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Perspectives

December 9, 2008
Belarus extends press freedoms to independent media

  

The Web site of independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva.

The government of Belarus agreed to nationally distribute two independent newspapers that had previously been dropped from circulation after criticizing the government, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Reporters Without Borders sees the move as “tentative sign of liberalism” on the part of the government. Previously, the organization ranked Belarus 154th out of 173 countries in terms of press freedom this year.

In the past, the government has funneled money to state-run media, like the government daily Sovetskaya Belorussiya, while opposition and independent media outlets have been forced to pay fees, close down or publish abroad.

Andrei Khrapavitski is a student in Lithuania and the editor-in-chief of Westki.info, a citizen journalism project for northwestern Belarus and Vilnius. He writes at the “Belarusan American” blog about the reasons for shifts in the country’s media industry.

How to tame a Belarusian wolf?

The big news of the past few weeks was the return of two Belarusian independent newspapers to the state-run system of distribution (newsstands and subscription catalogs). The Belarusian regime, pressured by the West, disagreements with Kremlin, and the grim economic data, has made a half-step towards what we might consider liberalization. But how far is the Belarusian regime ready to let in, and how determined is the West to keep the pressure on?

Until recently, nearly all Belarusian independent newspapers daring to touch political topics had been deprived of a possibility to be distributed through a state-controlled network of newsstands. Belarusians had not had a possibility to subscribe to independent newspapers through the state monopoly distributor Belposhta.

About three weeks ago, the state ruled to allow two newspapers – Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya – to return to the state-run distribution system. The editors say that the regime did not ask for anything in return. There were no political demands. However, the contracts the editors signed with the state monopolies Belposhta, Belsayuzpechat left the editors unsure of the longevity of this meltdown. The contracts can be canceled at any point; monopolies also rip off two newspapers economically. The distribution terms are absolutely unfair if compared to the terms according to which these companies distribute the state-run press.

It is also important to ask the authorities why they ushered in just two newspapers. How about the rest? How about the regional independent newspapers which were stronger and more popular than the state-run local newspapers? Letting in just two and filtering others is a vivid example of the Belarusian authoritarianism – the president ordered, the bureaucrats fulfilled. Forget about the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances… The decision-making is unilateral, one-sided, uncontrolled and unquestioned.

Of course, it is great this half-step was made. I am very glad for my colleagues. However, I think it is important to keep the pressure on the Belarusian government so as to push it to make further steps forward. Let us not forget the repressive media law we have in Belarus. Let us not forget it was even toughened recently. The Internet media are gonna be in trouble after the new repressive amendments take effect this January.

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