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Press Freedom in Egypt; White House-Press Corps Relations; Reporting on Sri Lanka's Conflict

Aired October 12, 2007 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL 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. This week, stop the press. Concerns about media freedom in Egypt as journalists are prosecuted for publication offenses.
Covering a conflict, reporting the decades-old battle between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists.

And later, shaping the story. The unique relationship between the White House and television networks in the U.S.

First to Egypt and mounting concerns about press freedom in the country. Articles on the health of President Hosni Mubarak recently landed one newspaper editor in court and other journalists are also being prosecuted on public offences. In a moment, we'll examine the state of Egypt's independent press.

But first, this report from our Middle East correspondent, Aneesh Raman.


ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He doesn't look dangerous. Suspenders and all. But Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of a leading independent newspaper is a convicted man facing one year in prison. His crime, criticizing Egypt's ruling party and he could get three more years for essentially defaming Egypt's president.

"I published reports about President Mubarak's health, he said, and asked that officials update the public as to whether he is sick or not. For that, I now face more years in jail."

At 79 and after a quarter century in office, speculation over the health of Hosni Mubarak is a Cairo constant.

In August, many in Egypt's independent press reported that Mubarak was seriously ill and the government charges that led to a huge withdrawal in foreign investment.

"In 25 years of Mubarak, seven journalists were jailed," Eissa says, "but now in the past few weeks, 11 journalists face jail sentences for writing about his health."

It is a crackdown for an independent press still in its infant stage. Hisham Kassem is a well-known publisher and just received a Democracy Award in Washington for his work building a free press in Egypt.

As he left for DC, the state run press called him.

HISHAM KASSEM, EGYPTIAN PUBLISHER: Turncoat, a traitor, a fifth column. You name it. OK? Very ugly.

RAMAN: Despite the now very real threat of jail, the independent press in Egypt is not backing down.

KASSEM: There are people who are committed and will defend this at any cost. Go to jail, whatever the Mubarak regime brings upon them, they are willing to take it.

RAMAN: Mubarak has in the past year faced fierce criticism at home and abroad over his lack of Democratic reform. The freedom of press the latest to be rolled back, Eissa the latest journalist preparing to go away, detailing in this published note how he's told his son he may be heading on a trip. Always one for a punch line, Eissa promised a gift when he gets back. Aneesh Raman, CNN, Cairo.


SWEENEY: Some independent and opposition newspapers suspended publication last weekend in protest of what they called a government clampdown. Well, for more on this and the state of press freedom in Egypt I'm joined from Cairo by Karim El-Khashab, reporter with the "Al Ahram" weekly newspaper and here in the studio by Jo Glanville, editor with the Index on Censorship, a group the defends the right to free expression.

Karim in Cairo, this particular case, I understand Mr. Eissa had annoyed the government authorities before. Was this always something that was waiting to happen to him in a sense?

KARIM EL-KHASHAB, "AL AHRAM" CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely yes. I mean, this isn't the first time that Mr. Eissa finds himself in trouble with the regime. His newspaper he is the editor of, "Al Destour" closed in 1998, about three years after it was first published in 1995 and this is nothing new to him or most Egyptian journalists. Since Mubarak has come to power crackdown against journalism has been a regular occurrence.

The thing that's different now is the rhetoric and the style of journalism that has changed. Becoming much more adversarial, taking on the president directly and the solidarity amongst journalists, that has changed. But the clampdown itself is really nothing new.

SWEENEY: And what's brought about the change in this evolvement of what you call adversarial journalism in Egypt?

EL-KHASHAB: Well, I mean, the phrase "adversarial journalism" comes from a very prominent blogger in Egypt called Bahai (ph) and this blogger described the press as adversarial in the sense that they have become incredibly politicized. That what they do is as much political as it is journalism.

With the diminishing amounts of political freedoms on the Egyptian street, that sort of energy, that desire to change things has spilled over into journalism and they have created a sort of medium or area for themselves to sort of speak about things that they're not allowed to in sort of normal political life.

And they go not just at government cronies or ministers or governors, they're going directly at the president and his son and his family with the intent of making them more accountable and sort of breaking the last taboo in Egyptian political culture.

SWEENEY: And before I turn to Joe, let me ask you how has the Egyptian government responded? Obviously we know that they arrest newspaper editors but are they feeling the heat?

EL-KHASHAB: Well, they seem to be stuck. And this happened before in 1981, for example, President Anwar Sadat, a month before he was assassinated, arrested 1,500 journalists and authors and intellectuals in general because of the criticism of him.

But this is not 1981 anymore. The government seems to be backing down in the face of a solidarity amongst the journalists and the international pressure that has come which most journalists didn't think would happen. They didn't think there would be this much solidarity coming from abroad.

So they seem to be stuck, in a sense, where they don't want to send these people to jail, send someone like Ibrahim Eissa to jail and make a hero out of him and increase his popularity and on the other hand, if they give in and drop their case against him, they'll be seen as weak and crumbling.

And so they seem to have got themselves stuck in a - and I'm not sure they even know exactly where they should go from here.

SWEENEY: Jo Glanville, the Index on Censorship must really be watching events in Egypt with a lot of interest, in particular, this case.

JO GLANVILLE, INDEX ON CENSORSHIP: Yes, obviously, and actually, earlier this year we gave our Freedom of Expression award to Karim Ama (ph), the blogger in Cairo is currently serving a jail sentence because this has to be seen, I think, in the much wider context of what's going on politically in Egupt. There's been a burgeoning pro-Democracy movement over the last few years, we're now seeing the backlash against it that includes journalists and bloggers, political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood and we're seeing the government moving in in a very harsh way.

SWEENEY: When you say a harsh way, how do you expect things to evolve and how does it affect - impact on the kind of work you're doing for press freedoms?

GLANVILLE: Well, obviously for us this is - when something this stringent and draconian takes place, we along with other human rights groups have to be sure that there is a lot of press attention on it, a lot of international attention, and also pressure on governments and we have to remember that America gives an enormous amount of aid to Egypt. Egypt is a very important ally for the States and there really is room for America to weigh in very heavily at a time when it supposedly is calling for democracy in the Middle East.

This really is an opportunity for America to move in and show that it means that it wants democracy in the Middle East and to criticize Mubarak for the way that he is behaving.

SWEENEY: Karim, when you talk about the solidarity of journalists in Egypt, how much help and support to journalists in Egypt get from overseas, or is it more a homegrown solidarity?

EL-KHASHAB: I think it is more of a homegrown solidarity. Of course as I said, they were taken by surprise by the amount of coverage, for example, that their boycott, that the boycott that they did on the seventh of this month, the amount of coverage that it got in the international media but I think it's more of a homegrown think.

I think the Egyptian people in general have support for the journalists. They seem to be the only medium where they can get unbiased, sort of information that's not either state run or belongs to a certain political party.

And their style and the way that they have written is closer to colloquial Arabic, has made them very dear to many Egyptians hearts. So it's been definitely more of a homegrown support kind of thing.

SWEENEY: And what is the objective of this adversarial journalism? Regime change and/or greater democracy?

EL-KHASHAB: I think it's greater democracy and greater freedom in general. But I think it's more a cause of like your guest said, of the general climate that there is in Egypt because there is such a harsh clampdown on all kinds of political participation that it's sort of - the energy that people have to participate has spilled over into journalism.

And I think people like Ibrahim Eissa and the other editors that were jailed, they do have a very clear political and one of many goals, but the main goal that they have is to break this taboo of the presidency that you cannot criticize the president or his son or his family and I think they have achieved tremendously in pushing the boundaries of what can and can't be said in Egypt.

SWEENEY: How much of the Index on Censorship's work is spent on lobbying the authorities in Egypt and how much a response do you get?

GLANVILLE: A certain amount of our work but for us as well what's very important is giving voice to people so for us when something like this happens it's - we're very concerned that we publish Egyptian journalists. So we commission journalists who are in Egypt to write for us about what's going on, that you get that circulated here and pressure, press releases, lobbying is part of the whole process as well. Because one of the most important things is to keep this in the public eye.

SWEENEY: All right. Well, we have to leave it there with Jo Glanville, you're in the studio, and Karim El-Khasab in Cairo. Thank you both very much for joining us.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, reporting Sri Lanka. We discuss the difficulties and challenges for journalists working in that country. That's next.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's a conflict that's gripped Sri Lanka for more than two decades. One that has claimed more than 70,000 lives after war erupted between the country's Sinhalese dominated government and Tamil rebels. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, as it's known, wants to create an independent state for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. Attempts at brokering a peace deal have failed, and recently human rights groups accused both government forces and separatist rebels of civilian killings and abuses.

Well, working as a journalist in Sri Lanka poses many challenges and to discuss them and the current media climate in the country, we turn to Sunandra Deshaprya, convener of the Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka. Thank you for joining us.

As a Sinhalese, is it possible to make any distinction between being a journalist on the Tamil side or on the Sinhalese side.

SUNANDRA DESHAPRYA, FREE MEDIA MOVEMENT: Yes, definitely. Tamil journalists have been under so much pressure in the last two years. Just for instance, we have Sri Lanka, 11 media workers and journalists have been killed in the last 10 years and 10 of them have been Tamil.

And Tamil journalists and Tamil media, Tamil editors are under tremendous pressure on both sides.

SWEENEY: And how have they been killed?

DESHAPRYA: Of 11 journalists and media workers who have been killed in the last two years, 10 of them are Tamil.

SWEENEY: And how have they been killed? In battle, or .

DESHAPRYA: No. Not in a battle. Almost all of them killed were shot dead while they were on their way to work and some of them in their workplaces. Some of them were kidnapped and killed. And all of them were killed really because they were journalists reporting the conflict areas.

SWEENEY: And is it possible to say who might have killed them? One is - making a distinction, was it on the Tamil side or the Sinhalese side?

DESHAPRYA: Very difficult to say because one of the issues that is implicit (ph) in Sri Lanka, none of the investigations have taken place in an open and transparent manner. We don't know who killed them.

But some of the journalists were killed very clearly for their reporting on abuses by the military. But we can't see who killed them but they were killed because they reported abuses of the military.

SWEENEY: How much solidarity is there between Sinhalese and Tamil journalists.

DESHAPRYA: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, all journalists try to work together. In counting (ph) war (ph) and defending press freedom in Sri Lanka. But this ethnic duality is very, very deep in Sri Lanka. Polarization of media and ethnic divisions are very deep.

SWEENEY: And how do you overcome them, then, in your organization.

DESHAPRYA: We work with all Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims journalist organizations and we go to Jaffna, we go into eastern provinces, we try our best to help them and I mentioned (ph) Jaffna and Jaffna is one of the most difficult places for journalists to work and we have been working with them, trying to get them safety support and personnel support, everything. At this time we are working with them in solidarity.

SWEENEY: How do you think Western media views the conflict and covers the conflict?

DESHAPRYA: Western media cover the conflict if there is issue only. It is very much issue oriented. Most of them, you lose the context. And if there is a real issue that's reported, we all say that, learn (ph) media workers and journalists have been killed but there's not been much reporting and somebody has just been living for the last six months in their own news office. Not going out and even in Jaffna, it's not reported, definitely it's not covered. The Tamil heartland. No information coming out from Jaffna.

So it's still like it's a silent war.

SWEENEY: A silent war. And how many Sinhalese journalists can actually get into the ground, get on the ground and cover the conflict?

DESHAPRYA: I would say the conflict zone has been almost abandoned in practical terms. Some Sinhalese journalists have been to the eastern part of the country. But northern part is almost practically banned because you can't go there. You have to - and if you go there you don't have a place to stay and there are no journalists, 90 percent of journalists have left the peninsula so in a sense, actually, Sinhalese journalists, detail (ph) or feature writers, very few has been to Jaffna in recent times to report what is really happening there.

SWEENEY: And presumably Tamil journalists have greater freedom of movement.

DESHAPRYA: Tamil journalists have greater freedom of movement in a sense but they are fear (ph) of cycles (ph) because 10 of them have been killed and their newspapers have been bombed and there has been so much hate speech against them, every day, day and night and in that sense I would say Tamil journalists do not dare to report really the situation because they know what has happened to the journalists who really try to report what is happening in the war zone.

SWEENEY: I mean, it really sounds like a very doomed picture for Tamil journalists in particular. I mean, a very dangerous life.

DESHAPRYA: Yes. Very dangerous. Twenty-five Tamil journalists have left the country within the last two years and still I think some of them (inaudible). Some of them are in India, some of them are in hiding. As far as I understand, 90 percent of staff in the Jaffna media. It's not reporting to work and almost all Tamil newspapers in Colombo have lost their provincial journalists speaking in Tamil because they just don't want to get in trouble reporting the situation.

SWEENEY: I mean, is this an issue, the plight of Tamil journalists, does it have any resonance among ordinary Sinhalese? The public?

DESHAPRYA: Not really. We are a very divided country in the media because Sinhalese newspapers do not report what is happening with Tamil media. Tamil journalists and Tamil media. It is rarely you get the other side and Sri Lanka is a country divided by the media and not by the war, in a sense.

SWEENEY: And do you have any optimism at all that A, the war might actually be brought to a close at some point, indeed that there might be more solidarity as a result?

DESHAPRYA: At this time, the key to Sri Lanka - the solution is human rights because a cease fire agreement only goes until it far away (ph) and media freedom comes under the human rights, so all journalists and Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, all are working towards securing, safeguarding human rights in Sri Lanka and that's the key at this time.

SWEENEY: Sunandra Deshaprya, thanks very much indeed for joining us.

DESHAPRYA: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Now, still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, it is a competitive business. A behind the scenes glimpse at the major television networks in the States and how they deal with the White House. That story when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's often been called into question. The relationship between the White House and the media. Well, that's the subject of "Reality Show," a new book by Howard Kurtz, media correspondent with the "Washington Post" and host of CNN's RELIABLE SOURCES.

He goes inside what he calls the great television news war in the U.S. Here's Carol Costello.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The White House, 2006. The president holds a private briefing for major network anchors just hours before the State of the Union of Address.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: The United States will not retreat from the world and we will never surrender to evil.

COSTELLO: In private with the anchors, President Bush is even more forceful about pursuing the war on terrorism. "We're not backing away. We're going after the bastards."

CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asks, "Mr. President, do we really have a military option on Iran that's viable." The president responds, "Hell yes, it's viable."

This according to a new book about broadcast news by Howard Kurtz, host of RELIABLE SOURCES on CNN. It gives a behind the scenes glimpse at national newsrooms and how the White House deals with the media. For example, the competition by star reporters to secure an interview with the president. Whether Bush personally liked an anchor was a key factor in how much access he or she would receive.

That according to a former White House communications director who says Brian Williams of NBC is the president's favorite.

But when Katie Couric was scheduled for an interview a year ago, her first ever in five years, Bush gave his long time aide some grief but went along with the decision. Kurtz says Couric's predecessor at CBS, Dan Rather was persona non grate from day one. Even before his report questioning the president's service in the Texas National Guard.

The network retracted the story and Rather lost his job. Kurtz reports that inside CBS the debate grew so intense over whether to air the story, Rather at one point threatened, I am going to give one of the documents to the "New York Times" to run in Wednesday's paper.

Rather has since filed a lawsuit against CBS over the issue. He says his bosses at CBS caved under political pressure.

DAN RATHER, FORMER CBS ANCHOR: Big government and big corporations have far too much influence and are intimidating, especially investigative reporter.

COSTELLO: We called everyone mentioned in my story and we did hear back from Dan Rather's attorneys who told us, "We have not read the book, however," they said, "Howard Kurtz's coverage of the Rather lawsuit has been anything but reliable."

Carol Costello, CNN, Washington.


SWEENEY: CNN's Wolf Blitzer spoke to Howard Kurtz, the author of "Reality Show." He was asked what he thought was the most revealing fact to be uncovered in the book.


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I was surprised, Wolf, the degree to which there was pressure from the administration on the networks and their anchors over coverage of the Iraq War. I mean, we knew they weren't happy, the administration officials, about what they described as very negative coverage, but during 2005 and 2006, whether it was Dan Bartlett, then the White House counselor, constantly complained to NBC's Tim Russert or the president himself trying to give his spin to the anchors at these off the record White House meetings.

The White House made very clear that it was not happy with the direction of the newscast coverage of Iraq, which I believe because of their much bigger audiences, played a key role in turning public opinion against the war during that crucial period of time.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: What else don't we know about this relationship between the White House and these broadcast news anchors and their associates?

KURTZ: Well, for example, every time the president decides to grant an interview, he huddles with his advisors, whether it's Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, do I want to do this? What am I going to say? What's the headline going to be?

But also the - the networks after a while began to internalize the criticism and say, well, maybe we're not doing enough good news from Iraq. So, for example, CBS executives asked chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan to consider doing a story about female soldiers who are keeping cyber pets online.

Well, Logan, who prefers being out with the troops on the front line, sent an e-mail back saying, "I would rather stick needles in my eyes than spend one second of my time on that story."

Also the White House was concerned about NBC's somewhat overblown insistence last year that the Iraq War be referred to in the future as a civil war, which of course was a designation the administration wanted very much to avoid.

BLITZER: What kind of pressure do they put on these anchors to try to get the story the way they want it? What are the carrots and the sticks?

KURTZ: Well, I suppose the ultimate stick, you might say, is a lack of access to the president. For example, Katie Couric very much displeased the Bush White House when she was at the "Today Show" and pressed Laura Bush about her views on abortion, this was just before the president took office. For five years, Katie Couric was basically frozen out, no White House, the president would not give her an interview.

Only when she went to CBS did they relent under advice from Dan Bartlett and say, I guess we have to do business with her.

But even below that level, look, I mean, they decide who goes on the Sunday shows and the administration has ways of expressing its unhappiness.

I must say, I think the anchors push back hard, were relentless in trying to paint an accurate picture of what was going on in Iraq, to the point the administration now acknowledges, it did not at the time, that the war was not going well then and that's why they had to change the strategy.


SWEENEY: That was Howard Kurtz speaking to Wolf Blitzer. 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.