Independent media is the key issue in Belarus

The European Commission said Wednesday that access to independent media is crucial in the lengthy process of bringing democracy to Belarus.

"We attribute the greatest importance to changing the society in Belarus, but it will take time," the EU's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee. "People there need to have access to independent information. At the moment, the free media is completely blocked."

The EU's executive Commission has signed a one-year contract with the German station Deutsche Welle, which will start broadcasting daily 15-minute news programs to Belarus by radio and over the Internet in November. The Commission will fund more extensive TV and radio broadcasts from next year.

Relations between the European Union and Belarus have deteriorated as authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, has quashed dissent, closed independent media and suppressed opposition parties.

Last week, the European Parliament called on EU governments to freeze the assets of Belarussians authorities if the former Soviet republic does not improve its human rights situation. EU lawmakers also called for member states to expand a visa ban on Belarussian officials who the EU holds responsible for human rights abuses and persecution, and condemned Lukashenko's regime for its attacks on the media, minority activists and religion leaders, reports the AP. I.L.

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