Institutionalized harassment of the news media

As tension mounts in Belarus three days before the 19 March presidential election, Reporters Without Borders today issued a report on the harassment of independent journalists by President Alexander Lukashenko's government apparatus, which is currently cracking down hard on Belarusian journalists, foreign correspondents and the regime's political opponents.

The report is based on information gathered by a Reporters Without Borders team during a visit to Minsk from 2 to 7 March. The team met representatives of independent media, press freedom organisations and opposition movements all currently in the government's sights.

During its 12-year rule, the Lukashenko regime has almost eliminated the independent press and has completely eradicated opposition media. Lukashenko regards the news media as "the main measuring device of ideology, at the base of the state." Government propaganda lambasts the independent media, calling them dishonest. Now running for his fourth term, Lukashenko has almost complete control of the press and harasses his detractors.

At least four foreign journalists have been expelled from Belarus so far this year, while at least four other Ukrainian and Polish journalists were arrested between 12 and 15 March and given sentences ranging from five to ten days in prison. Meanwhile, at least 10 foreign reporters wanting to visit Belarus for the elections are still waiting for visas.

On 2 March, at least nine journalists were arrested and beaten by plain-clothes policemen while covering the arrest of opposition candidate Alexander Kazulin.

Around 57,000 copies of the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya were confiscated on 13 March, a week after the banning of a special issue on Kazulin's candidacy with a print run of 250,000. A Russian printing company meanwhile announced on 13 March that it was terminating its contracts with three independent Belarusian newspapers which had been covering the programmes of the opposition candidates.

Adept at Soviet-style methods, the Belarusian secret services claimed yesterday on television that a US-backed coup attempt had just been thwarted.