Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Belarus’s limited level of press freedom deteriorated further in 2006 as President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government suppressed independent media during the March presidential election and ensuing protests against election fraud. 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. During the 2006 election period, the courts halted the publication of numerous independent newspapers. The weekly Zgoda was shuttered for republishing contentious Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, although it had also reportedly drawn officials’ attention by covering an opposition presidential candidate. Another weekly, Nasha Niva—the first Belarusian newspaper, founded in 1906—was informed that it could no longer be registered in Minsk after its editor in chief brought food to protesters in the capital’s main square and was temporarily detained on charges of hooliganism. Nevertheless, the paper reportedly continued to publish.
The government subjected the independent media to systematic political intimidation. Police blockaded the print runs of such opposition newspapers as Narodnaja Volya and the Communist Party’s Tovarishch, confiscating hundreds of thousands of copies. State media, focusing coverage on Lukashenko, issued propaganda warning Belarusians about violence at the polls. Meanwhile, police assaulted presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin when he tried to enter a meeting to hear the incumbent speak, and reporters attempting to cover the attack were similarly mistreated. The authorities also arrested and detained more than 30 Belarusian journalists and 12 foreign correspondents from countries like Canada, Georgia, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine for covering the elections and round-the-clock opposition demonstrations. In April, the authorities also prevented two groups of Polish journalists from entering Belarus to cover the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Also that month, a court sentenced 16-year-old Anton Filimonov, the son of murdered journalist Veronika Cherkasova, to a suspended prison term of two and a half years for creating counterfeit currency. He had been arrested in late 2005 and then released in March, and critics had accused the government of using the counterfeiting case to force him to confess to his mother’s 2004 murder, which remained unsolved.
The state, which maintains a monopoly over the broadcast media and controls the content of television programming, uses a range of economic pressures to weaken independent media. Much of Belarus’s independent press has been run out of business and forced to close because authorities routinely pressure managers of state enterprises to advertise only in state media, banks to refuse deposits from readers into independent newspapers’ accounts, and distributors and printing presses to deny nonstate media contracts. Opposition newspapers such as the aforementioned Narodnaja Volya and Tovarishch had little choice but to use printing houses outside of Belarus, such as in Smolensk, Russia, until those printing contracts were terminated in 2006 as well. Many independent papers are also banned from sale at newsstands, forcing them to resort to underground distribution methods like selling directly from the newsroom and using volunteers to deliver copies. 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. However, the state-owned telecommunications company (Beltelecom), which controls all Belarusian servers, can still block access, and legislators have been considering a new law to regulate the internet. The government reportedly monitored internet communications and attempted to deny access to opposition or independent websites during the presidential election period.