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Internet and the Beijing Olympics; Iraq War Censorship; Depicting Saddam's Iraq

Aired August 1, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: 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 rise and fall of a dictator. "House of Saddam" dramatizes the intimate world of the man who ruled Baghdad for decades. Thousands of U.S. soldiers are dead, yet there are few graphic images of the fallen. Is there growing military censorship of the war in Iraq? And living by the laws and regulations of China. Media covering the Olympics in Beijing will have limited web access.


SADDAM HUSSEIN: We are lucky men. We have a land to die for.


HUSSEIN: Have you heard a word I've said?


SWEENEY: "House of Saddam", a new drama series for BBC 2 begins airing this week. The production is billed as a fact based drama, an intimate portrait into the world of Saddam's inner circle, his closest family, and elite few.

It's the story of Saddam's decades long reign to his capture by U.S. forces. Well, joining me now is writer and director of the series Alex Holmes.

First of all, where did you get the idea to do this kind of retro look at Saddam?

ALEX HOLMES, CO-WRITER, DIR., "HOUSE OF SADDAM": Well, I was originally interested in trying to tell a story about what happened in post invasion Iraq and how the insurgency had come about. And the more I looked at that, the more I realized you couldn't really understand what was going on there without understanding more about Iraq's history. And of course, central to his modern history is Saddam.

And Saddam is such a fascinating, complex character. So with so many different layers, that the more I started looking at him, I thought, well, he's the drama. Saddam is the drama. Let's tell his story. Let's explain a little bit about where he came from, how he came to stay in power for so long. And that way, we can shed a little light on what's going on in Iraq now.

SWEENEY: Where do you begin to chart the rise and fall of a man like Saddam?

HOLMES: Well...

SWEENEY: Why did you choose to start with that particular point?

HOLMES: I think the point at which he came to power was a fascinating tipping point in Iraq's history in a way. You know, 1979 was a fascinating time. There was a lot of oil wealth. There was a lot of movement in the Middle East. The shah had just come -- the shah had just left Iran and the Ayatollah had just come to power. (INAUDIBLE) had just come to power in Iraq.

And I think it was a moment of choice, really, for Saddam. And though they may not have known it at the time, a moment of choice for the Iraqi people. It could have led to a - to Iraq becoming really the center of the region, a very powerful state doing what Saddam wanted to do, which was kind of put it back at the central world affairs. Or it could have led us, and unfortunately it did, to Iraq's eventual really destruction.

SWEENEY: And of course, how much of that was part in parcel of the man himself?

HOLMES: Well, I think absolutely Saddam was in equal measure a dreamer and an idealist, who did have a vision that he was looking to fulfill. But also, A man who was crippled by a lack of trust and an abundance of paranoia. And I think, really, those are the two factors that combine to make him so powerful, so dangerous, and ultimately so destructive.

SWEENEY: Let's have a look at a clip from the drama, which actually exemplifies that, that the Ba'ath party meeting with Saddam has just taken over as president.


HUSSEIN: The people who's names are read out should leave the hall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mohammed Ayesh (ph), Fuad Abdem (ph), Mohammed Amid (ph), Amid Hesh (ph), Fudi Habdibel (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have done nothing! We have done nothing!


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're innocent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aziz Hassim (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not right!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Long live, Saddam!


SWEENEY: So you really get a sense there at the beginning of intimidation, paranoia, verging on hysteria in a way. Was the report when you were scripting this that you began to say - see that there was a point of no return as you chartered his life for Saddam?

HOLMES: Well, I think that's right. I think that his attitude to control of power when power - holding on to power became more important than the ends he was interested in. I think, that is the point to which many politicians fall apart. And for Saddam, that comes relatively close to the start of our series.

Our series is really about a man and a country's downfall. So really, that point comes very close to the beginning of our episodes. And then, we see how almost in retrospect, it would seem systematically he destroys the very people around him who are the people on whom he should have relied and from whom he could have got good and better advice than he'd received.

SWEENEY: Sayed Kay Abur (ph) is a consultant on this, an Iraqi who met Saddam many times and wrote recently an article in "The Times" about this. But towards the end of his article, Saddam Hussein was a man who "invaded Iran and Kuwait, built a million man army, came close to making an atomic bomb and sent a rocket into space.and he was of the 20th century. The man who looked the other way, while members of his family and tribe looted, raped and murdered was a tribal chief with a 17th century emotional make-up."

When you look at that very good, I think, articulate description of the man, doesn't that really exemplify perhaps the challenges facing the United States and other countries as it tries to do its business in Iraq these days, the conflict between the two?

HOLMES: Well, I think one of the reasons why I was interested in making this drama was in order to try and shed just a little bit of light on how people come to these positions of tyrannical power. And the more we understand the sensibilities they bring to that, and how they control it, the better we can deal with them.

SWEENEY: Do you think we can deal with them better? I mean, do you think perhaps this, I don't know, the Secret Service agencies or intelligence agencies in the United States and Britain, before the invasion of Iraq, had perhaps looked at this, that there might have been a different way of, if not placating Saddam, certainly bringing it to perhaps a more peaceful conclusion? HOLMES: Well, one would hope so. I think you can certainly deal politically and negotiate better with people if you understand them, than if you don't. I think that is an absolute basic law of human nature. So the more we understand, the better it is.

Whether or not anything could have persuaded Saddam out of his determination to actually cling onto power at any cost, that's a different question.

SWEENEY: For the moment, Alex Holmes. Still to come, editing the world and words of a dictator. Does "House of Saddam" stay true to known facts?


S. HUSSEIN: Me, I just, so I can see you.



TIME STAMP: 2011:00


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say that your wife is very beautiful. You must love her very much.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think our president likes her.


S. HUSSEIN: Beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd really do nothing if I were you.


SWEENEY: That clip from "House of Saddam", a four part collaboration between the BBC and the HBO channel. Writer and director of the series, Alex Holmes is here, telling us how he recreated dialogue based on the witness testimony.

First of all, that scene that we have just looked at, when he decides this woman is going to be his mistress, and a horrible realized - dawning realization on the part of her husband, that this is the way it's going to have to be. I mean, how do you know for a fact that that's what actually happened? Or do you take artistic license?

HOLMES: Well, the simple answer is you can't know for a fact that that is what happened. But in that particular instance, we were able to base it on the accounts of people who were close friends of both of Samira and of Saddam and his inner circle.

The arrival of Samira into Saddam's inner circle caused an enormous split because obviously, this put some distance between him and his first wife, Sajita (ph).


HOLMES: .central to really the workings of the inner circle.

But we were able to talk to people who knew Samira first hand. Saddam was very keen to try and provide her with an entourage, with a circle around her. And we talked to some people who Saddam was desperate to introduce to Samira as her new friend.

So we talked to people who had witnessed all of that happening, you know, as it happened, rather than just hearing stories about it afterwards. That said, you know, no two peoples' account of the same events are ever the same. I mean, it's extraordinary how you can take several eyewitnesses to events, and at this many years difference, their recollections will be significantly different.

Beyond that, their interpretation of the facts is different again. So within that, you have to take a view of what is plausible, what is the most likely course of events, and make sure that you are not actually flying in the face of anything, but it is absolutely established. That is really the most you can hope for to be true to the spirit of what people tell you.

SWEENEY: The spirit exactly. I want to just look at a clip here, another clip from the drama. And it's the point where Saddam is confronted by his first wife after he's killed his best friend in cold blood. Let's take a look.


S. HUSSEIN: I did what was necessary. The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness. In the yes of my enemies, I am stronger now.


SWEENEY: A very chilling scene, where it must have dawned on his wife at that point that this man would do anything to stay in power.

HOLMES: Well, absolutely. And I think that it's difficult to imagine just how frightening it must have been to be around Saddam at that time when he was demonstrating so clearly that nobody was safe.

Of course, that said, you know, Sajita had actually grown up with Saddam. They had grown up in the same household from a relatively young age. They were related very closely. So you know, his ability to dominate people and to get the outcome he sought is absolutely clear.

But I think this was perhaps the most extreme example that anybody around Saddam had witnessed of his, and his willingness to sacrifice even those closest to him.

SWEENEY: And again, going back to how one recreates the scene based on testimony, I mean, at one point, you were able to talk, not specifically, directly to Tariq Aziz, but through his lawyer and to get to - to get the actual account of various atrocities that may or may not have happened.

HOLMES: Well, indeed. And also, we had access to a very interesting accounts. For example, you know, the Pentagon has carefully sifted all the accounts of the people who were in the inner circle afterwards, to try and understand why it was that they won the war so relatively easily it seemed at the time when they invaded, why they met so little resistance.

And you know, we had access to those kind of accounts, those interviews that the American intelligence services had done through the historians that are now trying to piece this together, to understand how the war actually fell out in the way that it did.

SWEENEY: There seems to be a common thread in dictators. I mean, this paranoia, ruthlessness, ambition. And then a disengagement from reality as they isolate themselves, even among - from within their own inner circle. And I'm wondering in terms of the cast of characters you chose to play in this drama, perhaps the most notable is the Israeli actor who plays Saddam himself with a very interesting background of his own. I suppose a common thread that perhaps even Jewish, growing up born in Baghdad, and then moving to Tel Aviv, where he grew up among Baghdadi Jews, that he felt an identity with Saddam Hussein that surpassed the others that you looked at.

HOLMES: I felt that when I walked into the room with Agal (ph) for the first time, I knew immediately that here was a man who understood the charisma and the menace of the man and how they were mingled.

Now you know, clearly, he had a cultural understanding. His family were Iraqi. And so, he had that kind of knowledge that he could bring to the problem. That was a huge advantage. But I think for me, it was Saddam's appreciation of what it would take as a character to actually achieve what Saddam had done and wreak the havoc that Saddam wrought. I think that that really is what made Agal stand out from all the other performers who we saw for the role.

SWEENEY: Just to finish, I mean, I think the BBC press office, if I had to quote here, somewhere it's says, this drama offers a "fresh perspective on the dictator." What light do you think it sheds on Saddam Hussein that perhaps reading about him, or hearing about him on the news?

HOLMES: Well, I think that obviously, all of these different forms are different valid ways of looking at a man and what makes him, and what makes him act in the way that he does. I think what drama particularly does is it gives you an insight into the psychology of someone. It's a way of illustrating that if seeing it in action, of seeing how his interaction with other people and his relationships actually form his patterns of behavior, that's what we're interested in exploring. And I think that's where drama can do uniquely well, better than autobiography perhaps and certainly better than news.

SWEENEY: I think it's a combination of Dallas, Dynasty, set in Iraq in the 20th century.

HOLMES: Well, that's an adequate description if you're happy with it.

SWEENEY: With a touch of Shakespeare.

HOLMES: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Alex Holmes, thank you very much.

HOLMES: Thank you very much.

SWEENEY: More photography. Casualties mentioned, but not scene. Journalists in Iraq face complex issues of U.S. censorship. Are the rules subject to change?


SWEENEY: Four thousand U.S. deaths and the hands full of images is an article in "The New York Times" this week, examining what some reporters say is a growing effort by the U.S. military to control graphic images from the Iraq War.

Joining me now from Baghdad is Michael Kamber on assignment for "The New York Times" last year. Kamber took photos of wounded American soldiers and was told by the military that those images could not be published.

Michael Kamber, was that a departure from previous engagements that you might have had with the U.S. military?

MICHAEL KAMBER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, it was a departure. I was here in 2003 and 2004. And I would say for the most part, we were able to work more freely. I didn't have people trying to stop me from publishing photos. And I noticed that when I came back in 2007, things had gotten stricter. There were new embed guidelines that we had to sign. And they were keeping a close eye on us.

SWEENEY: All right, so let me bring up when you mentioned embed guidelines. Just let's show our viewers here a quote from those guidelines by the military of the U.S. military. "Any tactics, techniques, and procedures witnessed during operations or that provide information on effectiveness of enemy techniques."

I mean, that would sound fair enough in a conflict or a war zone situation, no?

KAMBER: Well, I think the problem is that it depends on how it's applied. I mean, when you say that journalists can't show any information on techniques, tactics, or techniques, witnessed during an embed, that pretty much covers everything that you would see.

So I think that sometimes you're able to work freely. And they don't say anything about it, but journalists here complain that when a soldier is wounded or killed, suddenly, these guidelines are strictly enforced and they're told they can't publish the photos.

SWEENEY: And the reason usually given by the U.S. military, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that they want to make sure that first of all, the families of the wounded and dead are notified, and also they don't want to desecrate the memory, which they feel is being desecrated by seeing photos of dead or wounded soldiers on the Internet.

KAMBER: Absolutely. Yes, there's no doubt about it. They're extremely concerned about the welfare of the men. And you know, they feel that these men make an incredible sacrifice, which they do. And then to see their photos put up on the Internet for people to gawk at, they think it's outrageous. And we understand that, but I think the problem comes when you have journalists who are committed to showing the cost of this war and the human cost of this war, and want to get these photos out. I think there's a natural conflict when these two things collide.

SWEENEY: And I think they did collide in at least photo you took. Now this photo, I understand from you, the U.S. military did not allow you to publish it for some time. What happened?

KAMBER: When the incident happened, the commander on the ground immediately tried to stop me from photographing, told me that I could not photograph. And I persisted. I did take the photos. And I told him he could take them away from me later.

When I got back to the base, I was told by the public affairs officers there, and also high level public affairs officers in Baghdad, that I could not publish the photos, that they did not comply with guidelines, but they kept changing the guidelines. They said - when I said well the soldier's face is being bandaged, so it's true that I don't have a - let me backtrack. We're supposed to have signed statements giving us permission to photograph and publish photos of wounded soldiers. And in many cases, this is just impossible. You can't get a signature from a guy who's been loaded onto a transport in serious danger.

SWEENEY: Was that a guideline that was always in place, Michael Kamber?

KAMBER: So what - it was not always in place. No, I noticed it when I came back in 2007 that we had to have signatures from wounded soldiers. That was not a guideline that I knew of in 2003, 2004.

SWEENEY: So are you saying that in that particular photo, you don't believe there was any kind of security concern? Certainly, it's not easy to recognize anyone's face, apart from the battalion markings. Is this the kind of photo that you're saying at the beginning of the war you might not have had any difficulty at all publishing?

KAMBER: I don't think that I would have had difficulty publishing that photo early in the war.


KAMBER: I didn't have these types of problems in the early years. I noticed in 2003, I'm sorry 2007, they had tightened things up considerably. And you know, high level PAOs told me that I couldn't show this photo because it showed battalion markings in the photo. It doesn't say that in the embed guidelines. I mean, that's something they just tacked on later.

SWEENEY: Well, you refer to the embed guidelines. And they stress that the embed regulations are only a framework as you yourself have said. And "there is leeway for commanders to make judgment calls, which is part of what commanders do."

Is there a distinction, do you think, between what is said by the military powers in Washington who draw up these guidelines, and what actually happens on the ground with an individual commander?

KAMBER: I think there's a great distinction between those things. I think really the commander on the ground is the one who has the ultimate power to decide. And a lot of it really just depends on the commander. If there's a commander there that likes you, that respects what you're doing, he'll invite you to photograph memorials for dead soldiers. He'll give you greater access.

If they don't like you, or they're suspicious of you, or they don't know you, they deny you that access.

SWEENEY: How much consideration has "The New York Times" had to give to the kind of photos that you've taken? I mean, how many lawyers have been involved deciding sometimes which photos of yours to publish or not?

KAMBER: You know, I can't tell you how many lawyers have been involved. I can tell you that lawyers have looked at them. And I can tell you that there are photos that we judge these things very carefully. We're constantly worried about getting kicked out of these embeds. And as a result, there may be some self censoring going on.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there. But Michael Kamber, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Baghdad.

KAMBER: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Beijing promised when it was bidding to host the Olympic Games that if it won, the media would be granted complete freedom. Not so, it seems. John Vause reports from the Olympic Media Center on Internet restrictions that are apparently being imposed on all visiting journalists.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're inside the main Olympic press center. Eventually about 5,000 print journalists will be working here. And the Chinese government promised there would be free and total access to the Internet. In other words, no censorship. But that just doesn't seem to be the case.

Let's try Amnesty International. On Tuesday, this human rights group came out with a report very critical of the Chinese government. So that website is blocked. So let's try one more. That site is also blocked.

The Chinese authorities are making no apologies for this. And they say they only have a promise to give journalists access to the Internet so they could do their work, which would involve reporting on the Olympics.

But to the International Olympic Committee, this is clearly a breach of one of the promises that China made during the bid process. And IOC officials say they will be raising this with the Chinese government. It's just unclear how much influence the IOC will have when it comes to lifting the censorship.

John Vause, CNN, Beijing.


SWEENEY: Don't forget, we're online all the time. Log on to to see the show again. You can also view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the weekly blog. The address

Well, 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.