Wednesday, 5 February 2003

Belarus: Crossed Signals

I wrote this from Minsk for TIME magazine on 5 February 2003.

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Minsk just can't seem to make up its mind. One minute, Belarus is pushing Russian media out of its territory; the next minute, it is declaring undying love for its bigger Slav brother, hoping to join Russia in a single political entity. Often criticised for human rights abuses and interference with free speech, the Belarusian authorities are now again under fire from a wide range of critics, including Russian Democratic Party Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, for closing three Russian radio stations at the start of the year. Minsk said it would replace the closed stations — Golos Rossii, Mayak and Yunost — with domestic programming.

The authorities have also moved to cut the coverage of the Russian TV channel RTR by 30% from 1 February, and they are further demanding that all radio and TV stations re-register before this summer, which many fear is a policy aimed at reducing the number of broadcasts from Russia. Again, the desire to promote national broadcasting was given as the reason, but many have their suspicions about the government's true intentions.

Those suspicions remain because, quite simply, Russian media matter in Minsk. In the capital in particular, where there is no independent Belarusian TV station, Russian TV, rebroadcast locally, offers another voice. Around the rest of the country, there are some independent local stations, but the situation is little better, because Belarusian media are highly politicised and bitterly divided into state-run and opposition outlets (both with seemingly little regard for quality or objectivity). The relatively freer Russian media fill a serious need for an information alternative. One recent poll by the news agency BelaPAN found that most Belarusians say they rely on Russian broadcasts for their news.

But while some might simply attribute the recent closures to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's paranoia and autocratic style, the moves against Russian media are confounding many observers, because co-operation between Russia and Belarus is as close as it has been for a decade. On 20 January, Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the two agreed steps towards deeper integration, including Belarus's adoption of the Russian rouble as its national currency and a political document similar to a constitution that would beef up the current weak alliance between the two countries.

Supporters of the government in Minsk, however, deny any inconsistency in policy towards Russia; the reasons for the closures of Russian broadcasts are more mundane, they say. Apart from seeking to increase the amount of nationally produced programming, the government is concerned with simple economics, not politics, in driving the broadcast shutdowns and looming re-registration. The argument from Belarusian State Television and Radio is that retransmission of the Russian stations has acted as a burden on the already strained Belarusian state budget.

Jean MacKenzie, Belarus Director of IREX, the international media development NGO, has followed the media here in Belarus for years and thinks recent moves probably stem from a combination of both political and economic considerations. "I'd be more inclined to call it political if the licence reassignments were happening before the elections, but they're not," MacKenzie says. The local elections are in March, while the re-registration deadline is 1 June.

Still, MacKenzie points out, the way Minsk handles the upcoming re-registration issue will reveal its attitude towards a free press. "They are looking closely at everyone now for licences," she says, "and their decisions will ultimately demonstrate the extent that politics is running the game." Perhaps no one will be watching more closely than Moscow. If Belarus intends to move forward with deeper integration with Russia, then further moves to shut down Russian radio and TV broadcasts will appear to the Kremlin a rather funny way of going about it.

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