MINSK, June 17 Parliament in Belarus, an ex-Soviet state accused in the West of crushing human rights, gave initial approval on Tuesday to a media law banning foreign funding and possibly tightening control over the Internet.
Many opposition publications have been closed down, leaving the Internet as the main source of information on the country's small, and often divided, liberal and nationalist opposition.
Parliament, where opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko hold no seats, backed the bill on first reading after speakers said the text posed no threat to freedom of speech.
"There are no repressive provisions in this law which could significantly worsen the situation with the media," Yuri Kulakovsky, head of a parliamentary commission, said in presenting the bill to the chamber. "The current law governing the press dates from 1995 and is very out of date."
Independent journalists in the country of 10 million said they feared the new legislation could be used to clamp down on opposition websites.
"This law creates a legal basis to regulate in future the activities of Internet sites, one of the main sources of independent information in Belarus," said Andrei Bastunets of the Belarussian Association of Journalists.
Official media in Belarus, particularly state television, report at length on Lukashenko's activities and lionise his initiatives. Opposition figures are given little opportunity to appear except in election campaigns as required by law.
Lukashenko, first elected in 1994, promotes policies of generous subsidies and state control of the economy and is broadly popular in the country of 10 million wedged between Russia and three European Union members.
Western countries say Lukashenko has cracked down on independent journalists, rigged his re-election and crushed freedom of expression by dispersing demonstrations.
The president is barred entry to the United States and the European Union, which make resumed dialogue contingent on extending fundamental rights.
The new law does not specifically require Internet sites to be registered, but allows their regulation to be overseen by government decisions.
"This law does not regulate the activities of Internet media. For now, there is no requirement for them to register and that means nothing will change in the way they operate," said Natalya Petkevich, presidential chief of staff.
"The law sets down only that at some point Internet media may be registered and that the govenment is to prepare conditions for registration." (Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)