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Belarus27 November 2008

Amid signs of tentative liberalisation, government urged to do more and to resist temptation to control Internet

Reporters Without Borders has learned that two independent newspapers that were dropped from official distribution networks for criticising the government - the weekly Narodnaya Volya and the fortnightly Nasha Niva - yesterday signed contracts that will allow them to appear in the state postal monopoly Belpocha’s newspaper subscription catalogue and to be on sale in the state-owned Belsayuzdruk’s chain of newsstands.

At the same time, two representatives of the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ) - Zhanna Litvina and Andrei Bastunets - said they had a “constructive” meeting today for more than an hour with Usevalad Yansheuski, the head of the ideological department at the president’s office.

Even if they did not get a guarantee that the most sensitive problems would be solved, a member of the government listened to them “for the first time in 10 years” and the many questions put to them during the meeting gave them “reason to hope,” they said.

Reporters Without Borders said : “The return of these two newspapers to the official press circuit is undeniably good news and a sign of goodwill from the Belarusian authorities. But a lot remains to be done. This measure must be extended to the dozen so other newspapers that were similarly sidelined, and the question of accreditation for foreign reporters must also be solved.”

The press freedom organisation added : “We also urge the authorities not to yield to the temptation to increase surveillance of the Internet. The decisions taken in the immediate future on this matter will be decisive and will be seen as a sign of the regime’s real intentions.”

The Belarus postal service refused at the end of 2005 to include a dozen independent newspapers in its catalogue for the coming year, including Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Salidarnast and Zhoda. At the same time, the state newspaper distribution and retail monopoly Belsayuzdruk cancelled its contract with Narodnaya Volya on the ground that it published “reports contrary to the laws in force in Belarus.” It also refused to renew contracts with a dozen other independent newspapers.

The rejected newspapers included Nasha Niva, which has just signed contracts with the state postal service and the state distributor. Nasha Niva editor Andrey Dinko told Reporters Without Borders that, even if 10 contracts had to be signed to ensure sale throughout the country, the newspaper will be on sale in newsstands on 1 December. Both Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya expect a circulation increase, and if things go as well as hoped, Narodnaya Volya says it could start appearing daily.

The country’s leading opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya has also signed a contract under which it will be printed by a company in Minsk instead of in the Russian city of Smolensk, more than 200 km east of Minsk and was reportedly available today at newsstands.

This limited liberalisation is the result of both EU policy towards Belarus and a deterioration in its relations with Russia, which has led it to reorient its foreign policy and try to develop its links with the European Union. Ulazdimir Makey, the head of the president’s office, condemned Belarus’ isolation on 14 November and promised “positive changes” in the situation of the media.

On 19 November, Belarusian officials told their EU counterparts that they were ready to take account of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s recommendations on the electoral law and to grant Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva access to the state-owned printers and distributors.

The information ministry, the foreign ministry, the OSCE representative for the media and the OSCE office in Belarus meanwhile jointly organised a round table entitled “Internet media - a 21st century challenge” in Minsk on 24 November, with government representatives, journalists and Internet experts discussing the regulation of online news and information.

The government representatives said the government had to regulate the online news media but Yansheuski, the head of ideology at the president’s office, said they wanted “reasonable control and not censorship.” He acknowledged the danger of “throwing out the baby with the bath water” and said he was ready to meet media representatives on a regular basis and to examine all “reasonable” proposals.

Belarus was ranked 154th out of 173 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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