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Belarus: Journalists Brace Themselves For New Media Law

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said the country's new mass media law will meet international requirements and match the "real situation in Belarus." Belarusian journalists and media organizations fear the law simply will give the authorities more means to control the media. A draft of the document is being discussed behind closed doors, leaving journalists to guess at what rules they will have to follow in the future.

Prague, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "We are making the [media] law not for Americans, Europeans, or Russians but for ourselves," Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 2 October. "It will be a Belarusian law, which will take into account the experiences of the entire world."

Belarusian media organizations and journalists can only guess what Lukashenka has in mind.

Zhana Litvina heads the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a nongovernmental organization that unites most of the country's independent journalists. The organization is urging Belarusian parliamentarians to publish the draft law so that it can be debated in public.

She told RFE/RL that former Belarusian Information Minister Mikhail Padhayny had promised to present a draft to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for evaluation, but said the authorities now seem to have forgotten that promise.

"In January 2002, probably for the first time during the period of independence and sovereignty of Belarus, the mass media situation in the country was discussed in Strasbourg [at the Council of Europe]. And during those discussions, former [Belarusian] Minister of Information Mikhail Padhayny very vocally promised that the draft of the media law would be sent to European institutions for evaluation. But since that time -- 24 January 2002 -- the draft has been discussed among a very small group of officials, behind closed doors, and it has been impossible to look at this document," Litvina said.

Valery Levkov is a journalist who works for "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," an influential Russian-language newspaper in Belarus. He said the draft media law is being treated almost like a state secret. "The draft certainly was not discussed with the journalists of Belarus," he said. "Maybe it was discussed with Pavel Jakubovich, the editor in chief of 'Sovetskaya Belarussiya,' which is an official newspaper of the presidential administration. That is possible. However, neither [independent] journalists nor human right activists nor experts from the Belarusian Association of Journalists had the possibility to discuss it. I know that for sure."

A spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Andrey Savinykh, says the draft will be brought up for public discussion. "Now this law is being discussed on the level of the Ministry of Information," he said. "It is not presented for public discussion yet, but it will be done a little bit later."

Savinykh said it is also too early to present the draft for international comment and cannot guarantee that that will even happen. Savinykh said he can't comment on the draft himself because he hasn't seen it.

"Belarusskaya delovaya gazeta" did manage to obtain a preliminary copy of the law. Levkov wrote an article about the implications the new law might have.

In an interview with RFE/RL, he said some of its provisions could seriously restrict press freedom in Belarus. Levkov said the authorities want to ban journalists from reporting about Belarusian political parties and other organizations not officially registered in the country. In addition, under the law, the Prosecutor-General's Office would have the power to shut down newspapers or other media outlets after just two warnings for various violations. He said a newspaper could receive such a warning for something as minor as publishing incorrect circulation figures.

Litvina of the Belarusian Association of Journalists declined to comment on the draft of the law published in "Belarusskaya delovaya gazeta." She said she doesn't know how much of that draft will actually correspond to the version currently being discussed by the authorities.

However, she's confident one provision will remain -- that all media outlets will have to re-register with the authorities. She said the government likely will use the opportunity to refuse to register media outlets that have been critical of Lukashenka.

Litvina said a ruthless war between the media and the authorities is under way in the country. Last year, Belarusian authorities closed several newspapers considered too critical of the government, including "Den," "Novaya gazeta Smorgoni" and "Mestnoye vremya." In addition, Viktar Ivashkevich, the editor in chief of the newspaper "Rabochy," is living outside the capital, Minsk, after having his freedom of movement restricted.

"You know, I have no illusions. Leaving the law aside, what happened last year indicates that the confrontation between the authorities and the mass media has a hostile character and that no compromises are possible. What has happened during the last three days clearly shows that the policy of the government toward an independent press is consistent and very strict. Last Friday [26 September], the court fined journalists, as well as their newspaper 'Narodnaya volya' [for various infractions]. Yesterday, one more trial took place and 'Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta' was fined," Litvina said.

She said the problems of the media in Belarus are more substantial than whether the draft law will ever be discussed in public. "The authorities do not want to have an independent media in the country," she said, "and even the best laws can be twisted against the journalists."

Levkov of "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" agreed. "The main problem in Belarus is not bad laws but the possibility [for the authorities] to apply those laws the way they want," he said.