Belarus - Annual Report 2008

Area: 207,600

Population: 9,726,700

Languages: Russian, Belarusian

Head of state: President Alexander Lukashenko

Press freedom in Europe's last dictatorship, whose president was re-elected in 2006 with over 82% of the vote in an election dubbed fraudulent by all observers, did not improve in 2007. Official pressure on the media continued and the Internet came under greater scrutiny.

The UN Human Rights Council decided in May not to renew the mandate of the UN special rapporteur for Belarus, even though Belarus had not been elected to the council because of its appalling human rights record. The free press has virtually disappeared and been forced underground. Printing and distribution of newspapers is done by state-controlled firms that have a monopoly. The national post office, Belpochta, has a monopoly on distribution of newspapers to subscribers and can strike a dissident paper off its list at any time.

The regime firmly rejects the demands of civil society groups, especially when they challenge the legality of its decisions. Parliament's human rights and media committee in August turned down a request from the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) to review article 10 of the press law to see if it conformed to articles 33 and 34 of the national constitution. Article 10 obliges media outlets to register with the authorities, who have used the provision in recent years to block the registration and thus operation of dissident media outlets.

Two years of harassment of the independent twice-weekly paper Vitebsky Kourier increased in January 2007, with bureaucratic efforts to shut it down for not printing the address of its offices on the front page. The paper and its staff have been evicted from their offices several times since October 2006, putting them in technical violation of the press law. Such administrative harassment is common and one of the country's oldest weeklies, Nasha Niva, had the lease on its premises broken off for a fifth time under government pressure after the secret police visited the landlord. This absurd situation has been going on since April 2006.

Journalists who work for foreign media, especially those in neighbouring Poland, were targeted by the regime. Ihar Bantsar, editor of the Polish-language monthly Polski na uchodzstwie, was sentenced to 10 days in prison in March for "insults." The paper's editor, Andrey Pochobut, has been arrested many times in recent years. The Moscow correspondent of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza,Waclaw Radziwonowicz, was arrested on a train to Russia in July in Brest, on the Polish-Belarusian border. Customs officials detained him for five hours and then sent him on a train back to Warsaw without explanation. Radziwonowicz is a former correspondent in Belarus and is said to have been put on a black list in 2006 after writing articles sharply criticising President Alexander Lukashenko and his entourage.

Preventive arrests

Opposition activists of the Youth Front were arrested in Baranovichi on 10 September as they demonstrated against the trial of a Front member. Journalists covering the protest, including photographers from Agence France-Presse and Reuters, were held for several hours. A journalist with Nasha Niva, Arseny Pakhomaw, was detained for seven hours and then charged with "hooliganism." Ivan Roman, of the Polish station Radio Racyja, and Polski na uchodzstwie editor Bantsar, were ordered jailed before a demonstration planned for 14 October. Plainclothes police picked Roman up at his home and he was accused of making "insulting remarks." The media was barred from his trial on 10 October.

Barys Haretski, of Nasha Niva and Radio Racyja, was sentenced to a week in prison on 11 December for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration. Earlier in the year, Bantsar, Pochobut and Aliaksey Saley (of Polski na uchodzstwie), Andrey Dynko (Nasha Niva), Andrey Pisalnik, former editor of the paper Glos znad Niemna, and Andrei Shantorovich, former editor of the weekly Mestnaya Gazeta, were also punished for similar offences.

Cyber-dissidents targeted

The regime, determined to block any independent news, turned its attention to the Internet in 2007. Surveillance of Internet cafes was stepped up in February and the government ordered their owners and also the managers of computer clubs to report when users visited banned websites. They must also keep a record of all customer traffic for a year, supposedly to fight cyber-crime but in fact as a way to narrow this last window of freedom. The regime controls access to the Internet through the monopoly of the national telecoms firm Beltelkom but cybercafes had been the only place where Belarusians could post their opinions without risking arrest.

President Lukashenko said during a visit to the offices of the state-owned daily Sovietskaia Bieloroussiya on 2 August that he would "put an end to the anarchy" online and would "not allow humanity's great technical achievement to become a news sewer." Deputy information minister Alyaksandr Slabadchuk announced a few weeks later the setting up of a working group to improve "legal regulation of the Internet." He approvingly mentioned China, which is very good at cracking down on cyber-dissidents.



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