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Politkovskaya Murder Investigation; Censorship in Belarus; Reporting on the U.S. Election

Aired October 10, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: Hello, I'm Becky Anderson in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, your weekly look at the news and how the media covers it.
Well coming up, the financial crisis dominates the second U.S. presidential debate. Just weeks out from voting day, how do international reporters view the campaign? Two years on, remembering Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. We get the latest on the murder investigation.

And taking the press freedom pulse of the parliamentary elections in Belarus, we discuss the state of the country's independent media.

Well first, this week, the race to the White House and the U.S. presidential election, which is naturally being dominated by economic issues. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama faced off in a televised debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Now they both acknowledge the financial turmoil the country is facing and clashed repeatedly over the causes and potential cures.


BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think everybody knows now we are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Americans are angry. They're upset. And they're a little fearful.


ANDERSON: Well, a townhall style debate was the second of three between the two presidential candidates. Questions were fielded from voters. Some were submitted online. Well, what we've seen in the global markets is not just the U.S. experiencing financial troubles. The world is watching the presidential election and how the candidates are responding to the crisis.

And we want to get a sense of how international reporters are seeing it all unfold. For that, we turn to Philippe Gelie. He's the Washington bureau chief with France's "Le Figaro" newspaper. Also in Washington is Mark Simkin, North America correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And here in London is Zaki Chehab. He's bureau chief of al Hayat and LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.

Philippe, let's start with you as I introduce you first. Well, it seems you watched the debate. It was the second of three. Your thoughts?

PHILIPPE GELIE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIE, LE FIGARO: Well, I think it was not such a big show as probably the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. But I think it was an interesting debate, especially if you're interested in on the substance of the positions of the two candidates.

I think it helped probably a lot of voters here in the U.S., who are just turning on to, you know, to follow the election to make a clearer distinction probably between the two candidates.

ANDERSON: Did your editorial stance change in any way, Mark, as you worked your way through this debate? After all, there was a lot of talk about style over substance, and whether we get what we thought as the international viewer we wanted, which is perhaps more substance than style. Did your view change as a journalist?

MARK SIMKIN, AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION: In some senses. We were obviously expecting the potential for real fireworks why John McCain and Sarah Palin have been savaging Barack Obama's patriotism, personality in the lead up to the debate. We didn't hear that in the debate itself. There were some elbows thrown, and some accusations thrown.

But I think what was missing, and what people were looking for particularly overseas, was something more than the standard talking points, particularly on the issue of the economic crisis. They're basically saying the same thing now that they were saying six months ago. And the world has changed since then. The markets are in turmoil, in meltdown. And people are looking for a little bit more, I think, than the standard stock phrases.

ANDERSON: , I think it would be fair to say that the world outside of domestic U.S., North America is the world of Obama land perhaps. Certainly the polls suggest that. You're covering the news and this election for viewers primarily in the Middle East. Your sense of the debate first and foremost?

ZAKI CHEHAB, LONDON BUREAU CHIEF, AL-HAYAT, LBC: Well, definitely for us in the Middle East, you know, when we look at both candidates, we, you know, we consider one of them who really have the experience, the maturity, and the one who's really expected to bring the change.

But when it comes to the politics and Middle East, you know, and specific, you know, I think what count, especially in the recent debate, you know, we have seen or listened to them, and coaching them, you know, rethink to express their support the state of Israel.

But we haven't really heard any of them talking about, you know, they were to bring like peace and stability to the whole region. Practically both of them, they have showed interest in, you know, fighting - continuing fighting terror and al Qaeda, but they have not really realized that to succeed in such a fight, they have to address the problems of the release. They have to show that they really care about justice and freedom and democracy for all the people in the Middle East.

ANDERSON: All right, Zaki. Now I think I'm right in saying, and I think you'd all agree, that that's certainly been the way that the international media have covered both these men as they've moved through this presidential campaign.

Philippe, I want to put this to you. You're Washington based. You're the bureau chief for Le Figaro there. Have you been surprised at the appetite for news from Washington on this U.S. presidential campaign?

GELIE: Absolutely. I mean, it's my third U.S. presidential campaign that I've been covering. And this time, it's absolutely crazy. I mean, it's - we're covering this like we were about to vote. We, the French, also on November 4th. I mean, I no longer feel like a foreign journalist. We don't leave anything on the side.


GELIE: And such - I mean, I think this passion is also, you know, entertained by the - by being (INAUDIBLE) of the web, that allows people to follow immediately what's going on to react to your stories. And people are clearly very passionate about this selection.

ANDERSON: Mark, you agree?

SIMKIN: Oh, yes. Certainly in Australia, there is enormous appetite for this story. People are fascinated. They're intrigued. One, it's important what happens here, whoever gets elected, that will have international implications, economically and many other ways.

Two, it's historic. In Australia, we have our own racial history with the Aborigines. And we're intrigued to see our Americans ready to elect a black man president. And finally, and most importantly, I think it's just an extraordinary story. It's like a long running political soap opera with incredible plot lines, surprising outcomes, and some quite remarkable characters.

ANDERSON: Zaki, do you find it more or less difficult this time when covering this election? And you've been advised as one of 50 journalists who actually spent some time in Washington, 50 international journalists who aren't normally based there, spend some time in Washington during the run up to the actual election date. Are you finding it difficult to remain objective as a reporter and stay away from editorializing? Or do you think that that's what your viewer and reader needs at this point?

CHEHAB: Definitely what we've tried to do is try to bring to our viewers in the Middle East and the wide Arab world, you know, what both candidates would do if they were elected in terms of like looking for, you know, how does peace process, how does this situation in Iraq, the problem which is really decelerating in Afghanistan, how to, you know, handle the situation in Pakistan as well.

So these issues are important to us. Also, what kind of (INAUDIBLE) both candidates would have to ask Iran. Each of them have expressed a quite different policy than the other. So this is really important.

And I'm sure people want to know in details what would be the steps each one would take if they were elected.

ANDERSON: We are generally accused in the media across the multi media platform of being left leaning, perhaps in American terms, Democrat supporting rather than Republican. Has that made a difference to the international coverage of this presidential campaign, Philippe?

GELIE: I think it has, because first of all, the center of gravity of politics in Europe is much more to the left compared to the United States. Secondly, you have, when you have like now, one candidate who is running objectively a better campaign than the other, he's ahead, he's running a better campaign, he has a smart strategy, it's very, very hard not to appear imbalanced. And maybe on the overall picture we keep that in mind and try to be as far as we can.

But every story, and I can see that again on the web and how people react, is, I mean, reacting to with very strong feelings on both sides.

ANDERSON: Picking up on what Philippe says, Mark, I'm wondering how you remember reacting to and expressing the Sarah Palin story for the first couple of weeks?

SIMKIN: Yes, the Sarah Palin story is certainly a fascinating one. And I do think there was a point where as an international journalist, I did pause and was a bit surprised by how personal some of the criticism was of the - talking about her family, her daughter's pregnancy issues like that. And that was getting a little bit suspicious, I think, in terms of how far it went.

Having said that, the criticisms of the experience and her debate, or not so much debate performance, but interview performance with Katie Couric on CBS, those sort of criticisms were entirely fear. And interestingly, I thought the way the media management and expectations game was played after the debate with Joe Biden, he beat her soundly, crushed her, killed her, all over, but that's not what the media said the next day. They said Palin does well. Palin surprises. And I think the media fear was very effectively manipulated by the Republicans.

ANDERSON: Character assassination by the media in your region, Zaki, or not?

CHEHAB: In fact, you know, definitely there are certain things people of interest to them in the Middle East about the ages of the candidates, the experience, the background, which is really quite, you know, interesting to see what's really in one of, you know, the most influential countries in the world happening.

But in fact, you know, what's really of interest to them also is who's going to dictate the policies, either the economy or the Arab world as you know have large investments in the United States. Politics, because any attitude or any action by any of the presidents toward the region would have an impact by all means definitely what we have noticed over the years that by the end of the presidential each president to have rules at the White House, we have, you know, they expressed some interest.

Just was toward the end of their presidency. So definitely, you know, we don't really expect much change in the region because people would say, the new president at least a year or two.

ANDERSON: So it's been a long campaign. It's been a fascinating one as we've all discussed. Mark, give our viewers a sense of how you're gearing up there at the ABC?

SIMKIN: Well, we're throwing resources at this story like no other that I can recall. We're flying people in from Australia for the election. The reporters here in D.C., such as myself, will be hitting the road, trying to travel with alongside into (INAUDIBLE) with the candidates going to key battleground states. We've already been to some of those key battleground states. And we'll be going to more.

And in the weeks before the election, it's going to be an absolute reporting frenzy, because as you say, people overseas don't seem to be able to get enough of this story.

ANDERSON: This makes or breaks people's career generally. We know that, but if you're state side, it's a good story to be on. Philippe, your thoughts alongside those of Mark's?

GELIE: Well, between election day, we're going to have seven people traveling around and covering the story. It's about the usual measure of what we do for a presidential campaign, but I suspect all of those people will have to write a lot, which I've been doing already myself for the last 20 months. And I think, you know, everything is interesting in this story. And in the candidates, the twists and turns of what's going on, the issues, the rest of the country, I mean, I'm basically Washington, but obviously, we have to be outside the beltway. So I figure we won't be able to say everything and cover every aspect of it, but we'll try. And there is a huge appetite in French press.

ANDERSON: Well, we'll keep an eye on what you're writing and what you're saying at ABC, and indeed what you're saying and writing at both al Hayat and the LBC, guys. We thank you very much indeed for joining us here on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

Now the killing of prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya sparked international condemnation. Two years on, we're going to take a look at the investigation into the murder and why calls for justice are still being made.


ANDERSON: Welcome back. Now the killing sparked international outrage. This week, memorials were held to mark the second anniversary of the murder of the prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin. She was gunned down outside her Moscow apartment on October the 7th, 2006.

Press freedom groups say the probe into the shooting has been undermined because of information leaks. Well, two years later, many questions remain unanswered. Here's our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She was one of Russia's most controversial journalists, fiercely critical of the Kremlin, and of its brutal war in Chechnya.

(on camera): But exactly two years since Anna Politkovskaya's murder here in her Moscow apartment building, her killer is still at large. There's a memorial to her death. And somebody's left flowers in her remembrance.

But there's been no independent investigation into who ordered her assassination. That doesn't mean people haven't been arrested. Russian prosecutors say they're ready to start a trial of three men detained in connection with the killing, including two who are brothers of this man, Ruslan Makhmudov, an ethnic Chechen who Russian prosecutors suspect of pulling the trigger.

CCTV cameras caught the hit man coolly leaving the scene of the crime shortly after firing multiple shots into Anna Politkovskaya's body at point blank range. Prosecutors say Makhmudov may be hiding in Western Europe.

Well, this is the exact spot where Anna was gunned down. She was carrying groceries in this elevator when the gunman approached and opened fire. They've been repaired now, but two years ago, there were bullet holes in this metal wall panel, where the gun shots had torn through.

(voice-over): Anna Politkovskaya tirelessly exposed human rights abuses in Russia, especially in the restive Republic of Chechnya. She was sharply critical of the Kremlin's war in the region and of its proxies, who now rule the territory on Moscow's behalf. It made her powerful enemies.

(on camera): Well, the Russian newspaper Anna Politkovskaya worked for, "Nova Gazetta" has released this special edition, marking the second anniversary of her death. In here, the paper criticizes the Russian authorities for failing to get to the bottom of the case. In particular, for not naming the individuals who ordered the killing. Until that happens, the paper says, this case will not be closed.

(voice-over): And in a country with an appalling record of protecting journalists, calls for justice for Anna Politkovskaya are still loud.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


ANDERSON: From Russia to Belarus, where press freedom groups say the independent media is coming under siege from censorship and state restrictions. The country close up from the view of reporters after this.


ANDERSON: Welcome back. A climate of censorship and state restrictions, that's how press freedom groups sum up the situation the independent media in Belarus. And they say the situation is getting worse in the ex Soviet country under President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a man dubbed Europe's last dictator.

Last month's parliamentary elections were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said the vote fell short of democratic standards.

None of the 70 opposition candidates won places in the 110 seat parliament. Well, press freedom campaign say restrictive laws on news outlets continue to inhibit journalists in the country. Let's take a closer look at the media landscape in Belarus now. For that, we turn to Andrei Aliaksandrau. He's from the Belarus Association of Journalists. Also with us is Belarusian journalist Olga Birukova.

Andrei, let me start with you. How do you describe the state of the independent media in your country today?

ANDREI ALIAKSANDRAU, BELARUS ASSOCIATION OF JOURNALISTS: We describe it in one word. I'd say it's challenging. Independent media in Belarus today has to work within strict legislative borders. And one of the main projects - problems we face is that independent media also face a strict economic borders.

As most independent newspapers just have no possibilities to be distributed through state owned distribution systems. And the state holds the monopoly on distribution.

ANDERSON: Are things, do you think, getting worse?

ALIAKSANDRAU: I think so, at least we cannot face any improvements of the situation with the media in Belarus. And besides, we - the authorities are very good at finding new ways of oppression. For example, the new law on counter action to extremism is being implemented now. And the authorities through the system of courts, they regard some media outlets, as well as Soviet (INAUDIBLE) to be extremist materials. And this gives them the grounds to prosecute people who, for instance, is involved in distribution of such materials.

ANDERSON: Tell me why you left the country, and describe your experiences and those of your friends?

OLGA BIRUKOVA, JOURNALIST: I used to work (INAUDIBLE). And it was during 2004, 2004 (INAUDIBLE) and 2006. And then, here in my country, I realized that I'm under very specific pressure. It was under a pressure. And I do believe it's pressure from special (INAUDIBLE).

And for that's why. And this summer, I bought business - course in business English here in London. And when I was leaving the airport at Minsk, I received a warning, an anonymous warning. They said it would be better for me to not come back in Minsk.

That's why here in London, been here in London taking into account all my - all this previous pressure, my previous situation. I decided to call (INAUDIBLE). I would - don't want to get to more detail.

ANDERSON: OK, that's fine. That's fine. Andrei, listening to this story and its draws at heart strings, is it familiar, this story, to you of a journalist, do you know, who has been under the same sort of pressures Olga has?

ALIAKSANDRAU: Actually, this is not the first case where a Belarussian journalist claims political asylum, we had several cases like this when the Belarussian journalist who have the experience of working with independent media had to leave our country. Besides, we have criminal liability for defamation for example. And we have experience that three Belarussian journalists were good into prison for writing unpleasant things about our president.

ANDERSON: Olga, finally, have you got any optimism about the state of affairs? Or do you think things are going to get much worse before...

BIRUKOVA: (INAUDIBLE). I would like to be optimistic, really. As (INAUDIBLE), in the Russian media space. I would like to believe that we have enough people capable to fight, capable to struggle, because usually, when a person choose to be a journalist, it just - he's personal (INAUDIBLE) responsibility is just his personal challenge.

I would like to see more free meeting in Belarus. But actually with all this legislation, innovation, all this present actions, I cannot be too much optimistic.

ANDERSON: With that, we leave it there. We thank you very much indeed, both of you, for joining us here.

And don't forget we are 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 you can read the blog. The address

Well, that is all for this edition of the program. Do tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Becky Anderson in London. Thanks for joining us.