Officials seize independent-media equipment ahead of presidential election

“[My paper] gives alternative information, and the authorities do not like that,”
an editor told CPJ.

New York, August 23, 2001—In an ongoing crackdown on the independent press during the run-up to the September 9 presidential elections, Belarusian government officials have seized computers and other office equipment from several publications. Some of the equipment had been leased under U.S. government aid programs.

“Confiscating equipment from independent newspapers marks yet another attempt by the Lukashenko regime to distort the democratic process,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We call on the president to ensure that all media outlets may operate freely during this crucial pre-election period.”

According to local and international press reports, police raided the offices of the Krichev-based weekly Volny Horad on July 12 and seized three computers, a scanner, a camera, a television set, and a VCR.

On July 18, a court in Krichev found the newspaper guilty of violating Decree No. 8, which bars the use of foreign grants for activities that encourage “agitation.” The court rubber-stamped the confiscation of the newspaper’s computer equipment.

Under the 1996 U.S.-Belarus Bilateral Assistance Agreement, however, all U.S. government assistance is exempt from Decree No. 8.

On August 3, the U.S. State Department condemned the seizure, noting that two of the three computers belonged to the U.S. embassy in Minsk.

On July 20, according to local press reports, officials from the Markovka village prosecutor’s office, accompanied by police, seized a computer, a printer, and a fax modem from the weekly Belaruski Ushod.

The equipment was provided by the international nonprofit IREX, which successfully defended the case in the Khotimsk Regional Court on August 15. The equipment was returned to the newspaper’s headquarters five days later, on August 20.

Belaruski Ushod editor Vasily Dolgalyov told CPJ that the government “wanted to stop my newspaper going out before the elections….[My paper] gives alternative information, and the authorities do not like that.”

Financial investigations impede independent press
On the evening of August 21, officials from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized several computers and other technical equipment from the independent daily Narodnaya Volya, according to local and international reports.

Officials claimed they confiscated the computers in order to determine whether the paper had a legal right to use them, given that they were borrowed from private individuals. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that the investigation is slated to continue until September 19.

“The goal of this measure is to paralyze the work of the editorial office at the time of…the presidential election,” Vyachaslau Orhish, a correspondent with the newspaper, told RFE/RL. Despite these difficulties, he maintained that Narodnaya Volya would continue to publish.

The State Committee for Financial Investigation has also launched audits of two more independent newspapers, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta and Nasha Svaboda.

Publishing house under fire
CPJ has confirmed that yesterday the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized equipment and froze bank accounts of the Magic publishing house, which prints most Minsk-based independent publications.

Magic’s owner, Yury Budz’ko, told RFE/RL that the committee officials justified their actions by reference to an earlier court order that Budz’ko successfully challenged last year.

Authorities sealed Magic’s printing presses, preventing the publishing house from printing Narodnaya Volya, Rabochiy, and more than a dozen other independent newspapers, Stepan Zhirnostek, Magic’s executive director, told CPJ.

The State Committee for Financial Investigation told Zhirnostek that it would make a decision tomorrow whether to reopen the publishing house and return the confiscated equipment.

These latest efforts to silence the independent press come only days after the State Press Committee seized 400,000 copies of the triweekly Nasha Svaboda and warned the paper for reprinting an article from the Russian daily Vremya Novostey about Lukashenko’s prosecution of Belarusian officials who support the opposition. (Read CPJ’s August 20 alert on the issue.)