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Remote Reporting on Gaza; Changing Channels in France

Aired January 23, 2009 - 04:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, and welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS from Jerusalem. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney.

Coming up, remote reporting, the challenges for journalists in covering Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The world watches. We review the reaction in the Arab press. And changing channels -- why a shake-up to public service TV in France is causing controversy.

We begin our coverage with the crisis in the Middle East and the conflict in Gaza. Israel called its offensive against Hamas operation cast led. The story dominated the international news headlines, but most reporters were unable to tell both sides, stemming from an Israeli ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza.

In a moment, the challenges facing the press in covering this conflict. But first, efforts to control the message and the messenger.


SWEENEY (voice-over): From a distance, images show smoke rising over Gaza. It's about as close as most reporters could get to the battle zone. This hill became the vantage point for dozens of journalists who are unable to enter Gaza because of Israel's media restrictions. Our Nic Robertson gave his view almost two weeks into the offensive.

NIC ROBERTSON, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's really frustrating because you don't know what's going on. And you can't see there, be there, and feel it. And you can't see, we get these pictures from the hospital. But what's happening on the backstreets behind the hospital? What's Hamas doing? You know, the sort of questions that we would ask that go beyond the immediacy of the civilian casualties, that you want to know about, but the other stuff that really informs you.

SWEENEY: Restricting the press is a very different strategy from the one used by Israel during its 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. Then reporters were allowed to broadcast from Israeli artillery positions. It's another story this time. An Israeli spokesman explained.

DANIEL SEARMAN, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: There was too much exposure. And it had an effect on our ability to achieve strategic goals. That's one of the lessons we learned from the war in Lebanon.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: So you're saying you're preventing reporters from being embedded, from being that close because it's in part interfering with military operations?

SEARMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

SWEENEY: The Tel Aviv based foreign press association criticize the restrictions. On January 6th, it issued a statement.

"The unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world's media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs."

SWEENEY: Almost two weeks into the operation, Israel did allow a Western camera crew across the border. The footage shot by a BBC crew was subject to clearance by Israeli military censors. Israel's offense forces also launched a Youtube page to offer what the site said "is documentation of the IDF's humane action and operational success in operation Kafglad (ph)."

Images from inside Gaza did filter out to the world often from journalists based inside, working for news agencies such as Ramatan and broadcasters such as al Jazeera.

Access to Gaza for Western reporters was difficult, but not impossible. CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman made his way into the Palestinian territory across the Egyptian border.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The streets are empty. Nobody's out. It's very dark. Some areas, fortunately, our building does have electricity.

SWEENEY: For it's part inside Gaza, Hamas has controlled images. Pictures of suffering were clearly encouraged, but we've seen few images of Hamas fighters or their rockets being fired into Israel.

In times of war, it's come down to the PR battle as much as the military offensive itself. For journalists, it's about finding a balance in the story, a difficult objective when they're unable to cover all the angles.

SWEENEY: We're going to delve a little deeper now into the Gaza conflict, and particularly the challenge facing reporters there.

(voice-over): In the midst of the fighting, we spoke to Taghreed El- Khodary, the Gaza correspondent with "The New York Times." And in Jerusalem, Alistair MacDonald, Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories. It's worth noting a few days after our discussion, artillery fire hit a building housing foreign journalists, including Reuters employees. Reuters staffers all made it out safely.

Two people reportedly suffered injuries, but now to our discussion.

SWEENEY: Taghreed El-Khodary, first of all, obviously very difficult circumstances for you trying to report the story?

TAGHREED EL-KHODARY, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Extremely difficult. You know, the skill in terms of the scale and intensity, it's extremely severe. You are stuck. You have no electricity, no access to the Internet. Even the hotels, they are not open for, you know, for anyone because they're also afraid. They have to maintain the safety of their employees.

So you know, in the previous time during the second intifada, during incursions, if you have not electricity, you go to the hotels. You pay for a room for facilities, but this time, you are alone reporting from a phone, in a way, while you are at the scene. You describe on the phone what's happening. You talk to people. And you just, you get as much information as you can, but you have to be very quick sometimes. And you are surrounded by many voices, many painful stories from civilians. And here is also a challenge. Which story, you know, you want to - you want the world to learn about?

SWEENEY: Alistair MacDonald, Reuters bureau chief here in Jerusalem, obviously Gaza, difficult at the best of times to cover, but what kind of challenges are you finding yourself having to surmount at the moment?

ALISTAIR MACDONALD, REUTERS: Clearly, it's always very difficult. There are a lot of logistical challenges in Gaza simply because it's very difficult to move from one side of its borders to others. It's very dangerous. Our office is conserving its fuel in order to generate its own electricity. These are all very complex, logistical issues that affect us.

SWEENEY: And what kind of toll mentally is it taking on your staff?

MACDONALD: Clearly, it's a very exhausting business. I think that's true covering any war. We're covering a war in a very small space. It's very intensive. This - our crews, we have more than 20 people working for us in Gaza, are having to do their jobs, but also having to look after their families.

SWEENEY: Taghreed El-Khodary in Gaza, can I ask you how has covering this story changed for you since it began on December 27th? How has it evolved?

EL-KHODARY: Every day, you are listening to more and more painful stories. And as a reporter, you listen to them and really while writing, you are - you cry when you hear, you know, a father lost his son while he was trying to get water. And it was his only son. And he wanted his only like one. And he wanted to educate him to become a journalist. And he fainted in front of you. And as a reporter, it's hard to ask questions for, you know, to these people who, you know, are suffering a lot. It's - sometimes it's silly to ask for a name, for an age. You keep, you know, you want to ask the cousin around. You cannot ask the father who lost his loved one or the mother, you know, specific questions. But you just want to keep listening to the dialogue and to the painful words they come out.

SWEENEY: Alistair McDonald, the issue of international journalists not being allowed in, in your experience from what you know, it's happened periodically in the past in Gaza. But is this unprecedented?

MACDONALD: We find over the last couple of months there has been an unprecedented prevention of foreign journalists accessing Gaza, which has been a substantial logistical problem and hurdle that we've had to try and overcome.

But there have been, over the last two or three years, quite a lot of difficulties of access that create problems that we have to get around, and hopefully produce the story as we can.

SWEENEY: Taghreed El-Khodary, if I may ask you a question, you know, when this is over, how it might affect you on a personal level. I mean, you're under severe stress as it is. Do you think that maybe you're traumatized already?

MACDONALD: I covered the second intifada. And after it was over, I could, you know, I was traumatized and I just left for a year. I, you know, I got this fellowship. And it was the Neiman fellowship. And I did it. And it was great, but it was hard because at the - for three months, you don't realize that you are traumatized.

But after you do realize, and I can feel it, I'm sorry for this, but I can feel it. It's coming back because I'm still on the ground here. And I'm surrounded by many traumatized people and many traumatized families around me. And the fear is getting, you know, into you. And you really don't want to end up, because I'm in love with life, and who is not in love with life after all?

SWEENEY: Taghreed El-Khodary, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Gaza. And also, Alistair McDonald here in the studio.


SWEENEY: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS from Jerusalem. We've been looking at the media's coverage of the conflict in Gaza. And in a moment when we come back, a very different take through the eyes of the Arab press.


SWEENEY: From Jerusalem, welcome back to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. We've been examining the conflict in Gaza, how it's being reported in the international press, and the challenges facing reporters.

Not surprisingly, the Arab press has a very different take, compared to Western news outlets. Our senior Arab affairs editor Octavia Nasr has our report. Some viewers may find the following images distressing.


OCTAVIA NASR, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The Arab world watched the bombardment of Gaza and Hamas' rocket attacks on Israel through the lenses of networks like al Jazeera and al Arabiyah. With a special focus on Palestinian casualties that is often emotional, sometimes angry and personal. This from al Arabiyah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The wholesale baby killing continues in Gaza. This baby was sleeping with his siblings when the Israeli strikes hit. He died, along with his brothers and his mother and his grandfather and his uncles. Only his father is left, surrounded by piles of sorrow.

NASR: The Arab networks were pumping out round the clock coverage of the situation in Gaza. Many of them with reporters and cameramen there, as well as in Israel. So they were witnesses to both sides of the fighting, but focused more on Gaza.

Here on al Jazeera, a Palestinian father mourns his child. We have no way of knowing how or where the toddler was killed. Al Jazeera then shows an even more distressing scene as the man picks up the lifeless bodies of two more children with what looks like bullet or shrapnel wounds.

Graphic images that left these al Jazeera anchors clearly shocked. The Arab TV networks were inviting Israelis to appear. And the Israelis were accepting, even though they often found themselves subject to hostile questioning by anchors who didn't shy away from taking things personally.

When Foreign Minister Tippi Livni appeared on al Jazeera to make the case for Israel's attacks on Gaza, this is the follow up question she received when she said that Israel regrets human loss and that it's only targeting the militant group Hamas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Tell me, Ms. Livni, is attacking the Islamic university and the mosques and the United Nations and civilians homes and the children and the women, despite all of the international condemnation, all of that, and you still think you're only targeting Hamas?

NASR: TV screens across the Arab world were filled with Gaza images of smoke, destruction and suffering, video clips promoting networks coverage of Gaza with much sympathy for the plight of Palestinian civilians, especially children.

For about 21 days, Arab media used their unique access to Gaza and offered their viewers graphic and often raw coverage of a conflict that most Western journalists could not experience first hand.

Octavia Nasr, CNN, reporting.


SWEENEY: The Middle East is a complicated beat, and it challenges the most seasoned of journalists. News reports often skim the surface and don't get to the heart of the story. That's what led Matt Rees to take somewhat of a novel approach to his craft. After a decade, reporting in the region, most of which as "TIME" magazine's bureau chief in Jerusalem, he turned to writing mystery novels. His latest offering is called "The Samaritan's Secret."

I spoke to Matt Rees about why he made the switch from journalist to novelist.


MATT REES, AUTHOR: I really felt that I wasn't getting all the knowledge that I gathered over the years into my stories, because I think of the formulas of journalism, the way in which it's compressed and the objectivity, I found that I wasn't really being able to express all I've learned about how, in this case, Palestinians really felt. I felt like I was having to stay on the surface, not matter how good the journalism was I was doing.

So I really wanted to explain to people what I felt I'd learned about the reality of Palestinian life.

SWEENEY: Or the humanity of Palestinian life?

REES: Yeah, beyond the stereotypes essentially, the stereotype of the Palestinian that we usually get in journalism as a stereotypical victim or a stereotypical terrorist. One or the other. And all the people I knew were really neither of those over the course of those 10 years. I wanted to explain what I'd learned about the people I knew as friends now amongst the Palestinians.

SWEENEY: When you were a journalist working with "TIME," and going you know into the West Bank and Gaza and then back into Israel, how did you make that mental switch from being enveloped in one story in one society of people to another?

REES: It is very difficult, actually, as a correspondent here because you are immersed in one society or the other for a period of time. And each of them, when you're among them, is very convincing. It's one of the reasons really why I wanted to write novels is because as a journalist, I feel like you visit. But as a novelist, you have to live with someone. Your novel has to take people inside the society.

And after I'd done that with the first couple of novels, I realized that actually, as a journalist, we're too often try to suggest that this is how things ought to be. Whereas actually, we should be listening more. That's why if you're a fairly sensitive journalist and you're with Palestinians for a day, you start to think, oh, maybe the Palestinians have got the right idea here.

The same thing happens if you spend a day with the Israelis.

SWEENEY: But do journalists have a right to say who's right or who's wrong?

REES: Not only do we not have the right, I think it's a big mistake. Very frequently, I've reported with journalists who actually want to argue with Palestinians or argue with Israelis about things. My thought was always to listen and to try and imagine what's going on inside the head of the person that I'm interviewing, try to understand what they're feeling.

It's very hard to get that into journalism, but of course, that's one of the reasons why I turned to the novels because that is what has to be at the heart of a good novel, that kind of sense of the emotional dent. Usually with journalism, once you get past the screaming, you don't really see what a person feels when they're quiet and just with themselves. A novel has to show you that.

SWEENEY: Do you feel that your role has changed as a journalist as compared to being a novelist? In other words, addressing the issue? Do you feel that you could write novels about other subjects set in other regions? Or is this a way of you addressing the issue?

REES: Well, on the one hand, I decided to write the novels about the Palestinians, not the Israelis because somehow, I just found they were more interesting to me in the sense they gave me a more creative spark. So perhaps I couldn't write novels about just anything.

But ultimately with a novel, you're writing about yourself. You're writing about your own sensitivity to events, and perhaps even about the traumas that I went through as a journalist covering these things, seeing horrible things, and evoking them on the page.

You know, sometimes when I was writing, I'd - the second book, which is about Gaza, I actually started crying when I was writing. And I used to think wow, I'm good, I can even make myself cry.

But actually, I realized afterwards it was actually these traumas that I had gone through. And I was bringing them out in the book, which I hope makes the book more powerful.


SWEENEY: Matt Rees speaking to me there.

France's media landscape has undergone somewhat of a mini revolution. Advertising is being phased out on public service television. We will tell you why not everyone's happy with the changes.


SWEENEY: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was one of the first international figures to lead efforts to end the conflict in Gaza. Back home, though, he's facing a backlash in media circles over a shake-up to public service television, particularly the removal of advertising from primetime schedules.

Our senior international correspondent Jim Bitterman reports from Paris.


JIM BITTERMAN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: For four decades, French public television channels have been awash with commercials. Not much different than you'd fine at the private TV channels. But then came, as the France 2 News put it...


BITTERMAN: The big bank, the moment earlier this year when public TV began weaning itself off advertising revenue by eliminating commercials from primetime evening programs, the first step toward eliminating advertisements all together.

The move was the idea of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who surprised everyone, including the managers of the public television system, by announcing the plan in his New Year's wishes a year ago.

Not that it was high on the wish list of those working for French public television. The unions and the government funded networks fear there could be thousands of job losses because the government will not be willing or able to provide the funding to make up for the losses in commercial revenue. And so, there have been strikes and demonstrations against the proposed reform.

(on camera): In a way, the conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy is doing exactly what the left wing opposition has been clamoring here for many years. And that is to get economic influence out of the public television sector. But opponents to the bill say it's being done for all the wrong reasons, to weaken public television, and to extend the government's control over programming.

(voice-over): They say that because in addition to government power over the purse strings, there's a provision in the proposed law that authorizes the Elysees, the presidential palace, to pick the president of public television.

DOMINIQUE PRADALL, PUBLIC TV UNION LEADER: So is the president of public television is nominated by Elysees. If it doesn't act as a good boy, he won't have money.

JEAN-MARC ILLOUZ, CORRESPONDENT, FRANCE 2: We would be deprived of the advertising revenues that we needed at least for half of our budgets. So how is it going to be compensated? That'll make us begging from the government. So that will affect our independence as an independent broadcaster.

BITTERMAN: Media observers and opinion polls here suggest that while the public may not miss the advertisement, the subject of control has many worried.

PATRICK JARREAU, MEDIA ANALYST: Because they view that as, you know, going back to the old times in the 1960s, '70s when the public radio and public TV were completely under control of the government.

BITTERMAN: But the government insists control is not the objective. The intention President Sarcozy and others have said is merely to approve public TV programming which even his opponents agree has become too similar to private television.

Love it or hate it, since advertising first appeared on French television back in 1968 with this commercial for a brand of French cheese, the revenue it's raised gave public TV program makers a certain independence, even if it also meant they would become slaves to audience ratings, like elsewhere in the private TV world.

MAURICE LEVY, CEO, PUBLICIS GROUP: I have a kind of schizophrenia.

BITTERMAN: The head of the global advertising company that created that first commercial and thousands more over the years is confident the government will maintain the financial and political integrity of French public TV, but worries about what this will mean for his clients.

LEVY: I hate the word "banning advertising" because I think against a lot of freedoms. And including the freedom of speech and the freedom of doing business.

BITTERMAN: Faced with heated arguments from the opposition and even some disagreement within the ruling majority, the government is showing a willingness to compromise on some parts of its reform plans, but not on the central one, taking commercials off state television.

As long as that's the case, opponents say the future and independence of the public networks is in doubt. It was an accidental but appropriate irony the very first program to be broadcast on the new commercial free second channel was a series entitled unknown territory, exactly say some where the public networks are headed.


SWEENEY: That was Jim Bitterman reporting from Paris. Before we go, though, a reminder we're also on the web. Log on to to see the show highlights. And you can also check out the archive, and take part in the quick vote. The address again

That's all for this edition of the program coming to you from Jerusalem. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. We'll see you all again next time.