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Chavez Shuts Down Opposition Television Station in Venezuela; Darfur Documentary; Reality TV in the Netherlands

Aired June 1, 2007 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: 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.
Changing channels - protests in Venezuela as the country's most watched television station is taken off air. The crisis in Darfur - we meet ht filmmaker acknowledged for bringing on untold story to the world. And from Big Brother to Big Donor. A reality TV show in the Netherlands pushes the boundaries by duping the world.

It happened at the stroke of midnight. Venezuela's most watched television station went off the air after the government refused to renew its broadcast license.

RCTV was accused of supporting a failed coup against President Hugo Chavez and for violating broadcast laws. The closure sparked clashes between police and protestors, who labeled the government's decision as an attack on free speech.

Now another network has found itself in the spotlight. Harris Whitbeck has our report.


HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hours before this Venezuelan television reporter heads out to cover anti-government protests, the leader of that government, President Hugo Chavez, issued this chilling warning to the reporters TV station.

"I am warning you," said the Venezuelan president, "take a tranquilizer and tone it down or we will tone it down for you."

That's a threat this Globovision reporter must take seriously. Chavez already shut down the other major opposition TV station, which is what led thousands of students to the streets all week long.

Arriving on site, the reporter finds a line of police and national guardsmen, who are preparing to protect the government installation from student protestors they say are headed their way.

He consults with his producers on how to report the security buildup, carefully wording his story to avoid being accused of inciting violence.

"We have to be very careful because there are lots of legal issues," he says. Anything we say might be misinterpreted by the government and that would lead them to take measures against us."

The story in Venezuela is no longer just about protests on the streets.

(on camera): Many feel the story is about freedom of expression. And news outlets like Globovision have found themselves in the position of having to cover a story in which they are one of the main subjects.

(voice-over): Because by telling both sides of the story, they say, they're being singled out by a government bent on silencing opposition. The government, however, says Globovision is breaking the law by using the news, it says, to counter its leftist revolution.

Harris Whitbeck, CNN, Caracas.


SWEENEY: This network has also faced criticism from the Venezuelan government. CNN has been accused of presenting what a government spokesman labeled political propaganda under the guise of news, a charge this network categorically denies.

International press freedom groups, the EU and U.S., have expressed concern about the Venezuela's media crackdown. For more, I'm joined by CNN's Harris Whitbeck, who's in Caracas. And here in the studio is Gustavo Goidanich, editor with "Latin American Newspaper."

First of all, Harris, did the protests on the street take the government, the media by surprise?

WHITBECK: Some people believe that the protests on the streets did take many by surprise, particularly the fact that many students were among those protesting. That students go out onto the street en masse is something that not - has not happened in Venezuela for several years. And many analysts here say that the fact that students are now taking a particular interest in what's happening to the access they have to different news outlets or information outlets, they've - some analysts find that quite interesting. They see that as a turn because in the past, student protests have been at times - have been able to affect dramatic changes here.

SWEENEY: Gustavo, what do you make of what's been happening in Caracas over the last week or so?

GUSTAVO GOIDANICH, EDITOR, LATIN AMERICAN NEWSLETTERS: I think what Harris said about the renaissance of the student movement in Venezuela, which has been silenced for almost 20 years in Venezuela. It's very important because at the moment, the political debates in Venezuela is very polarized. And I think that enter of the students in the political scene will help to bring views closer together, because usually student movements are left leaning. And they would sympathize with Chavez. But they are coming out strongly against the - an attempt to stop civil liberties in Venezuela. I think that's where bring opinions together to try to find out a common cause on that.

SWEENEY: And Harris, as an international journalist, how has it been covering the situation? How does it compare for international journalists compared to the domestic journalists, for example?

WHITBECK: Well for us, it's been relatively easy, Fionnuala, because you know, we're insulated. We come in here. We're here for a couple of weeks and leave. And we're not faced with the prospect of daily - having going out to the streets to face either members of the opposition or those who support President Hugo Chavez.

Obviously, our work is being scrutinized heavily because CNN can be seen by satellite by cable operators here in Venezuela. It's been in this case it's been a little bit different from previous cases, because the story is one in which people truly believe if this is a story about freedom of expression, and it's not necessarily one about the political overthrow or attempts to overthrow the government, and people we speak to on the streets say that they are on the streets to defend freedom of expression.

SWEENEY: But correct me if I'm wrong, Harris. I mean, the biggest protests, what has seem to have galvanized the public, is not so much - well, it is certainly partly freedom of expression, but really it's based on the taking off of this television station because of the huge popularity of the soap operas it runs and broadcasts.

WHITBECK: Well, the station RCTV has been on the air since 1953. And it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest television stations in Venezuela. A lot of its soap operas are very popular. And people that - who we have spoken to on the streets in the last several days might not necessarily be fans of a given soap opera, but they say that at least want the chance to decide themselves whether they want to see it.

So again, they see this as something that's not so much political, but as something that really is an attempt on their right to choose what they want to see.

SWEENEY: So given that, Hugo Chavez, as president of Venezuela is one of the most prominent leaders in South America. Does what is taking place in Caracas this week have any implications for broadcast networks elsewhere and indeed the print media, such as yours as well?

GOIDANICH: Yes. It has an impact, I think, lots of Latin American media vehicles are worried about that. But having said that, all Latin American governments came out very strongly against the decision. They didn't criticize Chavez per se because they don't want to get involved in terms of diplomatic stuff, but they were like most sense of (INAUDIBLE) congress in Brazil, in Uraguay. In Bolivia, the president Tavo (ph) Morales, who is one of the closest allies of President Hugo Chavez in South America, said that he would never take such a step like that. And he's been having problems with the media as well.

So that shows that people are strongly against the things. I think that's something that will come back to haunt Chavez in his international dealings.

SWEENEY: All right, we have to leave it there, but Harris Whitbeck in Caracas, Venezuela, thank you very much indeed. Here in the studio, Gustavo Goidanich.

Police in Pakistan say they're investigating anonymous threats against three journalists in Carachi. Officials say unmarked envelopes, each containing a single bullet, were placed by the cars of the reporters. No one has claimed responsibility, but Pakistan's Federation of Union Journalists says the move is an attempt to intimidate.

The incident comes in the wake of widespread political turmoil, after President Pervez Musharraf suspended the country's chief justice Istaka Choudhury. Media watchdogs have expressed concern after the Supreme Court imposed tight restrictions on journalists in reporting Choudhury's appeal.

Still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, working in one of the world's most inhospitable regions. The motivation for one filmmaker in making the world aware of the crisis in Darfur. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. More than 200,000 people have been killed, two million others forced from their homes. It's described as the world's greatest humanitarian disaster.

This week, the violence in Darfur prompted U.S. President George W. Bush to impose sanctions against the Sudanese government in an effort to stop the violence.

The situation there makes reporting the story extremely difficult for news and film crews, except for a few.

Phil Cox first traveled to Chad in 2003. He smuggled himself across the border into Darfur and captured images of the crisis that were beamed across the globe, pictures that earned him a Rory Peck International Impact Award a year later.

Phil Cox has returned several times to film the conflict, and is currently working on a feature film on the children of Darfur. He joins me now in studio.

Phil, this crisis has been ongoing for several years now. What drew your attention to it?

PHIL COX, DIRECTOR, NATIVE VOICE FILMS: I first came across it in 2003 in an Amnesty report that came out in middle of 2003. And it was quite strongly that the numbers that it was talking about, and nobody had picked up on it. And I took it to various news organizations that we should look at this, and try and get in. But everyone was interested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So I found it myself. And (INAUDIBLE) stuff for politicians all media for about two years, since like 2002. So I went across the border and made contact with some of the rebel groups and saw some of the first images, the tens of thousands of people that were fleeing their own government across the border into Chad.

SWEENEY: And you continue to go back, obviously, throughout the years. Was it relatively easy to go in then to sit down when you first went and talked to rebels? How does it compare with now?

COX: I think one of the issues and complexities of Darfur is that it's very hard to report. It's a conflict that's not easy to see. It's not media friendly in that sense. And it's an area the size of France.

You have small scale issues and small pockets of violence. So for a journalist to go see it and find it takes some weeks and weeks and long budget.

And the bigger news organizations often went from that. But for freelancers or people like myself, who are willing to put time in on the ground, we feel we can do that - well, that's our strength as a freelancer.

And I think over these last four years, it' changed in the sense that the Sudanese are definitely more media savvy, and that it's still just as hard to get in there. And they don't want media in there.

But it's still possible to access if you're determined.

SWEENEY: But you've taken extraordinary risks to go into Darfur, more than most people might be expected to, or might consider sane for them to do. What gives you that extra drive to take those increasingly dangerous risks?

COX: I do think it's a very important story to tell. It's something that I came to perhaps unintentionally and made very close contact, and worked with the story early on. And since then, I've kept very much in touch with people, and watched how the media has escalated interests and come up and down with the subject like Darfur.

At the beginning, it was very hard to get people interested. They didn't know what, you know, what is Darfur? Again, it's black Africans, you know, so what?

And then as the media machine starts to pick up, and they have, you know, some sound bytes to hang on the world's greatest humanitarian disaster, they start to have images to work with, then the whole world machine picks up.

And very quickly, it's fickle and drops off.

SWEENEY: But isn't that the nature of the media business, so to speak, that one story is always replaced by another story inevitably? And to quote a contributor on this program a couple of weeks ago, he quoted former Tony Blair press person, I'm sure well known to you by name, Allistair Campbell, who said that a media story has about two weeks. So the question is isn't that what generally tends to happen in.

COX: When we raise these issues, and they're not talking about minor issues here, we're talking about things such as genocide. We're talking about massive large scale ethnic cleansing. You know, with men, women and children being killed. And I think free lance and the media, you know, yes, we have all our skepticism about the media, but we can also play a very purposive role in that.

And we can try and keep it on the agenda. We can be inventive and find new ways to get this story out. And if we are like that, we can.

SWEENEY: How have you done that?

COX: Well, I mean, I've been producing news stories from there for the last four years, last three years. And I found myself quite frustrated with what was in the media. So I've turned alternatively to cinema and started working on a feature film. And it's a story that I found about two years ago, two brothers and sisters, Darfurese children, and their escape across Darfur.

And I met these children two years ago in the desert. And I came back and I started to write a script of their story and what happened to them, and took it to feature producers here, because I became very tired of trying to keep the story on with traditional news media.

So this feature film, we just finished principle photography. It's a film that we're talking to many people about in America and here and generating a lot of interest. There's a lot of momentum, especially in America, about Darfur and the issue.

SWEENEY: And why do you think in America?

COX: I think the connection with America has come very much from black African lobbying and how it's being picked up and perceived on campuses and media celebrity and this issue of the U.S.-Sudan relations, where people have felt a lot closer to it in that sense.

SWEENEY: And what is it like as a filmmaker, as you're now, to try and shoot a feature film, as you said, in a war zone? I mean, how much cooperation have you had from the rebels, from the government, from the people themselves?

COX: To shoot is - while the conflict is happening, we're shooting just across the border in Chad. But of course the violence has now spread across the region. It's endemic in Chad.

But it's been very, you know, emotional the support we've had from the refugees. And people recreating their own stories. It's a true story. The children are recreated from their own stories. And when I need 50 extras, 1,000 turn out. When we have a scene across the desert, we had almost 2,000 refugees turned out to recreate their march and exodus from Darfur. And it was very emotional. Some of these people have been through rape, torture. So it's not easy to ask them to do this, but they wanted to do it.

They were determined to stay in the world's eye. They know how important it is to stay in the media, to keep their story and what's happened to them on the world's agenda.

They're very politicized, the Darfur refugees. And for me, working in the (INAUDIBLE) so often see it's the masses. It's the quick one minute. There's no individuality. There's no personality. We're trying to bring the character and a face and a human being, which each of these refugees are, of course, across to an audience.

And that's why I've now started to turn to cinema and this feature film.

SWEENEY: Well, good luck with it. Phil Cox, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, blurring the lines between reality and entertainment. TV show are criticized for going too far. We'll examine what the future holds for reality television when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Reality television, it's a concept that's well worn around the world and one that continues to be controversial when it comes to pushing boundaries. This week saw the return of "Big Brother" here in Britain after January's celebrity series was overshadowed by a racism row.

In Australia, "Big Brother" has also faced criticism after producers decided not to inform a contestant her father had died. And in the Netherlands, Andemol (ph), the creators of the "Big Brother" format took reality television to another level.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY (voice-over): It's a new program known as "The Big Donor Show" in which a terminally ill woman was to have chosen one of three contestants to receive her kidney. The show concept produced an international outcry.


LAURENS DRILLICK, CHAIRMAN, BNN: We know it's tasteless. Tasteless television show in which we're going to do this, we're trying to get a lot of attention for organ donorship and for the fact that the situation's so bad.


SWEENEY: But to the reality of this show is the fact that it fooled millions around the world. Phil Black reports.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The show started off as expected, promising a new era in reality television for what many have been calling a new low.

UNIDENTIFED MALE (through translator): A very good evening and welcome to "The Big Donor Show." Tonight, I'm going to make one kidney patient very happy with a new kidney.

BLACK: From the creators of "Big Brother" came "The Big Donor Show." Three kidney patients, Esther Clair, Vincent and Charlotte battling for sympathy, battling for a new kidney. And Lisa, described as the show's heroine, wanting to give one of her kidneys away to one of them before she dies from a brain tumor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Now that I know that I will die, I know how important life is. And I want to donate a kidney to someone who really appreciates the value of life.

BLACK: For the next hour, the contestants share their life stories and passionately explain why they were most deserving of Lisa's life saving organ.

VINCENT, CONTESTANT: Why I think that kidney is suitable for me, my ambitions are bigger than the body I have available.

BLACK: Viewers' opinions were tallied on a scoreboard. And it was only at the very end, when the tension was at its peak, and Lisa was about to choose the winner, that the host revealed all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We do not give away a kidney tonight. Even for us, that's going too far.

BLACK: It was all a hoax. Lisa wasn't dying. She was an actress. But the three contestants are really ill and waiting for donor kidneys.

ESTHER CLAIR SASABONE, CONTESTANT: This may be a joke for the whole world, it wasn't real, but the message is real and very serious. And a lot of people are dying while they are on the waiting list. And it's not necessary.

BLACK: This show made headlines around the planet. And the world's media was waiting outside the studio, expecting to talk to the winner. Instead, they heard from its producers, explained why they took everyone for a ride.

PAUL ROMER, MANAGING DIRECTOR, ENDERMOL NETHERLANDS: We did the show because there's a huge shortage of donors in the Netherlands. And all the normal means don't work. There's something really outrageous and special to get this topic high on the political agenda again.

BLACK: The program's inspiration was Dr. Graff, the founder of broadcaster BNN, who battled kidney failure and lost precisely five years ago at the age of 35.

The program has been a fierce talking point in the Netherlands. It was debated in parliament. And some (INAUDIBLE) judged doctors about not to help with the transplant.

(on camera): While the arguments raged across the Netherlands and around the world, there were persistent rumors this show might not be as it seems. It could be a hoax, a publicity stunt. Now the people behind it admit that was their intention all along. They just don't ever dreamed it would be so spectacularly successful.

(voice-over): The producers achieved their goal of sending a powerful message. Now they will find out (INAUDIBLE).

Phil Black, CNN, Amsterdam.


And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. 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.



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