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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poland Broadcasts 'Truth' to Belarussians

ReutersMichael Androsiuk of Radio Racja reading the news from his station in Bialystok to nearby Belarussian listeners.
BIALYSTOK, Poland -- From simple back offices in a provincial Polish town, a radio station is broadcasting around the clock to Belarus, giving the country one of its few sources of independent news.

Run by opponents of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Radio Racja, or Radio Truth, is helping wage an information war against a regime branded by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "Europe's last dictatorship."

Supported by the Polish Foreign Ministry and the Budapest-based Open Society Institute, founded by U.S. billionaire investor George Soros, Radio Racja is one of only two independent stations broadcasting freely into Belarus.

The station uses web technology to mix popular music and social commentary with uncensored news in both Belarussian and Russian, aiming to provide a platform for both opposition parties and Belarussian bands, some of which are banned at home.

"I dream of a free and independent Belarus," said editor Wiktor Stachwiuk, 58, an exile. "I want to give Belarussians a taste of a free society. Official media do not let them hear what is really going on."

Stachwiuk set up Radio Racja in 1999 and it broadcast from Warsaw until 2002. His Warsaw station eventually ran into financial problems, and it took Stachwiuk and his associates three more years to raise money to open the station in Bialystok, closer to Belarus and able to broadcast deeper into the country.

It now has a budget of $1 million per year, half of which is spent on transmitters: two in Poland and two in Lithuania.

Almost one year after its relaunch, Stachwiuk estimates that Radio Racja, with a staff of just 32 people, has an audience of up to 400,000, mostly in western Belarus, plus tens of thousands of exiles, and said it was building up rapidly on short and medium wave and on a newly launched FM band. "The station can be heard well on medium wave all the way to Minsk and can even be picked up in Finland," he said.

The station has a small network of reporters, mostly working under pseudonyms, across Belarus who record programs using MP3 technology and send them via the Internet to Bialystok or to one of two covert editing stations in Belarus.

Radio Racja editors say their correspondents face harassment from the Belarussian authorities -- mostly petty intimidation, but sometimes arrest and jail.

"Several of our people have been put in prison for a few days, one for 10 days, but nothing more serious so far," said Michal Andrysiuk, head of FM broadcasting. "One of our correspondents broadcast live from a police car after being arrested on a charge of cursing in the street. Hooliganism is the most frequent official excuse to arrest people who are obviously known to the police."

Belarussian opposition politicians and journalists welcome Radio Racja's efforts to break the state media monopoly but say its impact so far has been limited, partly because most Belarussians rely on television for news.

Zhanna Litvina, head of the Belarussian Association of Journalists, said it was a "comforting thought that such radio stations exist and that Belarussians are working for them."

"Unfortunately, you cannot say that such projects are very effective in current Belarussian conditions. To make them effective you would need transmitters in Belarus."

But the radio station's backers in Poland are convinced there is a growing pool of listeners. "I was in Belarus some time ago and met people listening to the radio and glad of it," said Michal Dworczyk, a key adviser on East European issues to Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.