Parliamentary Assembly

Persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus

Doc. 10165
28 April 2004

Committee On Culture, Science And Education
Rapporteur: Mrs Christine Muttonen, Austria, Socialist Group

I.          Conclusions

The Committee on Culture, Science and Education fully supports the evaluation of the media situation in Belarus given by the Political Affairs Committee in the report on the “Persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus” and, in particular, in paragraph 10 of the draft resolution.

Amendments to the draft Resolution:

Amendments to the draft recommendation:

At the end of the recommendation, insert a new sub-paragraph 3 reading as follows: “encourage member states to provide objective and impartial broadcasting programmes and print and Internet publications aimed specifically at the Belarusian public”.

II.         Explanatory memorandum

The Committee on Culture, Science and Education itself has repeatedly condemned the systematic harassment of independent media and journalists in Belarus: in its report on “Media and democratic culture” in 1999 (Doc. 8355), on “Freedom of expression and information in the media in Europe” (Doc. 9000, Assembly Recommendation 1506 (2001), and on “Freedom of expression in the media in Europe” (Doc. 9640 rev., Assembly Recommendation 1589 (2003).

Furthermore,  in January 2002 the Committee held a hearing in Strasbourg on the situation of the media in Belarus, with the participation of the then Minister of Information of Belarus Mr Mikhail Padhayny, representatives of the Belarus Association of Journalists, members of Parliament, representatives of the non-parliamentary opposition, journalists and NGOs (see appendix). The Minister made an official commitment to send a draft media law to the Council of Europe for examination. In June 2002, the Minister wrote to the Chairman of the Committee, Mr de Puig, to ensure him that the draft would be submitted following parliamentary hearings in the autumn. Despite these promises no text has yet reached the Council of Europe.

Further specific criticism has come from the General Rapporteur on the Media Mr Paschal Mooney who, in June 2003, strongly protested against the suspension of two independent newspapers in Belarus, Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta (BDG) and BDG-For Internal Use Only.

The initial Rapporteur for opinion of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education Mr Mihai Baciu, who accompanied the Rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee to Belarus in December 2003, is no longer a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. It has therefore been impossible to prepare this opinion on the basis of personal impressions. It is based on the extensive material on press freedom violations in Belarus which the Committee has gathered over the last years.

The outstanding evidence is that nothing in the media situation in Belarus has improved since Recommendation 1506 stated in April 2001 that “Belarus remains the country where the deeds of the authorities most blatantly go against the values and principles in the media field defended by the Council of Europe”. All the developments confirm that the Belarus authorities are not simply unable, but rather are unwilling to change the situation. Strict control of the media and repression against critical opinions are typical features and one of the main foundations of a dictatorship. The example of the Soviet Union “glasnost” must still be fresh in President Lukashenko’s mind.

This is why the Rapporteur doubts that the recommendations to the Belarus authorities contained in the draft Resolution, relevant as they are, will have any effect while the present regime is in place. However, they are useful as a check list against which any performances should be weighed. They can also serve as a European reference for those in Belarus who are fighting, often at the risk of losing their jobs and even their freedom, in order to bring more democracy to the country. They should therefore be supported by the Assembly.

In order to make the Recommendation as comprehensive as possible, certain elements should be added:

Belarus is one of the very few countries in Europe where journalists can be sent to labour camps for criticising state officials. This is what happened to Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika, respectively editor-in-chief and reporter at the Hrodno-based independent weekly Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevich, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Rabochy. They received prison sentences for libelling President Aleksandr Lukashenko and purged part of their sentences doing forced labour. They were subsequently freed, but articles 367, 368 and 369 of the Criminal Code still provide for imprisonment for insult and defamation of the President and state officials. More recently the opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko, chairman of the United Civic Party in Belarus was charged with defaming President Lukashenko in an interview on the Russian state television network Rossiya. The deputy editor of BDG Irina Khalip is also under criminal prosecution for allegedly libelling the Prosecutor General Viktor Sheiman.

The report rightly states that the legal basis for the harassment of independent-minded media is a requirement for print media to receive a state licence. However, critical outlets are systematically intimidated and their functioning could be at the mercy of tax and fire inspectors or road police. The most recent example of the latter was the harassment of the independent newspaper “Djen” published currently by Mr Markevich. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), a housing administrative office in Grodno accused the organisation that hosts the Den team of illegally sub-letting to the newspaper and ordered them to vacate their offices before 15 May. The total print-run of 4800 copies of the newspaper was confiscated by the Road Traffic Service.

Independent newspapers are also systematically refused the services of printing houses and distribution agencies. They have to compete with the state press in unequal economic conditions. Most recently, for instance, pressure was put on local businesses to subscribe to at least 3 government press publications.

The efforts of the international community should be focused in three directions:

1) finding ways and appropriate funding to ensure that the citizens of Belarus receive as much independent and comprehensive information about national and international affairs as possible. This should include financial support for print publications and broadcasting and also using fully the possibilities of modern technologies, such as satellite and Internet.

According to a recent poll conducted by the independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (NIISEPI) in March only 4.4% of respondents say their main source of information is Internet. Harassment against Internet publications has also been reported (according to RSF journalist and human rights activist Natalya Kaliada was fined in February for writing articles for the site run by Charter 97, a human rights organisation that is not recognised by the authorities). Nevertheless, Internet could be a valuable source of independent information and is an avenue which should be better explored

As far as radio and television is concerned, there are reports that the authorities are trying to substitute with Belarusian, state-controlled programmes even the Russian channels (themselves state-controlled) which are popular amongst the audience. More blatantly, in June 2003, after the Russian channel NTV broadcast a report on the burial of the writer Vasil Bykau, its correspondent Pavel Selin was stripped of accreditation by the Belarus Foreign Ministry and deported from Belarus and in July 2003 the NTV office in Belarus was closed. It was re-opened only in February 2004.

BAJ reported recently that the Belarusian Ministry of Information has put in force a new directive “On the distribution of periodicals registered outside the territory of the Republic of Belarus” prescribing a stricter control over the distribution of foreign media.

Broadcasting specialised programmes in Russian and Belarusian from neighbouring countries and by major international broadcasters such as the BBC and Deutsche Welle is an avenue which should be better explored.

2) develop to the maximum assistance programmes for journalists, judges involved in media legislation and political activists. It is important that these take a forward-looking approach, drawing on the experience of other East-European countries. Democratisation in Eastern Europe in many instances has been hampered by the fact that the media, while preaching independence and free speech, have simply changed one master for another and have became a battlefield for the expression of different political ideologies. The prevailing mentality must be changed and better understanding developed of democratic standards in the media field. This in turn would lower tolerance levels of any repression and would diminish public acceptance or resignation of the current situation.

3) although this third aspect is not in our remit, this Committee fully supports the appeal of the Political Affairs Committee to the relevant international bodies such as the European Union, the OSCE and the UN to take appropriate action against the current practices towards freedom of expression in Belarus.


Summary of the

Hearing on the situation of the media in Belarus

Strasbourg, 24 January 2002


  1. Opening by the Committee Chairman, Mr Lluis-Maria de Puig

  1. Brief introduction by the Vice-Chair of the Sub-Committee on the Media, Mrs Tytti Isohookana-Asunmaa

  1. Address by moderator, Mr Robert Parsons, BBC journalist

  2. Presentation by Mrs Zhanna Litvina, President of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), on:

(a)     The media situation in Belarus

(b)      Proposed amendments to the press law

(c)      Recent violations to the press law in Belarus

  1. Reply by the Belarus Minister of Information, Mr Mikhail Padhayny

  2. Discussion open to all

  1. Summing up by Mr Parsons

  2. Concluding remarks by Ms Isohookana-Asunmaa

  3. Closing of meeting by Mr de Puig

Draft summary

Lluis Maria de Puig (Spain) – As Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Culture, Science and Education, I welcome all participants, especially Minister Mikhail Padhayny and the representatives of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), led by Ms Zhanna Litvina.

We organised this hearing because we are worried about the media situation in Belarus.

As to the political situation in general, may I remind participants that the Council of Europe strongly criticised the way the latest elections in Belarus were held. The situation in Belarus will probably be discussed in June by the Assembly.

Tytti Isohookana-Asunmaa (Finland) – As Vice-Chair of the Sub-Committee on the Media, I welcome all colleagues, Belarus guests and other participants. As former Chair of the sub-committee, I was alerted by the BAJ to the situation of the media in Belarus, and we decided to hold a hearing, hoping that it would be useful for the development of democracy and media freedom in Belarus.

Belarus is not a Council of Europe (CoE) member state and as from 1997 no longer a “special guest” at our Parliamentary Assembly (PA). But both PA President Peter Schieder and CoE Secretary General Walter Schwimmer in their statements to the Assembly earlier this week expressed the hope that Belarus’ isolation from the CoE would end as soon as its political situation improves. Freedom of the media is a basic requirement for democracy, political stability and economic development. 

I hope this hearing will prove fruitful to Belarus and its people.

Robert Parsons (BBC journalist, London, acting as moderator) -  I have worked in Russia for nine years and visited Belarus several times. Clearly, Belarus has not developed the way people would have liked. But its problems are shared by other former Soviet states, though admittedly they are of a higher order than in some neighbouring countries.

In a recent article published in Sreda, a magazine for media professionals, Russian media expert, Alexey Pankin wrote that after listening to the complaints and experiences of several journalists, especially those from Ukraine and Belarus, during a recent conference in Kiev, he suddenly began to feel in Russia like a citizen of a free country,  and had the impression the Ukrainians felt the same way when comparing their situation with that of Belarus. He was full of admiration for independent journalists working in such countries.

In Belarus adverse conditions include: State monopoly on printing and distribution of newspapers, State pressure on advertisers, hefty subsidies to state-controled media only, a ban on foreign funding, a considerable degree of intimidation (some journalists have even disappeared), the police used to keep media on the defensive, media occasionally shut down. Journalists in Belarus were warned by the President that they would pay for their brazenness during the elections – I am curious to know from both sides if the situation has got any better, or worse,  after the elections.

But Belarus’ media problems are not peculiar to that country. Mr Pankin’s pride in being a Russian citizen needs to be qualified, in the light of the closing down last week of the last  independent television nationwide network, TV-6. NTV was closed down earlier on. Many questions are being asked as to the Russian authorities’ justification for closing down these two TV stations.

In Ukraine there has been a lot of media repression. Last year a well-known Ukrainian journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, was found minus his head. In Georgia not long ago there was the murder of a TV presenter. In Central Asia the media problems are even more intense.

The truth is, I think, that the political conscience which sustains the relations between the media and the State in Western societies simply does not exist as yet in the former Soviet Union.

Hence the useful role of a meeting like this – a window of opportunity for Belarus, which has just had an election, to make it clear that it wants to be part of Europe and is seeking some form of rapprochement with organisations such as the CoE, the EU and OSCE, relations which in the past few years have been strained. This is indeed a chance for both sides to build bridges.   

Zhanna Litvina (President of BAJ): If Belarus wants to join Europe’s advanced  countries it has to fulfil certain democratic requirements, one of which is freedom of information. Even after the September elections, the Opposition has still no access to the State mass media, which continue to be used as a  propaganda machine. The Ministry of Information simply toes the government line. The proposed law on information security has not not yet been approved by Parliament. However, before leaving for Strasbourg I was informed of a new document intended to curb  the free flow of information from abroad.

The seven information consultation groups, recently announced, will be chaired or controled by government officials, who will spread ideology rather than genuine information. The non-state media, the only tribune for political opposition,  have a restricted circulation  and are subject to various forms of  harassment, including the closing down of newspapers,  as in the recent case of Pahonia. We have seen censorship openly practised by high government officials.

Rather than paying lip service to the democratisation and liberalisation process, the government should take concrete steps to implement it. In the media field,  I recommend: (1) to ensure that  the forthcoming Media Law is in line with European standards, (2) to halt economic and political discrimination against non-state media, (3) to start the demonopolisation of  State TV and radio, (4) to stop controling the flow of information. Without these no democratisation can take place and Belarus would not have “special guest” status in the CoE. 

Mikhail Padhayny (Minister of Information of the Republic of Belarus) : Thank you for inviting me to address this authoritative body. Unfortunately, the Council of Europe often takes a one-sided view of events in Belarus, by listening only to the Opposition. Our delegation no longer participates officially in the Parliamentary Assembly work, something which does not improve the situation. I endorse Ms Litvina’s recommendations.The draft media law has been sent to all journalists, we are taking note of  their comments, then it will be discussed in Parliament and I hope the final version will be in line with European standards.

Anyone in Belarus can buy and read the newspaper they like. I agree there is a circulation problem through the State-run service Belposhta, but newspapers can set up their own distribution network. Newspapers can be closed down only by court order; the closure of Pahonia  by a prosecutor is an unpleasant affair, and I hope it can be reviewed. The government can take a newspaper editor to court, for instance, for spreading racist views or anti-Russian incitement. If a newspaper loses its case in court, my Ministry immediately gets protests from international institutions, but when we write back in self-defence no answer is received.

All citizens have access to radio transmissions (there are 25 channels to choose from) and to Internet. There is one State TV and 22 private, mainly regional, channels. We are planning a second non-state, national channel and joint collaboration with a Russian TV Channel. The law covering TV needs to be improved, and I am open to advice. I have no bodyguard, I answer telephone calls and willingly pass on constructive proposals to my government. I see no harm in the proposed Information Groups, for they will listen to the people and cater for their needs.

The democratic process is in its infancy in Belarus, we are trying to decentralise and we look forward to attaining European standards.

Andrei Bastunets (Vice-President of BAJ): I confirm and appreciate the Minister’s openness concerning the draft media law. Many corrections have been made following BAJ comments,  but unfortunately some parts remain that exert a negative influence on the media situation.

Can a citizen in Belarus set up a mass media organ? The answer is “no”, because he needs approval for registration, which is not easily obtained. Can  citizens freely express their opinions to the media? The answer is “no”, because they can suffer serious sanctions. After two warnings from the Ministry of Information or a prosecutor of any level within a year, a newspaper can be closed down. That is what happened recently to Pahonia.

Legal documents can be published by the appropriate Ministry only. To publish them a newspaper would need a special license, which it will never obtain. Why should there be a black-out on the publication of legislation? Information from unregistered groups is practically impossible, for they can be liable to sanctions.

Parsons: I would like Mr Bastunets to reply to the Minister, who said that the last ten years were not easy, the government has been perhaps a little bit too tough with the media, but now the time is ripe for a compromise. Do you think there are opportunities of moving towards each other in the months ahead? 

Bastunets: There are always opportunities. The problem is that our authorities declare they are in favour of social and economic liberalisation, but in practice they do the opposite. Pahonia was closed down after the elections, and two other papers which had published certain information during the election campaign are currently  under threat. I would suggest parliamentary hearings held in Belarus itself on the draft law, and that the Belarus Parliament refers it to the Council of Europe for expert advice. It is important that the CoE gives an evaluation and makes recommendations before the law is enacted.

Parsons:  What does the Minister reply to this appeal? Should the Belarus authorities  turn not only to their own experts but look for additional advice beyond their  national boundaries?

Padhayny: Newspapers are allowed to publish commentaries  but not the official legal texts. The publication of our laws is a serious matter and we must make sure the right text is provided to citizens.

Alexey Vaganov (MP, Belarus): According to the draft law any citizen can publish a newspaper. According to the old law, if a newspaper was closed down its publisher could not issue another one, but this rule is being dropped. 

Parsons: May I ask the Minister or Mr Vaganov: What about Mr Bastunets’ plea to consult outside experts on the media law?

Padhayny: The existing law was sent to the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, but no reply was received. On my return to Belarus, I will send the draft law in Russian and in English to appropriate experts and organisations and I shall be ready to listen to their views, which does not mean that all of them will have to be accepted.

Guennady Churkin (Russia): I have often visited Belarus, where I felt more Russian than in Russia itself, because there is a sense of identity and less criminality in that country. During election time, I often asked journalists about their complaints, but never heard such things as Ms Litvina mentioned today. Sometimes journalists struggle not so much for freedom of expression but for their high salary, as did Mr Kiselev in last year’s hearing on the Russian media. It is important to distinguish freedom of the media from excessive freedom devoid of responsibility. It was correct to close down media outlets, to protect the population, when they acted illegally. But let us discuss such things in our own country.

Anatoly Lebedko (chairman United Civil Party, Belarus): I suggest that Ms Litvina’s four recommendations should be taken into account when re-examining the “special guest” status of Belarus with the Parliamentary Assembly. The Minister said any politician can have access to the media. That is in our Constitution. But twelve times last year I requested to appear on TV, and never got a positive answer. Belteleradio Company once answered that I had had access,  because I took part in a broadcast phone-in on the harvest in Belarus. I suggest that on our return to Belarus the Government side and Opposition should hold a discussion on TV and radio and then we will be able to say that there has been a first discussion of this nature on Belarus state-owned media. 

Parsons: How does the Minister reply to Mr Lebedko’s accusation that he tried twelve times to speak on state-owned television and twelve times his request was turned down?

Padhayny: Any candidate for elections can appear on State TV to keep contact with electors. But the State cannot oblige TV managers to give air time to anyone whose ideas are not of interest. Decisions are taken by TV chief editors. What debate can come out on TV when the Opposition is so divided? There was a time when too much air time was devoted to politics. If a politician is deemed of little interest to viewers, for economic reasons TV managers will not easily give him air time.

Parsons: A state-run media organisation presumably has the responsibility to ensure, especially at the time of elections, that all sides of the argument are being heard. Does the fact that Mr Lebedko was not allowed to speak  not suggest that one side of the argument was not being heard?

Padhayny:  We have 24 channels, at least five covering the whole country. In the near future we will put up  new programmes in which all politicians will be able to take part. But I am not a TV manager. My duty is to see that laws are observed.

Parsons: Minister,  you admitted earlier that there have been problems in the media field in the past. Do you accept, therefore, that the Opposition does have some genuine grievances and that you are now prepared, as a government, to start addressing them?

Padhayny: I agree that problems do exist for the electronic media, though not for the written press. Advertisers, however, do not pay for programmes that attract no audience.

Fiona Harrison (representing Article 19) :  I work for “Article 19”, the global campaign for free expression based in London. I have worked on Belarus for four or five years, quite closely with BAJ. I ask the Minister if he would be prepared to collaborate with outside organisations in reviewing the draft law and ensuring it meets Belarus’ obligations in relation to international law.

“Article 19” is neither pro-government nor pro-opposition. We have just issued a 22-page analysis of the draft law as it stands. I must say we find the law very inadequate. There are fundamental areas of media freedom which are infringed – not just registration, but also infringement with journalists’ self-regulation and in the content of journalism by banning false information. We all know that journalists often have to report quickly  and it is not easy to be truthful even if you try your very best. There is also a problem in the warnings and possible suspension of the media for infringing a law which in itself is illegitimate.

I hope the Ministry will take on board our comments. We offer our assistance. We have been involved in drafting several national media laws.

Parsons: Apparently the CoE did offer an expertise on the existing media law but it was not considered by the Belarus authorities.

Padhayny: I shall be happy to cooperate with Ms Harrison’s organisation and others. As for materials received from the CoE, the new law is now under way and the final version that we could present for discussion and comment is not yet ready.

Dissemination of false information cannot be accepted. I  can give several examples of dangerous unchecked information. An Armenian journalist jokingly wrote that there was a fight at the Turkish-Armenian border, where the PM of Armenia was killed. In six hours the Armenian forces were ready for action.

Journalists must check their facts even if they work fast. Two weeks ago an article and photo were published reporting the death of a former minister. The minister, whom I know well, was alive and kicking and the newspaper concerned had to apologise. Some European media outlets have recently  falsely reported that books by Wasily Bikov had been destroyed during a faulty printing process in Belarus.

Parsons: There is indeed a problem of political culture in all former Soviet states. It is not easy for such states to transform themselves suddenly into modern democratic societies. That takes a long time, and the Minister has a point when he says that some journalists tend to exaggerate their right to say or write what they want. In virtually every one of those states journalists have often gone further than would have been allowed in Western societies. The answer to that, however, is not to introduce legislation which makes life difficult for journalists, but to enact laws which prevent libels, as is the case with modern democratic societies. The answer is not to clamp down on journalists, but to introduce adequate legislation.

Jonas Cekuolis (Lithuania): What are the current economic conditions of the media in Belarus ? Do they get subsidies from the national budget? What are the  criteria for distributing such subsidies? Do you, Minister,  intend to transform the State television channel into a public service broadcasting television?

Padhayny: Last year 47 media outlets received subsidies, this year these were 36, and the number will be further reduced. Five subsidised media belong to the President’s  or Ministers’ offices, another is for youth. We also support publications for children and those  which promote the Belarus language and literature, publications which otherwise would not survive. We support and encourage writers to publish their works. Publications for children are available at a reduced price.

Six publications which received subsidies last year became capable of supporting themselves financially; five others were dropped because they were not up to standard. We do not organise competitions to distribute our subsidies. We are now setting up a TV station which will not be state-owned. It is difficult for me to tell how the first channel will be reformed. A public consultative council, with State and independent representatives,  will be formed to supervise the mass media.

Litvina: After the rosy picture painted by the Minister, may I repeat that all our main media are owned by the State. Radio Racyja, which broadcasts from Warsaw, would never be allowed to broadcast in Belarus. Decisions are made by Belteleradio company or someone else who is directly answerable to government, and they are not audience-oriented. The only Christian radio in Belarus, Voice of the Spirit,  was closed down recently. In Belarus it is possible to close down media outlets on confessional grounds.

Padhayny: As for Radio Racyja, we do not want Polish interference. As for Voice of the Spirit, there is a feud between two priests there, who do not agree among themselves; it is not our problem.

Andrey Lossev (MP, Belarus): Most of the grievances raised by Mr Lebedko refer to the 1996 referendum on the new Constitution. The Opposition lost, and they embarked on a general boycot to discredit the government. If Mr Lebedko were a political candidate, he would have access to the media for free.

Parsons: Are you suggesting that if one is not a participant in official elections, one is disqualified from having a voice in Belarusian politics?

Lossev: One is disqualified if one is engaged in unconstitutional activities.

Parsons: What do you mean by unconstitutional activities? Can you clarify that for the audience?

Lossev: When one does not accept election results, does not recognise the highest authorities and the House of Representatives, does not admit the people’s choice.

Lebedko: I advise you to read the documents of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on the 1996 referendum, and the Bureau’s 1997 critical analysis of the Constitution. Mr Lossev is His Master’s Voice. There is a Constitution which gives politicians right of access to the mass media. We struggle for our constitutional rights. Let us be constructive and go ahead with the protocol which gives political opponents access to the media, and which was approved even by Lukashenko’s representatives. We all pay taxes, and it is not fair if some can use the media and others not. Let us go back to that constructive document.

Padhayny: Nobody is obliged to give Mr Lebedko all the air time he wants. He has such rights, but I do not have such obligations. Soon there will be new programmes on TV, and if he has something to say which is worthwhile for listeners to hear he will be invited.

Vladimir Novosiad (MP, Belarus): I support Ms Litvina’s recommendations, and I agree with Mr Bastunets. Let us go back to the mass media, rather than concentrate on party politics. Journalists in Belarus are free people, they know how to organise themselves, and how to press for their rights. Political parties come and go, but the media remain. In Belarus we need to stop distinguishing between State and non-state media. We should organise parliamentary hearings with all sides represented, to create good conditions for the media to operate.

Harrison: Can the Minister please clarify where the draft law is in the legislative process? What opportunities are there for further outside consultations?

Padhayny: A draft law becomes such only when it is tabled by a political group for discussion in parliament. What we have now is a draft prepared by a working group to which many changes were proposed. I was told a week ago that the working group has processed  about 60% of the comments. In approximately two weeks it should go to Parliament, where there will be a hearing. On my return home, I shall  send the latest version to appropriate experts and to the CoE.

Isohokaana-Asunmaa:  I think this has been a very useful discussion. Will it be possible to have similar discussions in Belarus or elsewhere? I am convinced that the Council of Europe could usefully collaborate with you, Minister, on the draft law. At the Council, we have expertise and experience of work with different countries. If there is a request for such collaboration, I am sure this would help Belarus to become a CoE member.  

Padhayny: I am open to suggestions and collaboration. There are various stages and options in anything you do. If the CoE sends experts to assist us on the draft law, we will willingly listen to them.

Vaganov: Yesterday we agreed with our  Assembly colleagues that there will be a colloquy, probably in Vilnius. One item would be the media law, which should be enacted by then. And the new situation of the media in Belarus will be discussed.

Padhayny: Which does not cancel our invitation to CoE media experts  to come to Belarus.

de Puig: The CoE is ready to help your country, Minister, or any other country with its expertise. But there has to be a request from you for such an expertise. Would you be prepared to forward this request? In that case there is a procedure to follow. We could advise on how your new law compares with international standards. But we cannot, and will not, impose any expertise. I think it would be extremely positive if your country were to ask  for such expertise.

Padhayny: At what level should the request be made? Should I sign it or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

de Puig: I think the request should be forwarded to our Committee of Ministers and therefore, I presume,  it should be through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Vaganov: I have a dual role here: as parliamentarian and as shareholder of  TV and radio stations, as well as member of the editorial board of several publications. Our problems, as Mr Parsons said, are not peculiar to us alone. We do have problems, but we are solving them gradually and successfully.

Our non-state media should develop, but this means they should shoulder more responsibility. After 11 September, mass media responsibilities have grown. We are planning hearings on the mass media and also on a moratorium for the death penalty, and the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly will be invited. All comments heard here will be taken into account, but our Parliament will decide. Media freedom is very important. Our democratic process as an independent State is only about 10 years old, but we are capable of solving our own problems.

Parsons: I think such a debate is essential to help Belarus overcome its isolation. It has been very encouraging that both sides have met in Strasbourg. It has been encouraging that the Minister admitted there have been failings and inadequacies in the media field in the past. I do sense that the freeze is beginning to come to an end in Belarus. We are now in a state of flux.

The Minister said he is willing to listen to outside voices, and these might include the CoE if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were to forward a request. The CoE, I feel, would be delighted to take up such a request. I am sure the Opposition, and BAJ in particular, would welcome such a development.

The Minister said Belarus wants to be part of the European family of nations, and he understands what that means in terms of civil liberties, freedom of speech and so on. He and his government have now a splendid opportunity to put into practice what they mean. Belarusian journalists and members of the Opposition on the other hand are pleased that the Ministry of Information is prepared to take on board some of their arguments. In particular they have identified four points or recommendations which they wish to see adopted. 

The Minister said he is prepared to take these up. But it’s not just a question of words. During this debate we have heard quite sharp disagreement about access to the media and clearly a gulf still exists between the two sides. The good thing is that a debate is taking place. A draft media law is almost in position. It will be particularly interesting to see what form of consultation there will be, if it takes place at all, with international institutions, such as the Council of Europe. 

de Puig: I am satisfied with this colloquy. We have listened calmly to each other, and that is positive.

I add a few remarks as a politician, addressed mainly to the Minister and other guests from Belarus. It seems to me that Belarus wishes to be integrated into the CoE. We, Assembly  MPs,  wish the same thing. We tried hard already by awarding Belarus “special guest” status. It did not work, because Belarus did not live up to the conditions which allowed other countries of Central and Eastern Europe to become full members of the CoE. Some of these countries still have problems because the transition to democracy cannot take place overnight, but in several Assembly committees it was felt that the political situation in Belarus was far removed from CoE standards.

I noted in your speeches, Minister, a language and way of reasoning to which we at the Council are not accustomed. In our countries there are groups which question their Constitution and wish to change something in it, and they encounter no problems when they freely express their ideas on television, radio and newspapers. Of course, they have to respect the laws of the land and act within legal parameters, but democracy requires that minorities and minority opinions be respected.

You have taken a positive attitude in this debate, Minister, but when you said that you will introduce or support new programmes on television, it seemed strange to me, because in our societies it is not the government’s duty to put up or change television programmes. That is a sort of  interventionism which is now outdated.

If Belarus manages to endow itself with a media law which tallies with international standards, I think that will be a huge step in the right direction.

May I remind participants that most probably in June, within the political, legal and cultural committees, we plan to revise and assess the situation in Belarus. I assure you we are in favour of Belarus’ close relations with the CoE. We hope that in the not too distant future we will be able to tell you that, even as regards the media, Belarus is in line with European standards and therefore ready to form part of the Council of Europe. 

I thank you all for taking part in this interesting and positive hearing, which I now declare closed.

List of participants

Parliamentarians, members of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education
MM Lluis Maria de Puig, Chairman, Spain
     Mehmet Saglam, Vice-Chairman, Turkey
     Ghiorghi Prisacaru, Vice-Chairman, Romania
     Ali Abbasov, Azerbaijan
     Armaz Akhvlediani, Georgia
     Emerenzio Barbieri, Italy
     Knut Billing, Sweden
     Nickolay Chaklein, Russia
     Per Dalgaard, Denmark
     Arpad Duka-Zolyomi, Slovakia
     Adam Gierek, Poland
     Josef Jarab, Czech Republic
     Wolfgang Jung, Austria
     Hüseyin Kalkan, Turkey
Mrs Eleonora Katseli, Greece
Mr  Jacques Legendre, France
Mrs Christine Lucyga, Germany
Mrs Milena Milotinova, Bulgaria
Mrs Clara Pintat-Rossell, Andorra
MM Bogdan Podgorski, Poland
      Pedro Roseta, Portugal
Lord Russell-Johnston, United Kingdom
Mrs  Elsa Skarbøvik, Norway
MM  Valeriy Sudarenkov, Russia
      Sükrü Yürür, Turkey

Parliamentarians, members of the Political Affairs Committee
Mrs      Elisabeth Arnold, Denmark
Mr        Jonas Cekuolis, Lithuania
Mrs      Christa Lörcher, Germany
Mr        Andrei Neguta, Moldova (ad-hoc sub-committee on Belarus)

Parliamentarians, members of other committees
MM      Guennady Churkin, Russia
           Ruslan Gostev, Russia

Minister, Parliamentarians and other Authorities from Belarus:
Mr Mikhail Padhayny, Minister of Information of the Republic of Belarus
Mr Andrey Lossev, Member of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Belarus
Mr Vladimir Novosiad, Member of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Belarus
Mr Alexey Vaganov, Member of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Belarus
Mr Vladimir Senko, Ambassador of the Republic of Belarus in France
Mr Andrey Grinkevich, Ambassador and Special Envoy of the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Mr Valery Ramashka, Counsellor of the Embassy of Belarus in France and Belarus Representative at the Council of Europe

Representatives of political parties from Belarus
Mr Anatoly Lebedko, Chairman of the United Civil Party
Mr Vladimir Nistiyuk, representing the Social-Democratic Party Narodnaya Gramada
Mrs Nataliya Khrustaleva, representing the Nadezhda Party

Journalists from Belarus
Ms Zhanna Litvina, President of the Belarusian Association of Journalists  (BAJ)
Mr Andrei Bastunets, Vice-President of BAJ and deputy director of the BAJ Law Centre for Media Defence
Mr Roman Yakovlevsky, political correspondent of Nasha Svaboda and chief deputy editor of Belarus Today
Mr Andrei Makhovsky, chief political correspondent of Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG)
Mr Yury Shirocky, Executive Director of Belapan news agency
Mr Valery Kalinovsky, representing Radio Free Europe

Ms Fiona Harrison, Head of Europe Programme, Article 19, London
Ms Biljana Tatomir, Deputy Director Media Programme, Open Society, Budapest Office

Representatives of the Media
Mrs Leni Fischer, President of the European Journalists
Mrs Anna Leena Laurén, Hufvudstadsbladet, Finland
Mr Antaro  Eerola, Kanon Uutiset, Finland

Moderator of the Hearing
Mr Robert Parsons, BBC, London

Council of Europe Secretariat
– Directorate General of Political Affairs
Mr Klaus Schumann, Director General
– Secretariat of the Committee of Ministers
Mrs Mireille Paulus, Deputy to the Secretary to the Committee of Ministers
– Directorate General II – Human Rights 
Mr Hanno Hartig, Head of the Department for Media, Equality and Minorities
Mr Mario Oetheimer,  Programme Adviser
– Directorate of Political Advice and Co-operation
Mr Ivan Koedjikov, Head of Division II
–Media and Press Division
Mr Alun Drake, Press Officer/Radio and Television
Mrs Henriette Girard, Press Officer

Parliamentary Assembly Secretariat:
Mr Mateo Sorinas, Director, Head of the Political and Legal Affairs Department
Mr Christopher Grayson, Head of Secretariat on Culture, Science and Education
Mr João Ary, Secretary to the Committee on Culture, Science and Education
Mr Bogdan Torcatoriu, co-Secretary to the Committee on Culture, Science and Education
Mr Giovanni Mangion, Assistant to the Committee on Culture, Science and Education
Mrs Anne-Marie Nothis, Administrative Assistant

Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee

Committee seized for opinion: Committee on Culture, Science and Education

Reference to committee: Doc. 9859 and Reference No 2879 of 29 September 2003

Approved unanimously by the committee on 27 April 2004

Head of secretariat: Mr Grayson

Secretaries to the committee: Mr Ary, Mrs Theophilova-Permaul

[1] See Doc. 10107 presented by the Political Affairs Committee