In addition to state control, CPJ has documented intimidation and direct attacks against the independent media.
London, August 8, 2001—The Belarusian embassy in London has denied a visa request by Emma Gray, a UK-based consultant with the Committee to Protect Journalists who intended to monitor press conditions in Belarus in advance of the September 9 presidential election. An embassy official provided no reason for the Foreign Ministry’s rejection of her application.
The denial of Gray’s visa is only the latest in a string of refusals handed to human-rights groups and other international monitors. On July 31, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were denied visas to visit Belarus. On June 26, two representatives from the London-based anti-censorship organization Article 19 were also denied visas. And on April 26, Freimut Duve, OSCE representative on freedom of the media, canceled a visit to Belarus when one of his senior advisers failed to secure a visa.
“Preventing CPJ from visiting Belarus demonstrates, yet again, that the regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko is implacably opposed to press freedom,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “This pattern of denying visas is, unfortunately, entirely in keeping with the government’s efforts to silence independent and opposition journalists and any critics of the government.”
CPJ had planned to meet with government officials and journalists working for both state and independent media during a 10-day visit to Minsk and Brest.
State dominates broadcast media
Minsk-based analysts say current campaign coverage resembles the run-up to parliamentary elections in October 2000, when international observers criticized the state media’s monopoly and bias. The situation today is no different: Pro-Lukashenko propaganda saturates the airwaves, and opposition candidates are either ignored or derided.
Sources in the capital told CPJ that Belarusian state television commentators routinely compare the opposition to the Nazis and imply that opposition parties are financially beholden to Western powers that are poised to take over the country.
Belarusian voters can only find alternative views in independent and opposition newspapers. These publications are expensive and scarce, since they are economically handicapped by state monopolies on printing, distribution, and advertising.
Media face constant attacks
In addition to state control, CPJ has documented intimidation and direct attacks against the independent media. The most prominent case is that of ORT cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky, who vanished on July 7, 2000. Belarusian authorities have so far made little progress in investigating the case, despite credible leads that may link government officials to his disappearance.
The independent Minsk-based newspaper Den’ has also been targeted. On July 6, local sources reported that Dom Pechati, the state printing press in Minsk, had refused to print the latest edition. The printing house did not explain its decision, but Den’ editor Aleksandr Tomkovich told local reporters that he believed it was related to the paper’s critical coverage of President Lukashenko.
Den’s editorial offices were subsequently robbed twice, once on the night of July 16-17 and again on the night of July 23-24, according to local and international press reports. Burglars removed the hard drives of three computers containing material for a special edition on the disappearances of opposition leaders and others in Belarus. The first burglary occurred shortly after the paper announced that it planned to publish documentary evidence that would shed light on the disappearances, Tomkovich told CPJ.
On June 19, officers of the Financial Investigation Unit visited the editorial offices of the independent twice-weekly newspaper Nasha Svaboda. The agents reportedly searched personal belongings and office documents, halting all office work for half a day. The officers gave no explanation for their visit, which came just days after the paper published an article about alleged government links to the disappearances.
The government has also used warnings from the State Committee on the Press (a regulatory body) to intimidate local media. Any publication that receives more than two warnings in one year can be fined and/or shut down. Several private newspapers, including Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta and Brestski Kurier, received such warnings during the first few months of 2001.