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Belarus: Conflicting Views Prevail On The State Of Press Freedom

Minsk, 26 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It's rare in this age of modern media campaigns to hear a political jingle that never made the papers, much less the airwaves. But that's the story behind a campaign ad for Mikhail Chyhir, an opposition presidential candidate in Belarus.

RFE/RL was given the homemade tape by a voter taking part in unofficial nationwide elections last week. Voters cheered when they realized the tape, lauding their candidate, had been given to an international radio station and might one day be aired.

Chyhir, who was jailed before the vote for alleged fraud, was one of two candidates in the election, in which the opposition says more than 50 percent of eligible voters took part.

Our correspondent reports the campaign tape and the story behind it are representative of the conflicting views prevailing in Belarus as to the state of press freedom.

Carlos Sherman, vice president of the Minsk International Pen Club, a leading association of writers and journalists, says writers in Belarus are under "terrible pressure." He says the pressure on journalists will only increase with the approach of July 20th -- the date President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's term in office is to expire under the 1994 constitution.

The constitution is observed by the opposition but not the government. In 1996, the government sponsored a controversial referendum extending Lukashenka's term and tightening his grip on power.

Voters at Chyhir headquarters told RFE/RL they were casting ballots to express a desire for a democratic future. They say this future should also embrace a free press. One voter (who requested anonymity) had this to say:

"In the current media, in radio and television, opposition leaders and activists have absolutely no access. Normally, Lukashenka starts the day on television and ends the day on television. I want very much to see different political forces in the media. I am an educated person and I want to see and make my own choices."

Lukashenka's administration disputes claims the opposition has no access to the media. Officials say the sheer number of political parties in Belarus, as well as the existence of an independent press, show there is real pluralism in society. The government says opposition members are just trying to destabilize Belarus. Sherman says the rise in opposition activity highlights a trend toward the basic idea of freedom and survival. He says if there is one unifying theme bringing Belarusians together in these times it would be that of survival. But in order to survive, Sherman says, "one first must be free to read, think and speak as one chooses."

The chairman of the officially sanctioned Belarusian Writer's Union, Vladimir Nikolayev, disagrees that free expression is being stifled. A poet by trade, Nikolayev says the media is flourishing:

"I think growth in literature quality is observed nowadays, and from my point of view, it is because writers do not have to observe ideological stereotypes anymore. In Stalin times, there had to be a Stalin name in each book or each story followed by some symbol of war or a great fire. Nowadays, a writer's creative process depends only on his or her talent, and to that extent freedom is greater."

Ivan Paskevich, the deputy head of president Lukashenka's administration agrees. But he also acknowledges a shortcoming in the media -- one which he says is shared by most former Soviet republics.

He says too many journalists trained and worked under the old Soviet school of journalism. Paskevich, a former journalist himself, refers to that style of journalism as "Lenin's formula." He said vestiges of the system remain in place.

At the same time, Paskevich says newspapers have an obligation to print what they feel is important. He said this would even include information about the unofficial elections:

"A newspaper, in this case, is in the first place a source of information. As such, a newspaper of course has the right to write about everything it thinks important or necessary, including the [recent unofficial] elections. Myself, as an official, I have to say I don't like these kind of things. But I have no resources or officials to shut it down or stop it."

While Paskevich was making this comment to RFE/RL, the Supreme Court was hearing a case involving six leading opposition newspapers. The six were called before the court because they published the date of the elections along with the phrase: "May 16: The Day of Your Choice." The court later ruled in the government's favor.

Paskevich says the papers were warned by the government not because they covered the elections, but because they published the voting calendar and called on people to participate. Paskevich says after the warnings, the opposition papers continued to publish the calendar along with the date and slogan. He says, though, that he thinks the papers' editors now understand that they committed what he said was a "serious mistake."

Aleksei Korol, the editor in chief the Zgode newspaper, tells RFE/RL that that's not the way he sees it. His paper is one of the opposition newspapers facing legal action.

Korol says the court ruling in favor of the government only made opposition editors more determined to fight in the face of growing government interference in the press. He said they would not be afraid to cover the tough issues and would not back down. "As a newspaper and editorial team, we operate independently and do not resort to self-censorship. But of course we do not resort to extremes [either], and the only limit we have as a newspaper is we do not call for any violent measures. We still admit that the current situation in Belarus can be resolved by political, peaceful democratic means. At the same time, the authorities try to accuse us of exactly the opposite."

Korol tells our correspondent the hardest part about being an independent journalist in Belarus is fear: "fear of being punished," or even worse, "fear of losing the job that you love."

Maybe it's no coincidence the most popular underground movie in Belarus these days is a documentary called "Fear." It features vignettes of Belarusians fighting government repression.