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 2008, as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government suppressed the few remaining independent outlets and approved a draconian media law due to take effect in 2009. Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of the press, criticism of the president and 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, Lukashenka signed the new media law, which made it easier to deny required accreditation to media outlets and would force all media to reregister with the authorities. The law will also allow the government to shutter outlets for coverage that does not “correspond to reality” or “threatens the interests of the state,” and it restricts how much international assistance the media can receive.
The government subjected the independent media to systematic political intimidation, while the state media consistently glorified Lukashenka and vilified the opposition. Local reporters working for foreign services 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 arrest and aggressive harassment from the security services. A number of reporters were detained in retaliation for unauthorized demonstrations. In January, a freelance photographer for the independent weekly Nasha Niva, Arseny Pakhomov, was detained and beaten by the police for covering a rally against new restrictions on small businesses. He was then sentenced to two weeks in prison on charges of organizing and participating in an unsanctioned rally. After the police violently dispersed a peaceful Freedom Day demonstration in late March, the Belarusian KGB conducted coordinated raids on the homes of 30 journalists linked with three Belarusian independent broadcasters based in neighboring countries—Belsat, Radio Racyja, and European Radio for Belarus—seizing their computers, audio and video equipment, and printed materials. In August, a journalist working for the independent business newspaper Belorusy i Rynok, Olga Biryukova, requested political asylum in Britain after receiving threats related to her work on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of September parliamentary elections. There was no progress in 2008 on cases involving two journalists who had reported extensively on government corruption and human rights abuses. The first case is that of Veronika Cherkasova, a journalist with the Minsk-based opposition weekly Solidarnost, who was murdered in 2004, and the second case involves 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. At a February meeting with journalism students, Lukashenka declared that “the media hold a weapon of a most destructive power and they must be controlled by the state.” During the September parliamentary elections, opposition candidates were denied media coverage. Several radio news programs broadcast from neighboring countries remained available, but television broadcasts from Euronews and Russian state channels were sometimes blocked when they reported embarrassing news about Belarus. The government continued using bureaucratic obstruction, economic pressures, and threats to weaken the country’s surviving independent media. In May, authorities in the western city of Grodno expelled the independent newspaper Gazeta Slominskaya from its office space in a state building, forcing the journalists to work from home. Most independent and opposition newspapers 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 some of those 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. In July, police arrested vendor Barys Khamayda for selling independent newspapers. She was later attacked by an unidentified assailant and charged with using obscene language against her attacker, who was detained for three days.The government restricted and monitored internet use in 2008. However, because the internet is used by some 29 percent of the population, blogging is growing rapidly among the younger, urban, and well-educated segments of society, with some 20,000 blogs on the popular blogging site LiveJournal alone. The media law approved in August will require both domestic and international websites to register with the authorities starting in February 2009 or face blocking, and many print publications that had previously moved online are switching to non-Belarusian domain names based in neighboring countries. The state-owned telecommunications company Beltelekom already controls all internet access and blocks some critical websites, while the security services reportedly monitor internet communications. Twice in 2008, Beltelekom blocked access to independent news websites such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Charter 97 to prevent reportage on unsanctioned rallies. Since 2007, internet cafe owners have been required to keep records of their customers’ identities and the websites they visited, facilitating inspection by the security services.