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Fidel Blogs; Putin Intervewed; Democrats Hold Their Convention

Aired August 29, 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.
The ticket is set and this week, the Democrats (INAUDIBLE) trying to sell it to the people. We're behind the scenes at the Convention Center in Denver. Discussing definance with Dmitri Medvedev. CNN sits down with the Russian president. And Fidel Castro may have faded from public view, but now, he's doing what bloggers do, commenting on news and foreign policy and even his daily affairs.

We kicked this week off with the first of the U.S. conventions. Democrats and 15,000 media descended on Denver to see Barack Obama make history and formally accept the party's nomination for president. The high tech spectacle is quite a departure from the past. In 1844, news of Henry Clay's nomination was sent by telegraph. In 1924, conventions were first covered by radio. And 60 years ago, 1948, brought us the first televised conventions.

Well, long gone are the days when party conventions were the scenes of high drama and suspense. Now it's HGTV, interactive political experiences, and state of the art ireport video kiosks.

Now coming to you from Denver, Colorado and the Pepsi Center is Paul Steinhauser, CNN deputy political director.

Paul, you've covered many conventions. How does this compare to previous Democratic ones?

PAUL STEINHAUSER: I think there's more drama at this Democratic Convention than we've seen in quite some time. And that was because of the party unity question, where Hillary Clinton's millions of supporters would back Barack Obama. So there was a story line here that we haven't had in previous conventions, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: And is this a story line that makes it more exciting perhaps or not than the upcoming Republican convention?

STEINHAUSER: Yes, because the Democratic primaries went on all the way to the very end. It was a very long and bitter process and fight between Barack Obama and his supporters and Hillary Clinton and her supporters.

On the Republican side, John mccain basically kind of wrapped things up in early March. And there hasn't been that - there wasn't that kind of drama on the Republican side. So there's no story line equal to what the Democrats had in Denver.

SWEENEY: And by implication, you're almost saying, Paul, that these conventions are rather scripted for the media. There isn't really - it's more or less getting the media on message, rather than them finding a story.

STEINHAUSER: Yes, that's really what conventions are becoming, because there really isn't that much drama at conventions any more. You know who the vice presidential nominee's going to be. You know who the presidential nominees going to be. The party platforms, which are decided here, are not that interesting to the American public.

It's basically a big primetime message for the parties to get their message out, to the millions of people who are watching. It's turned into more of a television and Internet event than actual history making decision making.

SWEENEY: You mentioned primetime. And I'm interested because that is associated with television. How is the Internet and blogging in 2008 compare with conventions of previous years?

STEINHAUSER: Yes, we've come a long way just in the last four years since the last conventions. We didn't have Youtube four years ago. And the blogs were definitely not nearly anywhere where they are right now.

So both the blogs and user generated content that you see on Youtube had made a big difference here, because nowadays, it's not just journalists that are covering conventions. It's anybody, anybody with a cellphone, anybody with a video camera, anybody with basically a BlackBerry can become a reporter to an extent. And it's changed - it's really changed the way we cover the news.

SWEENEY: And does it make your life easier or more difficult?

STEINHAUSER: I think it's both, a blessing and a curse. It makes it easier because now we have more information to mine. And there is more - there's easier ways to bring news. But it's a curse as well because there is just so much to look at. And a lot of this stuff is unvetted.

SWEENEY: And that's before we even talk about the wealth of information coming from the Clinton camps and the Obama camps. How do they relate to journalists like yourself during a convention like this?

STEINHAUSER: The campaigns and the Democratic party itself are giving many briefings to us every day. They're there to tell us - to get their message out, obviously. So they're talking to us and the other domestic networks and even some of the international correspondents as well. And there's these slew of e-mails we get every day from the Obama campaign, from the Clinton camp, from the Democratic Party. It's just - it's not a problem to try to speak to somebody here from one of the campaigns or camps. They're here to get their message out. They're available 24/7.

SWEENEY: All right, we leave it there. Thank you very much indeed. Paul Steinhauser, who is CNN Deputy Political Director coming to us from Denver, Colorado.

The conventions are being watched the world over, but should foreign journalists covering the U.S. presidential election have the same access to the candidates as American reporters do? Joining me now is the U.S. correspondent for Canal+, Laura Haim, who's interviewed Mr. Obama, yet wasn't given permission to travel with him on his trip abroad or indeed on the campaign trail.

Laura, is that unusual for foreign journalists?

LAURA HAIM, CANAL+: It's tougher than before. And all of us, we have really a lot of problems to be able to follow properly Senator Obama or even Senator mccain. Officially, it's open press. So we can go to France.

Now to be part of what you call the traveling press, meaning those reporters who are traveling with them in the plane, who are following them 24/7, all of our requests so far have been denied. To the best of my knowledge, only a French photojournalist from Agence France Press is following Senator Obama, but we cannot be part of the traveling press. We tried. We send them e-mails. We made some phone calls. And unfortunately, they don't want us. They're spreading all over that they have to restore the image of America all over the world. But again, to get real access to them, it's extremely difficult. And as I told you before, it's identified.

SWEENEY: But couldn't the argument be made that really the only people they need to win over right now are the American media and the American public? And America's image in the rest of the world can be dealt with once Mr. Obama becomes president, assuming he does?

HAIM: Yes, but again, you know, this election is an historical event. All over the world, people are watching closely to the election. They want to understand what's happening to America. And we're not asking for anything more than the same access in the American press.

I don't think it's fair for the foreign press to be discriminated because we're foreigners. For instance, if CNN decides to follow President Sarcozy, you're going to have the similar access so far than the French press or than the German press. Here, it's totally different. At the convention, for instance, let me explain to you. At the convention, you have to get this pass to go to the floor. The American press can go to the floor, one correspondent a day on the floor with this pass. For us, the foreign press, we have to rotate this pass. It means 30 minutes a day from media organization on the floor, meaning we're watching the convention on TV, and to go access, to get to the floor, to go the floor, again, we have to rotate the pass from hundreds of them. Can you imagine what it means? Can you do proper reporting by doing that?

Again, we're just asking equal access.

SWEENEY: And how much of an ear do you think the organizers of the convention have for foreign journalists right now?

HAIM: Yes, I don't know. We try to talk to them. Officially, they're saying you're not discriminated. But for instance, we wanted to do live reports from the floor. All American networks, all major cable news channel have studio on the floor. They can report live with the minutes on the floor. They can show what's happening, the feeling of the people.

We cannot. We can only go there 30 minutes a day, do our standard, and then go out to the next day. We won't be able to go.

SWEENEY: You covered other conventions in your capacity as U.S. correspondent. I'm wondering are you heading to the Republican Convention? And do you expect the treATMent there to be any different?

HAIM: Yes, the difference is the Internet. You have more press. You have more bloggers. They're campaigns are extremely interested also by what's happening on the web. So they're going to take an American blogger with them instead of a French reporter or an Iraqi reporter, which again, is a problem. We see more press. It's huge. Everybody has the same information. And we don't know officially again. We had this discussion yesterday among us. I don't know if I can call this job a journalistic job. I think we have to invent a new word to describe what does this mean for a foreign reporter to cover an American election. It's big, it's huge. If you don't have a BlackBerry, you cannot follow the campaign because everything is happening by e-mail.

Look, if you come from, for instance, Egypt, you're not sure, for instance. You have a BlackBerry with you when you're (INAUDIBLE). And again, without a BlackBerry, cannot cover properly this campaign. That's, in my opinion, the big difference.

SWEENEY: All right, we'll have to leave it there, Laura Haim, but thank you very much indeed for joining us there. As many issues for journalists as there are at the convention itself. Many thanks.

Now Western leaders had warned against such a move. And since making Moscow's recognition of two breakaway Georgian regions official, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev went about explaining his actions. And he sat down with CNN's Matthew Chance to do just that.

(Commercial break)

(Begin video clip)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): The thing is not only that the U.S. administration has failed to restrain the leadership from committing this criminal act, but in fact, equipped and trained the Georgian army. But I have some other comment to add. Even during the Cold War, during the time of tough confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we have always avoided direct clashes between our civilians, let alone our servicemen. We have serious reasons to believe that directly in the combat zone, citizens of the United States were present. And if this is the case, then suspicion arises that someone in the United States has on purpose created this conflict with a view to exacerbate the situation and create competitive advantage for one of the presidential candidates in the United States.

(End video clip)

SWEENEY: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaking to CNN's senior correspondent Matthew Chance.

Well, earlier in the week, the country's president Dmitri Medvedev told CNN the people in Georgia's breakaway regions deserve independence because the recent conflict showed Georgia's president Mikhail Sakvili (ph) wants to wipe them out.

(Begin video clip)

DMITRI MEDVEDEV, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): He has destroyed all hopes for uniting Ossetians, Apausians (ph) and Georgians in one state. And this was the only opportunity to prevent the further escalation of the conflict, further bloodshed, and the killing of the civilians.

(End video clip)

SWEENEY: Matthew Chance is in Sochi, Russian, just north of Georgia on the Black Sea. He joins us now.

Matthew, how did that interview with President Medvedev come about?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was unexpected, Fionnuala. We got 24 hours notice of phone call in Moscow, saying that we had to be in Sochi this city on the southern coast of Russian on the Black Sea. And we had to report at the press center here of the Kremlin in order to have an audience, have an exclusive one on one interview with Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president.

It's highly unusual. It's certainly the first time that we've spoken to President Medvedev since he was inaugurated as president back in May, since he was elected even as president back in March. And so obviously, it was an opportunity we had no intention of turning down.

When we actually got there, President Medvedev had granted interviews to four news organizations. There was CNN, the BBC, the French channel TF Blog (ph), and al Jazeera in English.

But we all had, you know, consecutive turns at interviewing the Russian president. All of us had about half an hour each with a translator that was provided by the Kremlin to ask him whatever questions we wanted. Probably be back four or five questions. Everybody managed to ask him each.

Again, you know, an unprecedented opportunity for us to actually sit down and, you know, ask the Russian president exactly what his plans were, what his intentions were in running this country.

Remember, it was very orchestrated as well because just minutes before he sat down in our interview with CNN, we were the first to do it of the four television companies, he went on national television and he announced that dramatic news that Russia was recognizing as independent states those breakaway territories of Apausia (ph) and South Ossetia.

And so the Kremlin really planned this series of interviews out very carefully, and coordinated it with this announcement of recognition. Fionnuala?

SWEENEY: Does that desire on the part of Moscow to get its message out on a day such as it was, does that contrast sharply with Russia's attitude towards the international media at the beginning of the outbreak of hostilities with Georgia?

CHANCE: Yes, it does, certainly because at the beginning of hostilities with Georgia, it was extremely difficult to get any kind of reaction from the Kremlin, any Kremlin officials on any Western news organization. It wasn't for days later that they put up somebody, Sir (INAUDIBLE) deputy prime minister to talk in English about what Russia's intentions were, and to put across Russia's point of view on this conflict.

And indeed, that's been something we've really had to live with as reporters inside Moscow, reporting being based in Moscow. Very little access is usually given to us by senior Russian officials in the Kremlin administration. And I think what may have happened, you know, I don't know this for sure, but certainly what may have happened is that the Kremlin has made a decision that it was losing that media war, but it had to work much harder to get its point of view across to the Western news organizations. And that's perhaps why we were invited, along with others, to sit down with Dmitri Medvedev and conduct that interview, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: And to what could you attribute the ambivalence before that of the Russian authorities to the international media? Is it akin to how it sees the national domestic media? Or is it just doesn't see that it needs to answer to international media at all?

CHANCE: Yes, I think that's it. I mean, I think in terms of the national Russian media, the Kremlin has worked hard since Vladimir Putin came to office as president in 2000 to make sure that the national media very much follows the Kremlin line. There's very little dissent within the main broadcast media in this country to what the Kremlin position is on any issue that you can name.

The Western media obviously a lot more difficult to handle. I think, you know, the sense i've got over the past several years reporting and traveling to and from Russia is that, you know, the international media has just not been a priority for the Kremlin. They've kind of taken the position, well, you know, why should we explain ourselves to you? You know, we're the Russian government. You know, we don't need to kind of put across our position to the Western news organizations. If you don't like what we're doing, then you know, don't like it.

SWEENEY: And do -

CHANCE: And - but you know, I sense, and I certainly hope that that attitude has started to change, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Well, that's' what I was about to ask. Do you think this Georgian war and the media war which many perceive was won by the Georgians, if not the military one, will mark a turning point in relations between the Kremlin and the international media?

CHANCE: Again, I certainly hope it does, because the kind of access that we're being given at the moment is the kind of access which, you know, we did not expect. And it's really unprecedented in this country. And you know, it does one thing. We certainly make a much better job, given this access, of putting across what the Russian point of view is.

Now may not agree with it. You know, people around the world may not agree with what the Russian point of view is, but at least now it's out there on the table. And the debate can be had amongst all the people involved, all the people that are interested in what's going on in this very volatile region now to make their own decisions and to draw their own conclusions as to who's right, as to who's wrong.

Previously, the Russians did a very poor job, I'd say, of putting across their point of view.

SWEENEY: On that note, we leave it there. Matthew Chance reporting from Sochi. Thank you very much.

And you can see Matthew's interviews with the Russian president and prime minister on

Now two years ago, he disappeared from the public stage, but he still gets his message out. Next, Fidel Castro weighs in online.

(Commercial break)

SWEENEY: He's been dubbed blogger in chief by some Cubans. Reflections of comrade Fidel are posted on a state website. The former president writes about world affairs, chAllenges facing Cuba, and his personal life.

Well, Morgan Neill is CNN's Havana bureau chief. He joins us now. We know Fidel Castro has been seriously ill. How long has this website been going?

MORGAN NEILL, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF: Well, this has really just popped up in recent months just from earlier this year. But the essays themselves that are appearing on this site have been coming out since just - really just after his illness began. This came quickly to be the new outlet through which the then president was making his voice heard.

SWEENEY: And presumably, it's published online as well as the state media in Cuba. How much access to people in Cuba have to these articles online?

NEILL: Well, next to none. Internet access in Cuba is - access to the Internet in Cuba is the worst in the hemisphere. And generally the way this works is that people just are not given permission to have Internet access in their homes.

Now Cuba blames this on the U.S. embargo, saying that the U.S. doesn't allow Cubans to have access to the an undersea broadband cable that would allow Cuba to have greater access. But of course, that doesn't explain why the government doesn't grant permission to normal Cubans to have that access.

Now secondly, there are some Internet cafes scattered throughout the country, but the cost is really prohibitive for most Cubans. Just clearly, out of their range.

SWEENEY: So clearly, these articles have been published online for the international consumer. Give us a flavor of the kind of thinking that's going on through the former president's mind these days?

NEILL: Well, it's really interesting. It really runs the gamut. I'll show you a recent article here. This is, of course, what you'll see in the state run newspapers. Los (INAUDIBLE) Cuba, what they didn't say about Cuba. And this is the second article that Fidel Castro's written this week about Cuba's performance in the Olympic Games, which according to whom you listen, was either spectacular in terms of metals per capita, or disastrous in terms of Cuba's performance in the past.

Castro is a huge sports fan. He's made athletic performance a big priority here. So this article talks about why Cuba's metal count went down. He's raised some controversy by supporting a tae kwon do athlete, who actually kicked an official, saying that he was perfectly within his rights to do so.

And then he also warned saying the London games that the Cuban athletes should be ready and on the lookout for racism. So this is one kind of article we'll see. We've seen things on political matters affecting the entire world. We've seen things on what his daily diet is like. So it really runs the gamut, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: And are people able to post comments? Or are people invited to contribute?

NEILL: No, that's a good point. It's really not, I suppose, a blog in the strictest sense because of what you point out there. There is nowhere to post comments after these, what are called reflections of now comrade Fidel as they're called. Nowhere you can - it's not an interactive process in any sense.

Another interesting point about the way it works, and I think that tells you a little something about what kind of audience he's aiming for here, is that we get text messages about these Internet posts, his reflections, we being the international press based in Cuba.

Sometimes midnight, sometimes 2:00 a.m. When these essays are going to be posted online. And then they're run in the next day's newspapers. So it's very clear that he's looking for an international audience.

SWEENEY: A final question, Morgan, the Internet is usually associated with freedom and democracy. But what you're implying is that Cubans don't have any access to the Internet whatsoever. I'm wondering you as an international journalist based in Havana, do you have complete freedom to the Internet?

NEILL: Well, we as international journalists here are granted privileges that are not granted to most Cubans. We are allowed certain accesses that others can't have. And as I said before, the two primary obstacles here to Internet access are one, the government not giving people permission, and that permission is required. And two, the cost. Even if it were - even if people were able to access this in their homes, we'd have to assume the costs would be very high for anything comparable to what they are in other countries in the region.

And also, at the few Internet cafes that you do find here, the costs are well beyond what the average Cuban making the average Cuban salary, which hovers around $17 a month, would be able to pay.

SWEENEY: Morgan Neill in Havana, thanks very much.

And don't forget that we're online all the time. Log on to to see the program again. You can also view our archives, take part in the quick vote, and read the weekly blog. The address

And that is all for this edition of the program. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.