Belarus is among 10 countries with the worst situation on the freedom of press
In advance of World Press Freedom Day, on May 3rd, Freedom House has released its annual survey of global press freedom. Belarus is in 188th place out of 195 in Freedom of the Press 2008 ranking. Here is the report on Belarus by Freedom House.
Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 28
Political Environment: 35
Economic Environment: 28
Total Score: 91
Belarus’s limited level of press freedom deteriorated further in 2007 as President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government suppressed the few remaining independent media outlets and strengthened restrictions on the Internet. In an April news conference, President Lukashenko restated his government’s goal of maintaining a monopoly over the broadcast media.
Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of the press, criticism of the president and his government is considered a criminal offense, and libel convictions can result in prison sentences or high fines. Judges and police officers regularly used politicized court rulings and obscure regulations to harass independent newspapers. In August, officials from the Lenin district court of Minsk used an allegedly unpaid fine from the previous year to raid the editorial office of opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and confiscate computers and publishing equipment. In September, police officers in Minsk raided the editorial office of the Communist Party’s newspaper, Tovarishch, and confiscated 10,000 copies of the current edition, claiming they failed to properly identify the newspaper printer on the front page. In October, a court in Minsk fined Narodnaya Volya 25 million Belarusian rubles ($11,650) in retaliation for allegedly defaming the head of Lukashenko’s Main Ideological Office.
The government subjected the independent media to systematic political intimidation while the state media consistently glorified Lukashenko and vilified the political opposition. In March, police in Minsk arrested Valery Shchukin, a journalist for Narodnaya Volya, in order to prevent him from covering an unsanctioned opposition rally. Local reporters working for foreign media with Belarusian language programs-like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle and the Warsaw-based Radio Polonia — as well as for local Polish-language publications, faced aggressive harassment from the police and security services in retaliation for their independent editorial policies. During 2007, authorities failed to make any progress in investigating the deaths of two journalists who had reported extensively on government corruption and human rights abuses: the October 2004 murder of Veronika Cherkasova, a journalist with the Minsk-based opposition weekly Solidarnost, and the July 2000 disappearance and presumed murder of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman for ORT Russian television.
The state maintains a virtual monopoly over the domestic broadcast media; only several news programs broadcast on radio in Belarusian from neighboring countries remained outside the government’s control. Broadcasting officials continued to block the transmission of Belarus-related news reports by a small number of foreign broadcasters — Euronews and the Russian stations RTR, NTV and TV Center. In 2007, the government did not issue any permits to new independent or opposition newspapers and used a range of economic pressures to weaken the country’s remaining independent media. Much of Belarus' independent press has been forced to close because managers of state companies are banned from advertising in them and banks refuse to deposit subscriptions from readers into their accounts. The state newspaper distributor Soyuzpechat, postal service Belpochta and state printing presses regularly deny non-state media contracts. For years, opposition newspapers relied on printing houses in neighboring Smolensk, Russia, but those printing contracts were terminated in 2006. Independent papers responded by selling directly from the newsroom and using volunteers to deliver copies, but regional authorities have harassed and arrested some of those private distributors.
Because the internet is widely used (accessed by 35 percent of the population in 2006) and Belarusian websites are not yet obliged to register with the authorities, many print publications have moved online. But the state-owned telecommunications company Beltelecom controls all Belarusian servers and blocks access to some critical websites, while the security services reportedly monitor internet communication. In February, the Council of Ministers approved new regulations requiring Internet cafe owners to keep records of their customers’ identity and the Web sites they visited for inspection by the security services. In March, Beltelecom blocked access to several independent websites, including the newspapers Solidarnost, Nasha Niva and the human rights group Charter 97, prior to the opposition’s annual Freedom Day rally. In April, writer and political activist Andrei Kilmau was arrested and charged with inciting the regime’s overthrow in an article posted on the Internet, marking the first time a journalist has been arrested in Belarus for content published online. As a result of these abuses, some media websites have moved to domains in neighboring countries.