Open season declared on journalists

There has been no let-up in the harassment of journalists that began on the eve of on 25 March, which the Belarusian opposition celebrates as Freedom Day. President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s apparently panicked government is deploying all possibly means to silence its critics, with growing success. The country’s independent journalists have more need than ever of support from their colleagues abroad.

The latest journalist to be arrested is Uladzimir Laptsevich, a reporter for the news agency BelaPAN, who was arrested in the eastern city of Mahilyow on 25 March as he was about to cover an opposition demonstration and was sentenced to seven days in prison. Absurd grounds were again used.

The journalists who were arrested on 24 March were held for three days. One of them, the Russian journalist Aleksandr Lashmankin, learned on his release that his accreditation had been rescinded. “The Belarusian authorities do not seem to want to see journalists like me working here,” he told Reporters Without Borders.

Another of the journalists arrested on 24 March, Ales Asiptsou, said he intended to appeal against his arrest for “urinating in a public place.” He told BelaPAN: “They have declared open season on journalists and I think we now have to be ready for anything.”

Meanwhile, the intolerable persecution of Andrey Pachobut, the correspondent of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, is continuing. After being jailed for 15 days and banned from leaving the country, he is now facing up to two years in prison on charges of insulting the president in articles in Gazeta Wyborcza, on the Belorussky Partizan website and on his blog. He has not been told in what way he insulted the president.

In two separate rulings on March 28 and 29, the Belarusian Supreme Economic Court upheld the warnings that the information ministry sent to two independent news media, Narodnaya Volya and Avtoradio, for interviewing or quoting members of the opposition. The Supreme Economic Court also upheld Avtoradio’s closure.

Increased harassment on journalists on Eve of Freedom Day- March 25th

Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the arrests of journalists Aleksandr Loshmankin and Ales Asiptsou in separate incidents yesterday, on the eve of “Dzen Voly” (Freedom Day), an event that is traditionally celebrated by the Belarusian opposition.

“We regard these arrests as press freedom violations designed to obstruct coverage of opposition activities in Belarus during a period of heightened repression by President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s autocratic government,” Reporters Without Borders said.

A Russian journalist and founder of the human rights website Svoboda, Loshmankin was forced to get off a train from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk at the Belarusian border crossing at Orsh. After being searched by two officers who pretended to be looking for drugs, he was arrested for insulting an officer and was immediately sentenced to three days in prison.

Loshmankin seems to be the latest victim of a government policy to block visitors who could report facts that are embarrassing for the government. Human rights activists Maxim Kitsyuk and Andrei Yurov were expelled on 9 and 17 March respectively.

Asiptsou, a Belarusian journalist who works for several independent media including BelaPAN, was arrested yesterday afternoon near his home in the eastern city of Mahilyow for allegedly “urinating in a public place.”

The ridiculous grounds given for yesterday’s arrests should not deflect attention from the real motive, which was to prevent these two journalists from covering the discreet celebrations planned by the opposition for today to mark the 93rd anniversary of Belarus’ first independent and democratic republic. Loshmankin had even gone through the necessary bureaucratic channels to obtain accreditation.

Yesterday’s arrests come three months after a heavy-handed government crackdown in response to the protests that followed the controversial president election held on 19 December. Some of the journalists who covered those protests are still being hounded by the authorities.

One of them is Andrey Pachobut, the correspondent of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, who served a 15-day jail sentence after the protests. He was denied press accreditation by the foreign minister at the start of March on the grounds that his reporting was “biased.” As a result, he could now be fined if he tries to work. Then he was prevented from travelling to Poland on 23 March.

A legal battle between the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the information ministry is also very important. The newspaper is challenging the warning it received from the ministry for “disseminating information about an organization that has not obtained legal registration” in an article last September about a campaign by various opposition movements to call for Lukashenko’s resignation.

The ministry objected to the fact that the article quoted Zmitser Dashkevich, the head of the “Molodoy Front” (Youth Front), which the government regards as illegal. “This is an example of censorship of the independent press,” Narodnaya Volya editor Iosif Syaredzish said. If the information ministry wins, it will set an intolerable precedent. The media will no longer be able to quote unauthorized opposition groups. Reporters Without Borders is following the case closely. The next hearing is scheduled for 28 March.


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