In a February visit to Belarusian State University, President Aleksandr Lukashenko bluntly outlined his regime's press policy. "Media hold a weapon of a most destructive power," Lukashenko told journalism students, "and they must be controlled by the state."
True to his word, Lukashenko signed into law a repressive media bill that promised to have sweeping ramifications. Signed in August and due to take effect in early 2009, the measure set up an obstacle course for journalists seeking the government-issued accreditation needed to report in Belarus. Journalists must obtain accreditations from multiple agencies, international journalists may not work without accreditation, and local and federal agencies have broad authority to deny accreditation without explanation.
A new set of registration requirements illustrated the government's determination to obstruct news outlets. The bill required all news outlets to re-register with the government within a year, a provision that effectively granted authorities the power to pull licenses from existing news outlets that irritated or offended them. The cumbersome registration process required applicants to provide exacting detail on content, staffing, and business leadership. The measure also extended restrictions, for the first time, to Internet publications. (While only about a third of the population had Internet access, thousands of Belarusian blogs were emerging, according to the research groups OpenNet Initiative and the International Research and Exchanges Board.)
"The demand that detailed information be submitted ... along with the multitude of bureaucratic barriers, testify that the registration scheme will be used to exercise supervision over the media," said Andrei Richter, director of the Moscow-based Media Law and Policy Institute, who analyzed the legislation for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a Vienna-based human rights monitoring body.
The law toughened sanctions, granting both the Ministry of Information and state prosecutors the authority to suspend or close news outlets if content is deemed inaccurate, defamatory, "not corresponding to reality," or "threatening the interests of the state or the public." The measure also banned media outlets from accepting aid from international groups.
The measure was drafted without consultation with independent journalists, and it was enacted over the objections of local and international media organizations, including CPJ. As the bill was making its way through parliament in June, senior administration official Natalya Petkevich explained to local reporters that the measure was aimed at "bringing discipline and setting rules" for news media.
Even without the new law, the government was effective in "bringing discipline." Throughout the year, authorities arrested and harassed independent journalists, confiscated equipment, and blocked distribution of independent newspapers.
In January, a judge in the Minsk City Court sentenced Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, an editor at the now-shuttered independent weekly Zgoda (Consensus), to three years in prison on charges of "incitement to religious hatred," according to local press reports. In 2006, Sdvizhkov reprinted Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad alongside an article chronicling the international uproar that the drawings had caused. Sdvizhkov fled Belarus when charges were first filed, but he was arrested when he returned in November 2007 to attend his father's funeral. In February, the Supreme Court reduced the sentence to the time Sdvizhkov had already served, according to the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
In January, Minsk police arrested freelance photographer Arseny Pakhomov while he was covering a protest over fiscal legislation for the independent weekly Nasha Niva. Two other Nasha Niva reporters – Syamyon Pechanko and Andrei Lyankevich – were beaten and detained by Minsk police while covering a March rally commemorating the 90th anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic. In both instances, a district court in Minsk sentenced the journalists to 15 days in prison on charges of organizing and participating in unapproved rallies. At the March rally, police also seized videotape from two journalists reporting for Lithuanian National Radio and Television, BAJ reported.
Arrests and harassment of independent journalists during and after opposition rallies have been commonplace in Belarus over the last three years, CPJ research showed. Authorities cracking down on unapproved public events have also retaliated against the independent reporters covering the gatherings.
Also in March, the Belarusian Security Service, or KGB, raided the offices of at least three independent broadcasters and the apartments of 30 journalists looking for material that might defame Lukashenko. According to press reports at the time, the raids were connected to a criminal case opened in August 2005 against a Web site that published a series of satirical animated cartoons aimed at Lukashenko. The KGB targeted journalists affiliated with Poland-based independent broadcasters Belsat, Radio Racyja, and European Radio for Belarus, all of which transmitted into Belarus. The raids occurred simultaneously in cities across the country. No arrests were made, but security agents confiscated computers, videotapes, voice recorders, and other equipment, BAJ reported. Journalists said later that the raids appeared to have had little actual connection to the original cartoon case.
Readers came to the rescue of the independent weekly Novy Chas as it faced a 50 million ruble (US$23,100) damage award in March. The damages stemmed from a civil defamation suit filed by Sen. Nikolai Cherginets over a September 2007 profile that criticized the politician's literary credentials (Cherginets is also a writer), his military service in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, and his rise in Belarusian politics. Facing insolvency, Novy Chas appealed to its readers for support – and was rewarded with enough donations to pay the damages, editor Aleksei Korol told CPJ.
In October, the state postal service Belpochta announced that it would not deliver a dozen independent and opposition newspapers in 2009. According to BAJ, the blacklisted titles included the popular independent daily Narodnaya Volya, as well as the embattled Nasha Niva, Novy Chas, and Tovarishch. Belpochta, which holds a monopoly on delivery services in Belarus, refused to provide services to a number of independent publications in both 2006 and 2007. In November, the state-owned distribution agency Soyuzpechat refused to allow about a dozen independent newspapers – Novy Chas and Tovarishch among them – to be sold in newspaper kiosks across the country, BAJ reported.
In September parliamentary elections, no opposition candidate was able to secure a seat in the legislative body. In a nod to the West, authorities had allowed more than 500 international monitors to observe the vote. Observers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found the election flawed "despite some minor improvements." International press reports said that opposition candidates had been denied media coverage and that vote-counting had lacked transparency.
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