Fri 9 Sep 2005 10:58 AM ET

EU boosts funds for independent Belarus broadcasts

BRUSSELS, Sept 9 (Reuters) - The European Union will pump more cash into broadcasts to Belarus to promote democracy, media freedom and human rights among the ex-Soviet state's 10 million people, the EU executive Commission said on Friday.

"The human rights situation in Belarus is deteriorating," External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement. "If the country is to find its way onto the path to democracy, the people need access to free media."

Brussels will spend a further 2 million euros ($2.5 million) on radio, television and other broadcasts, Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said, to bring a free voice to the country where the media are strictly controlled by the state.

The EU last month awarded a 138,000-euro contract to Germany's Deutsche Welle Radio to begin broadcasts to Belarus, on which the EU imposed limited sanctions in 2004 after accusing President Alexander Lukashenko of overseeing electoral fraud.

From November, Deutsche Welle will beam a 15-minute programme five days a week into Belarus, where Lukashenko has established control of the media since coming to power in 1994 and independent journalists have been jailed or forced to work abroad. Television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky disappeared in 2000.

Udwin told a daily media briefing the European Commission was talking to broadcasters to gauge interest in the new, two-year phase of the project before inviting bids.

During the Cold War, the United States funded broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to offer listeners in communist eastern Europe a different point of view from that of the state-run media.

Those stations, denounced then by Moscow and its allies, still broadcast, but their following is limited now that listeners have a wide choice of broadcasters in most countries.

Belarus dismisses criticism of its handling of the domestic press as an attempt to interfere in its internal affairs and says it is not afraid of the EU project.