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Belarus: European Commission To Fund Pro-Democracy Radio Broadcasts

The European Commission said today it will start funding independent radio broadcasts to Belarus starting from 1 November. The commission has contracted the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle to carry out the program, which may also extend to the Internet. The scheme originally intended to run for one year. Officials in Brussels say the planned broadcasts are intended to increase awareness among the Belarusian population about democracy, human rights, and other issues. But pro-democracy circles in Belarus have criticized the plan, saying Deutsche Welle should broadcast in Belarusian -- not Russian.

Brussels, 24 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission says the plan is meant to counteract the growing stranglehold on independent media in Belarus under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The commission said today it will pay 138,000 euros ($169,000) to Deutsche Welle to make 15-minute daily broadcasts to the former Soviet republic.

Commission spokeswoman Antonia Mochan told RFE/RL the service is intended to provide people in Belarus with an independent source of information about their country and the world beyond. “The idea is just to make another outlet available to the Belarusian people to hear about what’s going on in the world," she said. "There’s such a strong stranglehold on the state media, there’s almost no independent media available in Belarus now. And, obviously, we’ve said on many occasions that we have serious concerns about the human rights and democracy situation, etc. So, it’s to make available an independent source of information to the Belarusian people.”

The 15-minute Deutsche Welle broadcasts will run from Monday to Friday and provide news reports from a network of correspondents inside Belarus on political, social, and economic matters. A website will also be created to displaying the texts of the broadcasts with audio files for download.

Mochan said the European Commission will closely monitor the treatment of the Deutsche Welle correspondents by the Belarusian authorities. She said the Belarusian government had so far offered no reaction to the EU decision.
"Belarusian society is very hurt at the disrespect shown by the German side, because this is an insult for us." - Belarusian activist

But the proposal has sparked criticism from some pro-democracy advocates in Belarus. They say the decision to broadcast in Russian, rather than Belarusian, runs contrary to the idea of reviving a Belarusian national identity.

Aleh Trusau, chairman of the Belarusian Language Society, spoke to RFE/RL's Belarus Service about the issue earlier this month. It would be good if the EU, which supports the national languages of all its member countries, used its money to support a [Belarusian-language] broadcast," he said. "Furthermore, for the past five years, Deutsche Welle has been broadcasting to Ukraine in the Ukrainian language. [The decision to broadcast here in Russian] is some sort of a political decision, in our opinion, and we will therefore continue to collect signatures [against it] and forward them to the German Embassy. Everyday the TBM [Belarusian Language Society] is collecting nearly 100 signatures. And the peak in collection has not yet occurred because many people are on vacation. Belarusian society is very hurt at the disrespect shown by the German side, because this is an insult for us."

Mochan said the decision was made to broadcast in Russian because it is seen as a dominant language in Belarus. She also said that the EU hopes that the shortwave broadcasts, which can be picked up far outside Belarus, could also serve as a source of information on democracy and human rights for listeners in Russia and Ukraine as well.

“In the first instance here, the programs, which are 15 minutes a day, will be broadcast in Russian. We are open to the possibility of broadcasting in Belarusian as well. But, Russian is an official language of Belarus and there are...most Belarusians will understand broadcasts in that language. There’s also the fact that these shortwave broadcasts will be available in Russia and in Ukraine and therefore by broadcasting in Russian we are making them more accessible to people in neighboring countries who are interested in issues relating to human rights, democracy, etc.,” Mochan said.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty already regularly broadcasts to Belarus in Belarusian. Poland has also announced plans to set up radio broadcasts to Belarus in the Belarusian language.

The European Commission today also announced it will speed up the process of setting up a commission representation in Belarus. As a first step, a charge d’affaires will be placed in Minsk who will report to the existing European Commission delegation in Kyiv.

In a statement issued today in Brussels, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU is “extremely worried” about the lack of freedom of expression in Belarus.

The EU has previously imposed restrictions on ministerial-level contacts with the Belarusian government and has put in place a visa ban against high-level officials who have been implicated in human rights violations and repressions against protesters.

(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

See also:

German Broadcaster Makes Waves With Russian-Language Plans

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