Belarus | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Belarus

Belarus

Freedom of the Press 2006

2006 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

88

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

33

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

28

Belarus is one of the few countries in Europe where the state maintains a virtual monopoly over the media; in 2005, the limited level of press freedom that did exist deteriorated further as President Alexander Lukashenko's government tightened its control over the media leading up to the March 2006 presidential elections. Disregarding constitutional provisions for freedom of the press, in December 2005 both houses of Parliament passed, and Lukashenko signed into law, amendments to the penal code making criticism of the president and his government a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. These amendments also permit the imprisonment of individuals who present "false information" about Belarusian policies to international entities. In May 2005, Lukashenko issued a decree banning all privately owned, non-state media from using the words "national" or "Belarus" in their names, forcing them to reregister within a few months. Furthermore, the courts frequently sentenced local and foreign journalists who reported on opposition events-like Belarusian journalists Andrei Pochobut and Andrzej Pisalnik, who covered rallies demanding rights for the Union of Poles of Belarus in July-to one to two weeks in jail for "participating in an unauthorized gathering." The courts continued to restrict government criticism by broadly interpreting Belarus's libel laws and demanding high fines in libel damages from independent newspapers like the twice weekly Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, which was fined $22,800 in April for questioning another publication's article about the president. In July, the leading independent newspaper, Narodnaja Volja, was found guilty on three counts of defamation and was ordered to pay approximately $53,500 in libel damages.

Government harassment of the independent press is systematic, and in 2005 members of the Belarusian KGB and local police raided the homes of numerous editors and journalists who were found to be critical of the president. Additionally, journalist Vasil Hrodnikau was found dead with a head wound in his locked apartment in October; authorities excluded homicide and closed the case. The inquiry into the murder of Veronika Cherkasova, a journalist investigating Belarus's alleged arms sales to Iraq, was shelved in December 2005 when the court declared it to be a case of domestic violence in which the police would be incapable of identifying the assailant. However, in April, immediately before the United Nations was due to comment on Belarus's human rights record, prosecutors reopened the inquiry into the July 2000 abduction of cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. Many independent journalists practice self-censorship in the face of such frequent government attacks. As political relations between Poland and Belarus worsened in 2005, Polish reporters in Belarus faced greater difficulties, with Polish journalists Adam Tuchinski and Agnieszka Romaszewska being deported and Marcin Smialowski being refused admission to the country.

The state, which maintains a monopoly over the broadcast media and controls the content of television broadcasts, used a range of economic pressures to harass independent media outlets. Circulation of the independent press is low. Authorities routinely put pressure on managers of state enterprises to advertise only in state media and on distributors and printing presses to restrict printing access for independent media. The state-owned printing press, Chyrvonaya Zorka, was pressured into canceling its contracts with Narodnaja Volja in October. The government frequently used this tactic of manipulating the production and distribution system to shut down independent newspapers. Belarusian courts ordered the liquidation of the independent publishing companies Press-Servis and Denpress in August, and such state-owned newspaper distribution companies as Belposhta decided to cease distribution of numerous privately owned papers, including Tovarisch, Brestkii Kurier, and Solidarnost. In May, police seized thousands of copies of the independent weekly Den, which had been off the stands for a year and had been forced to print in Russia. The government claimed that this was because of problems with transportation documents, but Den journalists had been the victims of repeated harassment that spring. Beltelecom, the national telecommunications agency, is the only internet service provider, making it easy for the government to screen internet usage and block sensitive content, as when they shut down the Grodnensky Forum in March for its criticisms of the government. Officials claim that the internet has a negative influence on state ideology and would incite public disorder.