In a drive to consolidate his rule and eradicate all sources of opposition, the authoritarian Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko waged an all-front war on the press. Lukashenko, whose ambition it is to lead a Soviet-style union with his Slavic neighbors, especially Russia, stepped up his earlier efforts to harness independent and opposition news organizations, formally institutionalizing his control over the media. On top of his systematic extra-judicial attacks and use of economic pressures against critics and independent journalists both domestic and foreign, Lukashenko pushed through an amended press law that boosted his powers and tightened his legal grip on the press.
In the weeks before the April 2 signing of an integration treaty with Russia, Lukashenko ordered a crackdown on opponents of the union as well as on media coverage of opposition rallies. His methods of intimidation included detention, arrest, beating, and harassment of correspondents attempting to cover mass protests against the union treaty in mid-March and early April in Minsk.
The first quarter of the year also featured Lukashenko's renewed attempts to silence critical coverage by foreign news organizations, notably Russian television. Because of the limited reach of domestic opposition and independent news media, the Russian television companies ORT, NTV, and RTR had become the only alternative to state television for most Belarusians. Lukashenko grew progressively angrier at critical coverage by the Russian news programs and their Minsk-based correspondents, whom he accused of biased reporting intended to subvert his regime and its fraternal relationship with Russia. Throughout the year, the Belarusian government hit Russian correspondents with a variety of reprisals for these imagined slights, including disaccreditation, arrest, and expulsion.
Lukashenko moved to introduce new media restrictions, aimed in particular at foreign news media. After briefly barring all foreign television companies from the state satellite transmission center in late March, the administration announced new rules for access to the center, requiring among other things, prior censorship of all broadcast materials and the presence of a censor during transmission. Authorities also announced plans to review the credentials of all foreign correspondents in the country and repeatedly threatened to withdraw the press credentials of foreign and local reporters if their work was deemed harmful to state interests.
The president also took measures to further restrict the beleaguered domestic private press, especially newspapers that were forced to publish in neighboring Lithuania because the state-controlled publishing house refused to publish them. On March 18, the Council of Ministers issued a decree restricting the import and distribution of any printed material that could be construed as "a threat to national security, the rights and freedoms of individuals, health and morale of the population, and environment." The measure also banned the import of audiovisual or printing equipment, as well as other instruments "that contain information," which could "represent a threat to the country's political and economic interests."
On April 3, Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich criticized journalists and foreign news outlets for allegedly "leading an information war against Belarus" and blamed them for causing public unrest. He said the government could not guarantee their safety if they continued to cover unsanctioned public demonstrations. He added that new rules could bar Belarusian citizens from working as correspondents for foreign news agencies, which would deprive a large number of Belarusian journalists from their chief source of livelihood.
The government announced on July 12 that it would begin a two-month process of re-accrediting all foreign media, as it had threatened to do several months before. Government Resolution 869 barred Belarusian journalists from obtaining accreditation as correspondents for foreign media outlets. The Foreign Ministry could unilaterally withdraw accreditation and expel any journalist or news organization it deemed to be biased, according to the measure.
The lower house of the parliament on October 15 adopted several potentially restrictive draft amendments to the country's press law. The amendments, which were an attempt to codify the March 18 decree, provided for considerably more intervention by the executive branch's State Press Committee and established heavy penalities for libel, especially regarding the president. The changes also threatened small publishers with stringent economic and administrative restrictions.
On October 29 hours after Lukashenko promised press freedom advocates that he would take their concerns about the amendments into consideration – the upper chamber surprised many by refusing to confirm the amendments, and sent them back to the lower house. A visiting delegation from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) had presented Lukashenko with a petition from the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Belarusian Union of Journalists asking him to refrain from signing the restrictive measures into law. Lukashenko's response to the Western visitors, albeit cosmetic, was unprecedented.
The lower and upper chambers of the parliament, on December 17 and 20 respectively, gave their final approval to the restrictive press law amendments. The changes, which had not yet been signed into law by President Lukashenko, varied somewhat from the original draft, but still greatly boosted the executive branch's powers to interfere with and control the media.
On November 24, the Supreme Commercial Court ruled to shut down Svaboda, one of the country's largest and most popular independent newspapers. Its staff continued to publish the paper on its Web site, until its Web provider cut off service. Radio Liberty posted the paper on its Web site.
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