Denying Freedom May Further Peace, But Don't Make It a Habit

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In at least two places in the world - Bosnia and the Middle East - peacemakers are struggling to reconcile press freedom and conflict resolution.

In Bosnia, in advance of the recent election in that country, NATO forces closed down the TV station of the Serbian Republic in Pale. The action was taken to reduce the power of Radovan Karadzic, an indicted war criminal, and to temper the invective that discouraged residents from returning to their former homes. International authorities deemed it necessary in the interests of ultimate peace and reconciliation.

Problems of public expression remain in a land bitterly divided by different concepts of history, political ambitions, and ethnic rivalries. Limits on freedom of expression are being set not only by international authorities, but by Bosnian authorities themselves. In Sarajevo, Muslim leaders oppose a new independent TV channel.

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In the Middle East, the last two years have seen a reversal in Arab countries of moves toward greater press freedom. In Egypt, journalists have been jailed and economic privileges accorded to some newspapers removed. In Jordan, stricter measures have been imposed on newspapers. In Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian press faces censorship from both Israel and the Palestine authority. In each case, criticism of local economic and social issues embarrassing to the government has been involved. Another factor in the suppression of expression lies in the effort of authorities to curtail open attacks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In part, these efforts are in response to complaints from Israelis - and, probably, the US government - that press attacks encourage terrorism.

Some suggest that peace would be more possible if Arab countries were clearly democratic. But evidence of public opinion manifested when restrictions on the press are removed suggests that, in a free election, opponents of the peace process would win. Governments with peace treaties with Israel don't want to take this risk.

Curtailing freedom of speech and press can be justified in the interests of a peace. Combatants use media as they use weapons - to arouse support and sap enemy morale. Is it logical for peace makers to remove the weapons of war while leaving intact weapons of hatred?

The situation poses a serious dilemma for peacemakers from the US and other democratic countries. US long-term objectives are to bring peace and democratic institutions to both regions. Yet in this critical period, US credibility can be damaged if it is seen to be cooperating and, perhaps, to be encouraging countries to curtail basic freedoms.

In the tense conditions of conflict, it is difficult for US diplomats to urge measures of freedom that may create opportunities for violent opponents of peace. If their opponents' dmarches are effective, the results could lead to damaging political rhetoric and the undermining of leaders vital to peace. Conditions of conflict may prevail for a long time. Yet the longer-range democratic goal should not be forgotten.

The US can distinguish between expressions that are clearly designed to inflame and those that are part of a genuine political debate. Few would criticize actions designed to curb an indicted war criminal's influence or the stereotyping of a race.

Curtailing speech and writing that are part of a genuine debate over internal policies and elected leadership is different. The risk in justifying the denial of freedoms to resolve conflict is that the rationale will remain even after peace is achieved. Leaders will suggest that a peace agreement's fragile nature requires continuing curbs.

In Bosnia and the Middle East, international efforts are slowly moving parties toward resolving bitter disputes. It would be one more tragedy in these regions if, in ultimately resolving the disputes, basic freedoms were to become a casualty.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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