28. November 2010 – Media and press freedom in Belarus

It is symptomatic for the official media of the Belarusian state to hide any critical news. As reported by Taras Siakerka, a Belarusian cameraman, it came to a detonation in a wood processing plant near Pinsk in late October, by which fourteen people were killed.


In the state-run media, the incident was kept secret. "You can compare it with the Chernobyl-catastrophe during the Soviet era," tells the 33-year-old, who is living in Berlin since nine years and working for Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian TV-channels. It took nearly a week and an announcement of the well-known protagonist of the Belarusian opposition Alexander Milinkevich, who addressed President Alexander Lukashenko that the administration has to admit the disaster. One of the few media that previously had reported about the terrible event was tv channel Belsat, which is broadcasting its program from Poland.


There is no independent radio or television station located in Belarus. Each broadcaster has to apply for a license, which was denied to Belsat, presumably due to its commitment to independent reporting. Since 2008 Belsat is transmitting its daily four-hour program via satellite from the neighbouring country to Belarus. Besides the internet, this is the only way to receive the channel. The Belarusian cable operators were afraid to include the independent channel into their program, as explained by chief editor Jerzy Kalina. In addition to Belsat, also Radio Racja (“Radio of the truth") is operating from eastern Poland. For four years now, the independent Belarusian radio is broadcasting with the local Belarusian language – the “language of the opposition”, as it is named by the government.


Both Belsat and Radio Racja try to break the existing monopoly of information in Belarus. To obtain this, over 100 journalists are working for the two companies, “protected” only by their pseudonyms. Their work is not only hindered by governmental activities. Without any accreditation of the state, many people do not dare to speak with independent journalists, and access to press conferences is denied to their correspondents. "I consider these people as heroes", says Siakerka. Although the job is comparably well paid, one must still be driven by ideals, since journalists often get into troubles, says Skierka, “their cameras often are taken away from them or destroyed”.


Normally, the inconvenient journalists are sent to prison for "only" three to five days – worse for the journalists are the fines, according to Siakerka. They amount for at least 1 million Belarusian rubles (about EUR 250). The main aim of the punishment is to keep the journalists away from their work. In consequence, critical journalists often receive money from the US or Europe to pay the fine. Though Siakerka says he has not heard about any journalist that was sent to prison lately, he is worried about the death of the Belarusian journalist Oleg Bebenin in the early September.


It is said that the influential member of the opposition, founder and chief editor of the webportal Charter 97, has committed suicide, but this is strongly doubted by many of his former colleagues. Bebenin’s death again unveiled the importance of the internet for independent reporting. Especially via internet it was possible to run independent and opposing media like Charter 97 or independent newspapers. However, the government adopted to close this existing "gap" earlier this year. Now both internet users in Belarus and registered Belarusian sites are monitored by a governmental commission. A new organ of censorship has arised that is mainly meant to intimidate internet users and online journalists. As the new regulation came into force on September 1st, it got clear that not only journalists but also the entire population is concerned: a proof of identity is required since to visit an internet café, and during usage all online connections are saved, too. Considering the upcoming presidential election, it appears that the real goal of these new rules are to block the opposition and to prevent the spread of independent information.


In contrast, the two main opposition newspapers are freely available again since 2008. Nasha Niva ("Our corridor") and Narodnaya Volya (“People's Voice”) were excluded from the public distribution system for three years. Since all selling shops belong to the state, they only promote approved newspaper and magazines. "The Lukashenka government received money from the EU, whereupon it gave permissions to sell the two newspapers again”, says Siakerka. According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders both newspapers were restricted by the government in the past years by means of raiding their offices, house searches or interrogations of their journalists. Belarus is regulary placed on the rear seats in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (2010: 154th of 178 countries), which is an assessment of press freedom in almost all countries of the world. This tendency was exacerbated in February 2009 with an enacted media law that the state confers extensive powers of control, as the Reporter Without Borders criticized. Nevertheless, a relatively large number of independent and opposition media still remains, says Siakerka. These are normally printed in Russia and secretly cross the border. "Then the newspapers are distributed among the people or just given away", as the native Gomelian describes the common procedure.


Already in Soviet times, the people found similar ways to get independent information. And just like in the Soviet Union, the constitution of the post-Soviet state of Belarus remains a farce concerning media and press freedom, stating that "the state guarantees its citizens freedom of expression and freedom of will." Even less credible another section of the constitution appears, claiming that a monopoly of the mass media by the state, social organizations or individuals is not permitted and that it is also “not allowed to construct any censorship”.


It is already perceived as a small success by some observers that the presidential candidates are able collect the necessary signatures for the election freely on the street, in contrast to the last presidential election. What other way do they have, since they have hardly any access to the state-run media?


Author: Marco Fieber

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