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Belarus6 February 2003

Independent paper threatened with closure

Reporters Without Borders today strongly protested against a court’s cancellation of the commercial licence of Romuald Ulan, founder of the independent weekly Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni, in the town of Smorgon, thus threatening the paper’s survival.

"Your government is systematically using bureaucratic and legalistic obstruction to censor and gag the independent press," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to justice minister Viktor Golovanov.

"We protest strongly against this decision on 3 February by the Grodno commercial court, which condemns to death a paper that has become too much of a nuisance to local authorities on the eve of next month’s regional elections. We are not fooled by this legal farce and we ask you to use all your influence to see that this decision is reversed on appeal."

The court decision was in response to a complaint filed by the Smorgon town board accusing Ulan of not respecting labour and tax laws and fire regulations in 2000 and 2002. The paper has been harassed for several years by the town authorities, who have also obstructed the appearance of two other publications run by Ulan, Novaya Gazeta Astrautsa and Novaya Gazeta Ashmyan. The Grodno commercial court condemned such obstruction on two occasions, in 2001 and last year.

The government controls the country’s publicly-owned media and the independent press is systematically harassed by regional and national authorities. Last year, three journalists were sent to a labour camp for insulting the president. They had denounced the corruption of President Alexander Lukashenko or said he was involved in the July 2000 disappearance of journalist Dmitri Zavadski.




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