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Western Press Review: Iraqi Prisoner Abuse, World Press Freedom Day, EU Enlargement

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the world marks World Press Freedom Day, several items in the major dailies discuss the dangers faced by journalists in their attempts to cover current events everywhere from war zones to suburban streets. The alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. and British coalition authorities is also the topic of much debate today, as images of prisoners coerced into compromising positions surface in the media. We also take a look at EU enlargement, following the 1 May accession of 10 new members to the European Union.


In a commentary today, former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar says, "Many long-held dreams were finally realized" on 1 May, as eight Central and Eastern European countries, along with the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus, "[returned] home after a long and eventful journey, reuniting the continent after 50 years of division."

Laar says the effects of EU enlargement "will go deeper than most people are predicting, changing Europe beyond recognition. [The] current structure will be unmanageable with 25 member states and will have to undergo a radical overhaul."

Laar says reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), tax reform, and deregulation of the labor market in longtime EU members will become increasingly necessary. "Nearly all the new member states [have] introduced far-reaching and necessary economic reforms," Laar says. And if "old Europe" is to compete with the new, "it will have to lower taxes and rethink the social-welfare systems that high taxation supports." He says introducing a flat-rate income tax like that of the Baltic states, Russia, and Ukraine may be the wave of the future.

And yet EU economic reforms are often "rejected by European leaders for domestic political reasons." Laar says enlargement should act as a catalyst for reform. "Europe's economic malaise must be confronted if it is to compete with its global rivals," he says. European expansion "should provide the impetus to work out this agenda and regain the momentum for [reform,]...injecting all Europe with a new dynamism and momentum."


World Press Freedom Day "might sound like a media celebration, but it is really a long moment of silence," the paper says. Today is the day journalism "counts its dead and reflects on the violence that would suffocate liberty and the healthy flow of information around the globe."

The paper says in 2003, "53 reporters, editors, photographers and broadcasters died doing their jobs," including 20 who died covering the war in Iraq. So far this year, 17 more have been killed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has named Iraq the most dangerous country to cover. "There is no safe zone" in that country, the "Globe" says. "The battlefront is on every street and country road, and reporters -- like soldiers -- are in constant peril from rioting crowds, insurgents, snipers, land mines, suicide bombers, kidnappers and friendly fire from U.S. troops."

In Brazil, radio commentator Nicanor Linhares Batista was shot "for angering local politicians"; freelance journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in an Iranian prison; and reporter Gyanendra Khadka, working for a Nepalese news agency, was kidnapped and murdered.

"The list continues through deaths in the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Guatemala, India, Israel, Ivory Coast, Cambodia and Colombia. And this year the list will grow as foreign correspondents, doing what is often mistakenly considered glamorous work, put their lives on the line for a glimpse of the truth."


The London-based "Times" says the British public's "revulsion" at the publication of degrading images of British soldiers "apparently humiliating an Iraq captive" was summed up by General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the British Army. "If proven," Jackson said, the soldiers responsible "are not fit to wear the Queen's uniform. They have besmirched the good name of the army and its honor."

"No matter what those prisoners may have done to be locked up, these actions by a few soldiers sent to liberate a nation from the atrocities of a dictator were so inhumane and so damaging to U.S. interests in the Middle East that the Pentagon should not be left alone to punish those involved"
But much of the damage has already been done, says the paper. The publication of such photos "is a catastrophe for the morale of the thousands of British troops in Iraq. They will undo much goodwill generated by the efforts of units in southern Iraq to reach out to the Shi'a population, help the rebuilding of the region's infrastructure and display the fairness and impartiality that should be the aim of an army with long experience of peacekeeping elsewhere."

"The Times" says all wars provide "examples of indiscipline, sadism and abuse. The depravity lies in the culture of those in command who tolerate such behavior. This is particularly the case in Iraq, where the war was justified largely on the conflict of ideals and to enforce universal notions of human rights. In sinking to these levels, while far from the lethal degradation of Saddam [Hussein]'s torturers, a very serious battle has been lost."


An editorial in the secular "Monitor" today calls for an independent civilian investigation into allegations of the abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

"No matter what those prisoners may have done to be locked up," the paper says, "these actions by a few soldiers sent to liberate a nation from the atrocities of a dictator were so inhumane and so damaging to U.S. interests in the Middle East that the Pentagon should not be left alone to punish those involved" through the military justice system.

The U.S. Congress "must either investigate how to fix a military system that would allow such behavior, or set up a commission to do so. Such a probe would also help ensure no coverup of higher officials who either approve or condone such acts."

The "moral offense" provoked by the images of prisoners being humiliated "overwhelms a whole war effort," the paper says. U.S. soldiers "need to learn an instinctive repulsion to torture or other inhumane abuses of prisoners."


On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the Dublin-based daily says today is a day to mourn the journalists slain in 2003 and those killed so far this year. "It is a day to join with the World Association of Newspapers in expressing solidarity and support for newspaper colleagues languishing in prison or prevented, in a hundred different ways, from simply doing their jobs.

"And it is a day to take stock of the journalistic profession and its integral role in democracy in the interests of civic society, despite the decline in press standards in recent years."


In a contribution today, Hussain al-Shahristani, a senior adviser to Iraqi Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, says the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq "has failed to win the trust of the Iraqi people."

The current confrontation between U.S.-led forces and Iraqi insurgents was "provoked by the coalition authority itself by failing to allow the Iraqi people to participate in the political process to elect an assembly that can truly represent them."

He continues: "For over a year, Iraqis have lived with discontent, frustration and anger with the occupation," al-Shahristani says. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) "made a cardinal mistake by failing to establish a provisional government from the outset with the sole task of preparing for elections. Instead it appointed a Transitional Governing Council (TGC) that overstepped its legitimacy by promulgating laws that should have been left to an elected body."

The al-Sistani adviser writes that, "in almost complete secrecy, and without any public debate," the CPA and the TGC created an interim constitution whose text "commits Iraq to many important decisions that should have been left to the debate on the permanent constitution in a legitimately elected assembly."

All Iraqi religious and ethnic groups must work at an arrangement for peaceful co-existence, he says. "In this process, Iraqis require the help of the UN, which alone has the legitimacy for handling a political situation as complex and difficult as Iraq. The U.S. must work vigorously with the UN in the coming days to forge a consensus on a political transition that can be supported by the great majority of Iraqis."

Al-Shahristani says, "Without a clear and transparent constitutional process, Iraqis will not be assured that their basic human and political rights would be respected." And failing "to engage the people in a political process will further destabilize the country."


Correspondent David Fairlamb takes a look at Poland's prospects in an expanded EU and says what happens in that country will largely determine whether expansion as a whole was a success or a failure.

"In the end, the results of enlargement will be measured primarily in economic terms," Fairlamb says. "On one level, the Poles have done a remarkable job getting ready for entry to the EU. After slowing to a virtual standstill in 2001-02, the economy is growing faster than most pundits predicted, driven by the weak zloty and rapid rises in productivity. Exports have soared to new records," while industrial production is also up.

Investors have pumped more foreign direct investment into Poland than in any other country in the region, and more is expected now that it is an EU member.

But Warsaw's "bureaucratic hassles" continue to frustrate, as companies must file monthly tax returns and decisionmaking can be "excruciatingly slow."

All in all, however, Fairlamb says the country's optimists hope Poland will become an "economic and political powerhouse" in the new 25-member EU.

But even as Warsaw rejoins Europe, "its own political situation is in disarray." Prime Minister Leszek Miller resigned as promised yesterday in what Fairlamb calls "a belated response" to the late March decision by 21 members of parliament to leave his Democratic Left Alliance and form a new party.

Allegations of corruption, rising unemployment, and a growing budget deficit have undermined the prime minister's administration.

Poland "is likely to shake up EU politics, too." Some observers "predict the Poles will bring fresh thinking and new ideas to Brussels that will liven up the staid European bureaucracy and shift the EU's center of gravity away from the Paris-Berlin axis."