Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
The Miami Herald on testing Venezuela's sincerity:
The Vatican's conditional interest in mediating the political chaos in Venezuela is the first promising development in that country since the current round of unrest began in earnest almost two months ago. Yet there is little reason for optimism because the government seems to be in no mood for peace.
If his stated interest in reconciliation were sincere, the first thing President Nicolás Maduro would do is call off the dogs — the pro-government militants who have sown terror on the streets by intimidating, beating and shooting protesters.
Instead of putting them on a leash, though, Maduro has publicly praised these thugs as defenders of the "Bolivarian revolution." Resorting to brute force to silence critics hardly sets the stage for mediation. Targeting high-profile government adversaries, including elected officials, only makes matters worse.
Shortly after the wave of protests began, the government ordered the arrest of outspoken government critic Leopoldo Lopez for allegedly inciting violence. On Friday, an appeals court rejected his plea for bail. Far from discouraging opponents, Lopez's imprisonment has served only to raise his profile as a leader of the hard-line opposition and fueled further protest.
Last week, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello announced that a prominent opposition deputy, Maria Corina Machado, had lost her seat and parliamentary immunity and could be arrested at any time. She courageously defied the government by leading a street protest days later and remains free as of this writing. But for how long?
Machado's predicament is particularly troubling because it casts a spotlight on the shameful role played by the Organization of American States. Machado appeared before the OAS in Washington to complain about the violence in Venezuela and arbitrary acts committed by the government. As if to prove her right, the Maduro government promptly yanked her legislative credentials.
What's worse, the OAS assembly voted not only to keep her speech off the record, but also refused to discuss the situation in Venezuela at all. Thus, instead of playing the role of mediator, the OAS effectively became an enabler of wrongdoing, forfeiting the right to call itself a defender of regional democratic freedoms.
If he wants to be taken seriously, Maduro should disavow the armed groups staging attacks on peaceful protesters, release jailed opposition leaders and restore the rights of elected leaders wrongfully removed from office.
If he is prepared to offer these tokens of sincerity, productive talks may be possible — not just to stop the violence, but to determine what changes Maduro is prepared to make in the failed social and economic policies that lie at the root of Venezuela's distress.
The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., on curbing NSA overreach:
The White House and a bipartisan Congress finally appear to moving in the right direction with plans to end mass telephone data collection by the National Security Agency.
If implemented properly, the plans will answer the main criticisms of the NSA program by ending the mass capture of all U.S. telephone "metadata" on a daily basis, the retention of this data by the government for five years and its availability to intelligence analysts without a specific judge's order.
Telephone companies would be required to keep the metadata they collect on every call for billing and other company purposes for the 18 months already prescribed by the Federal Communications Commission, but with the added requirement that they keep it in a specific form required by the federal government to facilitate accountability.
Under the president's proposal, intelligence agencies would have to get a judge's order for a specific search before they could access any of the metadata. This is clearly preferable to the House proposal that a judge grant broad access and only review a query once it had been answered by a telephone company.
The government, in searching the databases, would be limited to two "hops," meaning it could look for information on the initial suspect's number, numbers it connected with, and numbers that the first "hop" batch of numbers connected with. While that is better than previous practice, it is still a pretty large universe of numbers, representing the phone records of many American citizens. The role of the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in overseeing such searches will remain a critical safeguard.
The approach, while still sketchy, has won conditional approval from privacy advocates including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The proposals still have to be enacted into law this year before existing authority, known as section 215 of the Patriot Act, expires. In the process, Congress needs to review other NSA programs that have taken an expansive view of the reach of Section 215, such as the alleged mass surveillance of emails.
Wall Street Journal on Pakistan punting on India trade:
Nawaz Sharif's first year as Pakistan's prime minister has offered some good economic news, including his push to privatize more than 30 state-run enterprises. It's disappointing, then, that last week he refused to extend most-favored-nation trade status to India, postponing a policy change that would greatly boost Pakistan's economy.
The move would apply to Indian goods the same preferential tariff rates Pakistan applies to most other imports. Sharif campaigned on improving relations with India, and for weeks officials in Islamabad said they had decided to liberalize cross-border trade, making good on a promise first made in October 2011. Not so, announced the prime minister last Monday, citing a "lack of consensus" and his desire not to "favor a single political party" before India's general elections begin April 7.
Islamabad may be nervous about alienating key protectionist constituencies. Across the country suspicion of India is so common that officials don't speak of designating their neighbor a "most favored nation" but simply of granting "non-discriminatory market access." Before Sharif announced the postponement, thousands of farmers threatened a sit-in at the Wagah border crossing (the only one operating today, down from 11 before 1965).
An optimistic interpretation is that Sharif expects business-friendly opposition candidate Narendra Modi to win the looming Indian election, so he anticipates using trade liberalization to establish cooperative relations with a new Modi government.
But whether it springs from domestic political posturing or diplomatic maneuvering, the delay is bad economics. Normalized trade relations could bring official cross-border exchange to $40 billion a year from less than $3 billion today, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has noted. In the first three years, Pakistan's annual exports to India would rise to 250 billion rupees ($2.5 billion) from 30 billion today, estimates Islamabad's commerce ministry, with half a million new jobs created. Exports to third countries would benefit, too, as Pakistani firms access cheaper raw materials from India.
At least Sharif didn't blame Indian trade policy for his postponement, as Pakistani officials have in the past. Certainly India has maintained many non-tariff barriers to trade since it granted most-favored-nation status to Pakistan in 1996, including visa restrictions, product-labeling requirements and domestic agricultural subsidies. But in January New Delhi agreed to liberalize visa rules for Pakistani businessmen, and in March it announced cuts to some 300 remaining tariffs, with those on textiles now set to drop to 5% from heights of 120%.
By not meeting those reforms with a pro-trade push of his own, Sharif has missed a diplomatic and economic opportunity. He could best serve his constituents by reconsidering.
Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal on IRS stonewalling puts audit shoe on other foot:
If the Internal Revenue Service was auditing you, and you whined that getting all the documentation agents wanted was too hard and would take you years, what do you think the response would be?
Yet that's the game IRS chief John Koskinen is playing with the U.S. House Government Oversight and Reform Committee. Apparently, turnabout is not fair play in IRS Land.
At issue is how the IRS handled applications for tax-exempt status by tea party and other conservative groups, and what Koskinen says will be millions of communications involving his agency, White House officials and others.
A leading member of the committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Koskinen, "we don't want the excuses anymore. Prioritize it. Put more lawyers on the job. All means all."
Under this flurry of paper is the fact that the IRS has already disclosed that agency employees flagged groups that mentioned "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for nonprofit status or were involved in "limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement."
Add to that the fact Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the controversy, has twice refused to answer Oversight committee questions, and may be held in contempt of Congress and turned over to federal prosecutors.
According to IRS.gov, the agency's mission is to "provide America's taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all." That mission statement makes this stonewalling all the more unacceptable - and just as offensive as if a different party was in the White House and a different party was asking the questions.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on negotiating is the best way to defuse Ukraine:
The drama proceeds among the different elements in Ukraine, Russia, the rest of Europe and the United States with hope that it leads away from the possibility of war and toward a new status quo that includes dialogue and peaceful resolution of problems.
One positive element is that in response to a request from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has withdrawn a battalion of troops, several hundred, from the Ukrainian border. He can put them back whenever he wants easily, and tens of thousands of Russian troops remain in striking distance of Ukraine, but as a gesture the withdrawal can be seen as a step in the right direction.
Less useful is the Ukrainian parliament's approval of participation in NATO exercises in Ukraine this summer. NATO and the United States may feel a need to assert the ability to hold such exercises, but Ukraine is not a member of NATO and has no treaty right requiring the United States and other NATO members to defend it from Russia. Russia will consider the exercises provocative, and the world will be treated to armed NATO and Russian forces maneuvering on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border with the risk of hostilities breaking out. On Tuesday, foreign ministers from the 28 NATO member countries met in Brussels and suspended "civilian and military cooperation" with Russia.
Another Russia-Ukraine quarrel that the United States, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund find themselves in is Ukraine's unpaid natural gas bills to Russia. These are estimated to stand at $1.7 billion. Russia was offering Ukraine natural gas at bargain rates until the fallout between them. The Russians now want Ukraine to pay up at the market rate. The irony is that Western aid to the Ukrainian government may end up going to the Russians to pay Ukraine's gas bill. That is not what the United States, the European Union and the IMF expected.
The overriding good news is that, beyond their meeting Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have continued to stay in close touch to see that matters between America and Russia do not deteriorate further over Ukraine.
Seattle Times on continuing FCC work to limit consolidation of TV news:
The Federal Communications Commission should be commended for closing a loophole on Monday that many broadcasters have used to sidestep ownership limits and to run multiple stations in the same market.
Monday's action, which barred stations from operating joint sales agreements (JSAs), was overdue.
It potentially opens a new era for the FCC, which has been asleep at the wheel as a handful of media conglomerates such as Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune took over local TV stations at a frenetic pace. The FCC's efforts to preserve competition, localism and diversity on the public airwaves have become a joke.
Many conglomerates use JSAs to sell advertisements for numerous stations in the same market, ensuring higher profits and less competition. There are 128 JSAs around the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler understood the consequences.
"JSAs have been used, skirting the existing rules, to create market power that stacks the deck against small companies seeking to enter the broadcast business," he said during Monday's hearing.
The FCC is right to allow broadcasters two years to dismantle these agreements or seek a waiver if they can prove they serve the public interest.
Regulators must define what that means — it should mean providing quality local news programming — and set the bar high. They should make media diversity a priority. Fewer than 7 percent of TV licenses are owned by women and just 3 percent are owned by minorities.
The FCC is also set to begin its quadrennial review of media-ownership rules. The review has been used in the past to try to ease ownership limits. Lawsuits prevented some ill-advised changes, but constant vigilance is necessary.
For instance, the commission seeks public comment during the review on whether stations should be required to disclose other types of shared-service agreements that allow control of more than one station per city. The answer is a resounding yes.
When out-of-state media titans gain more control over local TV stations, they can also exert influence over the editorial content viewers see on the air. The audience may recognize the anchor reading the news, but beware who is really setting the agenda. Corporate motives should balance profit with the public interest, but that's not always the reality.
Chairman Wheeler's leadership shows early promise in limiting the effects of media consolidation, but more must be done to strengthen democracy and the quality of local news.
The Australian on a new tyranny lurking in Egypt:
The parody of justice being imposed in Egypt under its new military rulers is destroying just about every political gain made in the Arab Spring uprising in Tahrir Square. Evidence of the risible chaos and injustice that reigns in the court system has again been apparent in the latest hearing in the trial of Australian journalist Peter Greste and his colleagues from Al Jazeera English. Expectations were high that they would finally be granted bail. Yet these were inexplicably dashed, despite the case having demonstrably collapsed with five key prosecution witnesses unable to back critical aspects of the charges involving alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Similarly telling has been the way, in two quick court sessions, 529 alleged members of the Brotherhood were sentenced to death for the murder of a single policeman, while the same judge, the next day, began two more mass trials: one involving 919 Islamists, including Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, and the other another 700. After the disastrous period of Brotherhood rule before president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown, no one would disagree that the Islamic extremists needed to be dealt with. But the way new military strongman Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has set about doing so, with the administration of justice turned into a farce, portends a grim future for a country whose uprising was welcomed with such hope. When then General Sisi overthrew Morsi and his medieval Islamists, there was optimism that the army would make good on its promise to return Egypt to the democratic ideals of Tahrir Square. Instead, it has imposed a new tyranny in which even those opposed to the ignorance and bigotry of the Islamists have become victims.
The incomprehensible mishandling of the case of Greste and his colleagues — even after a direct plea from Tony Abbott to Acting President Adly Mansour, a jurist who was head of the Supreme Constitutional Court — is symptomatic of the way things have gone so far off the rails in Cairo. Egyptians deserve better than a replay of the dictatorship of the lamentable Mubarak years
Khaleej Times, Dubai, on uniting or perishing:
While the developed nations of Europe and the US remain engaged in pointless sabre-rattling with their new bete noir Russia over Moscow's wily annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, it is the developing world that has shown more leadership and visionary qualities over tackling the menace posed by climate change.
The U.N. intergovernmental panel on climate change has released the second segment of its three-part report on climate change and Sunday's update confirms the worsening of a peril far greater than a marauding Moscow. The sea level worldwide continues to rise, oceans are turning acidic and the temperature is rising inexorably. Yet countries continue to use fossil fuel and chop down trees, which are aggravating the emission of greenhouse gases. The world has already been struggling with conflict and lack of food security. Now natural as well as human systems are in danger of breaking down under the increasing stress. Species are going extinct, unable to cope with the dismal changes and human society stands endangered.
However, the richest nations, who have contributed most to the degradation of the environment, still remain oblivious to their responsibility to clean up their act as well as provide atonement to the poor nations their profligate spending have endangered. In this scenario countries that have little or no voice in world forums are showing themselves to be more thoughtful about the future of the earth.
For instance Bangladesh threatened by the rising ocean and facing internal strife, has still managed to earmark $10 billion of its own money to adapt to extreme climatic events. Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world and one undergoing political instability after a decade-old communist insurgency, has seen communities implementing ingenious home-grown solutions to adapt to climatic changes, while the Ethiopian government has pledged to pursue carbon-neutral development.
As Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, pointed out, "It is time for the richer countries to pull their weight and do the right thing, by investing at home and abroad in actions that can reduce emissions and protect people and property from danger." Countries have still been thinking that climate is a localized problem. It's time to remind them again that the world is in it together, and will perish or survive together through a united international effort.