Supporters of independent media in Belarus ask Congress for new assistance Dublin, CA -- Members of the Belarusian-American community are asking the U.S. Congress to extend the 2004 Belarus Democracy Act "to help bring democracy ... to the last dictatorship in Europe."

The 2004 law, which the sponsors hope to extend, provided funding to support independent media in Belarus and other pro-democracy programs. In calling for the extention of this funding, the sponsors of this year's bill accused the regime of President Lukashenka of engaging "in a pattern of clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The bill's sponsors wrote that hundreds of pro-democratic political activists have been subjected to frequent harassment and jailings, especially during, and in the aftermath of the March 19, 2006, presidential elections in Belarus, described in the bill as "fatally flawed." The European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also declared the presidential elections won by Mr. Lukashenka as inconsistent with democratic standards.

The bill' supporters also accused the Lukashenka government of attempting to maintain a monopoly over the country's information space, targeting independent media for systematic reprisals and elimination, and suppressing the right to freedom of speech and expression of those dissenting from the regime. The Committee to Protect Journalists has put Belarus on its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries. link to CPJ report...

In addition to new support for independent media, the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act H.R. 5948, introduced July 27 by Rep. Christopher Smith [R-NJ] and cosponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos [D-CA] and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter [R-MI], also calls for sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. The 2004 law also included similar sanctions.

A bill must be passed by both the House and Senate and then be signed by the President before it becomes law. Members of the Belarusian-American community and supporters of independent media in Belarus are asking their members to write to their Representatives in Congress to urge them to bring the bill to the whole House of Representatives for a vote.

The bill's section on the support for independent media in Belarus calls for "...expanding independent radio and television broadcasting to and within Belarus; facilitating the development of independent broadcast, print, and Internet media working within Belarus and from locations outside the country and supported by nonstate-controlled printing facilities..." The bill provides for spending $20,000,000 of U.S. government funds on these and other pro-democracy activities in 2006 and 2007 fiscal years. Link to H.R. 5948 Text of appeal for support for the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act

The original Belarus Democracy Act was signed into law by President Bush in October 2004. In addition to funds for supporting independent media in Belarus, the 2004 law also authorized "increased support for United States Government and surrogate radio broadcasting to the Republic of Belarus that will facilitate the unhindered dissemination of information." Link to President Bush's statement on the Belarus Democracy Act Link to summary of Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 Link to full text of Belarus Democracy Act

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry described the 2004 Belarus Democracy Act as " offensive" and "destructive." The Lukashenka government insists that the U.S. policy toward Belarus "contradicts the UN Charter and other universally recognized international legal standards." The Lukashenka government also denies that the March presidential elections in Belarus were flawed. Link to Belarusian Foreign Ministry statement

The new bill calls for supporting both radio and television broadcasting to Belarus and provides $7,500,000 for this purpose. The 2004 Belarus Democracy Act referred only to radio broadcasting. The European Union is now the only major international broadcaster producing television programs for Belarus.

Most of the U.S. government-funded radio broadcasting to Belarus is done by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). All RFE/RL broadcasts to Belarus are in Belarusian. The Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) has only a 15-minute weekly radio program in Russian specifically focused on Belarus. This program is scheduled to end October 1, 2006 as part of the proposed elimination of all VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts. Both Belarusian and Russian are spoken in Belarus., a California-based nonprofit organization supporting free media, has criticized the Bush Administration and the bipartisan Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG) for their plans to terminate VOA Russian-language radio programs while free media in Russia, Belarus, and other CIS countries are facing increasing restrictions. president Ted Lipien described these plans as "a severe blow to free media in Russia, Belarus, and Central Asia and a gift to dictators and authoritarian regimes."

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