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GOVERNMENT CRACKS DOWN ON INTERNET NEWS, INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Dozens of rights groups are urging the President of Belarus not to sign in a new media law that will impose curbs on the Internet, one of the few remaining sources of independent information left in the country.

The bill, which won final approval in the lower house of Parliament on 24 June and was passed by the upper house last weekend, requires that all Internet sites originating in Belarus be registered with the government, say the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and other press freedom groups. Many independent newspapers that the authorities closed down have made a presence on the Internet.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the legislation also prohibits all local media outlets from accepting foreign funding, a restriction that will affect about 30 publications that now receive U.S. or EU money. The authorities would also have more power to close down media outlets, without having to give an explanation, says RSF.

Journalists, too, are at risk - according to news reports, they can be imprisoned for two years for reproducing foreign media reports that "discredit Belarus". Reporters who are not accredited by the government would be banned from working for foreign news media, says BAJ.

RSF and BAJ called the bill, drafted by the office of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, "repressive" and predict that censorship will be stepped up. The government argues the Internet must be reined in to protect Belarusians from the "negative effects of the Internet" and foreign propaganda.

It was also rushed through Parliament, says BAJ - the government only introduced it on 10 June, giving little chance for groups like BAJ to rally Belarusians against it.

The bill was given final approval in Parliament's lower house in a vote of 96 to 2. It now goes to the President to be signed into law.

Eight international rights organisations, including IFEX members Norwegian PEN, ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship, appealed to the President to refuse to sign the law that can "make even more restrictive what is already an unduly harsh regulatory regime for the media" in Belarus. Dozens of Belarusian news websites filled their pages with black banners and kept their blogs silent for an hour on 25 June to protest the bill, says BAJ.

The new restrictions come before parliamentary elections, which Lukashenko, dubbed Europe's last dictator, has just announced will go ahead on 28 September. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich has already said he would not take part in the elections because they were unlikely to be democratic.

Visit these links:
- Rights groups' letters to Belarusian authorities: http://tinyurl.com/52jkg4
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27550
- BAJ: http://baj.by/?newlang=eng
- OSCE media freedom representative review of draft law, including recommendations: http://www.osce.org/item/31898.html
- AP: http://tinyurl.com/6aandu
- International Media Support (IMS) Belarus page:
http://tinyurl.com/57yn4q
- Conference on democratisation of the media in Belarus: http://baj.by/m-p-viewpub-tid-1-pid-5055.html
(Image: BAJ has been asking Belarusians and the international community to speak out against the recent media crackdown in Belarus. Image courtesy of BAJ)

(2 July 2008)

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