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Coverage of Georgia Invasion; Israeli Troops Cleared in Death of Reuters Cameraman; Protest in Beijing

Aired August 15, 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, from the frontlines to the diplomatic stage, we look at news coverage of the conflict in Georgia. Investigation closed, Israel clears its troops of any wrongdoing in the death of a Reuters camera man in the Gaza Strip. And testing the Olympic press. A British television correspondent is detained while trying to report on the protest in Beijing.

First this week, the conflict between Russia and Georgia that's dominated the international news headlines. Reporters have been on the frontlines since Georgia last week launched its military incursion in South Ossetia in an effort to rack rebels.

Russia, which supports the separatists, responded and the conflict spread outside the province. The fighting has taken its toll on journalists. On Tuesday, Dutch television station RTL reported on its website that camera man Stan Soromans was killed in an attack on the Georgian city of Gori. RTL correspondent Jeroan Akkomans was wounded in the leg in the same attack.

Last Sunday, Russian radio reported at least two other journalists had been killed in fighting in South Ossetia.

There are two sides to every story. And this conflict is no exception. Both Russia and Georgia have been eager to get their messages across. And news outlets have been accused of bias in their reporting.

We'll get more now on the conflict and the media's handling of it as well as the diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation. I'm joined from Tblisi by Andrew Provis. He's the Berlin bureau chief with "TIME." The Georgia Russia conflict is the magazine's current cover story. From Moscow, we're joined by CNN's Jill Dougherty, our former bureau chief there. And here in the studio, Richard Beeston, foreign editor with "The Times of London."

Andrew Purvis in Tblisi, how easy or difficult has it been to get around Georgia?

ANDREW PURVIS, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, the government's been relatively cooperative. I suppose that's an understatement. It's been quite easy to get through to who we needed to go to. Recently, I was up at the - up in Gori. And I went through four checkpoints on the way that were stopping all Georgians, including the governor of Gori. But we were waived on through as foreign journalists. And we got as far as the last Russian tanks.

SWEENEY: Certainly it seems to be that foreign journalists have been well and truly welcomed with open arms by the Georgian authorities.

PURVIS: They had a clear interest in getting the story out. And that's been quite apparent on the ground.

SWEENEY: Jill Dougherty in Moscow, do you believe that the Russian authorities had a clear interest in getting the story out to the international media?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN: Well, I think initially, they were not on the same wavelength as the Georgians. I mean, really, it was two separate conversations. You have the Russians talking specifically about situations on the ground, a very kind of arcane legal justification, etcetera.

And in Georgia, you had the Georgian president talking big picture, democracy, small country under attack, flags, amazing visuals, phone ins where journalists could get information. The Russians, unfortunately, for their side, continued at least in the beginning with kind of the old way of dealing with the media, which was innumerable phone calls. Nobody returns the call. Yes, we'll get back to you. Read Interfacts, etcetera. I think they're changing right now.

SWEENEY: But do you think it's been a huge learning curve for them and they will have learnt something at least from the media point of view on this? Or is it just a case where they really don't feel they need the international media?

DOUGHERTY: I think they're - both of those are true. I think they do realize that they have to get their message out in a better fashion. But also, a lot of their attention up until now in the media in general has been focused on their own people. And the thought that you'd have to convince a world audience was not as great. They certainly do have "Russia Today." That's an English language station that goes around the world. And they have been non-stop on this story, trying to get the Russian viewpoint.

SWEENEY: Richard Beeston, foreign editor of "The Times," this story seemed to catch a lot of the mainstream media - international media by surprise. Would that be the same for "The Times?"

RICHARD BEESTON, FOREIGN EDITOR, THE TIMES: Yes, I mean, in our case, the correspondent who's there now in Tblisi and Gori was at Sean's Way on holiday. We grabbed him at Heathrow Airport and turned him around and sent him back. He's an Oscar correspondent. And it's a lesson I think. All editors should know that August everyone says those are the dog days of August. You know, the silly season. But actually, August provides its more wars, disasters, and huge stories than almost any other month. So it's sad lesson to all of us, I think.

SWEENEY: But you were telling me before we came on air that you had a briefing a couple of months ago, where it was predicted that this war would take place. So presumably, lots of foreign editors from newspaper outlets and broadcasting outlets knew about this and really still didn't take precautions. Why?

BEESTON: I think part of the problem is we've been covering Iraq. We've been covering Afghanistan, Darfur, the Middle East. And in news coverage terms, people are just fed up, I think. And while it's incumbent on all of us really to watch the world's flash points. And certainly the caucus is one. I think there's a - only so much appetite for public opinion intel wars in strange places with funny names. And while this may have been predictable, I think lots of people took their eye off the ball, including world leaders.

SWEENEY: A very big story, Jill Dougherty, in Moscow. Has it been played out in the Russian media? Do the Russians feel they won?

DOUGHERTY: The Russians - I think you'd say there are a couple of things that they're doing on their own media. There is a lot of coverage of what they are calling the humanitarian crisis in especially the capital of South Ossetia that was attacked by the Georgians. So they are making that case that their people, many of whom are as we know bearing Russian passports, that they were attacked. So they're talking about humanitarian crisis, attacks by the Georgians.

And then also, I think they are talking about how well their troops did. There's a lot of that reporting. There's a bit of education about the region, although Russians pretty much know, you know, Georgia. And many of them know the story of South Ossetia. So there wasn't as much education for the Russian population as for Western audiences. And I think that's a good point that was made before that this is a really tough story, even if you know it. Very hard to compress into short bites. It's a very - it's a remote area. It's small, but the meaning of the whole thing is huge.

And I don't think even the Georgians knew what the reaction would be when they went in, that the Russians would come in. So it turned into a much bigger story very, very quickly.

SWEENEY: Andrew Purvis in Tblisi, let me ask you about Georgia's leadership, in particular President Mikhakhail Saakashvili. Extremely media savvy, it would seem. Have you as a journalist sensed that when you've been trying to report on the government reaction to events?

PURVIS: Yes, I absolutely have. He's ever present. Any interviews I've done in Tblisi, he - it seems that he's there on the flat screen TV making another pronouncement to the people. I think he's a two edged sword. He's extremely articulate, passionate, good speaker, speaks six languages. But for foreign journalists, he's - he lacks in some credibility. He picks up - he repeats stories that he's heard, word of mouth, the most radical accusations against Russian troops without any sense of skepticism.

SWEENEY: Richard Beeston, as a foreign editor when events happen very quickly as they have in this case, and people make themselves available, such as President Saakashvili, has with a very keen awareness of the power of the media, it's easy to say yes, let's take him and let's put him on air. Has he in any way, do you believe, undermined his case at all or strengthened his case?

BEESTON: I think for those who watch this unfold right from the beginning, he undermines his case because right when it started, he announced on public television there'd be a ceasefire. And then overnight, the tanks went in and attacked South Ossetia.

So really, I think we're on guard. I have also natural inclination to distrust any organization that sends me 500 press releases a day, offers massive access. And you know, there's just a bell that goes off I think in the mind of any journalist. The Russians are the exact opposite. As Jill was saying, no access at all until really very late on in the day.

These are games that I think anyone who's covered these sort of conflicts is used to. And that's why I think, you know, it's really important to rely on what your reporters are seeing and telling you from the ground, and trying to verify if possible. But it's not easy.

SWEENEY: Our final word to Andrew Purvis in Tblisi, since you're on the ground there, I mean, I know that you're working to get around the Russian point of view as well. There is a fine line on the ground between hard facts and propaganda.

PURVIS: There is, there is. I think it's quite apparent when you speak to this government and Saakashvili, in particular that you're not going to get an accurate reflection of what's going on. But as Richard mentioned, this is not a - this is not the first time that a government has tried to spin a war.

SWEENEY: Not the first, probably won't be the last. Jill Dougherty may be in Moscow, you'll be receiving a lot more faxes and e-mails in the days ahead from the Russian authorities. Thank you. Thank you, Andrew Purvis in Tblisi, and here, Richard Beeston in the studio.

Now Israel considers the case closed. His employer, though, says many questions remain unanswered. The death of a Reuters cameraman in the Gaza Strip in April sparked outrage amongst journalists. We'll tell you why the news agency says the official conclusion could curtail the freedom of the media.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Dissatisfied and disturbed, that's how the Reuters news agency describes the Israeli army's findings into the death of a cameraman in the Gaza Strip in April. This is the final footage taken by Fadel Shana. The video shows an Israeli tank firing a shell in his direction before it cuts out.

This was the scene shortly afterwards. In a letter to Reuters, the Israeli army's top prosecutor found troops acted properly when they opened fire on Shana, suspecting he was a militant preparing to fire a missile after he set up a tripod. The cameraman was killed instantly by a tank shell that sprays metal darts at its target.

Brigadier General Abi Mandelblit (ph) noted "The tank crew was unable to determine the nature of the object mounted on the tripod and positively identified it as an anti-tank missile, a mortar, or a television camera." The army report also noted Israeli troops have come under fire earlier that day. It also stressed that Shana and his colleague who was wounded in the attack were wearing body armor commonly used by Palestinian militants.

Well, let's get more reaction on this. And for that, we go to Jerusalem, where we're joined by Alistair Macdonald. He's the Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories. And from Tel Aviv, Colonel Daniel Reisner, the former head of the International Law Department in the Israeli Defense Forces.

And first of all, Alistair McDonald, disappointed and dissatisfied, why?

ALISTAIR MACDONALD, REUTERS: Well, I think on two grounds. First of all, we're very distressed to see that the army itself in its own terms finds that the soldiers could not identify what they were looking at, and yet found a reasonable to open fire without warning with lethal force, firing a shell that was the intended to kill as many people as possible over a wide area.

But we're also very concerned that the troops say they were not able to identify our camera crew, who were working according to our best guidance in full view of the tank wearing markings. Their car was marked. And very clearly, making themselves known as journalists. So on these two points, we're worried and we're generally international media here in Jerusalem and working in the Gaza Strip is concerned that this is coming off news from Gaza. It is simply no longer safe if the Israeli army acts like this with impunity for us to send our crews out and report that side of the story.

SWEENEY: Colonel Reisner in Tel Aviv, the fact that the IDF couldn't identify the people in the tanks couldn't identify who was actually standing at that object which ultimately turned out to be a tripod and a camera, what do you say?

COL. DANIEL REISNER, FMR. HEAD, INTL. LAW DEPT., IDF: Well, first of all, the report goes into further detail about the events of that day. And the events of the day included three IDF soldiers killed in that sector earlier that day. And IDF tank, which was hit by an anti-tank rocket a few minutes before that event.

In addition, the location where the camera man was stationed actually another car drew up and a lot of other people apparently got out of the car in a - well, the tank crew viewed in a suspicious fashion. And so in fact we're talking about a war zone. And in that war zone, the tank crew and the commanders came to the conclusion that what they were looking at was at the potential terrorist using a mortar or an anti-tank missile.

SWEENEY: I think we've sort of set the stage for the viewer, because obviously this is a very detailed report. It took a long time to comply. I know Reuters is upset because they submitted their own report, but they weren't called as a witness. I know that the Israeli army has the case. So when it says that they don't know what is standing in front of them when they have to make a decision, either split second or over the case of a few minutes, how does one resolve the situation, Colonel Reisner, where several journalists have been killed since the beginning of the second intifada. And in the international forum anyway, there doesn't seem to be any recourse for news organizations to plead their case.

Or if there is, it is extremely rare that anyone is ever disciplined over it. How does that implicate Israel's image in the international media and indeed international public opinion?

REISNER: Well, first of all, I totally agree with you. Any death of a civilian is a tragedy, a death or an injury of a journalist is a high profile tragedy. And in that respect, every time such an incident occurs, of course, Israel finds itself in the defendant's seat, trying to explain why and what happened.

Naturally, we have absolutely no intention of hitting journalists. The.

SWEENEY: Fair enough, but all due respect, we've heard this many times before from the Israeli authorities. And there are many Israelis who would say actually if you're in a war zone, then you take your chances.

What I'm wondering is is there any way of standardizing it that the media are happy, the Israeli image improves in international public opinion. I'm wondering is there any way where the process of investigation on the part of the Israeli military can be seen to be more transparent or do you think that's important?

REISNER: Well, I agree that the perception is important, but I would prefer first of all to ensure that the investigation was totally accurate.

SWEENEY: But how do we know?

REISNER: In this particular case, I've been informed.

SWEENEY: I mean, how does one know.

REISNER: If you're asking.

SWEENEY: .if it's an internal investigation?

REISNER: Well, the idea is that a criminal investigation in Israel will only be launched if and when there are reasonable doubt - there's reasonable evidence to assume that the criminal offense has been committed. A split second decision or (INAUDIBLE) decision in the battlefield, which in retrospect appears not unreasonable, does not create grounds for a criminal investigation.

SWEENEY: Alastair Macdonald, let me ask you. I just want to move the story along for the moment in the short time that we have. Alastair Macdonald, your thoughts?

MACDONALD: OK, well, I think clearly, we dispute the reasonableness of this decision. And I think we want a proper independent accounting in this case for these soldiers. But I think more importantly, moving forward for us, we and the rest of the international media here are very keen to work with the Israeli army to ensure this doesn't happen again. And up to now, we have been pushed back repeatedly by an army which simply tells us if you want to stay safe, stay home. And that, frankly, is not acceptable for us.


MACDONALD: We need dialogue.

SWEENEY: Yes, you may say you need dialogue, but there is a case to be made that when one is a war zone, one knows particularly when putting a camera on a tripod that deadly reflection off the lens of the camera catching in the sunlight can easily be mistaken for something else and something more threatening. Does the Israeli army not have a case when it says - when it has young soldiers, some of whom are reservists or maybe doing their military service, and who are extremely nervous and don't want to have to wait to find out. They'll ask questions later.

MACDONALD: Israel has its obligations under international law not to harm civilians. Journalists are civilians. Those soldiers need proper training in order that they do not fire on journalists. They need to know what a television camera looks like. It doesn't look anything like a missile system. We need training and we need some dialogue with the army to agree on ways in which we can improve our visibility to them and they to us.

SWEENEY: Colonel Reisner, final question to you in Tel Aviv. I'm wondering is compensation paid to this - the family of this particular journalist?

REISNER: First of all, may I say that on the dialogue, I think Alastair is completely correct. And probably one of the first issues that should be discussed is are there ways in which journalists can distinguish themselves from terrorists at long distances, in which some of these engagements take place?

SWEENEY: Would that recall perhaps a standard foundation of uniform maybe. I'm not saying uniform, but I'm wondering is - would that call for a regulation that we all wear when we're in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank?

REISNER: Well, maybe it calls for a dialogue with the army on this specific point, but I'm sure the army would be more than willing to try and come up with an answer which will make both sides happier. And as for the compensation question, again, this - there is no legal requirement to compensate a victim of a war tragedy. And this is always the question which is done in front of discussions. I have no idea if such a question has arisen in this specific case. So I don't know an answer.

SWEENEY: A final word to you, Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem. Reuters says it's going to look at other illegal challenges. What challenges or channels rather are open to you?

MACDONALD: Well, we're certainly intent on exhausting the entire legal process that we can, because we don't believe that a proper independent accounting has been held in this case. And certainly, we want dialogue. We have been refused dialogue in any meaningful way up to now. And we are certainly asking for it again with the army.

SWEENEY: All right, gentlemen, we're out of town. Time, Colonel Reisner in Tel Aviv, Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem, thank you both very much indeed.

Caught up in what you're trying to report, a British television reporter is detained while trying to cover a protest in Beijing. We hear from ITV's John Ray about his encounter with police and the promise of media freedom during the Olympics when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. The Olympics are producing stunning displays of competition, especially in the pool. While that might be the case, attention continues to be (INAUDIBLE) sports, especially when it comes to protests.

On Wednesday, a journalist with Britain's ITV News was filming a protest rally near the Olympic stadium when he was wrestled to the ground and briefly detained.


JOHN RAY, ITV NEWS: Are you arresting me? I want to talk. I want to talk. What upon you? I'm a journalist.


SWEENEY: Officials say officers mistook Ray for an activist. And a spokesman from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, "The police didn't understand his identity. So they took him away to check his identity. After that, they let him go."

Well, Becky Anderson spoke to John Ray after he was released on Wednesday. She asked him whether he was surprised by the way he had been treated.


JOHN RAY, CORRESPONDENT, ITV NEWS: Any journalist who's operated in China for any length of time learns a few of the tricks of the trade. So you learn how to duck and dive around police. You know when to withdraw from a situation. And you learn when to try to stand up to what's happening.

What surprised me here was it came without any warning. And I was totally shocked by the level of force used against me today. The other, of course, most of the surprising thing is that we are in the Olympic period. And in return for hosting the games, one of the promises that the authorities here had to give to the international community and the IOC in particular was that there would be freedom to report on what the 20,000 visiting journalists to this city.

It's really not for me to make the judgment, since I was on the receiving end of this, of how much they match that commitment today. But I suspect people who watched what happened will form a very definite judgment on that question.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Will t deter you from covering that sort of protest in the future?

RAY: No, of course not. I think one of the ironies for the Chinese is this. That you know, there have been a series of these pro Tibet and protests in the capitol during the course of these games and in the immediate run up. In a sense, the story, you know, there's a law of diminishing returns on this. I know the Tibetan protest, well, you know, news rooms will yawn and say so what?

But because of the, in my opinion, massive overreaction by the authorities there today, they have turned it into very bad publicity. You know, and yet another event which in many eyes around the world will damage the image of Beijing.


SWEENEY: John Ray of ITV News speaking to Becky Anderson.

Don't forget that we're also online. Log on to to see the show again. You can also check out the archive, read the blog, and take part in the quick vote. Our home on the web,

And 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.