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Belarus: Authorities Seeking To Limit Access To Russian, Western Media

The Belarusian public finds itself in a growing information void. There is virtually no access to Western media in the country. Russian television channels are being taken off the air, and local outfits loyal to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are replacing radio stations broadcasting from Moscow. Official state media are highly subsidized, making life hard for the few independent Belarusian newspapers that still exist. Prague, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian authorities are taking steps to cut public access to information coming from the Russian mass media, which are often critical of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Belarusian analysts and journalists say these steps are being taken under the guise of developing Belarusian media but are only a sophisticated form of state censorship.

Vladimir Dorokhov is deputy director of the independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies based in Minsk. He told RFE/RL that television is the most influential medium in the country and that Russian channels are very popular.

A survey conducted by the institute last month indicates that 78 percent of Belarusians get news about Belarus from watching Russian television. Dorokhov said Lukashenka is concerned that news reports coming from Moscow are undermining his rule. "Lukashenka has understood the danger that is posed by this undivided information space [between Russia and Belarus] and the dependence of the Belarusian viewers on the information streams that are coming from Russia. He cannot check this information as he controls information inside the country, when everything is under complete state control," Dorokhov said.

Dorokhov said the authorities took steps last summer to isolate Belarusians from what they consider the "negative influence" of Russian television and radio. It appears to be working. A recent survey conducted by the institute found that 44 percent of respondents said they trust state media, while 37 percent said they trust private outlets.

The Russian television channel ORT had been the most popular channel in Belarus. Six months ago, ORT suddenly disappeared from the air and was replaced by ONT, a hybrid Belarusian channel that broadcasts ORT's entertainment programs, films, and sport events but is supplemented with news produced in Minsk. The majority of ONT shares are owned by the Belarusian state.

The survey says that ONT is the most popular channel in the country, watched by 80 percent of respondents.

Original ORT programs can be watched only via satellite, a luxury many Belarusians cannot afford. Dorokhov said that similar fates soon await two other Russian channels seen in Belarus: RTR and Kultura.

Irina Halip is deputy editor in chief of the independent Russian-language Belarusian newspaper "Beloruskaya delovaya gazeta," which is known for its objective reporting and investigative style and has about 12 percent of the market. Halip told RFE/RL that the moves mean censorship: "It means that some airtime [of original ORT programming] is covered by the Belarusian-produced programs. Some investigative programs [coming from Moscow] are pushed from prime time to very late at night. Let's say, a Sunday program hosted by Vladimir Pozner [a famous Russian journalist], 'Vremena,' which was very popular in Belarus, was pushed to one o'clock in the morning on Sundays. Of course, only a few people can afford to wait for it, maybe only those who do not need to be at work at nine o'clock in the morning."

Halip said the Belarusian news inserts are of low quality and do not deal frankly with most political events. There are also many Belarusian ads in the programs. However, ONT is more attractive than official Belarusian television, which is often described as being dull.

She said the authorities have a history of taking action against some Moscow-made programs. In 2001, ORT was simply taken off the air when it showed a film by Pavel Sheremet, "Dikaya okhota" ("Wild Hunting"), that investigated the disappearances of Belarusian politicians. It was later explained that some unspecified technical problems had prevented the broadcast.

Dorokhov said Belarusian stations are also replacing Moscow radio stations. "Beginning with this year, rebroadcasting of three Russian radio stations was stopped. Mayak, Yunost, and Golos Rossii broadcast on FM frequencies. Instead, Belarusian radio stations have been put on the air on the same frequencies," Dorokhov said.

Dorokhov said the new radio companies are controlled by the Belarusian state and that Lukashenka recently stated that he will "never permit the privatization of ideology."

Russian newspapers are not as popular as Russian television in Belarus. The survey conducted by the Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies indicates the most popular newspaper in the country is "Komsomolskaya pravda," which is printed in Moscow. It is read by 38 percent of the respondents. The daily mainly concentrates on soft news and human-interest stories.

The most popular Belarusian daily is "Sovetskaya Belarusya," which is read by 37 percent of respondents.

Why is "Sovetskaya Belarusya," a dull Soviet-style daily, so popular? Dorokhov said it is the same reason why the communist daily "Pravda" was popular in the Soviet Union. "The reason is very simple: One of the founders of this newspaper is the presidential administration of Belarus. This fact alone makes many people subscribers to this newspaper. And it is especially true of state officials of various ranks. Others subscribe for the same reason people subscribed during the Soviet period to the official newspaper 'Pravda.' They want to know the general line. They want to know what authorities think about various topics. It is an official face of the country expressed through the mass media," Dorokhov said.

Halip agreed that "Sovetskaya Belarusya" is a relic of the Soviet era but said it is difficult for independent newspapers to compete with it because it is subsidized by the state. "'Sovetskaya Belarusya' is supported by the state, and it can allow itself to be the cheapest daily. We ['Beloruskaya delovaya gazeta'] have been forced to increase our price because otherwise we would not be able to cover expenses," Halip said.

She said that "Sovetskaya Belarusya" costs 150 Belarusian rubles (about $0.08), compared with 300 Belarusian rubles for "Beloruskaya delovaya gazeta," and that "Sovetskaya Belarusya" is printed in color.

Dorokhov said there are no Western newspapers or magazines on sale in kiosks in Belarus. The Western press is sold only in a few places at high prices.

The Internet is also not a solution for those hunting for objective information. Dorokhov said the Internet is regularly used by only about 3 percent of Belarusians. There is only one Internet provider in the country, Beltelecom, a state-owned company.