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Belarus: Report Of A Radio Free Belarus Causes Stir

Prague, 15 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two days ago (July 13) the mass circulation Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported that a new independent radio station, Radio Free Belarus, is to start operation "within a few months," broadcasting from Poland onto Belarus. The report prompted a flurry of comments.

Gazeta Wyborcza said that two officials from the office of Poland's prime minister -- Jerzy Marek Nowakowski and Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska -- unofficially discussed several weeks ago the setting up of the station with U.S. officials during a visit to the United States.

The newspaper reported that the station might be funded by some unnamed U.S. sources and the Council of Europe.

The report has generated a series of comments from Polish and U.S. authorities, including denials of official connection with the alleged new station. There has also been a sharp reaction from the Belarus Foreign Ministry. At latest report, a number of questions remained unconfirmed, including the source of funding for such a station. Gazeta Wyborcza said that the radio is to be staffed by both journalists currently working in the Belarusian section of the Polish radio and those residing in Belarus itself. Gazeta Wyborcza's reporters talked to the prospective staff members in Minsk, but they asked not to be named.

The newspaper said the station is to be located in the eastern Polish city of Bialystok, in a region inhabited by a substantial Belarusian minority. The newspaper further said that the station would broadcast over local transmitters owned by the Polish Radio.

On the same day, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek told a press conference in Warsaw that "neither U. S. nor Polish authorities" were involved in either financing or preparing the project.

Geremek said the project has been "promoted by non-governmental organizations." Geremek stopped short of naming those organizations, however, but expressed the government's "sympathy" if not support for the enterprise.

Also on Monday, Magdziak-Miszewska of the prime minister's office told the official Polish press agency (PAP) that Gazeta Wyborcza's report was erroneous and that the Polish government "has nothing to do" with the project of setting up the radio station.

This was followed yesterday by a statement by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, who told a local radio station in Warsaw that the "government will look with sympathy on the establishment of the (Radio Free Belarus) station." He added that this will "be a civic initiative, however, and the government will not do anything in the matter."

Buzek has just returned from a visit to the United States. He denied that he had any conversations with American officials on the subject of the proposed radio station. But he said that some of his talks there concerned the ways of supporting democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.

Today, Gazeta Wyborcza quoted Cesar Beltram, spokesman for the U. S. Embassy in Warsaw, as telling a Polish TV network (TVN) two days ago that "the U. S. government has discussed with Poland ways of promoting democracy in the region. One of these ways is emission of independent information services." Today, Gazeta Wyborcza quoted U. S. Ambassador to Poland, Daniel Fried, as saying that Prime Minister Buzek had discussed the issue of promoting democracy in the Eastern region but n-o-t the establishment of any radio stations. Fried said that the U. S. "looks with sympathy" at the project, but emphasized that the radio could be set up by "non-governmental bodies."

Also yesterday, the U. S. Embassy in Warsaw issued a statement saying that "the government of the United States and Poland maintain a continuing contact with regard to the common goal of supporting democracy in all Central and Eastern European countries." The statement said there have been n-o official talks between the U.S. and Poland on the subject of independent media in Belarus.

Agnieszka Ogrodowczyk, an official in the Polish Radio and Television Committee which is responsible for frequency allocation, told RFE/RL yesterday that "there are at present no technical possibility" to open a new radio station because all frequencies have already been allocated. But she also said that a Polish group called Racja has applied for a license to broadcast to Belarus.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Warsaw has been unable to locate the company.

Wanda Samborska, a director of the Polish Radio department dealing with broadcasting abroad, declined to comment on the issue.

Yesterday, Belarusian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the setting up of the Radio Free Belarus will not serve to improve relations between Poland and Belarus. It said that the project is to exert "direct propaganda pressure" on Belarus.

(Bogdan Turek in Warsaw contributed to this report).