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2004 And Beyond: The Top 10 News Stories Of The Year

What were the biggest news stories of 2004? RFE/RL conducted an informal poll among broadcasters, editors, correspondents, and analysts and came up with a list of the Top 10 for 2004.

Prague, 17 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At Number 10, the Olympic Games, which in August returned to Athens, the site of the first modern games in 1896. Greece defied the pessimists who'd predicted venues wouldn't be finished on time. The Athens games were the biggest and most expensive ever -- more than 10,000 athletes took part, including Afghanistan's first women Olympic athletes, and cost 7.2 billion euros ($9.5 billion) to stage.

At Number 9, the tragedy that the UN called the world's worst humanitarian crisis Darfur, in western Sudan. There, Arab militias killed tens of thousands -- most of them black Africans -- and drove nearly 2 million people from their homes.

In September, the United States formally called what was happening in Darfur genocide. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell: "I concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the janjawid [pro-government Arab militias] bear responsibility -- and that genocide may still be occurring."

The United Nations has repeatedly urged Sudan's government to stop the violence. But international pressure has faded, and there has been no large-scale intervention.

In the last few years, the U.S. dollar has lost around one-third of its value against the euro. The dollar's decline is our story at Number 8. The dollar hit a record low in December, with one euro buying nearly 1.35 dollars. Experts blamed the huge U.S. trade and budget deficits, and Europe fretted that the strong euro would harm economic growth.

To Spain, for the seventh most significant news story of 2004. On 11 March, bombs ripped through commuter trains at Madrid's Atocha station. The attacks, blamed on Islamic militants, killed more than 190 people, and swayed the outcome of Spain's general election just days later.

Voters ousted the governing Popular Party, which had supported the U.S.-led Iraq war. The new Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, and did.

On 1 May, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern led European Union leaders -- and millions of citizens across Europe -- in celebrating the EU's historic expansion. The enlargement took in eight formerly communist countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- along with Cyprus and Malta. The enlargement -- our story Number 6 -- united most of Europe, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To Iraq, for the year's fifth biggest news story of the year:

In September, three months after the U.S. handed sovereignty back to Iraqis, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi addressed the U.S. Congress: "Thank you, America."

He said Iraq is moving toward stability and democracy, with elections planned for January. But others pointed to the continuing violence, including deadly bombings and a wave of kidnappings and beheadings.

And U.S.-led forces conducted bloody battles with insurgents in the Sunni city of Al-Fallujah, and against Shi'a militia in Al-Najaf.

November gives us our story at Number 4 -- the death of Yasser Arafat. Palestinians revered Arafat as their leader in the struggle for an independent state -- but others reviled him as a terrorist. His death was seen as giving a fresh chance to the stalled Middle East peace process.

Within weeks, Arafat's likely successor, Mahmud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), called the Palestinians' armed uprising against Israel a mistake that must end.

And now for the top three news events of 2004.

It was billed as the most important U.S. presidential election in nearly half a century. Democratic challenger John Kerry attacked incumbent President George W. Bush on the economy and what he called the "mistake" of the Iraq war. But American voters were reluctant to change their president in a time of war. Moral issues -- like abortion and gay marriage -- also were credited for turning out the Republican vote. Bush's reelection is our story at Number 3.

At Number 2, a massacre of innocents that shocked the world: Beslan, North Ossetia.

In September, gunmen seized the town's main school, taking hundreds of schoolchildren, teachers and parents hostage. Their demand: that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya. The siege ended in gunfire and explosions, with Russian troops storming the building as children ran screaming for safety. Nearly 340 people died, roughly half of them children. The Chechen separatist militant Shamil Basaev later claimed responsibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said new measures were needed to fight terrorism. But his plans -- including an end to the direct election of regional governors -- sparked concern they could undermine democracy.

And now, the Number 1 news story of the year, as judged by RFE/RL broadcasters, correspondents, editors, and analysts: Ukraine's "Orange Revolution."

Election observer Bruce George of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it diplomatically -- Ukraine's 21 November presidential runoff was marred by fraud: "The second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments, Council of Europe and other European standards for democratic elections."

Angered, thousands of orange-clad supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko came out on the streets for two weeks of nonstop demonstrations.

There were worries the crisis could erupt into violence. And it was putting a strain, too, on ties between Russia -- which backed the official winner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- and the West, which rejected that result as illegitimate.

By late November, the momentum was shifting in Yushchenko's favor. Parliament declared the election invalid. The Supreme Court threw out the results. Then parliament agreed on political reforms that paved the way for a fresh poll on 26 December.

There was finally clarity, too, on another aspect of Ukraine's election crisis. Doctors in Vienna said the mystery illness that had sickened and disfigured Yushchenko early in the campaign was dioxin poisoning. But, as yet, there are no answers to his claims that it was an assassination attempt against him.

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