Press Conference of Belarusian Journalists in Brussels

As part of a visit to Brussels organised by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), representatives of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) held a press conference on the media situation in Belarus.

In her address to the Brussels audience, BAJ Chairwoman Zhanna Litvina spoke about the main challenges facing Belarus’ media community. ‘Belarus is in a state of perpetual anticipation of a change’, ironically remarked Ms Litvina. Changes that were anticipated in the wake of the last parliamentary elections did not materialise. However, the recent decision of the European Union to re-establish contact with the Belarusian authorities following the release of the political prisoners, which was one of the preconditions for ending the international isolation of Belarus, may serve as an impetus for Lukashenka and his associates to loosen their grip on the country. While in the last decade almost all the independent media have been forced out of business, last week’s decision to lift a ban on the publishing of two newspapers, namely Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva, provides some ground for hope. Nonetheless, the majority of independent media outlets remain banned, and Ms Litvina admits that ‘there are no illusions about the possibility of a profound change taking place in Belarus in the near future’.

The second problem mentioned by Ms Litvina concerns access to information. The BAJ Charwoman explained that it is practically impossible to acquire credible information from the authorities, as no state official could ever give an interview without permission from the above. The authorities continue their campaign against the independent media also by denying accreditation to journalists, particularly working for media outlets based abroad.

The third set of problems is related to the legislation affecting mass media. It was noted that the new media law hastily passed by the newly elected parliament would significantly worsen the situation in the media sector. In September 2008, the State Security Committee (KGB) has already initiated criminal cases against several publications and media products that have been accused of propagating ‘extremist ideas’. The government has already placed a ban on a number of media products claiming they bore the signs of ‘extremist character’. These included DVDs of the ‘Solidarity with Belarus’ concert that took place in Warsaw (Poland) in 2006 and a documentary film of a Polish filmmaker Miroslaw Dembinski, ‘A Lesson of Belarusian’.  

BAJ Deputy Chairman Andrei Bastunets further elucidated the situation with the legislation on the media. He explained that the 2006 amendments to the Criminal Code setting punishment for defamation of the state (Belarus) supplemented the already existing articles providing for a criminal sentence for defamation of President and state officials. Mr. Bastunets also told the audience about the government’s attempt to suppress independent media by requiring official registration with the authorities of all internet publications that constitute the main independent source of information in the country.

Mr Bastunets mentioned some improvements in the media sector. These include a round table discussion organised by the OSCE and the Ministry of Information, which is normally reluctant to take part in this sort of events, and the suspension of criminal cases against several publications. He however agreed with Ms Litvina that there should be no unrealistic expectations about possible changes.

All the participants of the press conference stressed that it was important that the EU continues applying a strict positive conditionality approach in its dealings with Belarus. However, it is vital that the Belarusian authorities genuinely fulfil the commitments they undertake in the framework of an EU-Belarus dialogue. They also underscored the importance of engaging the country’s democratic forces into this dialogue, which, in their opinion, could not be productive in the absence of freedom of expression and speech.

On 2 December 2008, representatives of the BAJ also took part in a Public Hearing ‘Belarus: When Journalists Challenge Media Laws’ held in the European Parliament under the chairmanship of Mr. Jacek Protasiewicz, MEP, Head of the EP-Belarus delegation. 

ODB Press Service