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Media Crews in Georgia Face Danger; Examining the Beijing Games; Persecuted Reporters

Aired August 22, 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, caught in the crossfire, the dangers to news crews reporting on the Russia, Georgia conflict. Persecuted over the power of the pen, the former (INAUDIBLE) safe house reporters living in exile. And the triumph and the tears. We look at Beijing 2008 from the arm chair to the commentary books.

First this week, journalists in the battle zone. The Russia, Georgia conflict not merely a dangerous assignment, for some media workers it proved deadly. On Monday, a memorial service was held in Tbilisi for two Georgian journalists killed in the South Ossetian city of Skin Valley. Gregor Chiklaza (ph) and Alexander Klinchook (ph) were killed on August 9th while filming the conflict.

Other media staff also found themselves under attack. This crew from Turkey's NTV came under tons of gunfire as they drove from the Russian border to Skin Valley.

One crew member was shot in the head, but his injuries weren't life threatening. In another incident, a Georgian television correspondent was hit by shrapnel while reporting live.

Well, let's get a sense of what it's like on the ground and how news outlets should approach conflicts like we've seen in Georgia. Cal Perry, CNN's former Baghdad bureau chief, he was in Georgia last week, and is now on assignment covering the plane crash in Madrid. He comes to us via broadband. Also with us is Rodney Pinter, the director of the International News Safety Institute, an organization that promotes the safety of journalists around the globe.

Rodney Pinder, how does the conflict in Georgia compare with safety for journalists in other conflicts?

Rodney pinder, director, intl. News safety institute: well, it's really been rather dismaying because in the first five days of the conflict, we had five news media staff killed, which is worse than the killing that happened in iraq, which then went on to be the worst killing ground of modern times.

It's one of these swirling conflicts where dangers come from all sides, indiscriminate fire and civilians, including journalists. And it's getting far too dangerous, modern warfare, for journalists to be there untrained and unprepared.

SWEENEY: Cal Perry, you were in Georgia and South Ossetia last week. And presumably, you've done your CNN safety training course, of course, but I'm wondering what did you experience in terms of your experience in Baghdad? How did it compare?

CAL PERRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have to tell you, I think my concern was more for our crew in Tbilisi, not that they were being specifically targeted like they were in Iraq, but he was so random. You had to cross so many front lines. In order to get to Skin Valley, you had to cross the Georgian line, and then the Russian line. And the Russians were very suspicious of anybody approaching their front lines.

Another big issue that we were up against is it was not two major armies facing off of each other. It quickly developed into these rag tag gangs coming out of South Ossetia, robbing people. They were hijacking cars at gunpoint, making journalists walk out of the city with guns pointed at the back of their heads.

And they were often times drunk. You could smell alcohol on the breaths of the soldiers. Our senior correspondent Matthew Chance did a live shot. And in the middle of his life shot, a Russian soldier came up, stood right next to him. He said he could smell the vodka on this breath.

So it seemed as though there was really no order. When you're in Iraq, certainly the U.S. military at times will take on the responsibility of protecting you. They'll put you through some minor training. That was not the case at all in Georgia.

SWEENEY: Rodney Pinder, is this a departure then from previous conflicts?

PINDER: I think it's a development in modern warfare, quite frankly. Conflict now seems to unleash all sorts of unruly lawless elements who seem to answer to nobody but themselves. But we would remind governments who are involved in any conflict like this, they have responsibilities for the protection of civilians in the war zone. And that includes journalists.

SWEENEY: But if I may, if governments feel they can't prevent civilians in war zones, I mean, are they going to necessarily be concerned about international journalists going there to cover the story?

PINDER: Well, no, they're not concerned. And that's the point. And they're not concerned about civilians in modern warfare either. And that's the point. There's been far too much indiscriminate fire, indiscriminate shelling, sniping, and all kinds of things. They don't care about civilians.

Now we were instrumental in getting resolution 1738 through the Security Council a couple years back, providing for the safety of journalists in conflict. And these rules that are laid out by the U.N. are being widely ignored by governments involved in these conflicts today.

SWEENEY: Cal Perry, when you're on the ground in places such as Iraq and Georgia, do you think about the U.N. resolution when you're perhaps facing danger?

PERRY: Fionnuala, you know, I have to tell you the last thing any of us are concerned with is international law, especially in a war zone, be it Baghdad or in a place like Georgia. I can tell you that we had crews going into places like Gori. And they were finding unexploded ordinance on the ground. We know that the Georgians also, as they pulled out of South Ossetia, left many things in the ground, be it unexploded ordinance. We heard rumors of landmines. We weren't able to confirm that.

I want to echo what was said earlier. You know, training for journalists is something that is exceptionally important. At CNN, we take safety, of course, very seriously. So we have security advisors with us, excuse me, at all times. These are people that used to be professional soldiers. They tell you where to step, where not to step. And they would also be the first to tell you international law rarely applies to war zones.

SWEENEY: For the moment, Cal Perry, we'll leave it there.

Rodney Pinder, do some countries and organizations have a better track record at protecting their journalists than others?

PINDER: I hate to pick any out, because really, the picture is not very good all around. We've got to understand as journalists, the first priority of any army anywhere is not going to be the safety of journalists. We have to recognize that. And we have to be prepared for it. We have to have proper training. We have to have proper equipment. We have to know what we're doing.

And you know, the news industry in so many ways is still fighting the last war. You know, rather like the British army in 1914, there was still fighting the bore war. Well, we are still fighting wars which were nice and tidy and had two sides and all the rest of it. Now the enemies are everywhere. The enemies of journalists are everywhere. They finally can come from anywhere. You can blunder into drunken soldiers or looters or just complete criminals any time. And they're the prime target. They don't care about journalists at all, even less than governments do. And we've got to be better prepared for that. SWEENEY: But also, though, don't often in many cases want to get the story at all. So journalists just aren't necessarily caught in the crossfire. They're actively sought out in some cases?

PINDER: But they want their story taken out. And they want their story out. But they don't want it with the balance and the argument that journalists can provide. They can get on the Internet. They have their own websites. They can put their own case without argument and without any problems. So they don't like what journalists do so often, which is to provide balance and argument. What we've got to do is get people to observe the laws of their countries and international laws against killing journalists.

And remember, to kill a journalist in a conflict is a war crime.

SWEENEY: But who ultimately would be accountable in Georgia for the killing or endangerment of journalists on the other side?

PINDER: Well, you might find that Russia might be accountable. There might be a news organization that could take Russia, for example, to the international court for the bombing that killed Dutch journalists at the media center. Israel could be held responsible for the deaths of journalists in the occupied territories.

SWEENEY: But the reality, how likely is something like that to be pursued by either an organization or.

PINDER: It's difficult, but it - I think it's becoming more likely. I think journalists and news organizations are getting to the point where they realize and we certainly realize that something has got to be done, something concrete has got to be done. And the U.N. resolution, which all right doesn't actually provide you with a suit of armor and a (INAUDIBLE), but it's the beginning of a political process to make people more responsible when journalists are in the war zone.

SWEENEY: Rodney Pinder, thanks as always.

Torture, incarceration, exile, and even murder. In some places, those are the dangers journalists face for speaking out. We meet the maker of a documentary on a safehouse for reporters who've been forced to flee.

(Commercial break)

SWEENEY: Welcome back. Fleeing a life of torture, that's the reality for many journalists who are persecuted for their work. La Maison de Journalistes is a safehouse in Paris for some of those reporters forced to go into exile. And it's the subject of the film "Tortured Truth" by Christine Garabedian.

(Begin video clip, "tortured truth")

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Torture, incarceration and even murder are common in countries where journalists are seen as a threat. The residents of this home are the lucky ones who got away. Adel was one who survived to tell the tale.

ADEL: I saw how they torture people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm asking about you, Adel. Did they want to kill you?

ADEL: Of course.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Were you in prison?

ADEL: Of course. I was in prison, waiting to see what would happen to me. When would it begin? What they call the `beginning', bless them. When will they bring the.they kill by electric drill, or a saw, that kind of killing. They perfected it into an art form.

(End video clip)

SWEENEY: An excerpt from "Tortured Truth" there. I recently caught up with the director, Christine Garabedian, and asked what it was that prompted her to make the film.

(Begin videotape)

CHRISTINE GARABEDIAN, DIRECTOR, TORTURED TRUTH: The fact that this is a safe haven and also the fact that the people who founded and run the house have certain ideals which they then actually feel they have to turn into practical, something quite practical like running a house and running a shelter for these journalists.

SWEENEY: How did they go about actually getting the journalists to Paris? Or do the journalists somehow just find their way there?

GARABEDIAN: Well, these journalists, all of them actually, asking for political asylum in France. So when they arrive in France, they get in touch with Reporters Sans Frontieres, Reporters Without Borders, which is an organization that looks after journalists all over the world. And they get in touch with the organization, who then put them in touch with the people running the house. And that's how they get to the house.

SWEENEY: Presumably, many of them have experienced such trauma, that they need other forms of help. Is that available to them?

GARABEDIAN: Yes. They have a number of ways of helping the journalists. They get some financial support from the French government and other organizations. And they get moral support from each other when they can communicate with each other. And they have a number of people in the house who actually help them through whatever trauma they have experienced. And there's a psychotherapist in the house who comes in to look after them when they need looking after. And also they have - they work with translators because many of the people who arrive in the house actually don't speak a word of French and have a very hard time communicating with each other and with French people. So they have - they get translators to come and help them communicate.

SWEENEY: The clip we saw there about Adel, the Iraqi journalist, how do you go about out of the 15 people in the house, did you go about deciding which would be the more poignant, colorful, striking, whatever word you would like to describe characters for you to shoot?

GARABEDIAN: Well, I guess it's quite an instinctive decision. It's to do with the fact that basically as a filmmaker, one - you know, I went into the house and spent quite some time there and got to know people. And I felt quite quickly drawn to someone like Adel because I could communicate with him. I speak Arabic. And I felt very drawn to him. He was someone that I found very moving. And he had an incredible story. And so I felt he - instinctively, he would be my sort of main character. And he's also a friend now. So that's how it works.

SWEENEY: I was going to ask in terms of the sort of personal connections you made either with others in the house or within yourself, I mean, what did you take away from the making of this?

GARABEDIAN: It was a very humbling experience. It was a great honor to be accepted into the house because it's quite a difficult place to be. And I took away experiences which I will never forget, sort of contact with people, stories they told, and also friendships. And really, I have many good memories of working in the house.

SWEENEY: With people who have been so deeply affected, but also journalists, so they understand when somebody's trying to talk to them to get the story, did you ever have a bad reaction even though these journalists themselves would often put themselves in danger by trying to get the story? What was the most challenging part of it?

GARABEDIAN: The most challenging part was the emotional part. It was actually trying to understand, trying to empathize, trying to make them feel comfortable so that they could tell their stories, trying to sort of gain their trust and their confidence.

Because many of the journalists in the house are so vulnerable. And they're so traumatized by some of their experiences, that it's very difficult for them to actually talk about these experiences. So that was a challenge. And it's about being accepted. Like in the making of any film, one has to be accepted.

And because I was alone with a camera, it was easier for me. I could get close to them. I could sit on the floor in their room and chat with them with a camera off and actually feel comfortable.

(End videotape)

SWEENEY: Filmmaker Christine Garabedian speaking to me there.

Well, from the pool to the track, there have been some stunning performances at the Beijing Olympics. And as they draw to a close, we get the view from reporters on the highs and lows of the 2008 Games.

(Commercial break)

SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now going for gold, the great hall of China. They're among the phrases that have been used to describe the action at the Olympics. There have been triumphs and tears. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps achieved the unthinkable to win a record eight gold metals in the pool.

While for China, the big headline was about national hurdling hero Lu Xiang (ph), forced to pull out of the games due to injury.

Beyond the medal count, there are countless Olympic stories. Well, for their take on the Beijing Games, let's turn to two people in the know, CNN's own Larry Smith, who's in Beijing for us. And here in the studio, world sports Pedro Pinto.

Larry, as the Games close, what's it been like for you out and about there?

LARRY SMITH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's been - I think these games have been exciting, Fionnuala, I really do. I mean, you know, China set out to really put on a very big, lAvish party for the world. And they've done that. They spent $40 billion U.S. in buildings and infrastructure. You know, they've thrown thousands and thousands of people and the man hours to put this on. It's been very well organized. I thought the way the stabbing tragedy at the beginning of the Games was handled very well, as well as it can be in a very difficult situation. And really was allowed to put the visitors at ease. And it allowed everyone to have a good time.

The venues, i've heard no complaints about different venues and things like that. And of course, again, the stories. When you have athletes like Michael Phelps, and Usain Bolt and China's gold medal rush, an unprecedented success that they've had in these games, it has been an exciting Olympics to cover. It's my fourth Olympics here. I've done several dozen major championships all over the world. And this one ranks up there with some of the best.

SWEENEY: Obviously, there have been concerns about other aspects of these Olympics, which we'll perhaps revisit another time. But from a purely sporting point of view, Pedro Pinto, sitting in the sports arm chair in London so to speak, how do these games look to you?

PEDRO PINTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think they have been fantastic. And we've had a chance also to have more equality throughout some of the major super powers, as far as the gold medal hall and medal hall overall. I think China, the fact that they're leading throughout, was fantastic for them. As the host, they set up a target of 40 gold medals. They surpassed that. Great Britain with their largest gold medal haul since 1908. And it was fantastic to see the stories. Like you said, Michael Phelps you said broke two world records. From a sporting point of view, in looking ahead to the next Olympics here in London, I think it's going to be very hard to beat some of the achievements that have been seen in Beijing.

SWEENEY: A lot for the London organizing committee to think about.

But Larry Smith, for the moment, what has it been like being out and about in a country where we heard was reaching out to the world, and it was important said some people that they are welcomed and embraced. How did they embrace you?

SMITH: You know, I was really embraced. And i'll be really honest, when I - before I came here to China, my first trip ever to this country, I had heard the stories of an anti-CNN sentiment and even in some point, you know, maybe not really friendly to outsiders. And for my experiences, that has not been the case. We did a point of view package our first few days here out at Tiananmen Square, where people actually were walking up to us to take our picture, not because we were a TV crew, but simply because we were Westerners. They had not seen people who were not Chinese.

They had not seen a man with Brown skin. Their images on TV. They thought I was an athlete, which I thought was very comical. But it's - it was.

Sweeney: pedro -

SMITH: .it's been really wonderful the way we have been - yes, and Pedro would laugh about that knowing Pedro's as long as I have. But it's been wonderful to be here. And experiences really have been pleasant at every single turn. The hospitality here has been simply outstanding.

I can't speak for the other issues that have been going on outside the sporting Arena. Only from what I have witnessed. And those experiences have been positive.

SWEENEY: How much time have you been able to spend out and about? And how much time have you been tied in front of a camera doing reports like this?

SMITH: Probably about 80 percent of my time is in front of a camera. And that's just the way the Olympics are, you know. I know before I get here months in advance this is what it's going to take.

But I did get a chance to spend some time out at Tiananmen Square, forbidden city, the lava temple. I have a childhood friend from back in the States who lives here now. We spent a wonderful lunch together. And he showed me some other things. And again, at every turn, it has been very welcoming.

The one message that I did get when that stabbing incident happened with the American tourist, who was related to the U.S. mens volleyball team was that attacks on Westerners are very, very rare. It was shocking that this kind of thing even had happened.

SWEENEY: As we sit here in London, Pedro, I mean, are you looking forward, obviously, to the 2012 games here in London. What were the highlights for you that you think London may or may not be able to better?

PINTO: It's tough for me from an organizational point of view to get a feel exactly for what China was able to produce. I was personally very impressed with the opening ceremonies even after the stories came out that there was some computer engineering involved. I think the opening ceremony was absolutely fantastic. And the London organizers will struggle to beat that.

I think that the constant world records in the swimming pool, in the water cube are going to be very hard to beat as well. They've been talking about this being a very fast pool because it's wider, it's deeper, there's less waves. The new laser suit as well contributed to this. And I don't know if in the next four years, they're going to come out with an even better suit that's going to facilitate even more quicker times.

But to see Michael Phelps again here in London with the fantastic, although I don't know if he can do eight medals again. No one had ever done more than Spitz before.

SWEENEY: But how much pressure is there, not only on an organizing committee, to organize a good games effectively, but to want as China very much clearly wanted them to be literally the best games ever?

PINTO: As far as a viewer and as a journalist is concerned, I believe these have been the best games ever because you also have to take into account the technology involved and the transmissions overseas, the amount of cameras that are used that the quality of the equipment that is being used at these games is superior to the ones we've always had. And that's just a natural evolution of technology.

I have been very impressed with the production value of these games. And I don't know if Larry agrees with me, but he's on the ground. But I would say that these are the best ones I have ever seen.

SWEENEY: Larry, I think you're pretty high in your praise of these games?

SMITH: I would agree with that. And I think that it's important that London not try to be the next Beijing. In fact, I just saw a quote this week from Sebastian Coe (ph), part of the London 2012 committee, saying we're not going to try to be as lAvish or more grand than what Beijing did because clearly, China has spent a lot of money on these games. And it shows.

You know, London doesn't really have to do that. London is already very familiar to the world. They don't have to throw the same kind of party. There's a different agenda there. But I think that everyone is confident that the London games will be phenomenal. There will be a stamp on those games, be it a Michael Phelps or some young person that we don't even - haven't even heard of yet, who will make those games their own.

Every Olympics, when you look back and think about it, has its own personality, has its own stars. These are the games of Michael Phelps, of Usain Bolt, of the Chinese athletes, of the culture being put on world stage. London will have its in 2012. But I would agree that these games have been spectacular in so many ways. Pedro mentioned it. The technology, the buildings, certainly the records.

One - very quickly, one interview I did was with the architectural firm who built the water cube. And I kept asking about, you know, is it the pool? What is it about the pool makes it so fast? He kept going back and saying it's the athletes. The athletes and their training and the way that they go about it. And I think some of that is true. You look at some of the records that have been set in track and field as well, which is - no one's saying it's a fast track in the bird's nest.

SWEENEY: Well, it's a very beautiful bird's nest from behind you, Larry Smith in Beijing. Thanks very much indeed. And Pedro Pinto here, of course, in London.

You can watch the show again on our website. Log on to to see our archive, read the blog, and take part in the quick vote. That address again

That's all for this edition of the program, though. 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.