Free Belarussian media eye EU, US support


The bold Cyrillic letters of the Belsat TV logo and journalists freely debating fresh EU and US sanctions against Belarus strongman President Alexander Lukashenko in their native Belarussian set this newsroom apart.

"We're the only Belarussian-language TV station in the world broadcasting into Belarus which is not controlled by Lukashenko or Russia," explains Belsat TV programme director Sairhei Pelesa at the station's headquarters in the Polish capital Warsaw.

"Our people working inside Belarus challenge his regime everyday," says Pelesa, a Belarussian exile living in Poland since 2000.

Dozens of Belsat journalists in Belarus are regularly subject to police harassment, having their cameras and computers confiscated or destroyed and all have been flatly refused official accreditation, he adds.

Funded by Poland, Belsat TV is one of a handful of independent Belarussian media beaming uncensored news into Belarus where the authoritarian Lukashenko keeps a stranglehold on the domestic media.

Pelesa is hoping that a fundraising conference today in Warsaw and dubbed "Solidarity with Belarus" will bring fresh support from the 27 EU states as well as the US and others to expand free media activity in his homeland.

"Support for existing project would be the most effective, and it would work well to link the existing free media in a new umbrella web portal," he says.

The fundraising drive spearheaded by Poland comes on the heels of travel bans and asset freezes imposed Monday by the EU and US on Lukashenko and dozens of associates as punishment for his brutal December 19 crackdown against opposition figures protesting what they called his fraudulent re-election.

According to Polish foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki, the donors' meeting is also "being organised in response to the largest wave of repression against the opposition in Belarussian history which began... after the election was falsified by Lukashenko."

Once dubbed Europe's last dictator by Washington, Lukashenko began his fourth term as president on January 21.

Using what analysts in Warsaw describe as a cunning strategy of playing Russia and the West off against each other, Lukashenko has managed to keep an iron grip on power in the ex-Soviet republic since 1994.

This year, Poland has earmarked 40mn zloty ($14mn) in support of independent Belarussian media and civil society groups.

Aside from Belsat, Poland also hosts and funds three Belarussian-language radio stations.

Radio Svaboda is another such broadcaster, based in the Czech capital Prague and financed by the US through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The tiny ex-Soviet Baltic state of Estonia has vowed to lend its IT expertise to help exiled Belarussians oppose Lukashenko's authoritarian regime in cyberspace. A Belarussian-language Internet TV website based in Estonia went online last year.

Attesting to the grave risks free media face in Belarus, head of the Prague-based Radio Svaboda Alexander Lukashuk alleges his correspondents were beaten while covering the disputed December 19 elections in Minsk.

"Our video journalist was shoved by police and his camera was broken. Our photo journalist was beaten by the deputy chief of the Minsk police," Lukashuk said.

Radio Svaboda colleague Sergei Naumchik, a former Belarussian member of parliament who had to flee his homeland in 1996 after participating in an anti-Lukashenko hunger strike, has no doubt about what the Belarussian leader responds to.

"Lukashenko is afraid of strength. That's the only thing he's afraid of. He sees all compromises as a show of weakness," says Naumchik.


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