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Western Press Review: A Blow To Russia's Independent Press, Milutinovic's Arrival In The Hague, And The Mideast

Prague, 21 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the Western press today focuses on press freedom in Russia, following the dismissal last week of Gazprom-Media Director Boris Jordan, the flagging Franco-German leadership of the European Union, Libya's controversial appointment as chair of the UN Human Rights Commission, U.S. policy in the Middle East, former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic's arrival yesterday in The Hague to be tried for war crimes, and the controversial raid on a London mosque that had been associated with certain radical Islamists, including accused Al-Qaeda supporter Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe-bomber."


An editorial in the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal" discusses the firing last week (17 January) of Boris Jordan, whom the paper calls an "American banker turned media mogul," from his post at Russia's state-owned Gazprom-Media. Jordan is also widely expected to lose his position at NTV television station, which was taken over by the Gazprom energy giant two years ago.

Jordan, the paper says, has been credited with restoring the health of NTV's finances, as well as maintaining the channel's programming and editorial standards "well above those of its main state-owned competition." But the paper says Jordan's "optimism" came up against the "iron rule of mass media in Vladimir Putin's Russia: You are either a loyal lackey to the Kremlin and remain in its good graces; or you insist on independence and find yourself out of a job."

The Kremlin "was furious about NTV's extensive coverage of the disastrous Moscow theater raid in October, [in] which Russian counterterrorism forces killed more hostages than the [hostage takers did]." Following the incident, parliament attempted to restrict media coverage of so-called "counterterrorist operations." However, faced with widespread criticism of parliament's move, President Putin instead asked media outlets to practice a degree of self-censorship when covering sensitive subjects, "self-censorship being much preferable to coercion." The paper says that in today's Russia, "independent TV journalism never had much of a chance."


A "Los Angeles Times" editorial addresses the controversial decision to appoint a representative from Libya to chair the United Nations Human Rights Commission. "Perhaps Libya's contact with the UN body will improve human rights for Libyans," the paper says. "But in the future, the United Nations should add a requirement that the commission leader's nation possess a decent record of respecting human rights."

The UN's system of rotating the commission's leadership among regions "leaves the choice purely to nations in each region." This year, the leadership choice was made by Africa, and African nations chose Libya. The paper says while a rotation system can work, it is "insufficient" as a lone determinant for commission leadership.

In the mid-1990s, the United Nations itself "accused Libyan security forces of executing people considered opponents of the regime. Just last year, Libyan courts were ordering amputations as punishment for such crimes as robbery."

The editorial describes Libya as "a country whose record on human rights is seriously flawed," and says the United Nations "owes it to the commission's other members to reassess its method of choosing leaders."


In the "Financial Times," columnist Quentin Peel writes of the Franco-German partnership in light of tomorrow's 40th anniversary of the signing of the Elysee treaty, which declared the countries' shared intention to remain peaceful neighbors for evermore.

Franco-German leadership has since acted as the "driving force of European integration," says Peel, but he questions whether this relationship is running out of steam. He says the "funny thing" about Franco-German cooperation within the European Union is that "it is absent more often than not."

The two nations "disagree on fundamental questions such as free trade, competition policy, environmental protection, budget discipline [and] even agriculture." But Peel says the relationship has "proved essential" whenever it has emerged. "France and Germany may represent very different attitudes but they do share a common goal: to build an effective EU. Even if they squabble much of the time, that binds them in the end."

But when the EU enlarges from 15 to 25 member states, as expected in 2004, France and Germany may "never be quite so influential again. There are too many conflicting interests of east and west, north and south, rich and poor, to reconcile." Peel predicts that Franco-German agreement "will remain a necessary condition for progress. But it will no longer be a sufficient condition."


Several commentaries in the German press today look at the significance of the United Nations international war crimes tribunal in light of the arrival yesterday of former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic in The Hague. Milutinovic is accused of helping plan the persecution, deportation and murder of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998-99.

"Die Welt" says, "Not so long ago, the tribunal was accused of being a mere paper tiger, as a well-intentioned idea of zealous do-gooders." But the idea has become a bitter reality for former Yugoslav leaders such as former Serbian Presidents Slobodan Milosevic, Biljana Pavsic, and Milan Milutinovic, as well as former head of the Serbian Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina Momcilo Krajisnik. They must all now "take responsibility for the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia." On the other hand, this is liberating for the Yugoslav people, the paper says. "The more cells in The Hague become occupied, the higher the piles of evidence in the safes in The Hague, the longer the list of those accused and witnesses, the sooner the Balkans, ravaged by civil war, can look to the future."


On the same subject, the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" describes The Hague tribunal as "a triumph," saying, "once more there is proof that the day of reckoning is coming" for the rogue wartime leaders.

"Congratulations for the tribunal," the paper says. "The Hague's mediators and judges can be proud." But there is less celebration in Belgrade, the editorial acknowledges. While it is true the capital has rid itself of one problem, the pressure continues for it to cooperate ever more with the United Nations tribunal. Belgrade still must face the fact that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, remain at large.


In "The Boston Globe," Edmund Hanauer of the Search for Justice and Equality in Palestine/Israel discusses the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush in the Middle East. He says the Bush administration's policies have "strengthened extremists on both sides, undercut moderates, and given [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon a blank check to continue Israeli violence and settlement expansion."

Hanauer says this complicates Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's attempts to "condemn, let alone prevent, Palestinian violence without appearing to be a collaborator with the Israeli occupation -- especially since Sharon is unwilling to make the concessions Arafat needs to curb violence without bringing on civil war among Palestinians."

Hanauer says while Bush "denounces Palestinian terrorism and Saddam Hussein for violating the rights of Iraqis, his silence on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights is deafening. [Amnesty] International, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups have determined that Israel, under both Labor and Likud parties, has been guilty of war crimes in its treatment of Palestinians and other Arabs." Hanauer says Arafat's ability "to stop Palestinian violence is doubtful -- especially given Israel's destruction of Arafat's security forces." But violence that directly results from Israeli government policies "could be ended immediately."

Hanauer says if the Bush administration truly opposes all terrorism and supports human rights and international law; it must practice "tough love" with Israel by demanding the policy concessions that best serve Israeli interests overall.


In "The New York Times," Nicholas Kristof writes from along the demilitarized zone in South Korea on the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea. He remarks that North Korea has dug approximately 20 infiltration tunnels across its border with the south, some reaching nearly to Seoul and capable of transporting jeeps, artillery, and thousands of soldiers. Moreover, the risk remains that the North might soon start mass-producing weapons of mass destruction.

Kristof cites Korean defector Cho Myung Chul, who has known President Kim Jong-il from childhood, as describing the North Korean leader as an aggressive risk-taker. Cho further estimates that there is an 80 percent chance that Kim would respond to a Western military action against his nation by launching an offensive of his own. Kristof says: "Negotiation is the only solution, but as time passes and Washington postpones negotiation, a deal in which North Korea gives up its nukes is becoming steadily more difficult to achieve. Already it may be too late."

He says, "Unfortunately, by preparing to invade Iraq while playing down the North Korean crisis, the Bush administration is making nuclear weapons seem more valuable than ever: They're obviously a great deterrent." Kim Jong-il might conclude that he never wants to be caught in Iraq's position: included in the U.S. "axis of evil" but "without a nuke to stand on."


Two British papers weigh in today on the raid of a London mosque early yesterday. "The Daily Telegraph" calls the raid "necessary and probably overdue." It says the Finsbury Park mosque had, "since 1996, been the power base of Abu Hamza, [an] Egyptian-born Islamist cleric who has turned it into an incubator of violence."

The paper adds that Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber" who attempted to ignite explosives hidden in his shoe aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, and Zacharias Moussaoui, charged with involvement in the 11 September attacks on the United States, had both worshipped at the Finsbury Park mosque. "Even so," the paper says, "a paramilitary-style assault [on] a place of worship [can] only be justified by exceptional circumstances." There is a presumption "that churches, mosques, synagogues and temples should not be violated unless there is no alternative."

In such cases, it is paramount that the police "behave with sensitivity," the paper says. "On this occasion they seem to have done so, taking care not to enter the parts of the mosque complex reserved for prayer." There have been protests against the raid, but the paper says moderate Muslim leaders have often perceived the Finsbury mosque's radical Abu Hamza as "an embarrassment," and most leaders "have been conspicuous" in their lack of comment on the raid.


London's "The Times" says many Muslims "are indeed disturbed by the raid: the forcible entry of police into a place of worship in any country is a cause for concern." But in the Finsbury Park case, the paper says the police "behaved with commendable sensitivity. They covered their shoes; they did not go into the body of the building used for prayer; and they made arrangements in advance for worshippers to be accommodated at a neighboring mosque."

The paper says mainstream Muslim opinion was also skeptical of the motives of the mosque's extremist cleric, Abu Hamza. Many Muslims have "no sympathy for Abu Hamza and those whose ravings have besmirched their religion and created a false impression among non-Muslims in this country." The paper notes that the Muslim Council of Britain, a moderate umbrella group of Islamic organizations, remarked that British Muslims have long been disturbed by some of the publicity given to Abu Hamza's statements.


In France's "Liberation" daily, columnist Pierre Marcelle says the discovery of a dozen or so oblong metal tubes in Iraq constitutes a "hollow pretext" for war. He says North Korea's nuclear-weapons program constitutes a much clearer danger that is "quite real," while Iraq's threat remains hypothetical. The countdown to war stops and starts, says Marcelle, and does not seem overly concerned with credibility. He says the arguments being proposed that war might be the only way to deal with the threat these nations allegedly pose are Orwellian, reminiscent of "1984's" famous refrain: "War is peace."

As thousands of troops and supplies are accumulated along the Iraqi border, as armadas make their rounds in the Persian Gulf, Marcelle asks, "Is it not time that U.S. President George W. Bush tells us [that] his war aims are the control of oil and the revival of business?"

(NCA's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)