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Belarus Government Intensifies Tactics Against Press

(Washington, DC--February 20, 2002) The government of Belarus is intensifying its campaign against the independent media that provided a platform for opposition candidates during last September's presidential election, according to four journalists who spoke at a recent briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. The government efforts now target editors and journalists for criminal prosecution under the country's libel laws, in addition to mandating new licensing procedures, intensifying economic discrimination and limiting access to information.

Andrei Bastunets, a media lawyer who also serves as vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, stressed that the government seeks to isolate independent media in Belarus by confining them to an ever smaller space - a "virtual reservation." He said that of the 1,000 non-state media outlets the government claims to be operating in Belarus, only 40 report on social or political topics. As for Belarus' single national television station, Bastunets said it is controlled by the president and that the government will retain 51 percent ownership of a second national TV channel set to start broadcasting in the spring.

Viachaslau Khadasousky, the editor-in-chief of "Belarusky rynok," the first independent paper to cover business and economics in Belarus, noted that independent publications must pay double or triple in fees and tariffs to the government than does the official press. State enterprises--which make up the overwhelming majority of businesses in Belarus--do not advertise in independent media. Khadasousky said that licenses may soon be required to publish opinion polls, a move he called the newest refinement in the government's anti-media campaign.

Mikalai Markevich, editor-in-chief of the Grodno-based independent newspaper "Pahonya", described the government's "pincer movement" to russify Belarus by targeting newspapers for closure, like his own, because they publish political and social topics in the Belarusian language, and also requiring Russian in the schools. He said that today there is not a single Belarusian-language school in Grodno, whereas eight years ago 75 percent of the schools were conducted in Belarusian.

Iosif Siaredzich, editor-in-chief of the Minsk-based paper "Narodnaya volya," currently faces a criminal libel suit because he published a manifesto, signed by candidates who ran against President Aleksandr Lukashenka in the September 9 presidential election, which called that election "unfair and unfree." Siaredzich said that the government likes to point to his newspaper as an example of press freedom in Belarus, even though he was forced for several years to print "Narodnaya volya" in Lithuania because of government pressure. Although he is allowed currently to publish the paper in Belarus, Siaredzich said he must use a state-owned plant with no access to high quality printing presses. His newspaper also remains vulnerable to government harassment, including police confiscation of issues and censorship of articles.