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Zimbabwe's Continuing Crisis; Chicago Tribune Files for Bankruptcy; Airing Suicide

Aired December 12, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, your weekly look at the news and how the media covers it.
Coming up, the life and death debate. Should television stations be allowed to broadcast a man's final moments? Reporting on a country in crisis, a cholera outbreak and more pressure on President Robert Mgabe to step down. We assess the difficulties for journalists in covering the country. And economic troubles take their toll on one U.S. media giant. Can "The Tribune" survive after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

The history of television is full of programs that have pushed the barriers of what's acceptable, but how far is too far? What about when it comes to showing a man's final moments of life and his death by assisted suicide?

This week, television channel Sky Real Lives caught a controversy with his broadcast of a documentary, showing a man's death by euthanasia. The program followed 59 year old Craig Ewert, who had motor neuron disease until his death at a clinic in Switzerland in 2006.

It was the first time an assisted suicide was broadcast on British television. Program makers have defended the film as have campaigners for the right to die. Ofcom, the British broadcasting regulator, says on its website that "Methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programs except where they are editorially justified and also justified by the context."

We want to discuss the broadcasting of such sensitive material now. I'm joined by John Beyer. He's the director of Mediawatch, U.K., a media monitoring group. And from Vancouver by John Zaritsky, the director of the film "Right to Die."

John Zaritsky, how do you describe this work?

JOHN ZARITSKY, DIRECTOR, "RIGHT TO DIE?": I think it's a dispassionate objective and anthropological view of how assisted suicide is performed legally in Switzerland. And since this is a burning and controversial issue, not only in the U.K., but in pretty well all Western countries, I thought it was important to let audiences everywhere go into the world of assisted suicide and so that everybody can make up their own minds through viewing the film, whether they think it's a good idea, a way in which our society should move or not.

SWEENEY: John Beyer here in London, director of Mediawatch, U.K., is it at all possible for any programs or indeed any news programs for that matter to be objective?

JOHN BEYER, DIRECTOR, MEDIAWATCH-U.K.: Well, I think that it is possible. But obviously, when you've got a case of this particular kind, I do think that the broadcasters have a special responsibility to be objective, and to impartial, especially.

SWEENEY: John Zaritsky believes he has been.

BEYER: Well, maybe he does, but I'm - what I'm just expressing my view. And I think that the obligations on the broadcasters are what matters. And it's the role of television, it seems to me, in shaping public attitudes to import moral issue - moral and ethical issues like this, that I think that certainly, as far as we're concerned, that was the focus of our concern.

SWEENEY: The moment of death, John Zaritsky in Vancouver, is recorded in your program, is it not?

ZARITSKY: Absolutely. And I thought it was very important that we do record the actual moment of death, so that we could make it clear to the viewers that they were seeing the entire process in its entirety. And it was - if we had stopped and our cameras at the time that Craig, you were took the barbiturates, and shut off our camera, there would have always be suspicions as there were - that maybe it took him days or whatever to die. You know, I mean, by being honest and open with the viewers, they can see it for what it is.

SWEENEY: But - all right.

ZARITSKY: And they can make up their own minds about it. And you know, after all, we all have an off button on our TV sets. If you don't want to watch, turn it off.

SWEENEY: Let me put that point to you, John Beyer.


SWEENEY: .there's an off button on a TV set.

BEYER: Well, of course, there is the option to turn off. And you don't - obviously don't have to view. We've got plenty of choice. The question is whether or not this program as a whole is balanced, not biased, is presented with new impartiality on this matter of public policy. That's the key question as far as.

SWEENEY: But is it preaching an agenda?

BEYER: Well, I don't know. John says...

SWEENEY: I mean, that's the question you're asking?

BEYER: John says he's not pushing an agenda, but I sort of feel that he is because you know, in this country, assisted suicide is illegal. There is an agenda for a lot of people who want to get the British law changed. And this seems to me to be an attempt to influence public opinion to change the law.

SWEENEY: John Zaritsky, let me ask you. Do you believe that you are in favor of assisted suicide in the United Kingdom?

ZARITSKY: Am I personally in favor of it?


ZARITSKY: Or is-yes, I mean, I have my own views.

SWEENEY: So could it be argued that in this program that you are pushing the agenda? I mean, I want to draw your attention here to an article.

ZARITSKY: I don't think so. I don't think so in that, you know, this is classic documentary filmmaking. And the nature of documentary filmmaking is precisely that.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you if I may.

ZARITSKY: To document. And that's what we went and did.

SWEENEY: If I may.


SWEENEY: .remind the viewer of how you actually got involved in shooting this documentary and who you went to in order to have access to Craig Ewert, the man who died?

ZARITSKY: Well, we - I went to Dignitas, the clinic in Zurich, where - which is the only place in the world where foreigners, non residents, can go to get assisted suicide. And after spending a great deal of time with the director of the clinic and his staff, they agreed that I should have access to record and document an assisted suicide as it takes place at that clinic.

And given that access and that permission to do so, we had to follow very careful protocol set down by our Canadian broadcaster and by our lawyers and insurance company. And that was simply.


ZARITSKY: .that we could in no way directly contact anybody. But anybody that we might be interested in documenting in terms of his or her death, Dignitas would approach the individual on our behalf and see if they wanted to participate or not.

SWEENEY: And that's how you met the Ewerts.

ZARITSKY: After a year.

SWEENEY: John Beyer, may I ask you as we wrap up this interview here for quickly, what's the next step?

BEYER: If I think that there is a breach of the terms of the code and the communications, I will make those views clear to Ofcom. And I hope that they will review the program. Obviously, they're going to be monitoring it. And I hope that they, you know, find what they find.

SWEENEY: John Beyer in London, John Zaritsky in Vancouver, thank you both very much indeed.

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a cholera outbreak, but is the media able To fully report the extent of it? We look at the difficulties in covering Zimbabwe for journalists when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Zimbabwe, it's a country in the midst of an outbreak of cholera, food shortages, hyper inflation, and renewed calls for President Robert Mgabe to step down. Zimbabwe has strict media laws which prevent CNN, like many other news outlets, to report from inside. The World Health Organization has put the death toll from the cholera outbreak in the hundreds. And in recent days, several world leaders have repeated their calls for Mr. Mgabe to resign.

Back in September, Robert Mgabe signed a power sharing agreement with the opposition leader Morgan Changerai. It included a pledge to ease press laws to create an open media environment.

So months on from the initial election, the run off and the signing of that power sharing deal, are all bets off the table? To discuss that, I'm joined from Johannesburg by CNN's Nkepile Mabuse. Here in the studio is Lance Guma, producer and presenter with SW Radio Africa, a station that broadcasts directly into Zimbabwe. And Alex Vines, the head of the Africa Program with London Chatham House.

Nkepile, first of all, in monitoring the media in Zimbabwe, have you discerned any difference between how the independent media and the state media, rather, have been covering the cholera outbreak?

NKEPILE MABUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, nothing about the state media has changed in Zimbabwe regardless of what issue they're covering, Fionnuala. With the cholera outbreak, they are busy telling Zimbabweans that there is an outbreak now and the situation is desperate because of economic sanctions.

Now you will remember, Fionnuala, that sanctions that have been imposed in Zimbabwe are against Robert Mgabe himself and his inner circle, not against the people of Zimbabwe. So this is the kind of line that the state media is pushing. And when I was in Zimbabwe, I can tell you know that nobody is buying that argument that sanctions are to blame for the food shortages, for the poverty, for the economic crisis in that country. Many in Zimbabwe are convinced that Robert Mgabe is solely responsible for all of the problems. But of course, the state media is still trying to push the government line and is essentially a government mouthpiece in Zimbabwe.

SWEENEY: Lance Guma, you broadcast directly into Zimbabwe with Radio SW Africa. Let me ask you has there been any difficulty or increased difficulties recently because of the cholera outbreak in getting information?

LANCE GUMA, PRODUCER/PRESENTER, SW RADIO AFRICA: Well, I just think nothing has changed. The government is obviously used repressive legislation to limit the media environment. But I - in terms of covering the cholera story, what has been of great difficulty is getting the actual figures of people who have succumbed to the disease. And I think even the World Health Organization figures that are being quoted, those are just figures of people who have been able to visit the help centers. But the truth scale of the crisis might not be known because a lot of people are not even bothering to register the deaths of their loved ones.

So I think nothing has changed in terms of that restricted media environment and accessing information.

SWEENEY: Alex Vines, I mean, cholera has always been an issue in Zimbabwe, but is it the issue that the international community believes will force eventually Robert Mgabe to resign?

ALEX VINES, HEAD OF AFRICA PROGRAM, CHATHAM HOUSE: I don't know if it'll force the international community. What it does do is focuses the region, the neighbors, back on to the Zimbabwe question at the moment, because the cholera's spreading. It's in Mozambique. It's in Zambia. It's crossed very much into the north of South Africa. So they're going to have to deal again with Zimbabwe from that point of view.

SWEENEY: But as the international community makes calls this week for Robert Mgabe to step down, it doesn't appear that it's being heard at least publicly in the media by the African Union?

VINES: African Union itself says that it needs to be mediation. And that needs to continue. So you're right there. But the neighbors themselves have to deal with the cholera spreading.

In terms of the international community, I'm afraid Gordon Brown, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, George Bush has both called for Mr. Mgabe to step down, but there haven't been so many other voices. It's civil society voices. It's bishops. It's like Archibishop Desmond Tutu or the Archbishop of York here in the United Kingdom for the Anglican church who have been calling for him to go.

Nkepile Mabuse, I mean, has the cholera outbreak had an impact as far as you can tell, on either the media lately in Zimbabwe or indeed politics in terms of violence? There's been an increase in the number of dissidents arrested recently. Do you believe it's directly related to the cholera? Or is it business as usual?

MABUSE: You know, the cholera outbreak, it just, you know, demonstrates to the world and to the region just how bad the situation is. Zimbabweans have been suffering for years. I mean, the fact that they haven't had water in Hirare for nearly a year now, you know, just explains just how desperate the situation is.

And over this year, nobody has been reporting on the fact that, you know, there is no water in Zimbabwe, that "The Herald," the state newspaper only reported about a week ago that water had been officially cut off. But when I was in Zimbabwe in October, they were telling me that they hadn't had water, most areas hadn't had water for at least a year.

So yes, the cholera outbreak has brought a lot of attention to Zimbabwe. But I mean, the problems in that country go beyond cholera. They are much bigger. Their food crisis, nearly half the population needs to be fed by early next year. The economic crisis. You know, 80 percent unemployment. I mean, there are just so many problems.

And what regional leaders are doing at the moment is treating the symptom. They're treating this cholera. They're sending money. They're sending equipment, you know, on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The South African government has sent teams of doctors and of nurses to treat Zimbabweans who are coming through, because they can't get medical help on the other side.

But the real problem, the instability in that country, the political question in that country is not been dealt with adequately by this region.

SWEENEY: Alex Vines, so it raises the question of who exactly is Robert Mgabe being supported by internally? If there is no water in Hirare, it hasn't been for a year, presumably even some of his most loyal paid supporters must be growing a little frustrated?

VINES: Oh, I think so. Even in March, we saw splits within Zanu PF. You had the Symbamarconi (ph) faction, for example, standing against Mr. Mgabe. So yes, there are growing splits. But this is a very long term end game, I think.

SWEENEY: And what about the role of the army?

VINES: The army is important. It was interesting to see that some, about 100 soldiers rioted on the streets of Hirare recently. So again, it's indication of the growing tensions, but I don't think we can expect an imminent collapse. But it's degradation. It's gradual degradation.

SWEENEY: Lance Guma, we've often heard about the will of the Zimbabwean people, how strong they are to withstand many different challenges and frustrations. As a Zimbabwean yourself, how do you feel about the situation right now? Is it - do you agree with Alex that it's a slow process, still to be continued of degradation?

GUMA: And you know, just at a personal level, I've been reporting on this crisis for eight years. And six of those spent in exile. And just the level of frustration that I feel when I see events unfolding back home, I mean, it's too much to bear. And I think just condemnation alone will not secure any results. And it is very necessary for a paradigm shift.

And I would want to agree with Kenya's Prime Minister Railodena (ph) that something radical has to be done, because just condemnation of Mgabe alone will not secure any results.

And I would want to answer the question that you raised early on about the abductions. I think the abductions are linked to the political stalemate in that every time Zanu PF does not get what it wants politically, they resort to their default mode of operating, which is violent.

So they're using the abductions, trying to put pressure on the MDC to capitulate.

SWEENEY: And when you talk to family and friends in Zimbabwe, have you noticed any change in their demeanor since the elections in March?

VINES: I think in September when the power sharing deal was signed, a lot of people were hopeful that, you know, this would be the end of their suffering, although this was not the full of their division. But I think there was enough desperation to allow people to accept that deal.

But as the months went by, Mgabe grabbing the key ministries, and these abductions taking place, it has become very clear that Mgabe's not interested in a genuine power sharing deal. So I think all that optimism has vanished. People are facing the hard reality that Mgabe's not interested in sharing power. And it's back to square one for Zimbabweans.

But the problem is they can't express themselves. And you know, and we pick this up easily when we're doing, you know, when we get calls at our station, a call by giving our listeners a chance to express themselves. You know, they won't even use their real names when talking to us. So that's the level of fear in Zimbabwe right now.

SWEENEY: I mean, a final question to you on that note, Nkepile. I mean, you've traveled into Zimbabwe. You've been up to the border many times. I mean, do you foresee yourself continuing to make the same journey still this time next year?

MABUSE: We have to, Fionnuala. I mean, I think even now, we do not know the full extent of the suffering of those people. And when you do go to Zimbabwe, you realize why Robert Mgabe does not want the world to know what is going on in that country. We have to keep on going. And we have to keep reporting on the story for the people, for the sake of the people of Zimbabwe.

SWEENEY: Nkepile Mabuse in Johannesburg, Lance Guma, Alex Vines here in London, thank you both very much indeed.

Well, troubles for "The Tribune." The U.S. media conglomerate filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Will it and others be able to survive in an environment where circulation levels and advertising revenues are in decline? We'll find out.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Last week on the program, we were discussing the impact of the financial crisis on the media. And in particular, the newspaper industry. Well, troubles continue to take their toll on the print sector. This week, Tribune Company, owner of "The Chicago Tribune", "Los Angeles Times," "Baltimore Sun," and other dailies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The firm says it will restructure to focus on the company's debt, not on its operations. And it says its businesses will continue to operate as normal.

Sam Zell, the chief executive of Tribune said in a statement, "Our challenges are consistent with those facing all media companies, and an increasing number of companies across a variety of industries today." He also said, "We will continue to operate responsibly in a challenging environment - aggressively managing costs and maximizing revenue opportunities."

Well, Tribune Company has an estimated 20,000 employees and is ranked among the top three most read newspaper group in the United States. Company also interests in television stations, cable channels, and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

So with declining revenues and a tough economic climate, could other media groups follow a similar fate? Well, to discuss that, I'm joined by Howard Kurtz, media correspondent with "The Washington Post" and host of "Reliable Sources" on our sister network CNN USA.

CNN USA, I should say, Howard. Let me ask you, first of all, you know, tell us the importance of newspapers like "The L.A. Times" and "The Chicago Tribune" in the U.S.?

HOWARD KURTZ, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, those are newspapers in the number two and number three cities, largest cities in America. And they have a rich tradition of not only being important in their home markets, but to the whole country, a tradition of aggressive investigative reporting.

Along comes Sam Zell, a real estate guy out of Chicago, knows nothing about the journalism business. Buys it a year ago. Loads up the company with $13 billion worth of debt, and here we are 12 months later and the thing has gone bankrupt. And it's really troubling for those of us who love the newspaper business.

SWEENEY: And of course, the United States in recession, how much has this got to do with the debt? And how much was this to do with the recession and indeed the Internet?

KURTZ: Well, you know, you can't - when you talk about the newspaper business these days in America, it's almost like talking about the Detroit car industry. It seems like we can't do anything right. We're losing revenue. We're losing readers. Some of that is because people can get news online, including from us by the way, on the Internet. Some of that is because the hardest hit industries in this country, at least, real estate, automobiles, are among the biggest advertisers in newspapers. But "The Tribune" is a special case because it was carrying such a heavy debt load, that when the economy started to go south, it turned out the company just couldn't pay its bills.

SWEENEY: Does this in any way herald perhaps the demise of the big media conglomerate? I mean, could some of these entities have survived better on their own?

KURTZ: Probably so. "The Los Angeles Times", for example, and there were certainly some rich Hollywood people who wanted to buy that newspaper, probably could have done a lot better than it has done under the out of town management of people in Chicago run by a guy, as I say, who has no previous experience on any aspect of the media business.

So the idea that, you know, wealthy businessmen were going to ride to the rescue of troubled newspapers, or that you need big mega chains in order to keep these things afloat, I think both of those ideas have taken a serious hit now in light of the problems of Tribune and other papers are having as well.

SWEENEY: Howard Kurtz at "The Washington Post."

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

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.