEENEY: Mike Chinoy in Hong Kong, thank you very much indeed.

Playing in Cannes, an animated picture, "Waltz with Bashir," a film that pieces together memories of a tragic day. The Israeli director who witnessed the atrocity committed while he was in the Israeli army gives us his account.


SWEENEY: Film stars and directors descended on Cannes this week. Receiving critical acclaim are films with serious tones. An Israeli film, "Waltz with Bashir" by director Ari Folman uses animation to piece together his time in the Israeli army, when in 1982, he witnessed the massacre by a Christian phalangist group as they invaded refugee camps in Lebanon.

The British movie, "Hunger" by Steve McQueen, looks at the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Sands wanted IRA members to be treated as political prisoners, not criminals. After six weeks without food, Sands died at the Maze Prison in northern Ireland during the time known as the trouble. In a minute, you'll hear from the film's producer.

"It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks" is a French film by Daniel Lacount. The director tells the story of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebda (ph) brought to court for defaming Islam. The magazine reprinted 12 of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

First now, "Waltz with Bashir."


ART FOLMAN, DIRECTOR, "WALTZ WITH BASHIR": It tells the story of the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camps. But the film is anti-war movie. And I think that a lot of times, I mean most of the times, if you look at anti-war movies in the eyes of a 16 or 15-year old guys, they would say yes, war is terrible, but then again, there's a lot of bravery there. There's a man friendship, you know. There's a lot of being cool when you're there. And they say yes, it's terrible, but I want to be one of those guys in this dream.

And I hope that when young people watch my film, they'll say I definitely don't want to be one of those guys that I see.

(in Yiddish): One month after Ronnie Dayag swam back home safely, the army took the beach from which he had fled. They told us we'd soon attack Beirut and that we'd all die. But on the beach, we didn't think that much about death.

In terms of text, it made me learn more about more myself, what I did, and where I was during the war. But in terms of like psychological manner, I would say that it made me connect better with my-what I had been, what I used to be, like when I was 19-years old.

Because when you suppress memories, you become like unattached to yourself or to what you were basically when you were really young. And I think that the stories, these specific stories really universal story. Could have been told by an ex-soldier in Vietnam in the late `60s and ex (INAUDIBLE) soldier in Afghanistan in the late `70s. And of course, currently by an American soldiers in Iraq, anybody who wakes up one morning in a really remote and strange city and thinks what the hell am I doing here, you know?



LAURA HASTINGS SMITH, PRODUCER, "HUNGER": If it raises debate about the importance of dialogue, then - and humanity and holding on to that, then I think that's no bad thing.

There doesn't seem much point in going back over history and saying he said this and she did that, because we're in a different place now. But unfortunately, you know, around the world, I think this story, this history, has resonance now.




DANIEL LACONTE, DIRECTOR, "IT'S HARD BEING LOVED BY JERKS: If we don't confrontation between (INAUDIBLE) and democrats, the only way is to choose our way, democratic way. It's the answer by the dialogue, by the issue, the debate, not by the violence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not being aggressive with anyone just exercising our rights.


SWEENEY: Historic showdown, the stadium were set in Moscow for the climax of the UA Ford Champions League final. Up next, we go off the pitch and ask can sports change the tense British Russian diplomatic landscape?


SWEENEY: The race to the English football title between Chelsea and Manchester United came down the last day of the season. So it was only appropriate that Wednesday's champion's league final between the same teams was also a nail biter. And at the final whistle, the Red Devils speak beat the Blues 6:5 on penalties. But just as the fans were focused on the field, others were focusing on the diplomatic front. The venue for the final was selected more than a year ago amid tense relations between Moscow and the U.K.

But a potential disaster was averted when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev issued a decree, granting visas to all British fans with tickets to the game.

The Kremlin knew the world was watching and wanted to show the country in its best light. Did it achieve what it wanted? And can a football match transcend international politics?

To discuss this further, I'm joined by Matthew Chance, CNN senior international correspondent in Moscow and Christopher Davies, Daily Telegraph sportswriter. He spent four decades reporting on sports. During that time, he's covered nine World Cups, nine European World Cup finals, and hundreds of international competitions.

Well, Matthew Chance in Moscow, a tall order for the Kremlin. Did they pull it off?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think they did. In fact, the British officials at the embassy here in Moscow that I've spoken to have said that they believe the lack of serious incidents in the city, the really only very minor kind of scuffles between the various fans, the Manchester United Chelsea fans, also Russians as well, were very minor because of the organization of this Champions League final in the Russian capital.

The 41,000 or so English fans were very carefully corralled into special fan zones. They were transported under sort of very close police protection from one part of the city, where their hotels were, to the actual stadium, the Luzniki (ph) Stadium, where the game took place. And alcohol was banned in the area of the stadium. I mean, back to three kilometers around the stadium as well. There was no way you could buy any alcohol.

All of these measures being put in place by the Russian authorities to make sure the game went off as a sporting festival without any serious clashes. And that is indeed what happened.

There was an expectation that there would be much worse kind of scenes. And in fact, the British embassy here in Moscow set up emergency desks operated 24 hours in anticipation of a barrage of calls from distressed English fans, calls which, Fionnuala, simply didn't come.

SWEENEY: Maybe distressed Chelsea fans. Christopher Davies, you've covered many games and you've also covered games in the former Soviet Union. How did writing about this game compare with the games you've covered in the past?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIES, DAILY TELEGRAPH: One thing that's always the same is that you have to paint the picture of whatever game it's going to be. I remember being in Moscow in 1973. And you used to have to order a line to London. You used to have to wait sometimes for two hours while the phone connection went through. East Berlin maybe, Bucharest, Budapest, Paris. And then you'd finally hear London.

SWEENEY: But was that because of lack of communications, the poor communications? Or was it because the Russians were listening in to your phone calls?

DAVIES: No, it was just a poor communications in the old Soviet Union. These days, of course, people have got mobiles. They've got Bluetooth. And they file instantly. There's no such thing these days as copy takers. You don't have to speak your 850 words over on the phone.

So in one respect, it's a lot easier. The demands now are far more difficult because more work is once it wears one man with (INAUDIBLE), we now have 10 to 12 pages from the game like we had on Wednesday.

SWEENEY: But presumably, if you were filing back in 1973, those two hours it took to get the phone call through to London meant that you could at times refine your copy. Whereas once the game is over as it was at 10:34 on Wednesday night English time, people expect the paper to have it there and then.

DAVIES: The writers covering the game in Moscow would have had at the most really an hour to write their copy. And of course, the next - there was on Wednesday night, you literally couldn't start writing who was going to win or lose until the very final kick. A sports (INAUDIBLE) the games almost be over by about 70 minutes so they can start writing competently that Team A has won or Team B has won.

But this was an incredibly difficult game to cover. And I've got a lot of admiration for the boys who were out there.

SWEENEY: Matthew Chance in Moscow, even if one didn't possess a football gene living in England, one couldn't but be aware that this massive game was taking place on Wednesday. In Moscow, how was it portrayed in the media there? Was it just as big for them?

CHANCE: Oh, yes, this was a huge sporting event, not just for the English, but also for everybody in Europe. It was watched, of course, by millions of people around the world. And of course, it was a big center of attention here in the Russian capital.

A great sense of national pride amongst many Russians that this extremely important football match was played in Moscow. It's the biggest sporting event that they've hosted really since the Olympic Games in 1980. And there's a very really sense in Russia, both at the government level and amongst ordinary people that the world is watching how they handle these big sporting events, because, of course in 2014, Russia will be holding the Winter Olympic Games in the resort town of Sochi.

And there's a lot of anticipation and perhaps insecurity on the part of Russians about whether they're going to be able to pull off a world class event. I think this champions the final in the Russian capital has really given people in this country, both at the government level and on the street a certain amount of confidence that Russian can be a venue for international sporting events.

SWEENEY: Christopher Davies on that note, do you think here in Britain, for example, and perhaps other Western countries that the government puts as much work into something like a UA Champion League - Champions Leagues finals. Perhaps the Olympics, I understand, but for a game as we saw on Wednesday night?

DAVIES: Yes, it will be easier for us to state a champions league final, because there wouldn't be the visa situation that they would inevitably was with Russia one way or the other.

We also have the travel coming in to maybe Heathrow or Gatwick. There's a lot of international airports. So traveling is easier.

SWEENEY: But is that generally to the clubs and the football associations to handle? Or does the government get effectively involved as the.

DAVIES: The government would be minimally involved in the Champions League final.

SWEENEY: Matthew Chance, speaking of the visa situation, I know Russian relations have gone through some difficult times of late. When two countries are having diplomatic difficulties, can soccer diplomacy help them find a way out of it without losing face?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, it certainly can't hurt the relations between Britain and Russia. As you mentioned, there has been a lot of difficulties over the past couple of years with the sort of poisoning of the former KGB agent, Alexander Litvenyenko (ph) in London and the attempts by Britain to extradite the prime suspect from Russia.

Also, you know, the closure of the British Cultural Centers in two Russian cities. These are sort of prompted diplomatic expulsions. And there's really been a very negative attitude between Russia and Britain over the past couple of years.

At least with this football match, which went off as I say without serious incident, it's been a positive basis on which, you know, for both sides. If both the countries want to use this as a basis for better relations in the future, they can certainly do that.

At the same time, I don't think we should overestimate the ability of football diplomacy to sort problems between these two countries. All of those being deep political issues that exist between Britain and Russia are still there now that the match has been won.

SWEENEY: Matthew Chance in Moscow, Christopher Davies here in London, thank you both very much indeed.

DAVIES: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Well, 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 take part in the quick vote. Do you think sports can help resolve political problems?

Well, tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Thanks for joining us.