Sunday, December 09, 2007

Poland launches TV station that broadcasts to Belarus in attempt to bolster democracy

A new television station funded by the Polish government began broadcasting a mix of news, cultural programming and entertainment Monday to Belarus - part of Warsaw's ongoing attempt to bolster democracy in its autocratic neighbor.

The station Belsat hits the airwaves at 5 p.m. (1600GMT), calling itself "the first independent television station" to broadcast into the authoritarian state ruled by longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.

"When we look at the map of contemporary Europe we see that the Iron Curtain disappeared except for a tiny fragment on Poland's eastern border with Belarus," said Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of the Warsaw-based station. "So our television station is a measure to overcome this last, rusted piece of the Iron Curtain."

Poland, an ex-communist country now in the European Union and NATO, has voiced concern for years over the state of democracy in Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million strongly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

Lukashenko, president since 1994, has often been branded by Western countries as "Europe's last dictator."

Poland has strained ties with Belarus, and has long criticized Lukashenko for stifling media freedoms and dissent.

The station initially will broadcast three hours a day, but plans to increase that to 16 hours by February, station officials said.

Warsaw is already supporting a radio station, Radio Racja, which broadcasts news programming into Belarus.

A unit of Polish state-run television, Belsat will broadcast entirely in the Belarusian language, with programming prepared chiefly by Belarusian journalists working in both countries.

The Polish government is Belsat's main contributor, with the Foreign Ministry pledging $8.6 million out of an estimated 2008 budget of $11 million.

Belsat estimates that more than 7 percent of Belarusian households own satellite dishes, which translates into about 700,000 potential viewers.