20 Years Later: Belarus
By Global Journalist Staff Posted Apr 13 2010
The government of Belarus calls itself a republic, but in practice it's a dictatorship. Since the creation of its constitution in 1994 and gaining independence from the German military, three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has firmly held power. He was elected to a five-year term but then issued a referendum in November 1996 to extend his presidency until an election in 2001. Another referendum was passed in 2004 to terminate presidential term limits, which let Lukashenko run for president again in 2006.
Lukashenko’s grip on the press reflects his political power. The government’s censorship in the printing press and restrictions for private newspapers came to an all time high in 2007, according to IPI. Existing criminal codes for journalists became more strictly enforced. Anyone who did not report the government favorably could be imprisoned for two years and independent newspapers were consequently forced underground, resembling the independent press under the Soviet Union. Foreign media outlets were hard-pressed to gain accreditation from the government and were forced to operate in the country illegally.
In the same year, Freedom House called Belarus one of “the worst press freedom abusers” out of a list of 10 countries, while the US Department of State included Belarus with 13 “countries with continually poor records on press freedom.”
The abduction and murder of cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky in 2000 set the precedent of how the government would handle cases involving violence against journalists. Zavadsky’s alleged murderers were tried in 2002 with minimal investigation and many questions left unanswered for the journalism community and Zavadsky’s family. According to a Reporters Without Borders statement to the UN, Zavadsky was once Lukashenko’s personal cameraman before he began working for the Russian network ORT, against government wishes. RWB obtained evidence linking the government to Zavadsky’s disappearance, but the evidence did not make it to court.
A glimpse of change emerged when the Belarusian government opened negotiations about Internet regulation and distribution of private newspapers with media representatives in 2008, according to RWB. But government control of the press shows no signs of change.