Belarus stifles critical media

By Sebastian Usher

BBC world media correspondent

Belarus has tightened state control of the media and intensified harassment of independent and foreign journalists in the run-up to Sunday's presidential election.

The aim is to maintain President Alexander Lukashenko in power at all costs.

He wants to prevent any popular uprising spurred on by the media, like those which ousted authoritarian governments in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years.

State television in Belarus leads as ever with President Lukashenko - on Friday it is his visit to a truck factory.

In his 12-year rule, the Belarussian president has all but eliminated the independent media.

Television, radio and the press blandly report his every word and action.

Mr Lukashenko's challengers in the election have barely had a mention.

Hostility to West

The state-controlled media have also provided a stream of stories accusing the US and others of trying to stage a coup.

What is left of the opposition media faces continual pressure - which has been stepped up in recent weeks.

Sales of the handful of independent papers still publishing have become more and more difficult - subscriptions have been banned, newspaper kiosks ordered not to stock them and tens of thousands of copies seized.

Belarussian journalists covering government attempts to harass the opposition presidential candidates have been arrested and beaten.

Web controls

The internet in Belarus - as in other similarly authoritarian states - does function to a limited extent as a media outlet for independent and opposition views.

Websites such as Charter-97, Belorusskiye Novosti and Belorusskiy Partizan offer news and reports on opposition protests and human rights violations to some degree - although some of what they publish is more rumour than fact.

The state tries to control political comment on the internet as much as possible.

Independent websites have complained of attempts to censor them and block them - by, for example, denial-of-service attacks. Many of the sites are hosted abroad to try to bypass censorship.

But their impact is in any case not that strong, as it is estimated that fewer than 10% of Belarussians have some access to the internet and only 2% use it regularly.

In the run-up to the election, foreign journalists have also been targeted.

Polish and Ukrainian journalists have been detained or barred from entry - other foreign reporters have been expelled.

Foreign aid

The US and the EU have spearheaded international efforts to provide Belarussians with alternative news.

The US-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has long broadcast into Belarus.

The European Commission has allocated 2m euros ($2.4m; ?1.4m) for a group of Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, German and Russian broadcasters to run radio, TV and internet projects targeted at people in Belarus.

In the weeks before the election, a Polish-funded station, Radio Ratsyya, began broadcasting. And in the past few days, the EU launched a new station, European Radio for Belarus.

President Lukashenko has dismissed all of this as a foreign conspiracy to twist Belarus to suit the wishes of the US and the EU.

To survive in power, Mr Lukashenko has continued to try to maintain a news vacuum for people in Belarus - so that the official line goes unchallenged.