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Belarus' Independent Press in Danger of "Annihilation"

(Washington, DC--July 9, 2003) Olga Tarasov of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told an RFE/RL audience last week that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has over the last month "escalated a crackdown on the non-State media of unprecedented proportions." Tarasov, a research associate covering Europe and Central Asia for CPJ, said that this most recent campaign against the independent press, which began during the September 2001 presidential election campaign and has intensified since May 2003, "threatens to annihilate the country's few remaining independent voices" and "leave the public stranded in an information vacuum." She urged Western institutions to come to the aid of the independent press in Belarus by providing financial, as well as political support.

Lukashenka's regime is using both criminal libel laws and financial pressure to force the closure of newspapers and other media, Tarasov said, along with corrective labor and excessive fines to punish journalists found guilty of libel. She believes that some independent publications could be revived if they had the money to reopen because there are journalists and editors willing to challenge the regime's censorship.

A few months ago, Lukashenka called for creating a "state ideology system" utilizing an "ideology vertical" to protect Belarusian society from "internal foes and external threats," said Tarasov. According to Tarasov, the government is at work drafting "an even more repressive new Mass Media Law," to implement Lukashenka's strategy. The draft law calls for total state control over the media, stricter punishments for journalists and editors, and restrictions on the Internet, she said.

Tarasov listed the suspensions of major independent press in the last month which include the Minsk-based daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG) under the current Mass Media Law which allows a publication to be suspended after a third warning from the government. Tarasov says these suspensions will have the long-term effect of closing the independent press because after three months of no revenue, the newspapers will be unable to reopen.