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Comparing Media Freedom in Covering Myanmar and China Disasters

Aired May 16, 2008 - 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, two disasters, different responses. Foreign journalists are restricted from Myanmar as it reels from the deadly cyclone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand that the authorities are now looking for me specifically.


SWEENEY: And later, China's lessons from the past. Is that how the media has handled this week's earthquake crisis?

First, reporting the aftermath and the response to cyclone Nargis, a disaster that has devastated Myanmar. The ruling junta is refusing to allow international journalists into the country to cover the story. However, some are managing to make their way in, among them CNN's Dan Rivers, who traveled to the hardest hit region of Myanmar, evading authorities looking to keep out reporters. He's now out of the country, and filed this report.


DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The furious winds of Cyclone Nargis had ripped apart towns and villages. Tens of thousands were dead and the airport had been shut for two days.

We were on the first flight in when it reopened. And we were shocked at what we saw.

The Yangong was choked with fallen trees. There were plenty of soldiers, but many seemed to be standing doing nothing. And then, there were the lines for fuel. Finding fuel for our car was also a nightmare. And all the while, we had to be careful we weren't being followed by the authorities.

(on camera): It just goes on and on and on for miles really.

(voice-over): There was limited electricity and communications were (INAUDIBLE). But we were still managing to report on what was happening. We have to change hotels every day. Now my reports were on air, I was a marked man.

(on camera): We're having to sneak in and out of the hotel through the back stairs so that they don't know I'm here because we understand that the authorities are now looking for me specifically. There's someone coming.

Well, two guys spoke to me sitting in a car outside our hotel. Looked like they sitting, waiting, and watching. It's really - it's difficult not to get completely paranoid and ridiculous here because you kind of feel that everyone is potentially military intelligence. And there are looking for you.

(voice-over): We spent more than eight hours driving to the worst affected area, through torrential rain, which was compounding the misery of survivors huddled in the debris of their own home.

The roads are terrible. There are also numerous check points, was forced to find another way in.

We finally manage to get to the heart of the Irrawaddy Delta, where the devastation was appalling. We've narrowly avoided being arrested. And we were effectively on the run.

(on camera): Well, I almost got caught in the last town. The police had my photo and they took the rest of my team in and were questioning them and showing them my photo. And they were let go. And I caught up with them afterwards.

So (INAUDIBLE) down the check points, we got turned around. And we decided basically that we were going to get caught. So we pulled off the road. We've taken a boat up here. And we're now stuck in the middle of the Irrawaddy Delta with about two Snickers bars and a jerry kind of fuel to last us.

(voice-over): We try to push further into the delta. But just after this video was shot, we're detained by the police. Somehow we talk our way out and decide it's time for me to leave.


SWEENEY: That was Dan Rivers reporting. Well, earlier, I spoke to Dan in Bangkok about what it was like working as a foreign journalist inside Myanmar this time around. I asked him how difficult it was compared to the last time he was there.


RIVERS: Fionnuala, this was a nightmare in comparison to my other trips there. We had all sorts of logistical challenges. No electricity across much of Yangong made it very difficult for our equipment to work, first of all. Communications were a nightware. Most of the phone lines were down. The mobile phone network was down as well. So that made things incredibly difficult. There was no e-mail.

There was no fuel as well for our car to get around. We had to go out and buy fuel on the black market for $15.00 a gallon. And our poor driver's having to queue up half the night to get fuel. So all those kinds of practical sides of the story were incredibly difficult, as well as the fact that the military junta didn't want us in there. And they were actively trying to stop journalists like me from getting to the story and getting the story out. So it was really, really tough.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you. We were referring to you initially when you were in Myanmar this time as CNN correspondent. And then we began naming you. And was it at that point that you became very much a wanted man by the authorities? And in your opinion, would you have preferred not to have been named? Or would it have made a difference given that we saw you on camera anyway from there?

RIVERS: I don't think it made a massive difference. They were looking for any foreigners going into the disaster zone anyway, be they aide workers, journalists, or whoever. We took a decision after about 24 hours to name me, to put me - put my face on air.

Basically, because we wanted - our reports, my reports have much more impact. So that I could look down the barrel of the camera and tell people how bad it really was, and show people, lead them through it.

And I think the problem with just doing a voice-over over picture, it does tend to wash over people. People - the viewers at home don't tend to concentrate as much. They see it, they kind of see it all before. It's difficult to communicate this directly and effectively.

When you've got someone standing there in the rubble telling you it's really bad, something needs to be done, it's much more effective work getting the story across. And that was a deliberate decision we took. It came with some risks, obviously. It was a fine judgment to make, but I think in hindsight, I don't think we would have done it any differently.

SWEENEY: And one of those risks was, of course, as you mentioned in your report changing hotels every day, just how close did the authorities get to actually seriously detaining you, rather than just questioning you as - a couple of times?

RIVERS: I think we came very close a lot of times. They put out fairly early on a sort of - called all hotels for them to report any foreigners staying with them, which seems to be how that moved. I then didn't actually check into any subsequent hotels. I was forced to sort of sneak in and out the back door and use my colleagues room.

And then on the road on the way down into Irrawaddy Delta, there were various points - very close straits we had where we - my crew was taken in and questioned. And I was then hiding somewhere else and having to hide under a blanket, the back of a car, a check point. And then it got almost quite ridiculous at some points.

But always at the back of my mind were, you know, there were some serious risks involved with all this. Not only to me and the Western crew that we had there, but moreso to the local staff that we were using. I mean, these local Burmese people who were helping us fixes and producers really putting their life really on the line to get the story out. And it must be said, you know, all of us have to salute them for their courage and bravery in willing to, you know, to go to those lengths.

SWEENEY: Burma is a country, Myanmar, which as you know, well known, Dan, has been rather slow at allowing international aide in. I mean, how does it feel to have been pursued so relentlessly, it appears, by the authorities when there was so much devastation in the country that needed taken care of?

RIVERS: Well, it was infuriating. I mean, you know, it made me very angry really seeing, you know, all these dead bodies, all these people with nothing. And at the same time, the government is extending a huge amount of energy in trying to stop people like me, simply just telling people what the situation is and what people need.

I mean, you know, we weren't trying to politicize this story. We were simply going there to show people, you know, here are the people that need help. Here's what they need. Here's what the international community needs to get that help in.

And all the while, that was being frustrated constantly by the regime. It just did not want anyone in. And they still won't let people in. I mean, they are still not letting foreigners into the Irrawaddy Delta. You know, and it is incredibly frustrating, both as a journalist and as a human being, being in that kind of situation and facing those kinds of obstacles.

SWEENEY: And presumably, a frustration shared by your journalistic colleagues from other outlets?

RIVERS: Yes, I mean, it's not just CNN that was having these problems. I mean, all the major international news organizations were trying to do the same thing.

I know that a friend of mine, a colleague from the BBC was deported as he arrived in Yangong. A BBC team was subsequently ejected from Myanmar. Other major organizations, Skye News in the U.K. were barred from entry. Al Jazeera International managed to have - get people in, but they had a very tough time in reporting, a lot of similar challenges that we had.

So you know, it's not just CNN that they're picking on. It's the entire international media was barred really, was blocked from covering this story, a story which, you know, is a massive humanitarian catastrophe that's still getting worse, not better.

SWEENEY: You show in your report towards the end that it was decided by your team that it was best for you to leave the country. And presumably a sigh of relief as you crossed the border. Were there any difficulties there?

RIVERS: There were, yes. I mean, I managed to get through passport control. And no one said anything to me. I was quite surprised. They got through - actually sitting on the plane, thinking that was I home free. And then, the flight attendant came up to me sort of ask me to leave the plane because there was a problem with my passport. And I was sort of taken off the plane.

The secret police were there. They searched everything. They were questioning me. In the end, they let me go and just sort of stamped "deportee" in my passport. But there was a sort of half an hour there where I was seriously wondering if I was ever going to get out or if they were going to whisk me off to some, you know, prison cell for interrogation.


SWEENEY: CNN's Dan Rivers there on his experiences reporting inside Myanmar.

With access to information limited, how did the news outlets trying to get information into the country go about their job? We'll have that when were return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. We've been discussing Myanmar or Burma as it's also known and the difficulties in reporting the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Authorities aren't allowing foreign journalists inside. And the risks for those who do make it in are huge.

We've seen how CNN correspondent Dan Rivers found himself a wanted man after he was identified from one of his television reports. So while getting an accurate picture of what's happening poses dangers for journalists, we want to get a sense on what it's like for the news outlets trying to get information to people inside.

So for their take on the situation in Myanmar, let's bring in two organizations that have dedicated operations that broadcast into the country. From Washington, we're joined by Nancy Shwe, the director of the Burmese Service with Radio Free Asia. And here in the studio is Tin Htar Swe, the head of the BBC's Burmese service.

Nancy in Washington, presumably it's always been difficult to get information from inside Myanmar to rebroadcast into the country. How much more difficult has that been since the cyclone?

NANCY SHWE, BURMESE SERVICE DIRECTOR, RADIO FREE ASIA: It is very difficult to get information from inside Burma. But as Radio Free Asia has been in existence more than 10 years already, we have been able to build up contacts through our friends, family members, and of course friends of friends. And some of them government employees. They are civilians, mind you, and you who are very dissatisfied with how things are going on.

And of course, they are citizen journalists that we usually depend on. And they usually contact us. And then of course, we double check. And that's how we get our information.

SWEENEY: In the aftermath of the cyclone, how has that affected your ability to get information?

SHWE: Oh, we do - when you say how does it affect, I think we've been able to report what's been going on, as I said, through all our contacts. We were able to - and then we'll be able to get through the phones, through the e-mail, even though phone lines are difficult sometimes. Yes, but then we keep in trying. And one, we have a lot of our contacts there.

So one way or the other, we can reach someone. And then, if we don't get the source, we tell that person to go and get the source. And then we wait for it, rearrange it. And then we get the information from them.

SWEENEY: Tin Htar Swe, here in the studio, as head of the Burmese service of the BBC, how difficult has it been for you, your people on the ground, to operate in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis?

TIN HTAR SWE, HEAD OF BBC BURMESE SERVICE: First thing I like to say is we do not have anyone inside the country. But nevertheless, as Nancy has just pointed out, citizen journalism has come of age.

We do have a lot of reports from Burma. This is due to the very brave people who would like to have the stories heard by the people outside Burma.

With great difficulties, we managed to get reports. But for every journalist, we all know that it is frustrating not to be right there when the disaster struck. The journalists would like to be there. And then, the report - the event as it folds right in front of your eyes. But that cannot be done.

SWEENEY: When the cyclone happened, I mean, what were your immediate thoughts on how to react to try and cover this story?

SWE: When we heard that nearly 300 people were killed, the first thing was obvious. Of course, we tried to reach Burma. We tried to call Rangoon. And we were very fortunate. We had - we have a number of stringers in the region. And they managed to get through the lines, telephone lines. And we called eyewitnesses' account of what happened in Rangoon.

So that was incredible for us, you know, when a lot of people try to call Rangoon. And very few were lucky enough to get through to the lines. And we managed to get witness accounts of certain areas of Rangoon on that day.

But as for - and also we managed to get reports from adjacent areas, which were severely affected by the cyclone. This was, again, through the context we established over the years.


SWE: And also the technology. And thanks to the technology, it's - and also the - another thing is we have a number of blocked sites. And they've been monitoring the situation Burma ever since last September, when the demonstration took place.

SWEENEY: Well, Nancy Shwe, if I may ask you, how difficult or different has it been for your network to cover events in Myanmar to get information in Myanmar, compared to those events in September, when those demonstrations took place and it was extremely difficult to get news out of the country?

SHWE: I think we just have to thank, as mentioned, our citizen journalists who've been very brave enough to go and - go to the places and have given back us the eyewitness account. Those are the brave people. That's how we - and then of of course as mentioned again by Swe, we have our stringers in the region, who have a lot of contacts. That's how we get information from inside the country.

SWEENEY: And you mentioned verification. I mean, presumably, it's not easy to verify this information when it's extremely difficult for citizen journalists to get in touch with you in the first place?

SHWE: But then we have other contacts that we try to confirm from different sources. And like for instance, once we get a tip from one of our just - not reporter, but contact inside that something is definitely (INAUDIBLE) in the (INAUDIBLE) revolution. There are months. And people have been taken to the ACTI compound.

Then we have our reliable person that we have had been in contact. And we have built up a relationship with that question for years. And we trust them. And they trust us. We - that kind of - we have those kind of people down there, too. So we ask them to go to that place, find out whether what we have information is correct. And that's how we confirm it from different sources, too.

SWEENEY: Tin Htar Swe, do you have any of what you're listenership is like in Myanmar?

SWE: We did have a survey a few years back. And that time, things were a lot quieter than now. And our reach was over seven million per week. That was when we did a survey across the country. And we interviewed about 6,000 people.

However, we were told that every morning in Mandalay, the second capital of Burma, every morning if you walk along the palace, there's a moat along the palace. And you will find people taking exercise and have this little Chinese (INAUDIBLE) just with radio tuned to their ears, wth the headphones on.

And they would be listening to all the foreign broadcasts in Burmese. So that shows - and also, another diplomat who came back from Burma, told us that when BBC is on, suddenly you can see the light switch on in every - all the apartments.

SWEENEY: And this presumably, Nancy Shwe in Washington, is why the military junta is concerned about allowing outsiders in, because of the kind of work that your network does, combined with the attitude and the appetite of the people in Myanmar for more news.

SHWE: Right now, the people are not interested in whether overturning the government. They're just wanted the international aide to come in, so that the victims, whoever is still alive, could be helped. That's all they are waiting for from what I - from all the news and information that we are getting. We are waiting for the international aide just to have those people who still alive to be saved.

SWEENEY: We're out of time. Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Nancy Shwe in Washington and here TinHtar Swe in London.


SWEENEY: The difficulties in reporting the situation in Myanmar brings us to our question of the week. We're asking has the banning of foreign reporters from the country conceal the extent of the disaster? Register your vote on our website. That's And while you're there, you can see all or part of this week's show again, view our video archive, and read the blog. That address again

Dealing with its own disaster, China's deadly earthquake. The response from the government and the media has been swift, as the country latched from the past. A look of news coverage of the crisis after this.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Now to China and coverage of the worst earthquake to hit the country in more than three decades. The disaster has generated round the clock coverage, a departure on how China's media and the government has dealt with crises of the past.

Our Beijing bureau chief Jaime Florcruz reports.


JAIME FLORCRUZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Gut wrenching videos of this and destruction rarely shown by the Chinese media so quickly and so extensively after a disaster.

Now reports on China's deadly earthquake are updated around the clock, showing horrendous damage and the government's swift response.

"Your sorrow is our sorrow, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tells these survivors. As long as people are still alive, we can start all over again. China's media show Premier Wen leaving rescue operations and comforting people in distress. The message, the disaster is terrible, but the government is doing all it can.

Such a swift reaction and extensive news coverage have not been seen in previous disasters. When the great Tunshan (ph) earthquake struck 32 years ago, the Chinese media for a long time kept information a secret, even though more than 240,000 people were killed.

In the early period of the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese media downplayed reports of a deadly epidemic, even as it was already spreading out of control.

And when severe snowstorms hit southern China earlier this year, the local media initially downplayed the crisis following the government's queue.

The Chinese Premier was later forced to apologize for the government's slow response. With the Beijing Olympics just three months away, China this time is under the spotlight.

WENRAN JIANG, UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA: So the mindset today is more like the leadership going for the open, immediately showing it is on spot, helping people, coordinating efforts. That has been transmitted by the multimedia age, by the online age to all over the countries. And you see the disaster as a hedge, becoming now a rallying point of the country to kind of reach out for these people.

FLORCRUZ: Today's more open and quick reporting is a stark departure from China's poor performance in recent years. Now China wants to look good before the summer Olympics, eager to show the world that the way they handled this disaster is a clue to how well they will handle the games.

Jaime Florcruz, CNN, Beijing.


SWEENEY: And that is 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.