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Belarus4 October 2004

Noose tightens around independent press ahead of elections and constitutional referendum

Reporters Without Borders dismissed as a "crude device to gag the press" an information ministry ban on nine independent newspapers in two months, ahead of elections and a constitutional referendum on 17 October.

Three of the newspapers were suspended within the last week. They were: Regionalnaya Gazeta, Narodni Predprinimatel and Regionalniye Vedomosti, all for a period of three months.

Elsewhere editor of the weekly Birzha Novostei, Yelena Rovbetskaya was sentenced to pay a swingeing fine on 30 September for defamation of President Alexander Lukachenko.

"This wave of suspensions is nothing but a crude device to gag the press and to squeeze the life out of them by denying them income. At each suspension they trot out the same utterly false bureaucratic pretext", the international press freedom organisation said.

"Moreover to slap on fines equal to around six months salary is a shameful way of putting pressure on journalists and forcing them to conceal their opinions."

In the week of 30 September, Narodni Predprinimatel, in Novopolotsk region in the north of the country, and Regionalniye Vedomosti in Gorky, Moguilev region in the east, were suspended for three months. As usual administrative irregularities were cited. The newspapers were told that the frequency, language and type of publication did not tally with what was entered on their registration certificate.

Valery Shevchenko, editor of Narodni Predprinimatel, said he believed the newspaper’s stance on "protecting democracy" was the real reason behind the suspension. The weekly Regionalniye Vedomosti carries analysis of the atmosphere in the country and on the referendum at considerable variance with that of the presidential line.

The Regionalnaya Gazeta in Molodechno, Minsk region, was suspended for "breaking media law" on 24 September. The information minister, Vladimir Rusakevich, accused it of failing to give official notice of a TV supplement and of changing its periodicity.

Alexander Mantsevich, editor and co-founder of the newspaper said he believed the suspension was "political" and due to its coverage of a conflict pitting Vladislav Skvernik, a candidate at legislative elections, against the local Molodechno government.

Elsewhere, Yelena Rovbetskaya, editor and co-founder of the weekly Birzha Novostei, was sentenced by the regional Grodno court in the west of the country to pay a fine of 500 euros "for insulting the honour and dignity of the president".

In an article that appeared on 9 September, headlined "Treason in the name of the people", she alleged that the referendum on reform of the constitution, allowing President Lukachenko to seek a third term, was a "challenge to society". She added that to call for such a referendum, "one would need not just to have no conscience but a Godlike scorn for plebeians".

The regional prosecutor immediately opened an investigation under Article 172 of the administrative law that penalises spreading false news insulting the honour and dignity of the president. The journalist defended her position saying that she had simply expressed her point of view, which she said did not fall within the remit of the law. The judge, Natalia Kozel, declined to hear evidence from linguistic experts.

The current Belarus Constitution does not allow the outgoing president, whose second term goes to the end of 2006, to run again. Lukachenko therefore last August called for referendum on constitutional reform to coincide with legislative elections.

Since then the strongly critical stance of the independent press has brought it increased official harassment. The independent newspapers Vremia and Navinki in Minsk, Lyuboi Kapriz in Moguilev, Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni, in Smorgon, Grodno region and Allo! Kuplyu, Prodam, Menyayu, in Baranovichi in the west of the country, have already been suspended.

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