(Washington, DC -- March 19, 2004) "The death notice for independent media in Belarus is premature," according to a panel of Belarusian journalists speaking at RFE/RL this week. The journalists -- Vyacheslav Khodosovsky, editor-in-chief of Belorussky Rynok (Belarusian Market), Svetlana Kalinkina, the editor-in-chief of Belorusskoye Delovaya Gazeta (Belarusian Business News) and Zhanna Litvina, founder and chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists -- said that independent media outlets continue to exist in Belarus, in spite of severe government restrictions on the press and media.
Kalinkina stated that Belarusian journalists live in "total fear" because the government uses punishment as a political instrument against journalists, citing new applications of the criminal libel laws employed by the government to prevent the publication of offending newspapers, and new strategies of harassment against journalists, editors and publishers. She said that journalists must be creative in their information gathering to be able to report fair and truthful news, noting that field of accessible information is narrowing. For instance, even the Belarus Health Ministry refuses to issue data which could inform the public as to health hazards.
Litvina agreed with Kalinkina's analysis that a lack of access to information is the main problem -- not only for journalists, but for a public that has "difficulty in making a conscious choice." "An independent press," she said, "is difficult under our conditions," but "there is a high demand" for highly professional independent journalism.
The independent press in Belarus is on the verge of annihilation, according to Khodosovsky. He said that approximately one-half of Belarus newspapers have ceased to exist for political and economic reasons. And, a new draft law still under consideration by the parliament prohibits government employees from providing a broad spectrum of information to independent journalists. Nonetheless, Khodosovsky said, that journalists are innovative and tenacious in the pursuit of facts, hoping to find the truth.
In response to an audience question about whether the journalists were concerned about possible reprisals by the government when they return to Belarus, all three noted that the potential for such reprisals does exist, and that they had already been attacked, while on this trip to the U.S., for "defaming the Motherland."
The visit of the three Belarusian journalists to Washington was sponsored by the International League for Human Rights, a New York-based non-governmental organization that works closely with civic organizations and the independent media in Belarus.
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