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Status of Independent Journalism in Belarus Labeled 'Frightening'

(Washington, DC -- February 22, 2006) A major press freedom advocacy group calls the current conditions for journalists in Belarus "frightening." Alex Lupis, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told a RFE/RL audience last week that, having just returned from a visit to Belarus, he found conditions which make it almost impossible for journalists to report independently on the election campaign leading to the country's March 19 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, and 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 non-governmental 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."

In reviewing the 2005 data CPJ has collected on Belarus as part of its annual "Attacks on the Press" report, Lupis said that the number of journalist disappearances declined, particularly relative to other countries. Journalists in Belarus are adapting to their dire situation and are becoming more creative about working around the repression. Lupis said international broadcasting of news and information is becoming more important in many countries, particularly Belarus. To generate more attention on conditions in Belarus, he suggested that Western governments examine the importance of Belarus to the West. Only then will "enough international pressure" be applied on the Lukashenka government, Lupis said, to return Belarus to a path of democratic and economic reform.

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