IFEX members are calling attention to escalating repression against the media in Belarus as the country's voters prepare to head to the polls to elect a new president on 19 March 2006. They say the government under President Aleksandr Lukashenko is depriving voters of independent news about candidates by confiscating opposition newspapers, intimidating local reporters and photographers, and preventing foreign journalists from reporting.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says Lukashenko's administration has moved aggressively to limit coverage in the run-up to the vote. In December 2005, Lukashenko signed into law amendments to the penal code that criminalise criticism of the president and his government.
Anyone convicted under the amendments can be jailed for up to five years for using the media to disseminate "appeals" to international organisations or foreign governments deemed harmful to national security interests. The legislation neither explains what is meant by appeals, nor does it define what is harmful to security interests.
In May 2005, Lukashenko signed a presidential decree barring independent media from using the words "Belarus" or "national" in their titles and requiring them to re-register with new names. The next month, the president signed a law increasing taxes on newspaper distributors.
More recently, police have seized entire print runs of opposition newspapers, reports CPJ. The national postal agency Belpochta has refused to distribute more than a dozen opposition and independent titles, while banks have frozen the accounts of several opposition newspapers. Politicised libel convictions have nearly forced the independent newspapers "Narodnaya Volya" and "Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta" into bankruptcy.
On 2 March 2006, plain clothes police physically assaulted at least nine journalists who were covering the arrest of the main opposition candidate, Aleksandr Kozulin, in Minsk, reported the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres, RSF). Opposition activists were also arrested.
According to Freedom House's annual survey "Freedom in the World", Belarus is rated "Not Free" and is considered one of the world's most repressive regimes.
Oleg Panfilov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), says Lukashenko and his government have created a situation where campaign coverage in the Belarusian mass media benefits only the incumbent. "Such an atmosphere has been systematically built during Lukashenko's rule, with radio stations, newspapers, and Internet sites gradually being destroyed," he says.
Lukashenko successfully pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament in October 2004, which enabled him to seek a third term as president. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) characterised that process as being undemocratic. It said Lukashenko and senior administration officials received more than 90 percent of the pre-election television coverage.
Visit these links:
- CPJ Report on Fact-Finding Visit to Belarus: http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/europe/belarus10feb06na.html
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=16657
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=3750&Language=EN
- CJES: http://www.cjes.ru
- Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=337
- ARTICLE 19: http://www.article19.org/pdfs/letters/belarus-press-law.pdf
- Human Rights Watch Backgrounder: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/01/18/belaru12217.htm
- World Association of Newspapers: http://www.wan-press.org/article8014.html
- OSCE: http://osce.org/cio/item_1_18273.html