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FREE EXPRESSION DETERIORATING IN BELARUS, MISSION FINDS

The government of Belarus has failed to make progress in improving free expression conditions over the past two and a half years, even further stifling journalists and writers, Norwegian PEN and the International Publishers Association (IPA) found on a mission to the country last month. And the European Union should not engage with Belarus until improvements have been made, the mission report says.

For the second time in three years, Norwegian PEN went on a fact-finding mission to Minsk and Hrodna (300 km west of Minsk) from 14 to 18 November, this time with IPA and the Norwegian Union of Journalists. "The lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Belarusian authorities at the initiative of President Alexander Lukashenko have sought to further stifle freedom of expression in the country," says Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN.

Iverson was referring to President Lukashenko's continued control of the media through administrative tactics, which ensures that "the view of the opposition never gets across to the majority of the people." Defamation laws have been adopted without debate. All media outlets and organisations must register with their local authority, and registration can be denied or recalled at any time. The government also controls the distribution of books and newspapers through state bookstores and kiosks and a national subscription system. Book publishers must go through an arbitrary publishing licence system - owned and operated by the government.

The mission found that the independent press in Belarus also faces fines for critical journalism, lack of state advertisements and restrictions on access to information. Meanwhile, Belarusian language and culture, deemed to be the "language of the opposition", is severely restricted.

The mission members are demanding that the European Union not engage in the European Neighbourhood Policy with Belarus until the country has made progress in the freedom of expression and freedom to publish fields.

Specifically, Norwegian PEN and IPA recommend that the Belarusian authorities repeal all criminal defamation laws, abolish arbitrary registration, distribution and licensing systems, and open spaces for public debates before pushing through excessive legislative changes.

These recommendations and others are detailed in the mission report, "Freedom of Expression in Belarus", available here:
- Norwegian PEN: http://tinyurl.com/22bf2d
- IPA: http://tinyurl.com/2fa396
(11 December 2007)

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