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OSCE Paints "Bleak Picture" of Media Freedom in Belarus

The media watchdog of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, says the number of media outlets in Belarus is declining, while libel laws and prison sentences of journalists contribute to the lack of a free debate in the media.

OSCE media official, Miklos Haraszti, visited Minsk last month at the invitation of the Belarus government to make an assessment of the current state of media freedom in the eastern European country bordering Russia and the Ukraine.

"What we found was a quite bleak picture of the state of media freedom in that country,” he said. “The media situation has deteriorated in the past couple of years and 2004 was a specially bleak year. The number of independent media outlets has been declining and the number of administrative warnings and suspensions, a very special institution of the media law of the country was exceedingly used."

Mr. Haraszti, who comes from Hungary, says a senior foreign ministry official in Minsk told him there are problems but they are no different from those in other post-Soviet countries.

But the OSCE says Belarus is unique and the state media speaks with one voice and all national TV channels are state-owned or controlled.

Mr. Haraszti says Belarus has one Internet provider controlled by the Ministry of Communications and identity cards must be shown in Internet cafes.

The Ministry rejected reports that it regularly blocked access to web sites.

The OSCE said just recently two media outlets, the independent news agency, Belapan and the office of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty were told by the authorities to vacate their premises.

The Belarus delegation to the OSCE promised to look into such incidents and get back to the media watchdog.

The European Union said it was seriously concerned about the grave situation of the independent media in Belarus, asserting the country tends to see a free exchange of ideas as a threat.

The OSCE has offered legal assistance to the Belarus government for a law on media reform.

The Russian delegation urged Belarus to consider recommendations proposed by the OSCE.