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Western Press Review: Missing Reporter, Internet Intrusions

Prague, 11 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The case of missing RFE/RL reporter Andrei Babitsky and the hacker attack on prominent Internet sites continue to hold the attention of Western press commentators.

BOSTON GLOBE: The jury is still out

The Boston Globe comments on the congressional testimony of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in which she said "the jury is still out" on Russian acting President Vladimir Putin's democratic credentials. The newspaper says the jury should come in soon with its verdict.

In the editorial's words: "Ominous is the implication that if [RFE/RL reporter Andrei Babitsky] turns up dead, the fault will lie with his beloved Chechens. The case of Andrei Babitsky signifies not only an abuse of one Russian citizen's human rights and contempt for freedom of the press. If Russian security forces [have] murdered an independent journalist and tried to blame it on the Chechens, Western democracies will have to recognize in that crime the signature of a police state. Putin should be told that if he does not produce Babitsky within the next few days, the jury of democratic nations will come in with an unfavorable verdict on his democratic credentials."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Putin pays lip service to a free press

Britain's Financial Times editorially offers a requiem for glasnost. Under the headline, "Russia: Glasnost RIP," the newspaper also uses the word ominous. It makes two points -- first, that rescuing Babitsky is priority number one; and second, that Putin appears to give the press lip service without conviction.

The editorial says this: "Vladimir Putin, Russia's acting president, used a tame television broadcast this week to declare his belief in the freedom of the press. It was, he declared without any apparent sense of irony, [the newspaper quotes' Putin's words] 'the key instrument that guarantees the health of society.'"

As the editorial puts it: "The treatment of Mr. Babitsky has galvanized [Russia's ordinarily quiescent press] into reaction: a statement published by a series of Moscow newspapers accused the authorities of blatant disregard of the law, and abuse of free speech. The top priority is clearly to rescue Mr. Babitsky, if he is still alive. There is some doubt that he was ever handed over to Chechen rebels. If Mr. Putin's protestations are to be believed, [Babitsky] must be found and freed."

The newspaper concludes: "[Putin] pays lip service to a free press, but no more. That is an ominous sign for Russian democracy."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: A Stalinist reflex in Russia has thrown away a journalist

The International Herald Tribune carries a commentary by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Cohen is known for the simplicity of his language. What the Financial Times labels "ominous," Cohen calls a "bad sign." The columnist says that, in his words, "a Stalinist reflex in Russia has thrown away a journalist."

Some excerpts from Cohen's commentary: -- "The Chechens are no angels, either. In the Russian media they are routinely referred to as 'bandits and thugs,' and not without cause. There are constant reports of beheadings. These, then, are the people to whom the Russians purportedly gave Mr. Babitsky." -- "Maybe Mr. Babitsky was a real pain, breaking rules, ignoring regulations and reporting, as some people say, sympathetically about the Chechens. Nonetheless, he was still a Russian citizen. Civilized countries do not swap their own citizens for prisoners of war, turning them over to the very people they accuse of torture and beheadings." -- The Kremlin [has] crowed over what was done to Mr. Babitsky. If it did not authorize the [purported] swap, it nevertheless quickly applauded it." --"'Now Babitsky will have fear,' Mr. Putin reportedly said. The message that [Putin] has sent to his own press ought to be read by outsiders as well. This is a taste of the old Russia, either autocratic or totalitarian, where the term human rights had absolutely no meaning."

The Washington Post columnist concludes: "The Russians have a government that not only controls what is reported from the front, it is apparently willing to punish correspondents who fight censorship."

The behavior in recent days of Internet vandals -- analogous to graffiti artists spray-painting a window with no purpose other than destruction -- occupies a number of commentators.

NEW YORK TIMES: The worst response would be to destroy the freedom of operation

The New York Times says in an editorial: "The Internet is nearly impossible to police, [and the] worst response to these attacks would be for governments to introduce requirements for the Internet that may destroy the freedom of operation that makes it work so well. [So], the businesses that operate on the Internet will probably have to take the lead over governments. [Certainly], there are no perfect defenses against malicious hackers, but experts within the industry are the ones most likely to figure out ways to protect the system from future assaults."

DIE WELT: To hamper Web development would be fatal

German commentator Martin Halusa writes from New York in Die Welt that the computer world no sooner felt itself delivered from the millennium bug than it was assaulted by hacker vermin. He says, as the New York Times does, that the gravest danger is that of overreaction by governments. As Halusa puts it: "The Internet will truly change every facet of daily life. Already 14 million Americans transact their stock market dealings through online brokers; airline tickets, books and electric organs can be bought via the Web. The classic wealth-generation chain will be broken, leading to more productivity and new industries. To hamper this development would be fatal. The hacker or hackers responsible for the chaos this week must be found -- and quickly -- no matter how pious a hope that might be. Whoever is behind it should be clear on one point: they will be caught."

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: The attacks sharpen the realization that the Web can serve up the worst, as well as the best

Whatever the solution, says an editorial in the U.S. newspaper Christian Science Monitor, in its words, "tougher penalties for Internet vandals could be part of it. Major Web sites will need to build in ways of filtering out malicious traffic. And, very important, individual home-computer users would consider investing in security." The editorial also says this: "The attacks [should] sharpen realization that the Web can serve up the worst, as well as the best, of human ingenuity."

NEW YORK TIMES: Companies fear a loss of credibility with customers

A senior editor at Forbes publications, David H. Freeman, writes in a commentary in The New York Times that security flaws in the World Wide Web disclosed by this week's computer attacks have been known for at least two years but have not been acknowledged among electronic communication experts. In Freeman's words: "Companies fear that publicizing a hacker attack will dangle a red flag in front of other hackers [and] lead to a loss of credibility with customers." The writer says this: "If companies bit the bullet and spoke up about being hacked, [then] software vendors [soon would] make providing flaw-free products a high priority and corporate systems administrators [would be] told to secure the companies' networks, whatever the cost."