HARDtalk's tough questions of 2012

By Stephen Sackur


Stephen Sackur joined a navy patrol crew on the frontline searching for drug smugglers in Honduras.

Phew! It's time to take a breather at the end of one of the most action-packed years in HARDtalk's history.

We've had unforgettable encounters with dictators, democratic reformers and drug traffickers.

U Thein Sein
I have even been on HARDtalk... The questions were really difficult, but having faced HARDtalk why should I be afraid of any of the others?
U Thein Sein, President of Burma

We've been to the world's most homicidal city and some of the Middle East's most turbulent neighbourhoods.

And at the end of it all one comment - above all - sticks in my mind.

It came from the President of Burma U Thein Sein, the former general and stalwart of the military junta who has reinvented himself as a civilian president bent on democratic reform.

He gave HARDtalk an exclusive interview in New York City during the annual UN General Assembly.

I pushed him hard on the extent of his reforms, his relationship with the still-powerful military, and his willingness to accept the prospect of opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi running for, and winning, the next Burmese presidential election.

The interview made headlines around the world, but just as striking was what the former general said to Burmese journalists afterwards.

He and his government colleagues had long been wary of the media, he admitted.

"But now I am not afraid," he said.

"I have even been on HARDtalk... The questions were really difficult, but having faced HARDtalk why should I be afraid of any of the others?"

Eight palaces

If HARDtalk is helping to set a benchmark for a challenging brand of journalism that holds the powerful to account so much the better.

President Obiang is the longest serving non-royal head of state

But sometimes the questions - however well-researched and carefully targeted - cannot penetrate the bunker mentality of those in power.

My encounter with the world's longest-serving non-royal head of state President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea proved to be a fascinating case in point.

The president rarely gives interviews.

He agreed to see me as part of his effort to counter a welter of allegations of systematic corruption and repression.

The country is the third biggest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa but more than half the inhabitants live in dire poverty - life expectancy barely tops 50.

That makes for a stark contrast with the vast private wealth acquired by the president and his family.

In his HARDtalk interview President Obiang appeared to be living in a parallel universe, a place where embarrassment does not exist.

When I queried his need for eight presidential palaces at home and a collection of luxury mansions abroad he replied with contempt. "After 33 years in office what should I do? Should I live in a shack?"

Syrian defector

In the Middle East old-style authoritarianism is steadily being pushed back as the era of the uprisings unfolds.

The former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected from the Assad regime.

HARDtalk got the first Western television interview with the most senior defector from the Assad regime in Syria, former Prime Minister Riad Hejab.

I travelled to Amman to hear a compelling insider's account of a regime in crisis.

"Assad refused to listen to me. He is completely convinced that this uprising must be crushed by any means necessary," Riad Hejab told me.

"I was too ashamed to continue as Prime Minister of Syria while the country was being destroyed."

HARDtalk also spoke to the new Muslim Brotherhood appointed Prime Minister of Egypt as deep divisions emerged over the country's new constitution, and I journeyed to Tunis to talk to the president who used to be a prisoner of conscience, Moncef Marzouki.

"We are a complex society," Mr Marzouki told me. "We have to accept that some of us are secular and some of us are Muslims, and we have to work together."

At the end of a turbulent year in the Arab world that is a sentiment that bears repeating.

One other assignment stands out in my HARDtalk year.

It was far removed from the big news stories we kept returning to - the future of the Eurozone, the US presidential election and the alarming state of the global economy - but it packed an enormous emotional punch.

Gang culture

We went to Honduras to find out why this small Central American nation has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.

Lewis Moody

We found our answer in the corrosive power of cocaine.

Narco-trafficking has fuelled a violent gang culture, rampant corruption and a breakdown of state institutions.

One of the most haunting interviews of my HARDtalk year was with a self-confessed narco-trafficker, a former gang-member who had, for years, been a trained assassin.

It was an interview recorded anonymously. The drugs gangs do not tolerate members who try to quit.

"Marlon" spoke quietly. He told me how he had been recruited as a child by a gang in San Pedro Sula, currently the murder capital of the world. He committed his first murder when he was just ten.

"Narco-trafficking is everywhere. In politics, even in the church. It's taken control of the country," he said.

"Marlon" is now on the run. In a desperate effort to protect him, his family declared he was dead.

They held a funeral for him.

"Now I can never go home," he told me, "I'm a dead man walking."

It took courage for "Marlon" to sit down with HARDtalk. As Burma's reforming president noted, the questions are never easy.

But next year, just like last year, we'll be travelling far and wide to ask them.

HARDtalk's Review of of 2012 will be broadcast on BBC World News on Monday 24th December and Monday 31st December at 0430, 0930, 1530, 2130 GMT, and on BBC News on Monday 24th and Monday 31st December at 0430, and Tuesday 25th December and Tuesday 1st January 2013 at 0030.

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