Belarus slides further into dictatorship, as reforms lag under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a former communist bureaucrat. The president tightened the gag on the media when he insisted on holding a public referendum Nov. 24 on conflicting new drafts of the constitution, despite resistance from the legislative and judicial branches. In the run-up to the referendum, state-owned broadcasters carried reports largely flattering to Lukashenka, barred the parliamentary opposition from getting any air time, and remained silent about large protest rallies and police violence. Local independent news organizations and the foreign media, which did cover the opposition, were repeatedly accused by the president and other top officials of nonobjectivity.
The Lukashenka government employed a variety of repressive methods from the Soviet past to control the media, such as banning or blocking broadcasts, denouncing out-of-favor journalists on national television, forcibly appointing government loyalists to state-owned media, and threatening to expel noncompliant foreign reporters. Just as in the Soviet era, the Belarusian public often relied on foreign broadcasters to learn about events in its own country. Some journalists, such as Svetlana Alexeyich, a frequent contributor to Russias Izvestiya and a frequent target of officially supported libel suits in Belarus, were compelled to publish abroad.
Throughout the year, spurious tax inspections and nuisance lawsuits under vaguely worded press laws that punish libel, insult of the head of state, incitement of social intolerance, and undermining of national security plagued a dozen opposition newspapers. They were fined thousands of dollars for alleged violations of tax regulations, and were prevented from mailing copies to subscribers, or sometimes from publishing at all in Belarus. Resourceful editors found printers in the neighboring Baltic countries and quietly brought their press runs back to Belarus, but risked detention and confiscations at the border.
In August, the government shut down the only independent radio station. Speaking in Parliament, on television, and elsewhere, the president lambasted the Russian television stations ORT, NTV, and RTR for covering public controversies. On Nov. 19, Lukashenka issued a decree cutting off ORT and NTVs communication lines to Belarus, but revoked the decision after the Russian government objected. During the week of the referendum, electronic mail to and from Belarus was blocked, and the independent Web site www.belarus.net, which carries the on-line version of the daily Vecherniy Minsk and other information, reported that an unidentified hacker had damaged its server on Nov. 22. In December, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry again threatened that foreign journalists who distort reality would lose accreditation, and the Belarusian Security Council accused the Russian media of inciting political tension in society.
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