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Belarus: Subtle Controls Suppress Independent Media

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 29 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Two members of the independent media in Belarus say President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has recently undertaken less visible measures of restricting freedom of the press, but is nonetheless continuing to consolidate his grip on the nation's media.

Josif Seredych, founder and editor of the Belarus newspaper "Narodnaya Volya," and Pavel Zhuk, publisher of the newspapers "Naviny" and "Nasha Niva," made the comments during a press briefing at RFE/RL in Washington Thursday.

The two are in the U.S. on a week-long visit sponsored by the International League for Human Rights -- U.S.-based, non-profit organization focusing on promoting human rights around the world.

Seredych said Lukashenka's efforts to repress freedom of speech in Belarus have become "more sophisticated," but with the same goal in mind -- to run independent media out of business.

One example of the more subtle types of control, says Seredych, is that the independent media is barred from using state printing houses. As a result, Seredych says he has had to resort to using a small, non-state owned printing press which is too tiny to print the paper on a daily basis and cannot handle a large print run. Seredych says he can only publish five days a week instead of seven, and can have a print run of only 50,000 to 60,000 newspapers, instead of the multi-million figure circulation of state-run papers.

He says distribution channels are also tightly controlled by the state, and greatly influence the amount of people and areas that the independent newspapers can reach.

Seredych says adding these problems to the more overt issues facing the independent media, such as regular harassment by the authorities, unexpected visits and audits by government officials, fines and sometimes even arrests, and it is no wonder the independent media is struggling to stay alive.

Seredych says: "Frankly speaking, every morning when I wake up, I ask myself, am I still alive? And then I ask the next question, is the next issue of my paper really going to come out?"

Seredych says the independent media must compete with state-owned publications, which are subsidized by the Belarus government and cost substantially less.

Seredych explains: "The government's policy is essentially to turn the Belarussian people into zombies. And the state does this by essentially giving away their own newspapers, practically for free. But these subsidies are done at the taxpayers� expense. And, you know, no one is ever going to talk about this. Not every person in Belarus understands that free cheese can only be found in a mousetrap."

Seredych says the government's public claim that it supports freedom of the press by allowing numerous independent publications to be printed, is a mockery. He adds that if it weren't for the two or three small political independent newspapers Belarus -- with its population of more than 10 million -- wouldn't "even have a clue about an alternative view."

Seredych says it is true that there are several non-state owned newspapers that are commercial or private. But he adds that "99.9 percent of them" are for specialized audiences or are technical in nature, and are not political in any way.

Zhuk, who was the publisher of the popular newspaper Svoboda before it was closed by the government in 1997, also told reporters that conditions for an independent press in Belarus are dismal. He says he has regular confrontations with the authorities, including numerous unexpected visits by tax inspectors who turn his offices upside down and delay publication for days.

He explains: "The last ten years for me have meant a constant battle with the authorities, having to devise all sorts of means to stay alive and publish. Sometimes it has even meant going abroad, to other countries, to print and then get that print run back into and distributed throughout Belarus."

Zhuk says what the independent media in Belarus requires most is money to cover the costs of producing its publications. He appealed for assistance from the West, saying many of Belarus' independent publications need "direct aid," or cash, to stay in operation and pay for printing and distribution services.

Zhuk says he has tried to approach foreign companies in Belarus to generate funds for his publication through advertising, including such U.S. companies as Ford and McDonalds. But he says he has not been successful. Zhuk says this is because "every foreign firm in Belarus has made some kind of agreement with President Lukashenka" and is afraid of jeopardizing its investment by angering him.

Cathy Fitzpatrick of the International League for Human Rights told RFE/RL that the subtle and not-so-subtle controls on the press in Belarus are creating serious difficulties for the independent press. She says the U.S. should consider giving aid to independent media outlets in order to keep them operating.

But first, she says there needs to be a major shift in thinking among U.S. agencies that provide such assistance. She says the shift needs to move away from focusing on journalistic training and business operation, and more on simply giving much-needed cash directly to independent media outlets so they can buy ink and paper, and pay for printing and distribution services.

Fitzpatrick says: "To put it very brutally, you need to subsidize an underground press with cash assistance given not so publicly."

But Leonid Sennikov, a counselor at the Belarus Embassy in Washington, told RFE/RL that the independent press is alive and well in Belarus. He said that the very fact that two representatives from the independent media are in Washington talking openly about their publications "speaks for itself" in regards to freedom of the press in Belarus.

Sennikov says: "They may complain that they do not have materials or subsidies from the state, but then they say they want to be independent in nature. So, naturally they have to rely on their own resources and look for assistance somewhere else."

He disputed the accusation that distribution and circulation of independent publications is hampered in any way, adding that every paper, including independent, has unfettered distribution rights and is available in kiosks and newsstands across the country.

But several international organizations have recently criticized the media policies of President Lukashenka. Last year, the U.S. human rights organization Freedom House singled out Belarus in its report on the status of press freedom worldwide as having "one of the greatest losses of press freedom in 1997."

The report strongly criticized Belarus for harassing journalists, conducting sudden tax audits and forcibly evicting independent media outlets. It also deplored the establishment of new rules forbidding government officials from giving interviews to independent journalists or giving them access to any government premise, and forbidding any government advertising in independent media outlets.

The Committee to Protect Journalists -- an international organization committed to global press freedom -- has also been highly critical of President Lukashenka. In it's report last year it said that Lukashenka has "waged an all-front war on the press" and has "stepped up his efforts to harness independent and opposition news organizations, formally institutionalizing his control over the media."