Belarus





Basic Data

Belarus

Official Country Name: Republic of Belarus
Region (Map name): Europe
Population: 10,350,194
Language(s): Byelorussian, Russian, other
Literacy rate: 98.0%
Area: 207,600 sq km
GDP: 29,950 (US$ millions)
Number of Television Stations: 47
Number of Television Sets: 2,520,000
Television Sets per 1,000: 243.5
Number of Cable Subscribers: 332,000
Cable Subscribers per 1,000: 33.2
Number of Satellite Subscribers: 60,000

Belarus

Satellite Subscribers per 1,000: 5.8
Number of Radio Stations: 76
Number of Radio Receivers: 3,020,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000: 291.8
Number of Individuals with Internet Access: 180,000
Internet Access per 1,000: 17.4

Background & General Characteristics

The Republic of Belarus is an independent state formed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It is a legal heir to a former Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus. On July 27, 1990 the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) of the Republic adopted a declaration on national sovereignty. In 1991 this document received a constitutional status. Belarus is a founding member of the Organization of the United Nations. On June 26, 1945, it signed the Statutes of the UN. It is a founder of Commonwealth of Independent States and forms a Union with Russia.

Throughout the centuries the territory of contemporary Belarus was divided among different countries: Lithuania, Prussia, Poland. Different languages and religions left their marks on culture and literature of this region. Before World War II the republic had a considerable Jewish population that was annihilated in the Holocaust.

The main distinctive feature of the Republic is that its Slavic population speaks mostly Russian and not Belo Russian. In the eighteenth century the Catholic influence from Poland, in the nineteenth century Russian Imperial policy of assimilation and non-recognition of Belo Russian as a language, the division of the country between Poland and USSR in the interwar period, all created a unique situation when the majority of press and literature published in Belarus are in Russian language.

The link to the Soviet past is perhaps more visible in Belarus than in any other of the 14 former USSR republics. Belarus keeps a Soviet-era coat of arms, flag, and the music of the national anthem. The state security service continues to be called KGBELARUS (KGB). Significantly as of 2002, the names of the main Soviet era newspapers and magazines had not been changed. Their preeminent position in the market also had been kept intact. These particular features explain in part why undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies in Belarus after 1991 had a significant impact on the media.

As of 2001, Children under the age of 15 accounted for 20 percent of the population. The adult population was 58 percent and senior citizens over 60, some 21 percent. The population is mostly urban: 70 percent live in the cities and 30 percent in the rural areas. The literacy rate is high. In 2000, some 1,547 million studied in secondary schools while 95,000 had graduated. About 281,000 students attended courses in universities and colleges. At the same time 61 million books and brochures were published. Total stock of books in public libraries amounted to 77 million copies. There are 296 telephones per 1000 people. Belo Russians accounted for 81 percent of the population; Russians, 11 percent; Poles, 4 percent; Ukrainians, 2.4 percent; and Jews, .3 percent.

The major cities are Minsk (capital), with the population of 1.7 million; Gomel, .49 million; Vitebsk, .34 million; Mogilev, .36 million. The size of national economy was in 2002 some 3 percent of neighboring Russia. The pace of post-communist reforms in this country is slow. The transition to the market economy is not as fast as in neighboring countries. As of 2000, the total percent of the population who worked in foreign owned companies was only .4; those who worked in mixed joint ventures (national and foreign capital) numbered 1.3 percent. In the government sector of the economy, workers numbered 57 percent, and in privately owned businesses, they numbered about 42.5 percent.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the biggest political party continued to be the Communist. The Human Rights issues were advocated by the Khartiia 97 movement. The nationalistic movements, unlike in other post-Soviet republics, constituted the opposition. Belo Russian National Front, United Civil Party, and Narodnaia gromada (Social Democratic Party) were allowed to operate, but their access to the media was insignificant.

The first newspaper on the territory of contemporary Belarus is believed to have been Gazeta Grodzen'ska (1776). It was published in Polish in a two-page format. Starting in 1838 the official newspapers were published in Russian (since it was an official language of the Russian Empire): Vitebskie gubernskie novosti (Vitebsk Provincial News, also Grodno, Minsk, and Mogilev). In 1862-63 K. Kalinoiskii published an underground newspaper, Muzhytskaia prauda (Peasant Truth) in Belo Russian language. The first authorized printing house for Belo Russian language publications was opened in 1906, Nashe Delo (Our Cause). After the October 1917 socialist revolution led by Lenin, several republican and provincial newspapers were established. In 1924 (district), in 1938 (regional), and in 1954 (papers at both district and region levels).

The most distinctive feature of journalism and media in general is that it is practiced in Russian. That makes sense since in a century before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution only 13 out of 249 publications were in Belo Russian language. During the years of independence the number of magazines and periodicals rose sharply from 129 in 1990 (those in Belo Russian language accounted for 36) to 354 in 2001 (those in Belo Russian accounted for 111). However, the yearly number of printing copies went down from 54.1 million (33 million in Belo Russian) to 16 million (4 million in Belo Russian). The rise in the number of newspapers displayed a different tendency, a jump from 224 titles (135 in Belo Russsian) to 610 (202 in Belo Russian). Total single circulation went from 5.7 million copies to 11.4 (Belo Russian language dropped from 2.3 million to 1.8 million). Annual circulation in million of copies went down from 985 million in 1990 to 635 million in 2000 (in Belo Russian language from 312 to 216). The country is open to Russian language publication from the Russian Federation as well.

Some Russian Federation newspapers have local editions: Komsomol'skaia Pravda prints 220,000 copies on Friday and 30,000 on a regular day. The most circulated Russian newspaper, Argumenty I facty (Arguments and Facts) has a 160,000 daily circulation in Belarus and includes a special local supplement.

Belarus by European standards is a closed society. Only 48,000 tourists visited the country in 2000, mostly from neighboring Poland (13,000). At the same time 1.2 million Belo Russians traveled abroad outside CIS and Russia.

As of January 1, 1995 in the republic there were published 525 newspapers. The national newspapers that belong to the government and are subsidized from the national budget date their existence back to Soviet times: Zviazda (Star), Literatura I mastatstva (Literature and Art), Sovetskaia Belarus (Soviet Belarus, in Russian, available on-line), Chyrvonaia zmena (Red Relief), Respublika (Republic), Narodnaia gazeta (People's Newspaper, in Russian), Nastaunitskaia gazeta (Teacher's Newspaper). Regional newspapers are: Zaria (Dawn, Brest), Minskaia prauda (Minsk Truth), Magileuskaiaprauda (Mogilev Truth). The titles of most of these newspapers have not changed since the Soviet Era. This fact suggests the much larger and pervasive difficulties and challenges of transition from Communism to post-communist society in this former Soviet Republic.

In the capital six non-government newspapers of general interest are published. Only one of them, Narodnaia Volia, can be considered daily (five issues a week). The second place belongs to Belorusskaia delovaia gazeta (four times a week, available on-line). The rest are typical large format weeklies.

Theoretically diverse political parties, civil organizations and movements, artistic and professional groups, and private citizens, all have a right to publish their own printed media. More than 1,000 newspapers and magazines are registered in the country. In fact, 80 percent of them belong to private citizens or businesses. However, only few non-government papers have a circulation running in tens of thousands: Narodnaia Volia, 75,000; Belorusskaia Delovaia Gazeta and Belorusskaia Gazeta, 20,000. The vast majority of regional papers have a circulation from several hundred to two or three thousand copies. The circulation of government papers surpasses those of private at the ratio of ten to one. To this should be added a variety of official local newspapers and those published by the government ministries. Vo slavu Rodiny (For the Glory of the Motherland) is published by the Ministry of National Defense for the purpose of indoctrination work in the armed forces. The industrial factories and Soviet era kolkhozy and sovkhozy (collective and Soviet peasant farms) also publish their own tabloid size four-page newspapers called mnogotirazhka. Minsk Auto Factory (MAZ) has its own Avtozavodets paper.

All government papers are subsidized from the budget, either presidential or national, or from the special foundations held by industrial enterprises. Though the printing costs in the republic are high, the sales price is brought down by heavy subsidies. There are no problems with distribution for government paper. The local authorities mandate their subordinates and managers of the state firms and enterprises to subscribe to government papers, both national and regional. This is another Soviet-like feature of the press.

Language Issues

The paradox of the current situation in Belarus is the fact that the government represented by the president, prime minister, administration of the president, security service (KGB), and to a large degree by the president-controlled Parliament forces, all try to impose the Soviet era style of government and the Russian language as its main instrument while the opposition promotes the national Belarus language and culture and is oriented to Western European values. Therefore the government makes systematic efforts to subvert the national press, especially the local one.

As of 2002, this typical situation could be illustrated by Baranovichy, a town in the Brest region near the Polish border. According to a population census, 83 percent of the people in Baranovichy consider Belarussian their mother tongue and 40 percent use it in everyday communication. However, there are only 3 independent newspapers in this town of 170,000, and all of them are published in Russian. Belaruskaye Slova (Belarusian Word), the first Belarusian language independent newspaper in the town, was founded in 1991 at the beginning of the national revival period. But in 1994 it was economically strangled; the fine imposed on the publication for an article published in it amounted to its several annual budgets. After that, the ex-editor of the newspaper tried to restore the newspaper, but extremely tough conditions of registration along with absurd prices for printing and distribution made it impossible.

The Largest Newspapers by Circulation

As of the early 2000s, Sovetskaia Belarus (The Soviet Belarus) was published by the Administratsiia Prezidenta Respubliki Belarus' (the President's Office of Belarus). Founded in 1927, the daily paper, initially the mouthpiece of the local branch of Communist Party, had Format A2 and half a million copies. It was printed in Belorusskii Dom Pechati (Belo Russian House of Press), the main state owned printing facility in the Republic. Respublika (The Republic), with a circulation of 120,000, was published 250 days a year by the Soviet Ministrov (Council of Ministers) since 1991 in both Belo Russian and Russian. This paper was also printed in Belorusskii Dom Pechati. Begun in 1999, Soiuz (Union) was published by the Ispolnitel'nyi komitet I Parlamentskoe sobranie Soiuza Belarusi I Rossii (Executive Committee and Parliamentary Congress of Belarus and Russia), the main bodies of proposed union between Russia and Belarus. The publishers were Belorusskii dom pechati and Rossiiskaia Gazeta (Russian Newspaper), the official organ of the Russian Government. The stated circulation was of 900,000 copies. Vechernii Minsk (Evening Minsk), format A2 evening newspaper was published in the capital. It produced 100,000 copies, and half of the newspaper was advertising and the rest mainly local news. First issued in August 1917 in Russian in Minsk, Zviazda (Star) is published five times a week. Starting in 1925, it was partly Russian, partly Belo Russian and after 1927 it was exclusively in Belo Russian. It is the official newspaper covering the activities of the Supreme Soviet and the Cabinet of Ministers. The monthly supplement, Chernobyl (which began in 1993) deals with issues linked to the nuclear power station disaster in neighboring Ukraine in 1986. Literatura I mastatstva (Literature and Art) is a weekly dealing with literature, theatre, music, and cinema.

The Belarus Orthodox Church has the most members of any church functioning in the Republic. It is part of the Russian Orthodox Church. While responding to major decisions taken by the Moscow Patriarchate, it still has certain independence in internal affairs. This lack of completely independent national status for the Orthodox Church (unlike in the neighboring Ukraine and elsewhere) also reflects the somewhat incomplete nature of Belarus independence. A religiously connected magazine, Minskie eparkhial'nye vedomosti is published four times a year (in format 4A with 250 pages). The official church newspaper Tserkovnoe slovo is published on an irregular basis. The activities of foreign religious organizations as well as representatives of Vatican are severely curtailed and monitored. They are often called "totalitarian sects" and their religious work labeled as "pernicious".

Economic Framework

Before the break up of the Soviet Union in December 1991 Belarus occupied 1 percent of the USSR national territory and accounted for 4 percent of its GDP. However, the very nature of command economy made the republic highly dependent for supplies on other parts of the country. After the proclamation of independence, hyperinflation ensued and production collapsed. Two-thirds of the capital left the country. Eighty percent of the enterprises were on the verge of bankruptcy. By the end of 1990s the economic collapse had stopped. As of 2002, according to the government data, 98 percent of the active adult population was employed in production industries. The same statistics source claimed gross domestic product (GDP) in the 1996-2000 period rose 36 percent; investment rose 13 percent; and industrial output increased 65 percent. Personal income rose 71 percent and commerce doubled. However, the published statistics in post-communist countries have to be viewed with some degree of healthy skepticism. The particular feature of Belarus is the slow pace of privatization and the absence of oligarchic structures (a mixture of former Communist Party, KGB, and government moguls that privatized huge parts of the national economy). The most important business activity is controlled, in fact, by the President's Administration Office. The government becomes in practice the main businessman in the Republic.

Distribution Networks

Most newspapers are published by Belorusskii Dom Pechati, the megaprinting house owned by the state and are also distributed by a government monopoly network, Belpochta (Belo Russian Mail). Belpochta sets different tariffs for government and non-government media. By illustration, the tariff set for the privately owned Belorusskaia Delovaia Gazeta for the second quarter of 2000 was five times higher than for the government paper, Respublica . Yet the format and size of these two newspapers is identical. Moreover, there are difficulties facing independent distributors. Pressures from the Association of Journalists forced Ministry of Business and Investment to issue a warning to stop discriminatory tariffs for non-government media. The Ministry of Communications, whose subsidiary is Belpochta, defended itself by stating that any medium is free to distribute its product in any possible way through government, cooperative, NGO organizations, or with the help of private citizens.

Press Laws

The Belarus Constitution, adopted by the thirteenth session of the Supreme Soviet on March 15, 1994, states in its Article 5 that "political parties and other social organizations have the right to use state media in the way it is established by the law." The same article prohibits the formation of the parties aimed at changing constitutional order; propaganda of war; and national, racial or religious hatred. Article 33 states: "Manipulation of Media by the State, social organizations and by average citizens, as well as censorship are not allowed." Article 34 provides for the soliciting and dissemination of information about the government activities, "political, economic and international life." In practice, however, the declaratory democratic pronouncements of the Constitution are de facto annulled by other Laws, Rules and Regulations.

The most significant political event regarding the press was the treatment of the figure of the President Aleksandr Lukashenko (Belarus 1954) who came to power in 1994 and managed to get reelected for a five-year term in 2001. The political climate imposed by Lukashenko's regime in the country is expressed by the "above the law" status of the president himself and to some degree it anticipated the pattern of Russian political development after the election of President Vladimir Putin in March 2000, which brought with it increased militarization, the appointment of security forces cadres to key government positions, and a curtailing of independent printed and electronic media.

According to the Constitution, the president is a head of state and de facto of the government, a "guarantor of the Constitution, of rights and freedoms of people and citizens, he personifies the unity of the nation and guarantees the realization of the main directions of internal and foreign policy." The provision for the "unity of the nation" and the demonstrated practice of power have been one of many causes of serious human rights violations and suppression of the press in the Republic. As some human rights organizations, the Council of Europe, European Parliament, Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe and others suggest this totalitarian concept of the "unity of the nation" is in practice a cover for the establishment of an authoritarian state in the heart of Europe.

Press Related Laws

Government Decree no. 144, adopted on February 26, 1996, stipulated that purchase of printing equipment could be carried out only by the permission of the Government Committee on the Press (now Ministry of Information). Without this permit no media could operate in the republic. No license was needed in the case of certain government agencies' publications and official blanks, wrapping paper, stickers, and rice tags. The rest of the publications in order to be printed need a government license. The publishing license could be obtained if the particular medium has on staff "professionals with University degrees, three years experience in the publishing business and those who have successfully passed a qualifying examination." Those without these requirements did not qualify.

The media were required to post the information about the publisher. The compulsory posting on bonds, however, did not exist, but the newspapers, especially the independent ones, had to be constantly ready to disclose all financial information to the government-controlled tax and revenue police. In fact the tax office in post-Soviet societies is one of the major instruments of government control over the media. The violation of copyright laws is prohibited as well the infringement of "thematic scope" and publishing in languages not authorized in the license.

Obligatory copies of certain publications are distributed widely, sent to the ministries, national libraries or book chambers. Poor printing quality is not allowed. The political control includes a ban on media use of information that is considered state secret "or any other secret especially protected by the law," any appeal towards "the violent change of existing government and social order, war propaganda, violence and cruelty, racial, national, religious supremacy or intolerance, pornography, as well as any publishing activity that contradicts the interests of the Republic or any other illegal activities." The government is entitled to suspend the license for up to 6 months and in case of a recurrent violation suspend the license altogether. ("Regulation on the Licensing and the Use of Licenses" issued by the Committee on the Press on May 21, 1997).

Article 16 of the Press and Media Law that regulates the Belarus media stipulates the following steps to be taken leading up to the closure of the media. First, the Ministry of Information or a local attorney makes a written warning when the media violate the laws. Two or more warnings during a twelve-month period can lead to the closure of the media. In the year 2000 more than 50 warnings were issued. Most of the warnings dealt with article 5 of the Press Law that bans any "dissemination of information made in the name of political parties, trade unions or any other social organizations that did not pass Government registration" in the Ministry of Justice.

Censorship

Though the Constitution bans the censorship, some agencies monitor the press and therefore exercise strict censorship. This government system includes the State Committee on the Press (Republican Government) that in the late 2001 was replaced with the Ministry of Information. There are regional executive committees (regional governments) that have Upravlenie po pechati (Department on the Press) (for example, in Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Gomel) or Upravlenie obschestvenno politicheskoi informatsii (Department of Social and Political information, in Grodno) or Upravlenie informatsii (Department of information, in Minsk). Natsional'naia knizhnaia palata (National Book Chamber) monitors all printing activities in the Republic in terms of collecting and filing all printed materials.

Cases of Actual Censorship

Government vs. Narodnaia volia illustrates the point. On one occasion the most influential independent newspaper, Narodnaia Volia used the verb "expelled" in the context of the prominent Belo Russian writer, Vasil' Bykov, who lives in Germany. The Press Committee issued the official warning to the newspaper based on the interpretation of the word. It stated Bykov was not "expelled," but rather "for some time he had been living and working in Finland invited by the PEN-CluBelarus. Now he lives in Germany. He is not considered 'an expelled person' as claimed by Narodnaia Volia. " A warning of this type can foretell closure and is usually signed by the Minister of Press (Information) Suspension. In August 2001 the authorities confiscated 10 computers belonging to the same Narodnaia Volia . The official reason was the fact the computers were not registered as belonging to the editorial office rather than to private citizens namely, the journalists. Therefore they could not be used on editorial premises. The editorial staff was left with only four computers.

Government vs. Lambda also illustrates how censorship works. In March 2002 the only gay publication in the country, Forum Lambda , was closed down. The license was removed because according to the government the magazine that had "registered as scientific, popular, culturological edition, for more than a year had been published as an erotic one." In September of 2001 the magazine had received a first warning with the same text. It coincided with the official ban of a "Gay Parade 2001" in Minsk whose main organizer happened to be the magazine. The tax police immediately studied the publication's bookkeeping and tax receipts but did not find any irregularities.

The cases against government newspapers are hard to win. Helsinki Human Rights Group vs. the Government illustrates the point. After the 2001 Presidential election, a leading human rights association, The Bela Russian Helsinki Committee, demanded a "refutation of slanderous data disseminated" in the leading government newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya . The newspaper had claimed that the Helsinki Committee activities subverted the country's national security. The article in question was published in the newspaper's special issue, whose circulation was twice that of a regular one. Its main topic was candidate Alexander Lukashenko's election program. The special issue was produced in full color on eight pages and was distributed free of charge. The court first of all refused even to consider the sources for financing the issue. Then it declined to study the veracity of the information. For months after that news, the group tried hard to get this information publicly refuted. The human rights defenders addressed in vain the republican KGB, the Security Council (top national security body) and the Presidential Administration requesting these institutions to confirm or deny BHC's involvement in anti-state activities.

In April 2002, the Ministry of Information issued yet another official warning to Narodnaia Volia for "dissemination of baseless unsupported statements regarding the President of Belarus." It was a reply to an article, "Great Laundry" that claimed that the president's office had privatized the most lucrative part of national economy (arms trade) and the president wanted to launder those profits in Austria. The newspaper objected the reprimand because the news had been reprinted from the Web site of Radio Liberty.

The government tries to intimidate even the foreign journalists working and covering the country from abroad. In January 2002 the KGB of Belarus sent a letter to Russia's Secret Service FSB protesting against statements made by top Russian TV journalist Pavel Sheremet (Bela Russian by birth). KGB claimed public statements made by Sheremet damaged constitutional order in the country, were of anti-government nature, discredited Belo Russian leadership and as a result damaged relations between two countries. Russian authorities as a routine disregard these protests made by their closest political ally.

The censorship as an all-pervasive Soviet-style institution works as well at the local level, with municipal government publications, industrial enterprises and collective farms. For example, the director of the agricultural machinery plant, Gomsel'mash, issued an internal memo entitled "On the Relationship with Media," which ordered the editor of the factory's newspaper to review all types of documents (texts, speeches, articles, addresses, letters) that were being sent from the factory's official to the media. This document was announced to all 10,000 workers and they were specifically advised that any appearance in media had to be previously approved.

Judiciary and the Media

The criminal code was adopted by Palata predstavitelei (Chamber of Representatives of the Parliament) on June 2, 1999 and approved by the Soviet Respubliki on June 24, 1999. It includes six chapters (out of nine) that potentially infringe on the freedom of press and individual liberties. "Crimes against Peace, security of humankind and military crimes," (propaganda of war), "Crimes against Social Security and Population Health," "Crimes against Social Order and Social Morals," "Crimes against Information Security," "Crimes against State ( gosudartsvo ) and order of execution of Government and management" (vlast' i upravleniie), and "Crimes against military service". (The remaining chapters are: "Crimes against Person" and "Crimes against ownership and way of conducting of economic activities.") It is one of the most repressive criminal codes in all of the post-Soviet world except perhaps some Central Asian countries.

Article 198 establishes that any impediment in any form of the lawful professional activities of journalists or forcing them to divulge or desist from dissemination of information (with violence or with the threat to use it) entails a fine or banning to occupy certain positions or imprisonment up to three years. Article 204 establishes a fine for the denial of an official to give to a citizen documents and materials concerning this citizen. Article 367, "Defamation regarding the President of the Republic of Belarus" (kleveta v otnoshenii prezidenta respubliki Belarus) applies to any public pronouncement, printed or publicly displayed work, or in the media that may draw a fine, correctional works up to two years, or imprisonment up to four years. Article 368, "Insult of the President" ( oskorblenie prezidenta ), stipulates that a public insult would draw a fine or two years imprisonment. The treatment of the President became the central worry of the Bela Russian state and its police and law enforcement organs. Defilement of State symbols (coat of arms, flag and anthem) draws up to one year imprisonment. Other crimes include: State secrets, official secrets, "illegal production, acquisition or sale of means for illegal receipt of information."

State-Press Relations

Organization and Functions of Information Ministry

On June 14, 1996 the government Committee on the Press was instituted. On October 26, 2001 it was dismantled and a Ministry of Information formed in its place which is headed by a minister appointed by the president and managed by a seven-person board.

At the provincial level the Directorates of Information exist. They are attached to the provincial executive committees (local governments). According to the law the main tasks of the ministry include: "government regulation of the spreading of information," carrying out of the government policy towards media, control, economic measures in media and publishing business and distribution of books, coordination of policies with other states, and finally the "formation of the media culture."

The Ministry of Information has a monopoly right to license media and all publishing and printing activities in the territory of Belarus. It takes measures to prevent "abuse of media freedoms, free publishing and censorship" and it is in charge of publishing of the "socially important literature," textbooks, etc. It also makes decisions on forming, reorganizing and closing of media organizations. It forms correspondents bureaus abroad and takes care of the accreditations procedures for foreign correspondents (in conjunction with the External Affairs Ministry).

The Right to Criticize the Government (Theory and Practice)

The Constitution proclaims the freedom of the press. In practice, criticism of the president as the supreme authority of the nation often is a prelude to a crack-down. this applies to all media both printed and electronic. The opposition claims that since the top management of the Belo Russian Television and Radio Company is named by the president it is totally subordinated to him. Political opposition therefore is denied any access to the government owned media.

The agreement reached in October 1999 about a wider access of the political opposition to the Government media and the creation of equal opportunities to all forms of media ownership went largely ignored by the authorities. A case of local newspaper Pagonia and its editors illustrates the point. Nikolai Markevich and Pavel Mazeika were tried on charges of slander against President Lukashenko. If convicted, they might face up to five years in jail, under Belarus criminal laws. Both international and domestic media freedom watchdogs denounced the criminal libel prosecution of journalists as a gross violation of the freedom of expression standards.

Suspension and Confiscation of Newspapers

Newspaper Noviny published in Belo Russian has been popular in opposition circles. Reportedly the president of the country gave an order to the Security Council chief to file a case against the newspaper for an alleged "insulted honor and dignity" of the president and seek financial compensation. The claim was presented at the court and satisfied in the record short time. The amount of fine was so big that the newspaper was forced out of business. Half a year later it made an unsuccessful effort to come out under a different name.

In September 2000 several issues of the opposition newspaper Rabochii (Worker) published by the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions was confiscated. It had called citizens to boycott the October 15 parliamentary elections. Police and KGB confiscated 150,000 copies of the newspaper and arrested its editor-in-chief, the lawyer representing the newspaper and the director of the printing shop.

In the first four months of 2001 the printed media received 68 warnings from the Government Committee. The government lost only one trial brought against Brestskii kur'er. In the year 2000 only four trials were lost by the government.

State Control over the Press

Control is exercised in a simple but effective way, the financial one. The government owned newspapers receive heavy subsidies from the budget. It allows them to establish a symbolic subscription price (less than one U.S. dollar for three months, that is, one cent a day). At the same time the distribution through the government-controlled post office for a privately owned newspaper costs four to five times more than for the government one. The competition becomes difficult, if not impossible.

The average monthly salary in the country is US$35. Potential readers must choose to purchase the most economic media product. This explains the skyrocketing circulation of the main government paper, Sovetskaia Belarus (half a million copies). The government also monopolizes all remaining infrastructure dealing with the press. The printing, mailing, and selling of the press is regulated by the state. The result of this protectionist policy is that the circulation of independent press is ten times smaller than the newspapers and magazines sponsored by the government.

The authorities in the little town of Smorgon in early 2001 explicitly prohibited local government offices and businesses from subscribing to the non-government newspaper Novaia gazeta . Atypically, its circulation was five times larger than the local official paper. The post office was required to submit the lists of all government subscribers to independent paper in order to punish them.

Different branches of the government try to exercise its influence over the press. Sometimes their interests are conflicting and damaging the State. Ministry of the Interior (police) was reportedly refusing to give accreditation to the official government newspaper, Respublic . The newspaper in the past had criticized the Minister of the Interior, and it had reported cases of corruption and organized crime within the police force.

Attitude towards Foreign Media

In general the attitude towards foreign media is governed by the atmosphere of strained relations with the European Union, the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United States.

Accreditation procedures for foreign journalists

Foreign journalists are required to submit an application in order to get a professional accreditation in Belarus. It includes personal information, a name of the organization which is requesting the procedure, and valid journalism credentials. Based on this submission, the External Affairs Ministry grants or denies the accreditation.

The activities of foreign journalists and those national citizens working for them are governed by the government polozhenie (statute), "On Stay and professional activities in the territory of Republic of Belarus of offices and correspondents of foreign media registered in the Republic of Belarus." More specifically, the rules are listed in the Instruktsiia (Instructions) issued by the External Affairs ministry. There are two types of accreditation: permanent (up to one year) and temporary (up to two months).

Apart from the application, a short note on the history and status of foreign media should be supplied with relevant information, as well as resume on professional activity of a correspondent. The same procedure is required for technical personnel. The Ministry resolves the case in two months period. When the permit is granted the Consular Division of the Ministry sends a written authorization form allowing the Belo Russian Consulate in a given country to issue a year-long multiple entry professional visa ( godovaia mnogokratnaia sluzhebnaia viza ). Once in the national territory, foreign journalist gets an Accreditation Card. Family members get a special card as well as professional visa. The temporary accreditation follows the same procedure. The only difference is the visa is granted in 20 working days after the application is received. The activities of foreign correspondents de jure are monitored by the Department of Relations with Media at the External Affairs ministry and de facto by the security service, KGBELARUS.

A common practice adopted by foreign media in Belarus is to hire local journalists and photo correspondents to cover events in the country. Doing so, however, creates additional pressure on the journalists who are local citizens and not covered by diplomatic immunity or other privileges accorded to the foreign nationals.

No diplomats, consular officials, representatives of foreign businesses, offices, or any organizations can be granted foreign correspondents accreditation. Certified national journalists can neither work for foreign media. Foreign journalists can form a professional journalistic association, can freely travel on the territory of the Republic except in case of "objects access to which is limited in accordance with the Republican legislation." In 1997 the visit of two Russian TV journalists to a forest near the Lithuanian border brought about their arrest and created an international scandal between Russia and Belarus. The Belarus authorities claimed the forest had military installations.

The Rules specifically stipulate that "rights and freedoms exercised by foreign correspondents should not damage interests of the Republic of Belarus, rights and legal interests of citizens." The specification of these obligations includes a requirement to check out the veracity of information, "present for publication objective information," not allow false or untrue assertions to be aired, to get permission for news on private life of the citizen from the citizen concerned, "while receiving information from citizens and officials notify them about the use of this information in audio, video, cinema and photo materials as well in the form of text." Rules also required journalists to carry a professional identification. Finally, a foreign journalist is required to "fulfill other obligations stipulated on journalists by the law and international treaties signed by the Republic of Belarus." The full responsibility falls upon the shoulders of foreign journalists in case they divulgate information considered state or "any other guarded by the law secret," or they are engaged in "the propaganda of war, social, national, religious, racial hatred, make calls to seize power, or violently change the constitutional order or infringement of the territorial integrity of the republic." If they stipulate the formation of "illegal social organizations, aid and make propaganda of their activities." Finally it is specifically prohibited to "attempt against the morality, honor and dignity of citizens and officials of the state, in particular dissemination of information viciously attempting against honor, dignity and business reputation ( chest', dostoinstvo I delovaia reputatsiia ) of the President of the Republic of Belarus." "Other illegal activities" are mentioned without specification. This language and practice follow closely the repressive legislation and practice of Soviet era.

The reprisals envisioned by the Ministry include the following steps: a) the first warning; and b) the reduction of the time of stay in the Republic for foreign nationals or the expulsion from the republic. Foreign journalists can be denied accreditation in the following cases: a) violation of rules after the first warning and the "dissemination of facts not corresponding to the reality," and b) in cases envisioned by the international agreements on civil and political rights. If the foreign media employ unauthorized personnel it can be denied accreditation for six months. A special Committee of the Ministry of External Affairs deals with the accreditation of journalists.

On May 8, 2001, this committee officially warned Iurii Svirko, a local journalist working for the foreign media, about violations in the "rules of order" governing foreign journalists' work. The warning was reportedly made on behalf of the president's Security Service. The Service among other priorities monitors media coverage of the president. The decree mandating this was adopted in 1998 but was never made public.

In September 2001, the Belo Russian consulate in Bonn, Germany, refused to grant visas to six German journalists. They were invited by the Belo Russian office of UNESCO as part of a bilateral exchange program. The refusal was motivated by the fact that the journalists did not have an accreditation with the Ministry of External Affairs (MID Belorussii). In fact the journalists on exchange trips unlike those traveling on business do not need accreditation.

In January 2002, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its concern with a comment made by Russian National TV channel NTV journalist Pavel Selin on the detainment of Mikhail Leonov, general director of the Minsk Tractor Factory (MTF). The NTV correspondent said: "Products of the Minsk Tractor Factory are mainly exported to Russia. President Lukashenko is known to resist the mass penetration of Russian capital into the profitable branches of Belarus' industry. He is no less active in getting rid of those who are standing out for the strong economic relations with brotherly Russia." The head of the NTV bureau in Minsk was immediately summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Commenting on this event the head of the ministry's information service, said: "In our opinion, the comments made on the detainment of MTF director … were an insult to the Republic of Belarus and distorted the real picture and the fight against embezzlements." According to the journalist, the Ministry's official said that the conversation had the status of an official warning. He added that if NTV did not change its attitude to covering events in Belarus, the accreditation in the country might be cancelled.

News Agencies

The government-owned Belo Russian Telegraph Agency (BELTA) was founded in January 1921. For 70 years it worked as a provincial subsidiary of the main Soviet News agency TASS. In 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union it became independent. It prepares daily 80 to 100 news items on mostly government approved information. It is mailed to and it is required publication material by the national and local newspapers, TV and radio stations. Some foreign subscribers, diplomatic missions, companies, and major Russian Internet companies are also among the subscribers. Photographs done by BELTA correspondents are sent to Poland, Germany, Rumania, and People's Republic of China. BELTA publishes a weekly information and analysis magazine Sem' dnei (Seven days) that has a circulation 100,000. Using its government status the news agency is actively involved in publishing business (books, posters, brochures, booklets). According to its official Web site, "it is ready to fulfill any printing order."

Another domestic news agency is BelaPAN. Created in 1991, it has a reputation for disseminating alternative source political, economic, and other information from Belarus. It is subject to all the restrictions imposed on media but can be considered semi-independent from the government not unlike the Interfaks agency in Russia. The company distributes its information to the subscribers and has its own correspondents in all regions of the country as well as in the neighboring states. It has an analytical service, advertisement agency, editorial office, and a sociological service, Zerkalo (Mirror). In 1999 it started publishing its own weekly Otdykhai (Have a Rest) geared at travel agencies and tourism.

Broadcast Media

Television

Belo Russian Television began in 1955. Only 4,500 people had TV-sets at that point. One channel broadcasted six hours a day. The signal reached a radius of 60 kilometers. In 2000 the First national channel broadcasted 17 hours a day in all the republic's territory. The programming included strict schedules of newscast, division of programs in three blocks (morning, afternoon, night), variety of programs, and took into consideration different categories of viewers and TV ratings.

Radio

Belo Russian Radio was inaugurated in November 1925. The broadcasts were aired in Belo Russian language with a signal range of 300 kilometers. At that time, broadcasts lasted only 30 minutes a day as compared to the early twenty-first century where it broadcasts 29 hours a day on two national channels. In June 1998 it started broadcasting into the neighboring areas of the Russian Federation and in Ukraine. Four hours a day it broadcasts abroad. The government radio station Stolitsa broadcasts 17 hours a day.

The same laws and regulations that govern the printed media apply to the Belarus Radio which is strictly controlled by the government in terms of the distribution of frequencies, equipment, and other facilities. It is considered a strategic media because the majority of the households has standard radio sets that are connected to so-called "radio lines," a practice dating back from the early Soviet times. This is especially true in the rural areas where it is common scene for the government station to be heard non-stop from the loudspeaker located at the main square.

After Belarus' independence many FM stations sprang up. The most listened to is FM station "Stolitsa" (The Capital) broadcasting almost 18 hours a day. It has what is called in the former Soviet Union, a "European" style of broadcasting that combines popular music and information segments. But it is a government property and forms part of TV and radio media holding. Radio "Belarus" also broadcasts four hours a day in Belarussian, Russian, English, and German languages.

The government claims the official radio is popular, accessible, offers a great amount of information, is fast

Belarus
and has a high content of coverage of problematic issues. But critics argue it is a spoken version of the government's printed propaganda.

Summary—Broadcast Media

The government policies regarding TV and radio broadcasts are even stricter than for printed media since no private enterprise is allowed in this type of media. Commenting during a yearly trip to the TV offices on October 12, 2001 President Lukashenko stated his criteria regarding the type of person who should lead the television company: "It would be a person, who carries out a government policy. Television is a serious force. It will never leave from out of control of the state and will never lack its support. The new head of TV without doubt will be President's man, the same way I am your man, and all of us are people of the Government."

Electronic News Media

The pioneer of the development of internet technology in Belarus—as well as in the other parts of CIS—has been the "Open Society" Institute, part of the George Soros Foundation. It distributed thousands of computers free of charge to civil society and non-government institutions in addition to subsidiaries of the official Academy of Sciences of Belarus. However, only in Belarus have drastic measures been taken by the security apparatus against its offices that were closed down in 1997 and its officials expelled. The mechanism used to evict "Open Society" represents a common pattern in dealing with independent media in both print and electronically.

There are an estimated 180,000 users of the Internet in Belarus. Almost four-fifths of them live in the capital Minsk. Users can access information on the republic from independent sources not available in printed format (the semi-clandestine National Radical Party is publishing an internet newspaper "Molot" otherwise it would not be able to disseminate its information). Some other media— both government and independent—are also present in electronic format. For example, republican, local, and commercial information newspapers: "Belorusskaia delovaia gazeta," BELTA News Agency, "Sovetskaia Belorussia." "Vecherny Gomel" (regional business paper), "Press Reklama" (newspaper with free advertising), "Gomelskie Vedomosti," free-advertising newspaper "BEKO Plus, ""DJAM" newspaper (advertising and information), "Shans" newspaper from Gomel (advertising and information), "Smorgon News" (the independent newspaper of Smorgon including local news, free classifields, and a photo gallery) and "Optovick Belorussii".

Education & TRAINING

Belorusskaia Assotsiatsiia Zhurnalistov

(Belo Russian Association of Journalists), a professional group of 800 journalists, is a special interest lobby. The Association sponsors a Law Center for Media protection. The officers and experts of the Centre have acted as defense attorneys in trials against Belarusian journalists: the case of Svaboda newspaper, closed down by authorities in November 1997; the case of Pavel Sheremet and Dmitry Zavadski, Russian ORT TV network correspondents, convicted to suspended sentence in December 1997-January 1998; the cases of administrative prosecution against journalists covering peaceful mass protest actions. Russian Tsentr ekstremal'noi zhurnalistiki (Centre for Extreme Journalism) has its office in Belarus and monitors the violation of press freedoms.

The Journalistic education in Belarus is being carried out at the Journalism Faculty of Belarus State University in Minsk. The magazine Kul'tura movy zhurnalista (The Culture of Journalists' Language) has been published since 1982. The journalists formed the Union of Journalists of Belarus to represent the government-oriented media. Before its closure by the authorities and expulsion from the republic in 1997, George Soros' Open Society Institute, made a significant contribution to the civic education of journalists through generous grants and scholarships and seminars.

Summary

The situation with the press and other media in Belarus represents a paradox. According to some observers the country in the heart of Europe is perhaps the only vestige left of the totalitarian culture that governed half of Europe for a significant part of the twentieth century. According to Belarus government it is an island where post-communist chaos, mafia, oligarchs, and other vice could not take hold. Living in isolation from Europe but trying to form a joint country with Russia Belarus severely curtailed personal freedoms and freedom of the press in the name of so-called national unity.

The government involvement in the media is unparallel even with former Soviet republics (Moldavia, Ukraine, or neighboring Russia). The independent media have to be printed in Lithuania or Ukraine. At the same time the country watches Russian TV and reads Russian newspapers. Russian is the de facto media language of the Republic.

As of 2002, it seemed certain that pressure for the liberalization of the country would continue. Internet technologies, TV broadcasts from other countries, and the support of democratic governments around the world and NGO for a constitutional opposition eventually may lead to the democratization of the country.

Significant Dates

  • 1994: A new Constitution is adopted.
  • 1994: Aleksandr Lukashenko is elected president.
  • 1995: Iosif Seredich is removed by the president from the parliamentary official newspaper Narodnaia Gazeta and he starts publishing an independent Narodnaia Volia.
  • 1996: A Treaty on the Formation of Commonwealth of Belarus and Russia is signed.
  • 1997: A Union Treaty between Belarus and Russia is signed.
  • 1997: The Council of Ministers (Government) approves a document drafted by External Affairs Ministry. It is the main code that governs foreign journalists activities in the Republic.
  • 1997: Russian National TV journalists Pavel Sheremet and IuriiZavadskii are arrested in Belarus.
  • 1997: President Lukashenko cancels his visit to Russia. President Boris Eltsyn demands: "Let him free Sheremet first."
  • 1997: Sheremet and Zavadskii are freed.
  • 2000: The Russian TV cameraman Zavadkii is abducted at Minsk national airport at Belarus capital. His colleague Cheremet arrives at the airport and finds Zavadskii's car at the place where the cameraman usually parked it. Dmitrii disappears without a trace. The arrest of the former Belarus Army Special Unit "Almaz" officer Valery Ignatovich prompts speculations about government involvement in the case.
  • 2001: The authorities close down the independent newspaper Pagonia accusing it in libel against the president. It has published a limerick about Lukashenko. All equipment and all copies of the paper are confiscated. The editor replies that during the presidential campaign the newspaper has criticized all candidates.
  • 2001: The Supreme Court of Belarussia in its closed session studies the case of disappearance of the cameraman Zavadskii.
  • 2001: Iosif Seredich is charged with dissemination of information "denigrating the authorities."
  • 2001: Non-government media journalists hold unauthorized protest against government closure of local opposition newspaper Pagonia. Passersby are offered toilet paper with printed message: "Ideal Press According to the President."
  • 2000: Grodno local newspaper Pagonia is closed down indefinitely by the decision of the court. The 14 journalists protesting the closure picket and are arrested.

Bibliography

Belarus Entsyklapedychny davednik (Belarus. Encyclopedia). Minsk: Belaruskaia entsyklopedyia, 1995.

Kanstytutsyia respubliki Belarus (Constitution of Belarus Republic). Minsk: Polymia, 1994.

Knizhnoe delo. Pressa Belarusi (Book Publishing. Belarus Press). Minsk: Natsional'naia knizhnaia palata Belarusi, 1999.

Martselov, Stanislav. Na putiakh stroitel'stva sotsializma. Pechat' Belorussii. vol. 1926-37 gg. Minsk: Izdatel'stvo Belarus, 1972.

Pechat' Belorussii v period razvitogo sotsializma (Belarus Press in the Period of Developed Socialism). Minsk: Belarus, 1982.

Respublika Belarus' v tsifrakh. Kratkii statisticheskii sbornik (Republic of Belarus in Numbers. Short Statistical Book). Minsk: Ministertsvo statistiki I analiza Respubliki Belarus, 2001.

Ugolovnyi kodeks Respubliki Belarus (Criminal Code of Belarus). Minsk: Natsional'nyi Tsentr pravovoi informatsii Respubliki Belarus, 1999.

Leonid Maximenkov



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