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Western Press Review: Journalist Freedom, IMF, EU

Prague, 1 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators today took at look at themselves and their craft. The theme seems to be that while press freedoms may be at risk in countries like Russia, the press has a long way to go in the West as well.


The "New York Times" today takes American journalists to task for, it says, ignoring the presidency. In a commentary entitled "The Unexamined Presidency," journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write: "After three months the world knows less about the Bush administration than it should -- and that contemporary political journalism is in large part to blame." They write: "Even the most serious newspapers in the [U.S.] have pulled back dramatically on covering the presidency. [Bush] was elected under the most extraordinary circumstances in a century, losing the popular vote and assuming office only after a post-election intervention by a divided Supreme Court. [This] would seem to be the essence of journalistic excitement. [But] the coverage of the Bush administration suggests that the current media culture does not see this as a moment of opportunity."

They add: "The consequences of the press further pulling back its coverage of the public debate -- now even of the White House -- are not trivial. Shrunken coverage leads to a shallower public understanding, more chance of abuse by special interests and less chance for the country to resolve its most difficult problems." They conclude by citing a fellow journalist, David Shribman of the "Boston Globe," as saying: "The definition of character in journalism [is] whether we cover stories we think people aren't paying attention to, but should be."


In a comment in the "Washington Post," Jackson Diehl, the paper's assistant managing editor for foreign news, wonders what has happened to Russia's liberal political elite -- figures like Mikhail Gorbachev, Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, and Boris Nemtsov, "who once seemed totally committed to establishing capitalism and democracy in Russia." Diehl writes: "They are mostly still around, still helping to run the country. Many of them say they were disturbed by Putin's destruction of the country's independent media. [And] yet, in one way or another, virtually all of them are casting their lot with Putin."

He continues: "The dilemma [that] Russia's liberal reformers face is this: The first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union saw an explosion of freedom but also a creeping chaos under President Boris Yeltsin, who governed erratically even when he was healthy and sober. The disorder fostered a wide open press but also mafias and monopolies that robbed the country's resources and made it impossible to establish a working economic system. Putin, as the liberals see it, may have autocratic tendencies -- but he also offers the prospect that economic lawlessness can finally be reined in."

"The bargain Russia's liberals have essentially made," he writes, "is NTV [in exchange] for better tax collection. [This bargain] may very well mark a turning point for democracy in Russia -- the moment when any chance of serious political opposition to Putin's consolidation of power disappeared."


An editorial in the "Washington Post" says: "Russian President Vladimir Putin is not alone in the post-Soviet world in his assault on a free press, environmental organizations, and other independent voices. In the five republics of Central Asia, autocratic leaders also are cracking down."

The paper goes on to highlight the case of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It says: "[Nazarbayev] was seen in the early years of independence as a potential moderate. Over the years, though, he has grown less tolerant of dissent or pluralism, even as stories of corruption at the highest levels multiply in his oil-rich republic. His decade in power has been marked 'by rigid control of independent expression,' the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists noted recently."

The paper continues: "[Overall] the fight for democracy [in Kazakhstan] is not succeeding, and America's split personality on the subject may be one reason. While backing democracy in a small way, the Clinton administration was more than willing to welcome and forgive Mr. Nazarbayev. [He] may expect the Bush administration, with its concern for expanding sources of oil and gas, to be even friendlier. But President Bush and his team also have stressed the importance of values in foreign policy, particularly the values of freedom and free markets -- neither of which is embraced in Kazakhstan."


On a different note, in a comment in the "Wall Street Journal Europe," economics professor Steve Hanke writes that it's time for the International Monetary Fund to make good on its promise to deliver an early warning system to avoid currency devaluations. Hanke writes: "An IMF early warning system, if it worked, would be a major breakthrough for the fund. Prior to the currency crises in Mexico, Asia, Russia, Brazil, and Turkey, the IMF's silence was deafening." He continues: "One reason why the IMF has failed to anticipate crises is that many central banks do not produce accurate and current information. [For example], the National Bank of Ukraine, in 1996 and 1997, overstated its net foreign reserve position, allowing Ukraine to con the IMF."

The solution, he says, may be as simple as moving to the Internet: "At present, there are 174 central banks in the world. Only 124 have websites. Consequently, 50 -- ranging from the central banks of Afghanistan to Yugoslavia -- report no useful information. These countries may be poor, but poverty is no excuse for not setting up a minimal, inexpensive website. Just what do they have to hide?"

He concludes: "The IMF should mandate that any country without a current balance sheet displayed in English and in an orthodox fashion on the website's home page, does not qualify for IMF support. Before this is accomplished, the IMF's much-vaunted early warning system will remain chimerical."


In the wake of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's proposal yesterday (30 April) to put the creation of a united European government at the top of the EU's political agenda, an editorial in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says: "Some federations are highly centralized and others are not. But lasting federations have one thing in common: they exist within single nation states rather than among separate nations. To European federalists, of course, this is no objection. For them, the whole idea is to treat the whole continent as a single country. Mr. Schroeder has, quite understandably, been guided by German constitutional practice in formulating his plan. But, with only a few differences of emphasis, his paper could equally have come from the prime ministers of Italy, Austria, Spain, the Low Countries or, with perhaps some more variations, France." The paper concludes: "There is nothing discreditable about any of this. [Mr. Schroeder] has a coherent case."


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" also considers the future organization of the European Union. It says: "[Schroeder and his Social Democratic Party's] proposals for a clearer division of powers between the union and its constituent parts, a stronger parliament, and a chamber of states, reflect Germany's own constitutional model. Such a blueprint may be inappropriate for the EU, which is a hybrid of intergovernmental and federal structures." But, the paper continues, "this is precisely where the debate should lie. For which areas of public policy should the EU be responsible? What powers does it need to achieve them? And how can political decisions be taken in a more open and democratic way?"

It adds: "Poverty of ambition meant little was done to modernize the EU's decision-making structures at last December's summit in Nice. After that bruising encounter, few leading politicians have been willing to engage. The SPD is right to try to kick-start the discussion."


A second editorial in the "Financial Times" looks at today's May Day anti-globalization demonstration in London and says: "[The demonstration] follows mass protests, marred by violence, over the past 18 months in Seattle, Washington, Prague, Melbourne, and Quebec City. What inspires these events and what should be done about them?"

It continues: "Many protesters appear to have peaceful intentions and to view [today's] event as an opportunity to promote causes from the environment and animal welfare to human rights and world poverty. They are entitled to state their case. Their protests are partly a reaction by the left to a world in which old ideological battles have been rendered obsolete by the rejection of Marxism in favor of free-market orthodoxy. They also reflect wider public unease, induced by the end of the Cold War and the rise of global markets."

But, it concludes, "no superior alternative to capitalism and an open global economy is on offer. But business needs to do more to demonstrate the benefits, by actions as well as by argument. Governments must defend globalization more vigorously and challenge untruths peddled by its opponents. Otherwise, the latter may win the battle for public opinion."


German novelist Peter Schneider comments on another issue, the rise of American English as a worldwide "lingua franca." Schneider writes in the "New York Times": "A new specter is haunting Europe: the specter of English." He continues: "The nations most offended by the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy are the larger ones: after all, the new lingua franca is not the speech of Voltaire, Goethe, Dante, or Cervantes -- it's the language of McDonald's, Disneyland, and Jerry Springer (an American television talk show host). It is also the language of Shakespeare, the American Constitution, and the Beatles. But you don't hear the Danes, the Dutch, or the Hungarians grumbling -- smaller countries are used to learning other languages."

He writes: "Europeans are right to worry that their national languages will be reduced to languages used only in moments of intimacy, solace, and private thought." But, he continues, "establishing a new lingua franca is the most significant milestone on the road to a unified Europe -- more important even than the euro. And of course, accepting English would allow Europeans to compete better with the United States in business as well as in the marketplace of ideas. Europeans ought to recognize the simple fact that their national languages, regional dialects, and even entire cultures have no choice but to change under the pressure of American English."


An editorial in Britain's "Times" newspaper looks at yesterday's untimely death of Dubai Millennium, one of the best-paid thoroughbreds in horse racing, and concludes: "All animals are most certainly not equal." The paper says: "[Dubai Millennium] won a fortune's worth of prizes over a short but glittering career, and was estimated to be worth 50 million British pounds (over $70 million) in breeding potential."

It continues: "This more egalitarian age has spawned a new breed of exorbitant creature, the animal superstar. Last summer a Muscovy duck called George was sacked from a West End [theater] run after it was revealed that his salary was 250 pounds a day, which ruffled a few feathers given the [actors' union] minimum wage of 292.84 pounds for a six-day week. Dogs charge an average of 350 pounds for eight hours' [work], snakes about 250 pounds, and performing pigs 400 pounds."