Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Dating show for the disabled
We knew this was a sensitive topic when we drove out to the Netherlands from Germany. A dating show for disabled people had never been done before and the question is, whether the people that actually go on such a show are being exploited for the audience’s amusement and the producer’s profit?

Our crew certainly had very mixed feelings doing a story about the show.

In the town of Nijmegen, we met Peter Kunnen who is one of the contestants on the show called “Love at Second Sight.” Peter can only limp with a crutch since he had a car accident 17 years ago. He says he has trouble finding a girl, because they only judge him by his looks when he meets them and many think he’s a freak just because he limps.

Lydia van Dam was the second contestant we met. She has a severe birth defect and has been in a wheelchair since birth. I asked her why she would put herself in the public by displaying her disabilities on TV. She put it simply: “I am physically disabled, I am not mentally disabled. I know exactly what I’m getting into.”

That hit the spot. Maybe the public shouldn’t be so worried about offending disabled people. Maybe that’s a form of pity that’s unfair to them, and which they don’t need, we were thinking.

Peter says he can’t understand all the fuss about the show. He says it’s only people without disabilities that are appalled by the program, disabled people are not. Bluntly Peter added, what disabled people really need is less pity and more respect.

Peter is a professional DJ, and he teaches media classes at Dutch schools. Lydia is a computer whiz. Both them have are managing their lives on their own overcoming the hurdles that stand in their way every day.

In the end the disabled dating show seemed a lot less controversial to us than we would have imagined at the beginning of our research.

You can click here to watch the report.

-- From Frederik Pleitgen, CNN Berlin Correspondent
Friday, February 23, 2007
Becky's Briefing

Becky Anderson goes behind the scenes at CNN's international newsgathering conference in London, and looks back at some of the week's top stories.

South Africa's sexiest man?
I feel a little weird starring at the slick naked torso of my interviewee. He has a perfect six pack and more definition than the Oxford Dictionary. Thank goodness this is research, I'm thinking as I click and paste the Web site address showing off his impressive physique and circulate it to my colleagues.

I'm heading off to interview Gareth Tjasink, who's been voted South Africa's Sexiest Man by the readers of Cosmo. This is the most tabloid story I've ever filed for CNN, but it's tabloid with a twist. South Africa's Sexiest Man also happens to be a full-time doctor, as well as a part-time model and actor.

Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto is huge, in fact it's the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite the sprawling layout of the buildings, the crew had no trouble spotting our doctor. Dr. Gareth strode through the grounds with the early morning Soweto sunshine glinting in his hair. The man named the sexiest in South Africa shook my hand and we set up to do the shoot.

Having seen my guest wearing not many clothes on the Internet I wasn't quite sure what to expect in the flesh. I was surprised, there was no hint of ego or arrogance. The doctor is smart, passionate about practising medicine and determined to have a serious career as a surgeon. I'm still not sure how "serious" you can be about your day job if you appear on "Survivor South Africa" and model for calendars and ad campaigns. Yet somehow Dr. Gareth manages to do both and uses his celebrity as a platform to nag South Africans about chronic health issues like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and diabetes.

No doubt you're dying to see a picture of the good doctor, so you can judge for yourself if he deserves all the attention he's getting. You can
google Gareth Tjasink like I did, or watch my full report on the day I met South Africa's Sexiest Man.

From Femi Oke, CNN, Johannesburg, South Africa
Baghdad: Living in fear

My friend has lived in Baghdad for the better part of his life. He’s in his late 30s with a wife and three children, two of them girls. We’ll call him Rashid, because revealing his real name is simply too dangerous. He’s a Sunni Arab, a proud man, a tough man. Under Saddam’s regime he was a well placed military official with a pleasant life.

How his life has changed.

I spoke with Rashid on the one year anniversary of the bombing of the Golden Dome al-Askariya mosque in Samarra. Sacred to Shias, the bombing of the shrine is the seminal event in Iraq’s spiraling sectarian conflict. The event that opened the floodgates for ferocious Shia reprisal attacks against the Sunni minority in Iraq. Rashid remembers the day with uncanny clarity. The first though that came to his mind: “Oh my God -- this is it.”

In Iraq, the sectarian split has always rumbled under the surface, to some degree. But on this day one year ago, the divide ripped wide open. Rashid recalls seeing the effects immediately. In his mixed neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, Shia friends of his were inconsolable. “I could just see the look in their eyes,” he says. “I tried to tell them that we are all Iraqis, but I couldn’t calm them down.”

Rashid’s best friend was Shia, one of about 20 Shia friends he had in his neighborhood. Rashid and his buddy would get together almost every day. “We would share a coffee, a cigarette, a game of cards. If we couldn’t meet face to face, we would always find a way to talk on the phone.” With the Samarra bombing came an end to that bond. “He stopped returning my calls and e-mails immediately. Just because I am Sunni.”

Rashid’s friend picked up his family and left the neighborhood five days later. They still have not spoken since February 22, 2006, and will likely never speak again. Years of friendship vanished in an instant.

A year later, life in Iraq has become nearly impossible for Rashid. Every day when he wakes up, he is torn; he must earn a living for his family, but he also fears leaving them home alone. Death squads, camouflaged in Iraqi police uniforms, have been making more frequent appearances in his neighborhood. But, he tells me: “When you have children and a wife to care for, you have to keep working and continue the cycle of life.”

Rashid worries constantly, even if he can hide that pain from his face. His two girls go to the same school. Recently, a mortar landed close by, shattering the school's windows and terrifying classrooms filled with young, innocent girls. His wife and young son stay at home, protected by a neighborhood watch that has grown from two guards to 14 armed men in the past year. His wife sometimes tells him to stay away, afraid that the death squads will come to their neighborhood again, take him away and turn him into another of the unidentified bodies found floating in the Tigris River every morning.

Rashid is desperate to leave Iraq now. He is tired of the death squad patrols, tired of the constant fear for his, and his family’s lives. I remember meeting him for the first time, over a year ago, and I was impressed with his toughness and strength. My admiration remains, but I do now see in his eyes the pain that he has been through this past year.

“The bloodshed will continue,” he says. “We are close to all-out civil war. All it will take is for something else big to happen … And it will happen.”

From CNN Producer Terence Burke

Monday, February 19, 2007
A hostage returns home

Cirilo Nebit is a very fortunate man indeed.

Held with 23 fellow seamen for more than three weeks in the Niger Delta, by masked gunmen, he is now back home in the Philippines, reflecting on what a surreal month this has been for him. I met him just after he’d been reunited with his anxious family, at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. He’d been invited with his wife and four sons to a special homecoming dinner with the Filipino President Gloria Arroyo. There, the men finally relaxed with their loved ones and chatted about their brush with death in the heart of Africa.

Fifty-three-year-old Cirilo has worked on ships of all types for more than 30 years. His voyage on the Baco Liner II started prosaically enough from Belgium, but it was when they were off the coast of Nigeria that suddenly things changed for the worse. Cirilo, the second engineer, was below deck, when he heard on the radio that armed men were approaching the ship. “They blocked our path with 12 speed boats” he says.

He describes how the gunmen were wearing few clothes, but were heavily armed with machine guns, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade, as they stormed the ship and forced the captain to weigh anchor. Cirilo says he was terrified and thought it would be “his last day.” The men were taken off in speed boats to the rebel camp in the swamps of the Niger Delta. Cirilo says the men claimed to be from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta or MEND. He says they were well looked after.

When asked what they did for the long three weeks they were held, Cirilo replies: “We just stayed inside, read some books, played cards and watched television."He says the gunmen promised they weren’t killers and said the sailors would be released after only a few hours. But it soon became clear that the men would be held for longer.

The seamen shared their food with the gunmen and were unharmed. Cirilo says the rebels stole some of the ship’s cargo, including explosives and even 900 tonne barges that were kept within the superstructure of the massive vessel. Cirilo says he knows nothing of the negotiations which led to their release and doesn’t know whether any ransom was paid. His family had been waiting anxiously for news in Manila and watched CNN Correspondent Jeff Koinange’s reports from the camp showing the hostages. Melinda Nebit, Cirilo’s wife, says even their three-year-old son Dax watched and was soon declaring that his father had been “kidnapped by militants.” Now the entire family has met the president of the Philippines, have appeared on TV and are quite the talk of the neighborhood.

It’s difficult getting back to normal life, after such an extraordinary month. But Cirilo is clearly traumatized by his experience saying: “Every time I remember this happened to me … to us … sometimes I cry.”

From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent

Friday, February 16, 2007
Becky's Briefing

CNN's Becky Anderson goes behind the scenes at London Fashion Week and looks back at some of the week's top stories.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Barcelona: Chasing CEOs and donuts

Today was a strange day at 3GSM in Barcelona. Yesterday people couldn't wait to talk to us about social networking on the mobile phone. We were on a roll! Today we had a big name CEO turn us down for an interview leaving us feeling pretty bumped out. Then a stroke of luck perhaps? Right outside the office, I spotted a Chinese company in the media center who we'd been wanting to speak to. I politely introduced myself to a representative and asked if they would like to speak to us. Next thing I was being 'manhandled'. This man's hand was on my back and he was pushing me away from a room where they were holding a client meeting. Were they in the media center or was I going nuts?! So ....I waited until he turned his back....ran over to their hospitality table and stole a handful of chocolate donuts. They were the yummy little ones with the yellow dough covered in milk chocolate. I'd been eyeing them up all morning… Todd and Jim were suitably amused and happy to get a donut out of the deal. You win some and lose some I guess...And despite the donuts, it just wasn't one of our better days.

From CNN Producer Linzie Janis in Barcelona.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Getting connected at 3GSM, Barcelona
We've been at 3GSM for two days, but it feels more like a week. We all keep saying things like: "That was only this morning? Are you sure?" But I'm not complaining. The long days have been fun. We've spoken to a host of companies who are very excited about what they think will be a revolution in mobile communication. One day in the not so distant future they say we'll do everything on our phones. From paying the bar tab and using sat navigation to social networking and watching TV and films. Most of these technologies are already here, but they are nowhere near mainstream or seamless. No doubt, there's a long way to go until mobiles are as easy to use as the Internet on the PC.

Speaking of the Internet, my colleagues and I have struggled to use it at all. The conference provides a high-tech media center with free wifi for all. The only problem is it's way too slow. There are hard-wire connections but not nearly enough for the dozens of journalists. You'll find some of them camped out on the floor. It's testament to the growing importance of this conference. By nearly all accounts it's been a huge success so far. We're off to meet some dotcom millionaires who are about to take on Apple's iPhone and we're hoping to speak to one of the biggest CEOs in music.

Wish us luck.

From CNN Producer Linzie Janis in Barcelona.
Tale of sorrow
As a producer working in Iraq for the past two years, it's hard to not admire my Iraqi friends and colleagues; admire them because they still and show up at work, because they still send their children to school, because they drive on the most dangerous streets, but most of all because they still smile ...

Iraq today is a depressing story -- a story you can read on the faces of its people -- those I know still smile, but behind every smile is a somewhat similar story-- one of fear, pain and trying to survive.

A year ago I met Ahmed while waiting for a press event. He stuck out -- dressed in a bright suit and shoes too shiny to have come off the dusty Baghdad streets. We had hours to kill -- and Baghdad is the sort of place where bonds are quickly formed in the shadow of the violence hanging over everyone's head. Ahmed loved his career, and like many of the Iraqi's that I have met here, mocks the violence, the government, the militias, the insurgents -- trying to turn terror into humor to cope. He had me in stitches with his comments about various politicians, and in awe of his ability to still be able to laugh and defy the violence.

"Come on, I'll pick you up -- we can have lunch with my mom and run around Baghdad," he said at one point. It was of course an impossible proposition given the circumstances.

Last November Ahmed was dragged out of his car and shot dead in Baghdad's Adhamiya -- a highly volatile Sunni district. Ahmed was on TV almost daily and had just started working for an Iraqi channel with Sunni affiliations accused by the government of inciting sectarian violence. More than 30 journalists were killed that year.

Just two days before his death I had seen him at a distance at a press event -- we waved at each other and he flashed me that bright smile.

Now, I look at his picture and realize that to many he is a mere statistic, one of the thousands of Iraqi casualties we report everyday.

A reality we report -- a reality they live.

From CNN Baghdad Producer Jomana Karadsheh.
Friday, February 09, 2007
New tensions in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a city where Armageddon always seems just around the corner, where apocalyptic visions are in vogue year-round. And when tensions focus on what Jews call the Temple Mount, Muslims the Haram Al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, that is particularly the case.

The latest tensions were sparked Tuesday when Israeli earth moving machinery began work on the ramp leading to the Maghrabi Gate, adjacent to the Western or Wailing Wall, which abuts the Temple Mount, home to the Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

Israel says the work was initiated because an earthquake and snowfall have made the ramp unsafe. Many Palestinians, and Muslims elsewhere, counter that the work threatens to undermine the foundation of the Haram Al-Sharif. We’ve already heard from the likes of Raid Salah, a firebrand leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who has warned that Israel is igniting a broad religious war across the region.

Such talk has Israeli officials worried. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has reportedly asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order that the work be discontinued to avoid inflaming emotions further. Other government officials have volunteered to install 24-hour security cameras to provide, via the Internet, visual reassurance that the enclosure’s structure is not being damaged.

But the credibility gap between Palestinians and Israel is so wide it may do little to damp down the flames.

On my way to work I could tell this day was going to be different. Friday is usually a relatively quiet day in Jerusalem. There is less traffic because, for both Muslims and Jews, it’s the beginning of the weekend. But this morning I saw more Israeli checkpoints and patrols, where Palestinians are stopped and questioned. There is always a heavy police presence around Jerusalem’s Old City, but today it’s heavier than usual.

Palestinian leaders have called on the faithful to go to the Aqsa Mosque to voice their anger. It’s a call easily made, but hard to realize. All week long, Israeli police have barred males under the age of 45 from entering the mosque compound, and are out in force at all the entrances to the Old City.

The tension around the Temple Mount has clouded the cautious relief among many Palestinians that after months of bickering and recurrent outbreaks of violence, Hamas and Fatah have finally agreed to the formation of a national unity government in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Cynics on both sides have suggested the furore over the work in the Old City is the most effective way to bring the Palestinian factions together. After all, Hamas and Fatah may find it hard to agree on how to share power, but they’re united in their antipathy to Israel and its policies in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. What better way to shelve their differences than to focus on their common enemy?

But for Palestinians caught in the middle, who have seen their standard of living decline precipitously since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, such calculations are scant comfort.

“What can we really do?” a Palestinian shopkeeper asked me last night. “We can hold demonstrations, we can cause trouble, but in the end Israel does what Israel wants to do. All we can do is complain. And no one is listening anyway.”

I had to explain the whole complicated affair while driving my children to school this morning, warning them not to be surprised if things get a bit crazy. I’m not so sure what they made of it, especially my nine-year-old son Alessandro, who has yet to get his head around the bitter conflict that defines everything in this beautiful, fascinating but cursed city. I imagine many other parents in Jerusalem -- Palestinian and Israeli -- gave an identical talk to their children this morning.

Thursday, February 08, 2007
Lifting the veil in Saudi Arabia
Late yesterday evening I left my hotel to buy a new battery for my mobile phone and was completely blown away by what I saw.

Saudi women without veils. I had never seen this in public before. Until now, women have always been covered, often head to toe in a black chador or cloak and a veil covering at least their hair and often their face as well. I was shocked and really had to keep doing a double take.

Perhaps they were foreigners who occasionally could get away without their hair covered? Was I really in Saudi Arabia?

I’ve been coming to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, for close to five years. It is at the heart of the country’s vast desert and is known as the Najd region. Islam here has always been conservatively interpreted. The area’s austere desert-based culture is interwoven inseparably with religious teachings. It’s where the Wahhabis came from and is what has always put the more cosmopolitan residents of the port city of Jeddah in the Hijaz region at odds with their conservative desert cousins.

In short, what I am saying, is that such a change in Riyadh is fundamental to the country -- not a freak of some isolated pocket of liberal rebellion. It may seem like a miniscule change by Western standards, but here it is a massive shift away from the overbearing religious policemen of the past who often harshly enforced strict dress codes forcing women to wear a veil.

About three years ago, I did a story featuring religious policemen in Riyadh shopping malls, just like the one I visited last night. Their job was to make sure men and women do not mix unless they are related (this particularly applied to young men) and to make sure women were covered up. I remember some expatriate women telling me they had been accosted by religious policemen and being told off for wearing nail polish in public. If they wanted to do that they were told they should wear gloves. Any woman letting her veil slip to show her hair was quickly accosted.

Last night, I saw no religious policemen in the mall. There were young, quite casual security guards who did ask us what nationality we were before allowing us off the street into the mall, but nothing overbearing.

Women, particularly older teenagers -- maybe as many as one in five -- were walking around chatting and window shopping arm in arm with female friends, their hair permed, wavy, treated, made up to look attractive. There was an energy and excitement about many of those who had taken the cultural plunge to unveil so to speak. It was clear they were having fun with this novel freedom.

Of course, not all women removed their veil, some completely covered their faces with a black scarf, others left slits for their eyes only while others kept their veil over their hair but allowed their faces to be uncovered. Choice is still driven by family values.

It was also noticeable that while there were plenty of young women in the mall, there were relatively few young men. As recently as the year before last, I spoke to a young man who had been chased out of a mall by religious police as he and his friends had sought to meet girls. It was for him a huge frustration that there are no places where young men and women could meet legally.

But what I do detect in this new relaxation of religious interpretation is the first major softening of Saudi Arabia’s harsh image. Is it far enough? Is it fast enough to meet the expectations of the country’s booming young population? (More than half have been born since 1990, 75 percent are under 27.) I don’t know. I have argued in the past it may not be.

I was here a year-and-a-half ago when the country’s ruler King Abdullah came to the throne after almost a decade as Crown Prince and defacto ruler during the then King Fahad’s ill health. I was told the octogenarian monarch wanted to bring reforms. Now I feel like I can say I’m beginning to see them.

I don’t want to say lifting a veil or two will solve the country’s ills; it won’t. Women here still cannot vote, cannot stand for election, cannot drive, cannot go out alone. But as my elder daughter, Lowrie, studies the British suffragette movement at school in London, I am reminded that women went to prison and died to get the vote in Britain, and that change comes slowly and often at a cost.

Incredible as it may seem today, barely 100 years ago, against a very vocal conservative male-dominated opposition, wealthy women over 30 won the right to cast their ballot in elections. Only years later did women finally achieve equal voting status with men.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah faces no less conservative forces as he inches reforms ahead. He is weighted by being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites -- Mecca and Medina -- a religious responsibility that cannot be overestimated. The concern expressed here is that if change is too fast it will backfire. Conservatives will jump on any failure to say they were right, and the king is wrong.

Beyond lifting the veil, I do see other changes. For one, it is getting easier (fumbling bureaucracy apart) to get in and out of this country. The Saudis are more willing than they have ever been to host international journalists and others. They are planning new cities to diversify the economy from one solely dependent on exporting oil, and to employ the booming population. Things are moving in the direction the West has been demanding for decades.

Change here is glacial, but there is a thaw.
Hunger in India II
Madhya Pradesh, India -

We're rushing to try to make our train back to Delhi but perhaps typing on my blackberry will take my mind off of the hair-raising drive. Since I moved to India nine months ago to take this job, I think I've grown immune to the sound of honking horns.

We just left a tribal village in Madhya Pradesh, a state within India south of Delhi, where we really got a sense for the challenges of fighting malnutrition in this country. UNICEF, the UN body, estimates there are almost four million children suffering from malnutrition in this one state! We met a young mother, Gita, and her 10 month-old daughter. Her daughter suffers from grade 4 (severe) malnutrition. The daughter, Kalpana, has boils on her head and the tiniest legs and arms one could imagine. Gita knows her daughter is malnourished (she feeds her only milk and biscuits) but says she can't take her to a clinic to get help because her husband just won't let her. When I ask her if she knows that malnutrition could kill Kalpana, she answers simply, "yes". I ask her if her husband knows this could kill her and she says yes - her husband told her that if their daughter dies, "just let her".

This exemplifies several issues, one being the overwhelming preference for boys over girl children in these remote regions of the country. Also, that even if some of the severely malnourished can be identified - cultural and logistical barriers can prevent them from getting help
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Hunger in rural India
We're up early again this morning driving out to a rural part of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP). We've come to MP because it has the unfortunate distinction of being the worst region of India when it comes to ranking malnutrition in kids under six. Malnutrition not only kills children but severely stunts physical and mental development in older years and hurts productivity.

To put just how bad the situation is here into context, 60 percent of young children suffer from malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh (according to UNICEF). Compare that with Ethiopia, which has 47percent.

We took the train from Delhi yesterday and travelled several hours by jeep to get out to some remote tribal hamlets. There is a superstition that prevents some mothers from breastfeeding a few days after pregnancy which can hurt the child. There is also a general lack of information in some of these rural areas which magnifies the problem.

From a journalist story-telling perspective, this story presents several challenges. This is such a huge issue - with so far to go - but how do I make little Rahul's story (a stick-thin baby we met in a critical care unit yesterday) different from all of the other stories of kids starving around the world?

It's powerful to be there - to meet little Rahul and his parents who've lost two other kids due to malnutrition. But, for many in the world, the idea that there are starving children in India isn't "news". The challenge will be to find a way to tell this story so that it sticks out from the rest. I'm not sure that I've figured that out yet.

I have another day of shooting ahead and hours and hours of travelling down dusty, back roads in order to do it.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Silent Guns in Gaza

Gaza residents are out on the streets enjoying the sunshine and the peace. They take this opportunity not only to shop for food and other necessities, but also to make their feelings known. Dozens of women have gathered outside the local parliament building to march towards the home of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It’s more like a party than a protest. Music plays. Children skip alongside the marchers, many of them eagerly tugging on our sleeves to be photographed. Women chant: “Hamas and Fatah unite now!” But no one is optimistic. We decide to talk to a friendly-looking group of women. Ridha speaks English and reluctantly agrees to talk to us. After a few halting answers, she suddenly picks up speed, angrily repeating “We are sad. Palestinians killing each other.” But ask for a solution and she shrugs her shoulders and the other women around her nod in agreement. No one has any answers.

Moving on in Gaza

Today is a sunny, quiet day in Gaza City. But there are still gunmen on street corners and rooftops. Fatah forces have brought in what looks like a small tank parked behind a sand bunker, literally dug in for war. The first thing we did was stop by a small group of gunmen hoping to shoot a quick piece to camera. After some fast-talking by our genial driver, Ahmed, they agree to let us shoot for no more than 5 minutes. We jump out and begin immediately. Ahmed continues to chat to the gunmen, hoping to distract them from observing us too carefully. It turns out they are part of a joint patrol to secure the roads for Prime Minister Ismail Hanieyah’s departure for the talks in Mecca today. Hamas and Fatah working together. That’s a change from nearly a week of constant gunbattles. They don’t seem very happy about it though. They eyeball each other for a little while and before refocusing their attention to us. One of them leans over to Ahmed and growls something in his ear: Time to stop shooting and move on.

Hear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.
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