Radio station closed, journalist fined, homes searched

Authorities in Belarus have closed down a radio station, arrested a journalist and searched the homes of others in the latest chapter of repression of the media in the country. These reprisals follow the inquiry launched by the KGB into the demonstration that took place in the center of Minsk on 19 December after it had been announced that Lukashenko, in power since 1994, had been re-elected president with 80% of the vote.

The campaign of reprisals continues in the country and is still spreading. The authorities appear to turn a deaf ear to appeals from the international community. But it should not cease to bring all its weight to bear on Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus is a state that borders the European Union, a police state that can not be allowed to flourish there without there being serious consequences.

We repeat our appeals to the Belarusian authorities to free all the journalists, activists and defenders of human rights detained in connection with the demonstration of 19 December last. It is absolutely anachronistic to repress with so much force a protest meeting. The raids, searches and seizures, the pressures of all kinds exercised on the representatives of civil society and those close to them must stop. A decision in this direction would amount to a gesture of good will making it possible to restart dialogue with the representatives of Belarus.

On 11 January a radio station was closed down, the correspondent of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Andrei Pachobut, was detained by the KGB, put on trial and fined 13 January. Several homes, including that of Larysa Shchyrakova a journalist working for the television station Belsat, had been searched the day before.

On 11 January Information Minister and president of the National Audiovisual Council Aleh Pralyaskuski, withdrew the license of Avtoradio (150.1) a popular independent station based in Minsk on the grounds that it had broadcast appeals to extremism. On 12 January technicians arrived to cut off the station's signal and it was effectively closed down. The director general of Avtoradio, Yuri Bazan, has made it clear he will appeal to the supreme economic court.

The closedown comes several weeks after the authorities had already forced the station to take off the air campaign messages from candidate Andrei Sannikov. On 16 December he had said that the "destiny of the nation [would be decided] on the street and not in the kitchens."

The authorities took this to be an appeal to demonstrate. Avtoradio was the only station to have accepted to broadcast campaign messages not only from Andrei Sannikov but also from Uladzimir Nyaklyayeu, leader of the "Speak the Truth!" campaign. Both men are being held at present by the KGB and are among 30 people charged with "mass rioting."

On 12 January the Gazeta Wyborcza correspondent, Andrei Pachobut, who had already been called in by the KGB was detained by members of the service and held for almost 24 hours before being taken in front of a judge and fined about 400 euros for having taken part in the 19 December protests.

Questioned by Reporters Without Borders he condemned the verdict and said he would appeal. He did not take part in the demonstration which he had attended to cover for his paper.

"The judge took no notice of my arguments and those of my lawyer," he said.

"It was obvious that I was there in my capacity as a journalist and I wore a badge identifying me as a member of the press. But he only took into account the evidence from police officers,' Pachobut told Reporters Without Borders.

The judge refused to watch a video in which the journalist was seen with the afore-mentioned badge as well as refusing to hear defense witnesses

"When I go on a demonstration, I acknowledge it," he added.

"I've taken part in several demonstrations organized by the Union of Poles in Belarus and I've never denied it. But when I'm a journalist, I do my job. And I was working on 19 December."

On 12 January the home of Larysa Shchyrakova, member of the Belarusian association of journalists (BAJ) and correspondent for the Polish-based television Belsat, in Gomel, the country's second city, situated in the southeast, was searched. This, the last in a long series of raids, was linked to the search for any material dealing with the 19 December demonstration. Two computers, two voice recording devices and hundreds of DVD were seized.

Human rights activists have been summoned by the KGB for the same reason. They include Pyotr Kuznyatsou, director of the regional branch of the " Movement for Freedom ", trade unionist Viktar Kazlou, and members of the Christian democratic party Artsyom Khmyalnitski and Ales Sivakou.

Among the latest searches targets have included the home of Novaya Gazeta journalist Irina Khalip, and her mother, from whom the authorities want to remove care of her grandson as well as the homes of the correspondent of the newspaper Glos Znad Niemna and sister of the Belsat journalist Iryna Charnyauka.


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