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Belarus27 December 2005

Lukashenko delivers last fatal blow to independent newspaper

Voicing deep regret that the newspaper Solidarnost will no longer be available at news stands on 1 January, Reporters Without Borders today roundly condemned the action of the Belarusian authorities in denying the country’s independent newspapers access to all necessary resources.

Belsayuzdruk, a state company that has a monopoly on newspaper distribution, announced on 30 November that its contract with Solidarnost would not be renewed. It gave no explanation. Three weeks before that, on 9 November, the state postal service said it would cease to distribute Solidarnost to its subscribers from the start of 2006.

The first crippling blow for Solidarnost came in January 2004 when Belarus’s only printers, Krasnaya Zvezda, which is also state-owned, refused to continue printing the newspaper, forcing it to turn to a company in the Russian city of Smolensk.

“The arsenal of repressive administrative measures deployed against the news media shows that President Lukashenko is bent on systematically silencing all criticism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “His aim is to leave Belarus without any opposition in order to pave the way for his triumph in next year’s presidential election. All the media are in his sights and there is every reason to think his offensive will accelerate as the election approaches.”

Solidarnost was founded as the mouthpiece of an independent trade union grouping in 1991, when Belarus was about to detach itself from the Soviet Union and become independent. Published in Russian and Belarusian, it gradually turned a moderate opposition newspaper critical of the Lukashenko regime. Of late, its sales had been on the increase, with more than 95 per cent of its 5,400 print run being sold.

The newspaper received a deadly warning on 20 October 2004, when one of its staff journalists, Veronika Cherkasova, was stabbed to death in her Minsk home. From the outset, the prosecutor’s office ruled out any possibility that her murder was linked to her work as a journalist, although she had been investigating arms sales that Belarus had made to Iraq while Saddam Hussein was still in power.

The termination of news stand sales is the final blow for Solidarnost. Editor Alexandre Starikevitch said it would henceforth only be able to survive as a website or as a clandestinely distributed newsletter like the Soviet-era samizdats.

“Officially, we have not been forbidden to do anything, but we have been cut off from all means of existence,” he said. Its circulation is too low for it to get enough advertising revenue to be distributed free of charge. The staff are looking for jobs with other newspapers.

Since the start of this year, at least 15 independent newspapers have suddenly found themselves denied printing or distribution services by state-owned monopolies and have been forced to seek ways of surviving outside Belarus.

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