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Belarus10 July 2003

Government bans Russian TV station and restricts media aid organisation

Reporters Without Borders today denounced the banning by Belarus authorities of the Russian TV station NTV and restrictions placed on a US media aid organisation as "new dagger blows to press freedom" in the former Soviet republic.

The NTV office was shut down on 8 July for allegedly slandering the government. Pavel Selin, its correspondent in the Belarus capital, Minsk, had been deported on 28 June for "biased" coverage of the funeral of writer Vasil Bykov, an opponent of President Alexander Lukasheko. The foreign ministry had warned the station it would be banned from working in Belarus if it did not apologise on the air for the coverage.

The foreign ministry refused on 7 July to renew the accreditation of Robert Ortega, head of the Minsk office of the US International Research and Exchange Board (IREX-Promedia), which organises training seminars for journalists, provides free access to the Internet, hosts the websites of about 30 independent newspapers and makes extensive photo and written archives available to the media.

IREX was accused of "irregular" activities and if its appeal to the country’s Supreme Economic Court is rejected, will have to shut down its operations on 7 August. Ortega has accused the government of making a political decision as part of persistent efforts to curb the independent media.

"The banning of NTV will prevent one of the few non-official broadcasting media easily accessible to the public from reporting on events in Belarus," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "Closing down IREX will cut Belarus journalists off from valuable sources of information and independent media may no longer be able to have websites."

"Since the beginning of the year, the authorities have stepped up their campaign to silence the independent media, put pressure on the foreign media and obstruct the work of organisations that encourage media diversity. The latest developments are new dagger blows to press freedom. The situation is getting worse and worse," Ménard said.

The foreign ministry asked Selin on 27 June to explain his 25 June report on the Bykov funeral, in which he said police deliberately obstructed the 20,000-strong funeral procession and that Bykov’s widow had had her permit to live in Minsk cancelled. The report also highlighted the presence of the red and white Belarus flag seen at the time of independence but since banned and now a symbol of resistance to the regime.

Selin said the authorities had also accused him of broadcasting an interview with opposition figure Stanislav Shushkevich, who was Belarus’ first post-independence leader, who said Lukashenko was "afraid to attend the funeral."




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