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Belarus6 August 2004

Authorities strike double blow against opposition press

07.08.04 - Leading independent daily reappears

Narodnaya Volya, Belarus’ leading independent daily, was given permission to resume publishing on 6 August after paying the damages plus interest demanded by former state television director Yahor Rybakov and businessman Sergei Atroschenko.

06.08.04 - Authorities strike double blow against opposition press

Reporters Without Borders today accused the Belarus authorities of denying the population the right to independent news in the run-up to elections after they announced the permanent closure of opposition weekly Rabochaya Solidarnost on 2 August and suspended printing of the independent daily Narodnaya Volya on 4 August.

The information ministry said Rabochaya Solidarnost would have to remain closed because the supreme court has dissolved the Belarus Labour Party, one of the newspaper’s co-founders. Printing of Narodnaya Volya was ordered suspended until it paid damages to a former head of the state television and a businessman.

Reporters Without Borders said these two decisions constituted further serious attacks on an independent press that was already subject to widespread harassment in Belarus. "Every means possible is used to silence voices that are not in harmony with the president’s way of thinking," the organisation said.

The Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) printing house received an order to stop printing Narodnaya Volya on 4 August, a day after a regional court confiscated equipment belonging to the newspaper. Editor Iosif Seredich said at a press conference yesterday that the value of the equipment and material seize was more than the damages claimed by businessman Sergei Atroschenko, although this was the reason given for the seizure.

The newspaper is also required to retract allegations made about former state TV director Yahor Rybakov although he is being detained on corruption charges and has been in prison for several months. The state prosecutor has announced the confiscation of 500,000 dollars from Ryabakov on the grounds that it was illegally obtained. One hundred thousand dollars have already been seized. "And yet we have to publish an article saying he is the world’s most honest man." Seredich complained.

The Belarus supreme court on 31 May confirmed a lower court conviction on 17 November 2003 ordering Narodnaya Volya to pay Ryabakov 20,000 euros in damages for libel because of an October 2001 interview with Eleonora Yazerskaya in which she accused him of mismanagement.

The other newspaper, Rabochaya Solidarnost, was originally suspended for three months by information minister on 3 June for "violating the media law" by allegedly failing to update its registration details with the authorities. The information ministry now argues that the newspaper has ceased to exist because of the supreme court’s dissolution of the PBT, one of the organisations that founded it.

PBT leader Alexandre Bukhvostov told Reporters Without Borders that the newspaper was the target of official hostility because it criticised the pro-government Federation of Belarus Trade Unions.

Reporters Without Borders condemned the administrative harassment of the independent press in its 2004 annual report. These papers are seen as too critical of President Lukashenko’s regime, which Reporters Without Borders lists as one of the 37 "predator of press freedom" worldwide.

During 2003, the authorities suspended and repeatedly sanctioned more than ten newspapers, prevented around 15 independent media from appearing and shut down several human rights organisations that were providing the media with a valuable service.

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