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Belarus' Endangered Free Media - 2003-09-23

Supporters of independent media in Belarus say a strong-armed policy against non-official voices began within a few months of Mr. Lukashenko's election as president. In December 1994, newspapers appeared with large blank spots where articles on a report alleging corruption in the president's administration were slated to appear. Opponents of the Lukashenko government say a 1995 media law enacted by the Parliament increased state control over publications while weakening legal protection for journalists. The law silenced privately operated Radio 101.2 and the Svaboda newspaper, two of the most popular independent media sources.

Roger Potocki is adjunct professor at Washington's Georgetown University specializing in Central and Eastern Europe politics: “The regime today exercises strict control not only over state television and radio, but also over most of the information space of the country. This was illustrated in the run-up to the 2001 presidential election. The state-controlled electronic and print media were utterly one-sided in their coverage of this event. During important political campaigns, the state-run media uses such well-honed techniques as heavy daily coverage of Lukashenko's countrywide tours, the publication of his long speeches, the production of biased pieces on key topics and slanderous attacks against his opponents. The result is almost a total blockade of objective information.”

The National Endowment for Democracy is an organization funded by the U.S. Congress to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. It has been providing support to the independent media of Belarus. Nadia Diuk, director of Europe and Eurasia programs, says the domestic media are not alone in being censored: “There is virtually no access to western media in the country, and Russian TV is being taken out off the air, because it criticizes Alexander Lukashenko.”

Officials of the Belarusian state press committee say the country enjoys full press freedoms and there is no censorship of any kind. But Ms. Diuk quotes critics of the government who say the repression of independent media has recently accelerated:

“According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which is an independent media association, still managing to survive in Belarus, in 2003 at least seven newspapers have been closed through court actions or refusal to extend licenses, or they just simply went out of business because harsh economic pressures where being put against them. The level of suppression of the newspapers and the media in general is being stepped up, because you have, for example, the ominous events of the last year, such as the elimination of nine key independent newspapers eliminated.”

The government has closed three newspapers supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Since 1995, several key state newspapers have been placed under the jurisdiction of the Council of Ministers, while the daily Sovietskaya Belorusiya, the country's largest in terms of circulation, was transformed into the official organ of the presidential administration.

Free media advocates say that today, the government possesses a monopoly on printing presses, distribution services and electronic media. It also controls numerous national, regional and local newspapers. Belpost, the state-run distribution service is also a monopoly. Operators of independent periodicals say they are faced with discriminatory tariffs, or that Belpost simply refuses to work with them. The independent newspapers say that printing presses also charge them about twice what they charge the state-owned press.

Independent editors complain about the state's disproportionate capacity to distribute newspapers. They say pro-government papers publish about three-million copies daily, while the independent press musters only 100,000 to 300,000 copies depending on finances and access to printing presses on any given day. According to the Belarus Association of Journalists, the government also employs economic tactics against independent voices, drawing up a 'black list' of companies that advertise in the independent media.

Government critics are also concerned about the recent imprisonment of top independent paper editors and journalists. Some have been sentenced to work in state-owned factories for up to two years for allegedly vilifying Alexander Lukashenko by investigating sensitive topics such as arms sales to Iraq.

Again, the National Endowment for Democracy's Nadia Diuk: “Despite the fact that Belarus actually have media legislation that forbids censorship, which is prohibited under the Belarusian law, nevertheless the regime, like any other totalitarian regime, finds many ways of putting pressure on independent journalists, including arrests for other reasons and direct physical threats which make their position extremely precarious. And since there is really no rule of law in Belarus, journalists there have really no means to defend themselves against the regime.”

Georgetown University's Roger Potocki says the arrests of journalists and punitive economic measures are now aimed at ensuring the government's dominance in next year's elections and beyond: “In view of the growing international isolation of the regime and increasing tensions both within the country and in relations with Russia, first and foremost they are directed at ensuring even greater government control prior to the 2004 parliamentary elections and a possible extension of Lukashenko's term in office, which is in violation of the acting Constitution.”

But despite the roadblocks, Roger Potocki says independent media continue to play an important role in Belarus as sources of objective information: “Belarus is still very much a print-based culture and independent newspapers are read more carefully. They are often discussed and argued over. Many people keep them and pass them around, especially among friends and family members, at work and in settings like public protests and labor demonstrations.”

National Endowment for Democracy's Nadia Diuk adds: “The prerequisites of having a free access to independent and objective information is really the first stage of any society which is moving along the path of democracy. It seems that in Belarus things are really moving in the opposite direction because the public finds itself pretty much in an information void.”

Despite the Lukashenko government's denial that its action are not limiting the nation's free press, both Belarusian government critics at home and international observers are calling for more international support for the independent media in the country.