President Aleksandr Lukashenko strangled the country's independent and opposition media in the months before deeply flawed October elections that returned his supporters to Parliament. The obedient state media flooded the capital, Minsk, and the countryside with pro-Lukashenko propaganda, vilifying opposition leaders and urging voters to support the president or face Western domination and political instability. The October vote also ratified a constitutional amendment enabling the president to seek a third term.

Lukashenko began tightening his grip on the news media early in 2004, ordering the Justice Ministry in February to crack down on nongovernmental organizations ahead of the vote. In the ensuing months, prosecutors, tax police, and other government regulators unleashed a campaign of harassment and intimidation against journalists, opposition activists, and human rights monitors who criticized Lukashenko and his repressive policies.

The Information Ministry and other government agencies temporarily suspended a dozen newspapers during 2004, saying it was necessary to restore "order in the print media," the Minsk-based human rights organization Charter 97 reported. Andrei Shentorovich, editor of the independent newspaper Mestnoye Vremya (Local Time) in the Western town of Volkovysk, went on a hunger strike for several weeks to protest the closure of his publication three days ahead of the elections, The Associated Press reported.

Authorities also used politicized state bureaucracies to strangle the distribution of popular newspapers, such as the independent daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (Belarusian Business Gazette), popularly known as BDG. Officials filed lawsuits, conducted politically motivated tax inspections, seized print runs, blocked access to printers, and conducted surveillance against journalists. Without explanation, the post office and the state-run newspaper distributor stopped delivering BDG to subscribers and kiosks around the country in January. With the Information Ministry harassing any printer that worked with BDG, the newspaper was forced to print in neighboring Russia. By September, BDG had virtually disappeared from newsstands, but it continued to publish an online edition.

In November, CPJ gave a 2004 International Press Freedom Award to Svetlana Kalinkina for enduring intense government harassment in retaliation for her independent reporting. Kalinkina edited BDG until September and was appointed editor of the opposition daily Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will) in December.

Foreign journalists were also harassed. In June, a court convicted Mikhail Podolyak, deputy editor of the independent Minsk weekly Vremya (Time), of publishing "slanderous fabrications," prompting officers from the Belarusian security service (KGB) to deport him to his native Ukraine.

Authorities were especially harsh with correspondents for popular Russian television channels, one of the few sources of broadcast news not controlled by the government. The Foreign Ministry revoked the accreditation of journalists at the Minsk bureau of the Russian state broadcaster Rossiya in July, claiming that they had exaggerated attendance at an antigovernment rally. On the day of the October referendum, police detained Pavel Sheremet, a correspondent for the Russian state broadcaster Channel One, on charges of "hooliganism" after two unidentified men assaulted him. Sheremet, who suffered a concussion in the attack, had produced scathing documentaries about the referendum and Lukashenko's rule.

In the run-up to the October vote, election officials disqualified dozens of opposition candidates seeking seats in Parliament, and the government clamped down on the flow of information. In September, two businessmen were sentenced to two years in prison on defamation charges for distributing fliers about a government-funded ski vacation Lukashenko took in Austria. Two days before the elections, the KGB arrested American computer expert Ilya Mafter, who was working on Internet access projects for the United Nations and the New York-based, pro-democracy Open Society Institute. Mafter was charged with fraud for allegedly providing "illegal" Internet services, thus causing local telecommunications companies to suffer losses. He remained in custody awaiting trial at year's end.

On election day, authorities barred dozens of local and international monitors from observing the polls, and state television violated domestic laws by broadcasting pro-Lukashenko commercials and favorable exit-poll results. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a pan-European elections monitoring organization, said the vote "fell significantly short" of democratic standards, with Lukashenko and other senior officials receiving more than 90 percent of the pre-election television coverage. The OSCE said it saw registration and vote-counting irregularities, arbitrary and politicized enforcement of election laws, unfair restrictions on opposition candidates, and intimidation of opposition activists.

According to the government's tally, no opposition candidates were elected to Parliament, and 77 percent of voters supported dropping the two-term limit for presidents. "I consider it an elegant victory," said Elena Ermoshina, chairwoman of the country's Central Elections Commission. The results allow Lukashenko, a 50-year-old former collective-farm director, to seek a third term in September 2006.

In the days after the elections, police in Minsk violently dispersed students and opposition supporters protesting the flawed results. During one October 19 protest, officers dragged opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko into a pizzeria and beat him; other officers assaulted cameramen from Russia's NTV and Ren-TV, as well as a reporter for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Police also destroyed some of the journalists' equipment.

Several days after the vote, Veronika Cherkasova, a reporter for the Minsk-based opposition newspaper Solidarnost (Solidarity), was stabbed to death in her Minsk apartment. Police said the murder was related to Cherkasova's personal life, but journalists said she occasionally wrote about politically sensitive issues, such as religious minorities and KGB surveillance methods. The police investigation into her death had yielded no results by year's end.

Belarusian authorities continued to stonewall an investigation into the July 2000 disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a 29-year-old cameraman for the Russian public television network ORT. Prosecutors announced they had reopened the case in December 2003, two days before the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg, France-based human rights monitoring agency, released a scathing report implicating high-level government officials in his disappearance. But Svetlana Zavadskaya, the cameraman's wife, said prosecutors suspended the inquiry in April with no substantive explanation. She said they refused to give her family any details about their investigation, even though the law authorizes relatives to obtain such information.

2004 Documented Cases – Belarus

JUNE 21, 2004
Posted: June 22, 2004

Mikhail Podolyak, Vremya

Early in the morning, agents of the Belarusian security service (KGB) forced Podolyak, a Ukrainian journalist, out of his home in the capital of Minsk and put him on a train to Odessa, Ukraine, according to local and international reports.

KGB agents gave Podolyak, deputy editor of the independent Minsk-based weekly Vremya, only 15 minutes to pack before they took him to the train station. His wife, Irina, a Belarusian native, was left behind.

Podolyak was expelled for violating a law that defines the rights of foreigners living in Belarus, according to an official KGB statement. The statement accused the journalist of writing "slanderous fabrications" about the political situation in Belarus.

Podolyak is banned from entering Belarus for a period of five years – a restriction noted in his passport.

In analytical pieces for Vremya, Podolyak frequently criticized the political and economic policies of the government, especially those concerning relations with Russia.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a leading media watchdog group, condemned Podolyak's deportation. The journalist received no advance warning about his deportation and was given no opportunity to appeal it, BAJ said.

Despite his deportation, Podolyak said he would continue contributing to Vremya from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, according to the independent Moscow news agency Prima. Vremya's editor in chief, Pavel Zhuk, said Podolyak would remain his deputy.

Podolyak is the third foreign journalist deported from Belarus in the past six years. The heads of the Belarusian bureau of the Russian television channel NTV, Aleksandr Stupnikov and Pavel Selin, were expelled from Belarus in 1997 and 2003, respectively.

On June 3, the Information Ministry ordered a three-month suspension of the opposition weekly Rabochaya Solidarnost for allegedly failing to inform authorities of a change in address. On June 9, the Oktyabrsky District Court in Minsk sentenced Oksana Novikova, a private citizen, to two and a half years in prison for libeling Your Excellency – a criminal offense under Belarusian law. On April 5, Novikova was detained as she distributed leaflets critical of you at a Minsk subway station.

In 2003, Belarusian authorities also cracked down on U.S.-funded organizations providing assistance to local media. The Foreign Ministry refused to extend its accreditation of the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) and Internews Network, forcing them to close their Minsk offices and end their media training programs – a move that added to the growing isolation of Belarus from the international community.

OCTOBER 17, 2004

Pavel Sheremet, First Channel

Several men beat prominent Belarusian journalist Sheremet, a correspondent for Russian television's First Channel. The attack occurred on the day a constitutional referendum allowing President Aleksandr Lukashenko to run for additional terms was passed.

Sheremet was hospitalized in Minsk with a concussion, and police charged him with hooliganism, according to local and international press reports. He was ordered to report to the Soviet Regional Court in Minsk on October 20. The hearing was postponed indefinitely because the police had failed to file the necessary documents in his case.

On October 19, a peaceful opposition protest in Minsk challenging the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum was violently dispersed by police. Fifty opposition activists were detained that evening, and several journalists were injured, including cameramen from the Russian television channels NTV and REN-TV, whose video cameras were smashed.

OCTOBER 20, 2004
Posted: October 22, 2004

Veronika Cherkasova, Solidarnost

Well-known Belarusian journalist Cherkasova was killed in her apartment in the capital, Minsk. Her body, which had multiple stab wounds, was found that night, according to local and international reports.

Cherkasova, 44, had reported for the Minsk-based opposition newspaper Solidarnost since May 2003. Previously, she worked for the independent business newspaper Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG), where she reported from 1995 to 2002. Cherkasova primarily covered social and cultural news but occasionally wrote about politically sensitive issues such as drug abuse, according to her former BDG colleague and editor, Svetlana Kalinkina.

Marina Zagorskaya, a Solidarnost reporter, told CPJ that four months ago, Cherkasova had written a series, titled "The KGB is still following you," outlining the methods of surveillance the Belarusian Security Services currently use to monitor civilians' activities.

Cherkasova's stepfather, Vladimir Melezhko, found the journalist's body last night after she did not go to work and failed to answer phone calls on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. She was stabbed 20 times, mostly around the throat. Police found no evidence of a break-in, and nothing was taken from the apartment, according to local reports.

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