President Aleksandr Lukashenko strangled the country’s independent and opposition media in the months before deeply flawed October elections that returned his supporters to Parliament. The obedient state media flooded the capital, Minsk, and the countryside with pro-Lukashenko propaganda, vilifying opposition leaders and urging voters to support the president or face Western domination and political instability. The October vote also ratified a constitutional amendment enabling the president to seek a third term.
Lukashenko began tightening his grip on the news media early in 2004, ordering the Justice Ministry in February to crack down on nongovernmental organizations ahead of the vote. In the ensuing months, prosecutors, tax police, and other government regulators unleashed a campaign of harassment and intimidation against journalists, opposition activists, and human rights monitors who criticized Lukashenko and his repressive policies.
The Information Ministry and other government agencies temporarily suspended a dozen newspapers during 2004, saying it was necessary to restore “order in the print media,” the Minsk-based human rights organization Charter 97 reported. Andrei Shentorovich, editor of the independent newspaper Mestnoye Vremya (Local Time) in the Western town of Volkovysk, went on a hunger strike for several weeks to protest the closure of his publication three days ahead of the elections, The Associated Press reported.
Authorities also used politicized state bureaucracies to strangle the distribution of popular newspapers, such as the independent daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (Belarusian Business Gazette), popularly known as BDG. Officials filed lawsuits, conducted politically motivated tax inspections, seized print runs, blocked access to printers, and conducted surveillance against journalists. Without explanation, the post office and the state-run newspaper distributor stopped delivering BDG to subscribers and kiosks around the country in January. With the Information Ministry harassing any printer that worked with BDG, the newspaper was forced to print in neighboring Russia. By September, BDG had virtually disappeared from newsstands, but it continued to publish an online edition.
In November, CPJ gave a 2004 International Press Freedom Award to Svetlana Kalinkina for enduring intense government harassment in retaliation for her independent reporting. Kalinkina edited BDG until September and was appointed editor of the opposition daily Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) in December.
Foreign journalists were also harassed. In June, a court convicted Mikhail Podolyak, deputy editor of the independent Minsk weekly Vremya (Time), of publishing “slanderous fabrications,” prompting officers from the Belarusian security service (KGB) to deport him to his native Ukraine.
Authorities were especially harsh with correspondents for popular Russian television channels, one of the few sources of broadcast news not controlled by the government. The Foreign Ministry revoked the accreditation of journalists at the Minsk bureau of the Russian state broadcaster Rossiya in July, claiming that they had exaggerated attendance at an antigovernment rally. On the day of the October referendum, police detained Pavel Sheremet, a correspondent for the Russian state broadcaster Channel One, on charges of “hooliganism” after two unidentified men assaulted him. Sheremet, who suffered a concussion in the attack, had produced scathing documentaries about the referendum and Lukashenko’s rule.
In the run-up to the October vote, election officials disqualified dozens of opposition candidates seeking seats in Parliament, and the government clamped down on the flow of information. In September, two businessmen were sentenced to two years in prison on defamation charges for distributing fliers about a government-funded ski vacation Lukashenko took in Austria. Two days before the elections, the KGB arrested American computer expert Ilya Mafter, who was working on Internet access projects for the United Nations and the New York–based, pro-democracy Open Society Institute. Mafter was charged with fraud for allegedly providing “illegal” Internet services, thus causing local telecommunications companies to suffer losses. He remained in custody awaiting trial at year’s end.
On election day, authorities barred dozens of local and international monitors from observing the polls, and state television violated domestic laws by broadcasting pro-Lukashenko commercials and favorable exit-poll results. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a pan-European elections monitoring organization, said the vote “fell significantly short” of democratic standards, with Lukashenko and other senior officials receiving more than 90 percent of the pre-election television coverage. The OSCE said it saw registration and vote-counting irregularities, arbitrary and politicized enforcement of election laws, unfair restrictions on opposition candidates, and intimidation of opposition activists.
According to the government’s tally, no opposition candidates were elected to Parliament, and 77 percent of voters supported dropping the two-term limit for presidents. “I consider it an elegant victory,” said Elena Ermoshina, chairwoman of the country’s Central Elections Commission. The results allow Lukashenko, a 50-year-old former collective-farm director, to seek a third term in September 2006.
In the days after the elections, police in Minsk violently dispersed students and opposition supporters protesting the flawed results. During one October 19 protest, officers dragged opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko into a pizzeria and beat him; other officers assaulted cameramen from Russia’s NTV and Ren-TV, as well as a reporter for the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Police also destroyed some of the journalists’ equipment.
Several days after the vote, Veronika Cherkasova, a reporter for the Minsk-based opposition newspaper Solidarnost (Solidarity), was stabbed to death in her Minsk apartment. Police said the murder was related to Cherkasova’s personal life, but journalists said she occasionally wrote about politically sensitive issues, such as religious minorities and KGB surveillance methods. The police investigation into her death had yielded no results by year’s end.
Belarusian authorities continued to stonewall an investigation into the July 2000 disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a 29-year-old cameraman for the Russian public television network ORT. Prosecutors announced they had reopened the case in December 2003, two days before the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg, France–based human rights monitoring agency, released a scathing report implicating high-level government officials in his disappearance. But Svetlana Zavadskaya, the cameraman’s wife, said prosecutors suspended the inquiry in April with no substantive explanation. She said they refused to give her family any details about their investigation, even though the law authorizes relatives to obtain such information.