Media freedom in Belarus, U.S.

By Alyaksandr Yanusik
Special to The Star

The contract-style killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow on Oct. 7 sent shockwaves throughout the international community, and it was considered a personal tragedy in neighboring Belarus.

Like Russia, this former Soviet republic has its own record of unsolved murders of journalists. Oct. 20 marked the second anniversary of the killing of Veranika Charkasava, a staff writer with the independent Belarusian newspaper Salidarnasts. She was found dead in her Minsk apartment with 40 stab wounds.

Charkasava contributed to a variety of Belarusian and Russian periodicals, often criticizing the government's position. Shortly before her death she collected information on Infobank, accused by the U.S. government of laundering money from illegal weapons sales to Iraq.

Her death - and a growing government hostility towards a free press - can be put into some perspective by a study released Tuesday. Every year, Reporters Without Borders presents the Worldwide Press Index ranking how a free press fares around the world.

The United States has fallen nine places, to 53rd, since last year in the Worldwide Press Index released by Reporters Without Borders. The country held the 17th spot in 2002.

"Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of 'national security' to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his 'war on terrorism.' The zeal of federal courts which, unlike those in 33 U.S. states, refuse to recognize the media's right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism," the international media freedom watchdog said.

The index ranked Belarus 151st and Russia 147th.

Denmark (19th) dropped from a share of first place because of serious threats against the artists of the Mohammed cartoons published there in the fall of 2005.

The first 15 countries in the index are members of the European Union, except for Norway (sixth) and Switzerland (eighth), and most of the leaders are still northern European states.

The RSF compiled the index by asking the 14 freedom-of-expression organizations that are its partners worldwide, its network of 130 correspondents, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 50 questions about press freedom. The index covers 168 nations.

Among the countries receiving the lowest rankings are scores of killings and other forms of harassment that suppress the free exchange of information.

On Oct. 18, 2005, Vasil Hrodnikaw, of the Belarusian independent daily Narodnaya Volya, was found dead in his apartment outside Minsk with mysterious head injuries. He had been investigating gangs involved in swindling elderly apartment tenants. Investigators said the death was accidental.

The inquiry into the July 2000 disappearance of Belarusian cameraman Dmitri Zavadski, of the Russian TV station ORT, possibly involving top government officials, has not made recent progress. Investigations conducted by journalists, human rights groups and international organizations such as the Council of Europe have implicated senior Belarusian officials in the disappearances of the cameraman, two opposition figures and a businessman in 1999 and 2000.

Physical elimination is just one of a range of tools, others being criminal prosecution, libel suits, the denial of access to printing plants and distribution networks.

The Belarusian government retains control of the broadcast media, printing plants, and newspaper distribution networks using its monopoly to limit public access to information from independent sources during major election campaigns.

Several months before the 2006 presidential election, 14 pro-opposition and independent newspapers were denied services by Belposhta, a national postal service that distributes newspapers by subscription, and Belsayuzdruk, a state monopoly operating the nation's only chain of newsstands and newspaper kiosks. Tight licensing requirements prevent private periodicals from establishing distribution systems.

Belarus, a country of about 10 million, has 11 local and five national private newspapers covering politics, economy and society. Due to the combination of restrictions, none of these periodicals is able to inform its readers of what happened on the previous day. The papers' circulation shrunk sharply in the last few years because of the printing and distribution problems.

The largest pro-opposition national newspaper, the Narodnaya Volya, is printed in the Russian city of Smolensk and has had its print run decreased from 30,000 of 11,000 copies after it was banished from the state distribution system at the end of 2005. On the other side of the fence, the biggest state-owned newspaper, the Sovetskaya Belorussiya, saw its daily sales increase to more than 500,000 copies. Government-controlled newspapers enjoy considerable subsidies and financial privileges. Civil servants, teachers, doctors and other state-funded sector employees often are forced to subscribe to state-owned newspapers although they may not like them.

Only three independent newspapers still have access to the nationwide distribution system; others, like the BDG Delovaya Gazeta, stopped publishing print versions and went online or are heavily reliant on financial assistance from political groups (the Narodnaya Volya) and donors (the Nasha Niva).

President Lukashenka was declared to have won a third term at elections in March following a vote which Western observers said was fundamentally flawed. They reported widespread harassment of opposition supporters and overwhelming media bias. Official results indicated that Lukashenka had won 83 percent of the vote.

A former state farm director, he was first elected in 1994 on an anti-corruption ticket in a free and fair race. Televised debates played a crucial role in his victory over his main rival Vyacheslaw Kebich, who was prime minister at the time. He also took advantage of the press, which enjoyed considerable freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Before and immediately after the 1994 presidential race Lukashenka pledged to safeguard media freedom. A few months after he was elected newspapers ran blank spaces instead of columns removed by censors. The Lukashenka government dismissed the editors of the Sovetskaya Belorussiya and the Narodnaya Volya and closed critical radio and television stations. Attacks on the press went on for years.

As more people, especially the younger generation, look for news from alternative sources online, Belarusian journalists fear that the authorities' next move will be to establish control over Internet news outlets by making them subject to the Ministry of Information.

It is natural for Lukashenka to strong-arm leaders to hide things under the carpet, just as it is natural for the public to seek the truth.

Belarusian independent journalists view the United States as a high standard of democracy and freedom. It is important to remember that setbacks for media freedom in the United States have a negative impact on countries like Belarus.

Alyaksandr Yanusik is a Belarusian journalist spending two weeks in The Star's newsroom.