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Belarus12 September 2008

Media slammed for deep flaws in coverage ahead of legislative elections

Reporters Without Borders today voiced its concern at poor quality media coverage of forthcoming legislative elections in Belarus, at a time when the European Union has made possible lifting of sanctions against Minsk conditional on the elections being run satisfactorily.

A study carried out ahead of the 28 September poll by the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), a partner of the worldwide press freedom organisation, showed that the public media was paying little attention to the election itself and even less to the programmes of the different candidates.

The absence from the campaign of reform proposals in the media has deprived people of any real chance of informing themselves and of voting effectively.

“This election is an opportunity for the authorities to normalise relations that Belarus has with the international community. Unfortunately it seems the leaders are not ready to take advantage of it and that the regime’s grip on public life is continuing”, Reporters Without Borders said.

“The state-run media do not allow opposition candidates to get their message across and scandalously back the current government”, it said.

The BAJ presented the conclusions of the fifth part of its analysis of media coverage of the legislative elections on 5 September 2008 , covering the period 23 August to 5 September, when the campaign picked up with candidates beginning to be heard on radio and television.

Despite this development, the main public media did not give any more coverage to the poll or the campaign. They concentrated on technical aspects of polling, focusing for example on a description of the work of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). Belarus state radio rejected a suggestion from the opposition United Civil Party that it hold a debate between candidates.

Of those involved in the election, President Alexander Lukashenko, the CEC, local authorities and foreign observers are those most often quoted. The newspapers Sovietskaya Belorussiya, Belarus Sevodnia and Respublika did not quote a single party apart from the one in power during the period studied.

The BAJ also stressed that the time slot given to official advertising and speeches by candidates on television - from 5.30pm to 6.30pm in Minsk and the big cities - would deprive the urban electorate from getting information about different political policies because of their hours of work.

Any special programmes on the election, such as on the regional radio and television in Homiel, 300 kilometres south of Minsk, or the LAD channel, looked at the work of the current deputies and the good results they had achieved.

The campaign has been marked by several negative incidents. The human rights organisation Charter97 (www.charter97), said that a speech made by an opposition candidate on regional television in Vitebsk, north-eastern Belarus on 5 September was broadcast without the sound, while the speeches of candidates aired before and afterwards were broadcast normally. The previous evening, another opposition candidate, Viktor Harbachou, had his speech put out 15 minutes earlier than scheduled, depriving his supporters of the chance to listen to it. Yet another opposition candidate, Konstantin Zhukowski of the Christian Democrat party was arrested on 9 September, while recording his address at Homiel radio and television after the director general called the police when he found that members of the candidate’s election team had recorded his speech with their own equipment for fear of censorship.

Belarus is a former Soviet republic, which has been ruled with an iron hand since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko. Since his re-election in 2006, with more than 80% of the vote, after a poll condemned as a “farce” by a large number of foreign observers, he and nearly 40 officials have been banned from entering EU territory. His assets have been frozen in the US and Europe. Under international pressure, the regime this year released several political prisoners, including former presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin, who was arrested in March 2006 during a demonstration in protest at the results of the poll and sentenced to five and half years in prison.

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