Journalist, cameraman arrested during broadcast, others stopped at border; IPI concerned about pre-election media crackdown

Country/Topic: Belarus

Date: 15 March 2006

Source: International Press Institute (IPI)

Person(s): Hanna Horozhenko, Leonid Leonidov, Andriy Zhigulin, Vitaly Doroshchenko

Target(s): journalist(s) , photographer(s) , television station(s)

Type(s) of violation(s): deported , detained

Urgency: Flash

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is an IPI press release:

Vienna, 15 March 2006

IPI Concerned by Increased Pressure on Belarusian Media before Presidential Election

According to information before IPI, pressure on Belarusian independent media outlets and their employees has increased in early 2006, particularly in the lead-up to the 19 March presidential election.

In the week preceding the election, four independent newspapers were forced to halt publication. On 10 March, the Higher Economic Court temporarily suspended the independent newspaper Zgoda following a complaint filed by the Information Ministry. Three days later, on 13 March, a printing house in Smolensk, Russia, informed the BDG: Deolvaya Gazeta and Tovarishch newspapers that their contracts had been terminated for "economic and political reasons." Police confiscated the print run of the Narodnaya Volya newspaper on 14 March, after the newspaper was able to find another printing house in Smolensk.

Hanna Horozhenko, a reporter for the Kyiv-based Channel 5, was arrested on 12 March in Minsk, along with her cameraman Leonid Leonidov. The arrests occurred during the live broadcast of a meeting held by united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Horozhenko had been given the necessary accreditation from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry to cover the presidential election campaign. She was later released after the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk intervened on her behalf.

In addition, Channel 5 reporter Andriy Zhigulin and cameraman Vitaly Doroshchenko were stopped at the border between Ukraine and Belarus when traveling by train during the night of 14-15 March. The two men were detained by Belarusian border guards for more than two hours and forced to return to Ukraine despite holding the necessary documents from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry to work in Belarus.

According to reports, the state media have focused their coverage on incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking re-election for a third term. A third presidential term was made possible by a 2004 national referendum lifting the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency.

On 15 December, President Alexander Lukashenko, signed into law a decree punishing criticism of the President with up to five years in prison. The amendments to the penal code, secretly signed by the president and approved by both houses of parliament in early December, were registered on 20 December and became law at the end of 2005.

Consequently, those who send appeals through the mass media to international organisations or foreign governments, which the authorities believe are "harmful to the security interests of Belarus," can be punished. "Discrediting the Republic of Belarus" or "presenting false information about political, social, military, or foreign policy in Belarus" is also punishable under the law.

Commenting on the situation, IPI Director Johann Fritz said, "IPI condemns the attack on independent media in Belarus. It is unacceptable that journalists are prevented from carrying out their profession and harassed with such impunity."

"We urge the Belarusian authorities to ensure that all journalists have the right to report freely in the country in accordance with international law on freedom of expression," Fritz added.

IPI, the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, is dedicated to the furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism.