The EOC have vowed to ensure "free access" for media during the 2019 European Games ©President of Belarus

European Olympic Committees (EOC) officials have vowed that media will have "free access" to report on the Minsk 2019 European Games after human rights groups urged them to use the event to improve freedoms in Belarus.

Minsk was named host for the second edition of the showpiece EOC event at the body's General Assembly last week.

This raised eyebrows due to the country's poor reputation for human rights and wider freedoms, particularly as last year's inaugural event in Azerbaijan's capital Baku was dogged by similar concerns.

"Belarus has [a] terrible human rights record, which is especially poor on media freedoms," Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch deputy director, Europe and Central Asia Division, told insidethegames.

"A United Nations appointed expert on the human rights situation in Belarus said in his April report that Government harassment of journalists 'has been a constant practice'.

"After the Baku Games, the EOC has a lot to make up for. 

"It needs to start right away by insisting the Belarusian Government loosen its grip on media freedoms."

The regime led by President Alexander Lukashenko has been accused of persecuting against non-Governmental organisations, independent journalists, national minorities and opposition politicians.

He was denied a visa by Britain to attend the 2012 Olympic Games in London. 

Alexander Lukashenko addressing the EOC General Assembly in Minsk ©President of Belarus
Alexander Lukashenko addressing the EOC General Assembly in Minsk ©President of Belarus

Lukashenko, who was honoured by the EOC in 2008 "for his Outstanding Contribution to the Olympic Movement" is also President of the National Olympic Committee of the Republic of Belarus.

He was present last week to address the General Assembly in Minsk.

Six opposition figures who had been imprisoned on politically motivated charges were released on humanitarian grounds this year, but HRW claim the overall human rights situation in Belarus "did not improve".

The death penalty remains in use, while they claim that officials continue to pressure and arrest human rights activists and critics on spurious charges. 

Authorities are also thought to regularly harass independent and opposition journalists while legislative amendments further restrict freedom of expression, in particular internet freedom.

Awarding the Games to Belarus could, however, help throw a spotlight on reclusive regimes which otherwise normally escape media attention.

"The EOC will begin planning of the 2019 European Games with the respective authorities in Minsk over the next few weeks," a spokesman told insidethegames. 

"One important aspect of this is to make sure that international media have free access to report on the Games preparation and to attend and report on the Games themselves. 

"The Host City Contract will have clauses to this effect.

"However, as in any international sports event, the visiting international media will also be expected to respect the laws and regulations of the host nation.

“The 2019 European Games presents Belarus with a unique opportunity to present itself to the world and we look forward to helping them do so."