EU Denounces Belarus' New Online Media Restrictions

BRUSSELS (AFP)--The European Commission Tuesday condemned a new Belarus law on online media for further restricting the freedom of the press.

"I deplore the adoption by Belarus' parliament of a new media law that will further restrict the freedom of the press in Belarus," E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement.

"Freedom of the press is an essential element of democracy and I urge the Belarussian authorities to remedy this situation ahead of the parliamentary elections of 28 September," she said.

Last month, Belarussian lawmakers moved to tighten the state's grip on Internet newspapers and news Web sites, the only independent media outlet left in Belarus.

The lower chamber of parliament passed in the first reading the new media law, proposed by the administration of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, which will force all Belarussian media, including online newspapers and news Web sites, to be registered anew.

The Belarus Journalists' Association has called on lawmakers to publish the bill and launch a public debate.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has long been criticized by Western powers for imprisoning opposition leaders, imposing severe restrictions on anti-regime rallies, preventing criticism in the state-controlled media and clamping down on independent broadcasters and the press.

The E.U. commissioner stressed that the European Union remains ready "for further engagement, provided that Belarus takes convincing steps towards democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, including the release of all political prisoners, the freedom of the media and the democratic conduct of parliamentary elections."

In April, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering described Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship."