New York, August 20, 2001—In the latest crackdown on the independent press before the September 9 presidential election, police from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized 400,000 copies of the independent triweekly Nasha Svaboda on Friday, August 17, according to local and international sources.
The special election issue, which endorsed Vladimir Goncharik, the only opposition candidate running against incumbent president Alexandr Lukashenko, predicted the president’s defeat in the upcoming poll.
According to local sources, though officials did not level specific charges, they said they confiscated the paper’s print run at the Magic publishing house in Minsk because Magic had not adequately prepared certain financial documents.
However, Nasha Svaboda editor-in-chief Pavel Zhuk maintains that because the newspapers were the property of Nasha Svaboda and not Magic, police had no right to seize them.
“This action—based on vague charges—is clearly designed to hinder the work of the press during the run-up to the presidential election” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “During election campaigns, all ideas and views must circulate freely, not just those of the ruling party.”
Though officials took nearly the entire 480,000 print run, Nasha Svaboda staff managed to retain 80,000 copies and distribute them by hand in Minsk.
Pattern of abuse
Friday’s seizure is not the first time Belarusian officials have harassed Magic, the country’s largest independent printing press. Last year, authorities raided the company, froze its assets, confiscated US$500,000 worth of property, and sealed its printing presses, all in an attempt to block the publication of local independent papers.
The Lukashenko regime continues to target Nasha Svaboda. Today, the paper received a warning from the State Press Committee for reprinting an article from the Russian daily Vremya Novostey about Lukashenko’s prosecution of Belarusian officials who support the opposition.
The committee told Zhuk that another warning would result in the newspaper’s closure. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Nasha Svaboda has already been closed twice during Lukashenko’s presidency.
In addition, the government has repeatedly denied visas to journalists and human rights workers hoping to monitor press conditions in Belarus in advance of the September 9 election. (Read CPJ’s August 8 alert on this issue.)