A Newspaper in Minsk Goes Out in Envelopes

By Maria Danilova
The Associated Press

MINSK -- The stories have been printed and the journalists have gone home. But the work is far from over: Thousands of newspapers, stacked in ceiling-high piles, wait to be stuffed into envelopes, stamped and hauled to the post office.

Belarus' state-owned media distribution network refuses to distribute Narodnaya Volya, or People's Will, one of the few newspapers not yet under President Alexander Lukashenko's thumb, and state-run press kiosks are banned from selling it.

So the paper's staff is using the mail to get their message out.

In the run-up to this month's presidential election, in which Lukashenko is seeking a third term, authorities have been steadily tightening the screws on the few remaining independent media.

All television and radio stations are either owned or controlled by the state and their newscasts offer nothing but praise for the 51-year-old leader, who has ruled Belarus for more than 10 years. Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition presidential candidate, complains that his name is never mentioned on television.

The majority of print media are heavily censored, and those that refuse to toe the official line have been denied the right to publish and circulate. Even buying a copying machine requires Interior Ministry approval.

Over the past several years, two journalists known for their critical coverage of Lukashenko's government have died under mysterious circumstances. Another vanished.

In October, Lukashenko pushed through a law that makes it a crime to discredit the state and its officials; convictions will bring up to two years in prison. Critics say the law could be used to silence journalists and Lukashenko's opponents.

"All information that contradicts the official propaganda machine is blocked," said Zhanna Litvina, the head of the Belarussian Journalists' Association.

Faced with such pressure, some independent newspapers are now published only online and others have gone underground. Still others have closed down.

Narodnaya Volya, a nationwide newspaper with a modest print run of 30,000 copies, has been fighting for survival. It used to be the country's only independent daily paper, but faced with the new restrictions it now comes out only three times per week.

Last year a court found the paper guilty of slandering a pro-government politician accused in the UN oil-for-food investigation and slapped it with a $50,000 fine. Unable to pay, the paper turned to its readers, who collected most of the money.

As soon as the paper sent out the last $200 of the fine, deputy editor Svetlana Kalinkina said she received notification that its distributors and publisher were breaking their contracts with the publication. That forced her to search for a printing house in Russia and to mail newspapers directly to subscribers. They are usually delivered two days later.

"It had all been planned in advance -- they simply wanted to get us in this way or another," Kalinkina said as volunteers were getting ready for the nightly ritual of sealing newspapers in envelopes.

On Sunday, authorities seized some 250,000 copies of Narodnaya Volya that were being brought from Russia in trucks, accusing the paper of participating in the election campaign.

The paper had printed a special edition with photographs showing last week's beating of an opposition candidate, activists and journalists by security agents.

Meanwhile, media owned by or loyal to the state enjoy heavy subsidies. Minsk is speckled with billboards urging Belarussians to subscribe to the main government newspaper, Belarus Today.

Litvina said the country's media budget was doubled from $31 million in 2004 to $61 million this year to boost favorable election coverage of the president.

Lukashenko sees the government's media campaign as a way to protect what he calls the Belarus' information security. In a recent television interview, he vowed "to counter, to fight Western pressure," alluding to allegations that Western governments were fostering uprisings in former Soviet republics.