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Belarus:Analysis From Washington -- Media Must Meet Challenges To Freedom

Washington, 26 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian government's decision to close the country's largest independent newspaper, "Svaboda," highlights both the increasing authoritarianism of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the precariousness of press freedom in many post-communist countries.

On Monday, the Belarusian Supreme Commercial Court ordered "Svaboda" -- the name means "freedom" -- to cease publication. Government spokesmen said that Minsk had taken this step after repeatedly warning the newspaper to avoid attacks on government officials, attacks that the spokesmen said violate Belarusian law.

But the editors of the paper, which at the end had a press run of 90,000, said closing the paper was a blatantly political act designed to end freedom of the press in Belarus and thus allow the dictatorship of Lukashenka to flourish.

They added that the Belarusian president would not succeed and said that they would somehow continue to publish, even if it meant operating illegally.

Not surprisingly, most of the coverage of this development has focused on the authoritarian Belarusian leader. But in fact, the closing of "Svaboda" calls attention to the broader problem of media freedom in former communist states.

There are three main threats to the growth of freedom of the press in these countries.

First, even where the press itself has been relatively free, governments continue to dominate radio and television, from which most people get their news and information.

Until it was closed, "Svaboda" was one of several newspapers and magazines in the Belarusian capital that was relatively free in its coverage of developments there. But few people outside Minsk ever read it, both because of the high prices of newspapers and because of the obstacles Lukashenka's regime put in its way.

Instead, most Belarusians get their news and information from state-owned and controlled radio and television, a channel that in this case delivers only a pro-Lukashenka message. The only challenge to his media monopoly comes from foreign broadcasters, including RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.

A similar situation, albeit not as severe, exists in many other post-communist states. The print media there too are relatively diverse and free, but the electronic media are controlled by the state in many ways just as they were in communist times.

Second, the privately owned press is not necessarily a free one. Instead, it often reflects the narrow political and business interests of its owners.

This challenge to press freedom may be even greater in countries other than Belarus both because these other states have stronger markets and because this problem is largely unrecognized and unreported.

In all too many cases, the new owners see the newspapers and radio stations they own as vehicles for the advancement of their own narrow interests rather than as a means to inform the population about what is going on.

In Russia, for example, some new owners have fired editors who dared to publish articles the owners did not like. And consequently, the easy assumption in the West that private ownership by itself will inevitably lead to a free press has shown itself to be false.

For a free press to emerge, countries also need a commitment to journalistic principles and the more diverse funding of newspapers that a developed advertising network can provide. And until those things are in place, something not true in much of this region, even those newspapers and stations that are in private hands are likely to be anything but free in the Western sense.

And third, many of the people in this region lack experience with a free press, do not understand its imperatives, and thus are not inclined to support it when it is under attack.

This may be the greatest challenge of all. In the absence of a broad public understanding of and commitment to a free press, neither the state which continues to own many media outlets nor private citizens who own some of them will be under much pressure to change.

Until that public consensus emerges, the danger that governments there will continue to try to restrict freedom in the way that Lukashenka has done in closing down "Svaboda" will remain all too real.

And that in turn will as Western democracies have learned place all other freedoms at risk.