We need more reporters like George Polk

Just over a half century ago, Greece was torn by a civil war that had erupted after a cruel wartime Axis occupation. Britain was reimposing a discredited clique of prewar politicians and a non-Greek royal family on an exhausted population - many of whom had fought with the Allies or in a resistance movement against the Germans, calling themselves communists. They had once laid down their arms, anticipating a share of power in postwar Greece.

George Polk, CBS Mideast correspondent in Cairo, moved to Athens when the civil war became a top story. One of Edward R. Murrow's rising stars, Mr. Polk had begun his career in Shanghai in 1937, when Japan was conquering much of China. He moved on to Paris, just before Germany invaded Poland.

After Pearl Harbor, Polk joined the US Navy and flew combat missions in the Solomon Islands. Wounded in action, he was credited with downing 11 Japanese planes.

In Greece, as in British-ruled Palestine, Polk was loath to accept official versions of a war that wasn't going well. The royal government, unpopular and ineffective, mismanaged new US Marshall Plan aid. The US Embassy wanted a tame press corps - journalists who unstintingly supported US policy. Going where his intellect and instincts took him, Polk refused to join the pack.

Today's foreign correspondents, many of whom are still enslaved by a pack mentality, could learn much from Polk's example - without necessarily repeating his untimely demise. Every year, Long Island University makes memorial George Polk Awards to investigative and enterprising news reporters.

Polk's reporting starkly contrasted Greece's poverty with the luxury surrounding leaders of a country ravaged by civil war. The Greek ambassador in Washington complained about his stories. But Ed Murrow defended Polk, affirming that he was objective.

The truth is that Polk told of the complex Greece of 1948, not today's buoyant democracy. It was a country under martial law. Summary executions went on day and night. People were interned and tortured on barren islands on the slightest suspicion of being communists.

Weeks before heading to Harvard University to accept a Nieman Fellowship, Polk was trying to talk with Marcos Vafiades, chief of the communist guerrillas - and was working on an expose of a government minister who had illegally deposited US aid money in a New York bank. In early May 1948, he headed north to Salonica on a US military flight. He had received phoned death threats accusing him of being a communist.

On the evening of his arrival, May 8, Polk disappeared. A week later his body was found in Salonica Bay.

Before his body was discovered, British authorities in Greece circulated the story that a communist hit team was heading for Salonica. This story, with bogus evidence, was filtered through Greek authorities investigating the murder.

Former British intelligence officer Nigel Clive, then in Athens, told one of us: "We didn't like Polk. We considered him to be an extremist." Polk's widow, Rea, says George had a premonition that his life was in danger from the day he confronted the minister in question with evidence of wrongdoing. Months later, Greek journalist Gregory Staktopoulos was drugged and tortured into confessing to the murder. He was sentenced to life, but released after 16 years on evidence that shredded the government's case. Mr. Staktopoulos's widow has petitioned to reopen the record and have her husband cleared.

Fifty years later, amid wars in the Balkans, few reporters are willing - as a few were in Vietnam - to tell the story in all its complexities. Where were they in 1991 to report that the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was a fascist, as autocratic as the now-jailed Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia? Only now have Hague tribunal investigators begun to dig up graves of Serb civilians murdered in Croatia.

Who, indeed, probed the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid funds into President Alia Izetbegovic's Bosnia, or was there to warn the US government not to support Kosovar Albanians heavily into drug smuggling, arms dealing, and other crimes? The UN and NATO are now trying to cope with the same seven Kosovo Liberation Army commanders that NATO and the US chose to work with to liberate the Albanians - including their warlords, who have no interest in stability and democracy.

George Polk, we cannot help feeling, would have done better.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, reports for ABC News. He received the George Polk Award for career achievement in 1995. Wes Joansson is the author of a forthcoming book, 'Dialogue With the Damned: the Balkans during Transition and Tragedy' (Minerva Press).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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