The House of Representatives of Belarus approved in the final reading on October 15 changes to the law on the mass media. The move institutes nearly complete state control over the media. "Impugning the honor of the president" and "disseminating, importing, or exporting information harmful to the political and economic interests of the state" are declared to be penal offenses. The State Press Committee and territorial administrations are empowered to make determinations of noncompliance with the law and to hand down penalties, including suspension or indefinite banning of media outlets. Publishers of banned publications may not start another publication for two years. The Press Committee thereby assumes court functions. Publications with a print run of under 500 copies, together with electronic publications, which had been exempt from restrictions contained in the previous law, now lose that exemption. The rules for accrediting foreign correspondents and local stringers of foreign media are rendered more restrictive.
Under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the state was already exercising a virtual monopoly over radio and television while barely tolerating a few independent periodicals. Several small opposition periodicals have survived only by being printed in neighboring Lithuania and Poland and brought from there into Belarus. The changes to the law target that small remaining free sector of the press and also the growing Internet market; they can now be "legally" suppressed. The independent Association of Belarusan Journalists, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Moscow-based Glasnost Foundation all issued protests statements yesterday. (Belapan, October 15; Russian agencies, CPJ press release, October 16)
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