BRUSSELS, 24 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU has been keen to get the project up and running ready for Belarus's presidential election on 19 March.
If all goes well, the bloc should achieve that aim on 26 February.
European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said on 23 February in Brussels that people in Belarus will have access to both independent radio and television news. "What we're able to announce from Sunday is daily radio programming, covering both news and more feature-style material, covering both developments in the EU and Belarus," she said. "And for TV, a weekly half-hour program covering the same kind of agenda."
The European Commission says the stations -- named European Radio for Belarus and Radio Baltic Wave -- will broadcast a 60-minute magazine program at peak time every morning. The program will be tailored to appeal particularly to young people.
An independent Russian television company, RTVi, based in Berlin, will broadcast a weekly 30-minute magazine program called "Window To Europe." The first edition will be broadcast on the evening of 26 February.
The television and radio broadcasts will contain material in both the Belarusian and Russian languages.
Belarusian voters will go to the polls on 19 March to elect a president for the next five years. Incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka is widely expected to be reelected for a third term. Under Lukashenka's rule, independent media has struggled to survive in the face of government pressure.
EU Funds But Independent Content
Udwin said there will be programming geared specifically for the run-up to the presidential election. "There will also be before the elections, some election specials, some live programs providing an opportunity for debate on the subjects that arise from the election campaign."
The pre-election radio broadcasts will be aired on medium wave and streamed on the Internet. Broadcasts will also be available as podcasts. The more popular and accessible FM band will come into use later and the television programs will be available on cable and satellite.
It is not clear how many people the broadcasts are likely to reach. Spokeswoman Udwin said the European Commission has no information about likely rates of penetration. She said the international consortium running the venture will launch a publicity drive, although the EU itself cannot get involved in such work.
The commission stressed on 23 February that the EU has provided the resources for the project, but has given the consortium and its partners in Belarus and outside a free hand in determining the content of the programming.
There are other broadcast initiatives to Belarus, besides the EU's project. Polish-funded Radio Racja, with a similar objective of broadcasting independent news to Belarus, began broadcasting on 22 February. The station broadcast to Belarus in 1999-2002, before it closed down due to lack of funding.
The European Commission also already funds a smaller, broadcasting venture for Belarus operated by the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The station's Russian-language broadcasts to Belarus have been on air since fall 2005.
'A CENTRAL-ASIAN LEVEL OF PRESS FREEDOM':
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls the current conditions for journalists in Belarus "frightening."
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator ALEX LUPIS, who had just returned from a trip to Belarus, told an RFE/RL briefing on 15 February that he found conditions that make it almost impossible for journalists to report independently on the campaign leading to the country's 19 March presidential election.
Lupis said the Belarusian government is "criminalizing" independent journalism, and forcing journalists to leave the country, change professions or join the state-controlled media. There is a "Cold War atmosphere" in Belarus, Lupis said, adding that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka makes up the rules of the game. The Internet, he said, is the "last free outlet" where independent journalists can publish, but Russia and Belarus are updating their media laws in order to restrict Internet usage. Numerous journalists with whom Lupis spoke said that they miss the support they used to receive from nongovernmental organizations such as IREX and Internews, which were once active in Belarus.
Lupis believes that the government in Belarus bans independent journalism because it fundamentally "mistrusts its own people."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media
See these RFE/RL stories on the media in Belarus:
Independent Newspaper Struggles Against State Interference
EU-Funded Media Broadcasts To Start Before March Elections
Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote
Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.
Click on the image to view RFE/RL's coverage of the election campaign in Belarusian and to listen to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.