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Europe/Russia: Reporting On Leaders' Medical Problems

Prague, 9 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Recent rumors that the health of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is failing highlight how differently governments handle releasing news about their leaders' medical problems.

Yesterday, news agencies reported that Zagreb is buzzing with rumors that Tudjman, 74 years old, is so ill with cancer he may have to give up his duties in a matter of months.

Tudjman has failed to appear for more than a week on state-run television, which usually meticulously covers his daily activities. Last night, a television report that Tudjman met personally yesterday with a top cabinet official showed only a photo of the president rather than the customary video highlights. Tudjman's disappearance from view comes a little over a month since he sought treatment in a Washington, D.C. hospital for what Zagreb officially termed a stomach problem.

Questions about whether Tudjman is seriously ill with cancer have so far elicited only minimal responses from the Croat government. Tudjman's office in the past week has confined itself to the phrase: "The president is in the country and performing his duties." Yesterday, presidential spokesman Tihomir Vinkovic elaborated only slightly more when he told reporters that Tudjman "feels well and is in high spirits."

Such reticence to speak about Tudjman's health puts Zagreb at the extreme conservative end of the spectrum of what governments consider to be the public's right to know about a leader's illness. That spectrum ranges from the former Communist practice of considering a leader's health a state secret to the democratic way of providing the electorate with all the information it needs to assess a leader's ability to hold office.

Where a government chooses to land on a spectrum entails political risks. On one hand, government must consider that even the perception -- quite apart from the proof -- that a leader is ill can doom his/hers re-election possibilities. On the other, any suspicion that the government may be concealing information not only lends tacit support to rumors but can irreparably damage the public's confidence in the government.

Recently the governments of Russia, the Czech Republic, and France - among others - have had to face such questions. All have opted for candor with the public.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin last year suffered a string of highly public health crises, beginning with hospitalization for what was officially called a heart problem and ending with a quintuple bypass heart operation. Yeltsin was hospitalized again today, reportedly with pneumonia. In each case, the Kremlin publicly admitted that Yeltsin was ill and receiving treatment.

In the Czech Republic, President Vaclav Havel also has clearly opted for telling the public about his health situation. During his hospitalization last month for surgical removal of one-half of his lung to excise a cancerous growth, his office issued daily news bulletins on the ups and downs of his recovery, including an unexpected bout with pneumonia.

France's former President Francois Mitterand, who died last year of prostate cancer, equally had to decide what to tell the public about his illness. He opted first to conceal it, then reveal it, and his reputation ultimately survived the crisis. Since Mitterand's death, it has become clear that he knew of his illness as early as 1981 and even confided the news to close political allies. But for the next twelve years he never told the public. His illness was revealed in public only in 1992, when Mitterand went into the hospital for a first prostate operation.