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Western Press Review: AIDS In Africa, Press In Russia, Trying Slobo

Prague, 20 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Often, in our daily reviews of Western press commentary, the topics are mixed because no one subject claims most commentators' attention. Today's mix of topics results instead from a richness of choice. A court ruling on AIDS medicine, press freedom -- or its lack -- in Russia, and the complexities that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell must manage attract much comment.


The "New York Times" celebrates a decision of the world pharmaceuticals industry to withdraw a lawsuit against South Africa. For years, the editorial says, high drug prices in South Africa have stymied efforts to control often-fatal AIDS. The newspaper says in an editorial: "The drug industry had been challenging a South Africa law that allows the importation of brand-name drugs from nations where they are sold more cheaply than in South Africa."

The newspaper adds that despite its highly publicized law, South Africa's government has been oddly passive in fighting the disease. The editorial says: "One reason for the delay is that buying the drugs would balloon the nation's health budget. But failure to treat patients early carries an even higher future cost in hospitalizations and deaths of people in their most productive years."


Writing from Nairobi in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," commentator Michael Bitala is less certain than are the editors of the "New York Times" that the government's decision will make much difference. He says: "It may seem like a major victory but it is not. When [yesterday] the pharmaceuticals industry dropped its case against the South African government, singing, dancing, and jubilation broke out in the public gallery of the Pretoria courtroom."

According to Bitala, the truth is that the drug companies won. Their out-of-court agreement with South Africa ends the legal suit, it is true. But a little-noticed clause provides for negotiations on how to implement the South African law. The commentator says that South Africa has agreed in the settlement not to violate international patent law. Bitala says: "This means that the interests of the pharmaceuticals firms are safeguarded."

The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" commentator adds: "Moral indignation should be leveled at the South African government rather than at the manufacturers. The government should have declared an emergency years ago. This would have enabled it [legally] to dispense with the patent law."


The "Wall Street Journal Europe" adopts a third position on the AIDS-medicine court fight. The paper says in an editorial that the decision is significant -- but, it adds, it is also wrong.

The editorial says: "Yesterday's banner headline in the 'Guardian' [daily] proclaimed, 'Shamed and humiliated -- the drug firms back down' -- a pretty standard sample of the lefty London paper's journalistic objectivity. Ostensibly, the decision of 39 companies this week to drop their suit is a victory for righteousness."

The editorial says the standard argument holding that human life is always more important than profits is a dangerous doctrine when carried to the extreme. Its argument, in brief, goes like this: That there are drugs for treating AIDS at all is because there are drug companies. The companies depend upon profits, not only to discover new drugs but also simply to exist. No profits, no drug companies, no useful new drugs. The newspaper asks: "And why stop at drugs? If profiting from life-sustaining products is immoral, then so is commercial farming." Anyway, says the editorial, the real problem is not heartless drug companies profiting from human misery. It is the failure of affected countries -- either through poverty, which they cannot help, or apathy, which they can -- to provide needed resources and education.

The paper also says: "There aren't enough doctors and clinics to administer the many medicines. The population is poorly educated and distrustful of Western nostrums, prone to take pills all at once or sell them on the street. And with the region's deep cultural reluctance to use condoms, the last thing South Africans need is any public signal that there's now a 'cure' for AIDS and they can spurn safe sex with abandon. For now, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of patent infringement."


Press freedom, says the "Christian Science Monitor" in an editorial, "has been a fragile flower in post-Soviet Russia." The paper writes: "With the takeover of the independent television network NTV by the government-owned gas monopoly Gazprom, followed quickly by the shuttering of an independent newspaper and firings at a leading news magazine, the number of places in Russia where probing journalism can take root is dwindling."


Daniel Schorr notes one result of the NTV takeover in a commentary in the same newspaper: "On Russia's popular weekly NTV program 'Itogi' [which translates as summing-up] at 7 o'clock last Sunday, Russians saw not brutalities in Chechnya, not hard-hitting analysis of [Russian President Vladimir Putin's] government, but a French musical comedy about a dance director."


Britain's "Economist" weekly acknowledges in an editorial that the NTV takeover is bad news. But, the editorial says, it does not signal a return to the newspeak of the Soviet past. The magazine writes: "The Internet, the mobile phone, the ability to travel, the desire of most Russians -- especially the young -- to be part of a wider world, mean that attempts to squelch the press can only stifle the purveyors of news and debate a bit. Gone are the days when a leader of the Soviet Union -- Mikhail Gorbachev, no less -- could take 18 days to let a disaster like Chernobyl be publicly mentioned."

The editorial concludes: "The West can and should help Russia's media. Television stations and newspaper, especially those in the regions, badly need support. Journalists need training. America is right to boost its state-aided broadcasts, including those in the Chechen language. Most important, Western leaders should keep letting Mr. Putin know that the sort of behavior dished out to NTV keeps his country well outside the club of civilized nations to which he apparently aspires to belong."

Commentaries in the "New York Times," the "Washington Post," and Britain's "Times" daily assess the difficult role of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.


Columnist Thomas Friedman writes in the "New York Times": "Listening to Secretary of State Colin Powell talk about the Middle East lately has become a lot like listening to an umpire calling [baseball] balls and strikes. One moment he says the Palestinians are being 'provocative' for launching mortars on Israel. Then he condemns Hezbollah for raids on the Israeli border. Then he criticizes Israel for using 'excessive and disproportionate force' in response to Palestinian violence. It's a lot like watching an umpire [in baseball] -- with only one difference. He's [that is, Powell] calling balls and strikes in a game with no rules."


That expression, "excessive and disproportionate" leads commentator Charles Krauthammer to ask in the "Washington Post," "Whatever happened to the Powell doctrine?" During the Gulf War Desert Storm attack, General Powell renounced proportionate response in combat in favor of "overwhelming force." Now, as a diplomat, Powell has, Krauthammer says, "carved out an exception to his rule." Krauthammer writes: "Israel applied the Powell Doctrine. And what did it get? The sharpest rebuke from an American secretary of state in years."


From the more distant prospective of London, the "Times" is sympathetic. It says in an editorial: "The life of an American secretary of state is scarcely one to be envied. The incumbent is expected to solve the problems of the world while rarely being appreciated for it."

The United States is expected to show uncanny discernment in staying away from mediating negotiations likely to be fruitless but still exercising enough influence to hold off full-scale war. The "Times" says: "It is a thankless task, but neither the EU nor the United Nations could undertake it. It will surely inflict on the current secretary of state as much frustration as that endured by James Baker and Warren Christopher. That is, alas, [Secretary] Powell's burden."


The "Wall Street Journal Europe" provides space today for two international lawyers to argue that Yugoslavia's former president, Slobodan Milosevic, should be tried in his own country first for his alleged crimes both against his own nation and against humanity. David Rivkin and Lee Casey write: "By supporting Yugoslavia in its efforts to prosecute Milosevic in its own courts first, before making him available for trial in The Hague tribunal, the West can reaffirm the critical role of the independent nation-state as the primary source of international authority and justice. Moreover, by postponing its own prosecution of Milosevic, the tribunal can demonstrate both institutional maturity and its genuine support for a stable and democratic Yugoslavia."

The writers go on to say: "It is especially important for Europe and the United States to reaffirm the rights of small states, as well as those of great powers. International law is predicated upon the equal status of all sovereign states, and any policy that protects the sovereignty of the great powers, but denies the sovereignty of weaker states, is not maintainable over the long run."