Fair elections need a free press: the Belarus experience

2 October 2008 – Ten days after President Lukashenko’s supporters won a clean sweep of 110 seats in flawed parliamentary elections, members of the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ) are visiting Britain to explain what it is like to operate under the baleful eye of the KGB.

State security services still keep a close watch on everything that happens in Belarus, especially the activities of the few remaining independent publications which must now submit to new controls and media laws that make it even easier to wipe out opposition voices. Journalists attempting to provide fair and accurate coverage of almost all aspect of politics, social and cultural, life and culture are continuously frustrated. BAJ members have been harassed, arrested, ‘disappeared’ and killed.

BAJ monitored media coverage of the election, reporting that the monopolistic state media gravely distorted the information available to voters.

Over a two week period one local radio station failed to mention a single parliamentary candidate, allowing airtime only to the President. In another town the successful candidate had refused to answer questions from an independent newspaper, but gave an interview to its state-owned rival. “The interview will contain answers to the voters’ most urgent questions,” his agent said.

Small wonder that, despite the pre-election release of opposition leaders from gaol, not a single seat was won by the 90 opposition candidates.

Perhaps best remembered as the country that bore the brunt of fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster, Belarus was lumped together with Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe as an ‘outpost of tyranny’ by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Earlier this year President Lukashenka hired Lord Bell of Bell Pottinger (slogan ‘Better Reputations’) to improve his image. However this week the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe announced: “The media environment (in Belarus) continues to be constrained by the lack of media that provide alternative views and opinions. The media coverage of the (recent Parliamentary) campaign was not sufficient to enable voters to gain meaningful information about candidates in order to make an informed choice during elections.” **

The BAJ delegation will be led by former radio journalist Zhanna Litvina, who is to receive the 2008 Ebert Foundation Human Rights Award for her work as chair of BAJ. She will be addressing the Exiled Journalists’ Network’s 2008 Press Freedom Forum on ‘Censorship, State Restrictions and Democracy in Belarus’ on Wednesday 8 October (10:00-12:00, Committee Room 2, House of Lords).

Other speakers include Lord Andrew McIntosh, Council of Europe Rapporteur on Media Freedom and Aliaksej Karol, Editor of Novy Chas (New Times) one of the few surviving independent national papers.

A discussion on Human Rights in Belarus, originally schedule for the Frontline Club, will now take place at NUJ HQ, Headland House, in Grays Inn Road at 6pm on Thurs 9 Oct.

Having worked with BAJ over the last two years, and been barred from Belarus as a consequence, I am pleased to associate MediaWise with this initiative by the Exiled Journalists’ Network and to urge journalists everywhere to give support the work of those colleagues who are keeping alive the spirit of responsible journalism.

Mike Jempson
Director, The MediaWise Trust

To interview BAJ members call Forward Maisokwadzo on 0845 002 0167 or to book your place, email pfh@mediawise.org.uk

* http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4187361.stm

**Preliminary findings of OSCE Election Observation Mission


(Bulletin No 151)

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