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 2007 as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government suppressed the few remaining independent media outlets and strengthened restrictions on the internet. 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 during the year. In August, court officials in Minsk cited an allegedly unpaid fine from 2006 as a pretext to raid the offices of opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and confiscate computers and publishing equipment. Minsk police raided the editorial office of the Communist Party’s newspaper, Tovarishch, in September, confiscating 10,000 copies of the latest edition on the grounds that it failed to properly identify the printing house on the front page. In October, Narodnaya Volya was fined 25 million rubles ($11,650) for allegedly defaming the head of Lukashenka’s Main Ideological Office.
The government subjected the independent media to systematic political intimidation, while the state media consistently glorified Lukashenka and vilified the political opposition. Local reporters working for foreign media with programming aimed at Belarus—like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle, and the Warsaw-based Radio Polonia—and those working for local Polish-language publications faced arbitrary arrests and aggressive harassment from the security services. A number of reporters were detained to prevent them from covering opposition protests. For example, in March 2007 police in Minsk arrested Valery Shchukin to prevent him from covering an unsanctioned rally, marking the country’s 1918 independence day, for Narodnaya Volya. There was no progress during the year on solving the cases of two journalists who had reported extensively on government corruption and human rights abuses: Veronika Cherkasova, a journalist with the Minsk-based opposition weekly Solidarnost who was murdered in 2004, and Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman for Russia’s ORT television station who disappeared in 2000 and is presumed dead.
The state maintains a virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media; only state outlets broadcast nationwide, and the content of smaller stations is tightly restricted. In an April 2007 news conference, Lukashenka restated his government’s goal of maintaining control over the broadcast media. Several radio news programs broadcast from neighboring countries remained available, while television broadcasts from Euronews and Russian channels were sometimes blocked. The government did not issue any permits for new independent or opposition newspapers in 2007, and it used a range of economic pressures to weaken the country’s surviving independent media. Most independent outlets have been banned from the state-dominated printing and distribution system and denied access to government advertising and subsidies. For years, opposition newspapers relied on printing houses in neighboring Russia, but the 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 the private distributors.
Because the internet is used by some 56 percent of the population and Belarusian websites are not yet obliged to register with the authorities, many print publications have moved online. However, the state-owned telecommunications company Beltelekom controls all internet access and blocks some critical websites, while the security services reportedly monitor internet communications. In February 2007, the government approved new regulations requiring internet café owners to keep records of their customers’ identities and the websites they visited for inspection by the security services. In March, Beltelekom blocked access to several independent websites, including the newspapers Solidarnost and Nasha Niva and the human rights group Charter 97, prior to the opposition’s annual Freedom Day rally. Writer and political activist Andrei Klimau was arrested in April and charged with inciting the regime’s overthrow in an article posted on the internet, marking the country’s first arrest for comments published online. He was sentenced to two years in prison after a closed trial in August. As a result of these abuses, some media websites have moved to domains in neighboring countries.