Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko continued a systematic crackdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations, further tightening control over domestic news ahead of the 2006 presidential election. Lukashenko consolidated internal power after a rigged October 2004 parliamentary election and accompanying referendum that eliminated presidential term limits, but he was still left looking nervously over his shoulder at political change happening elsewhere in the region.
Worried about potential spillover from the late 2004 pro-democracy revolt in neighboring Ukraine, Lukashenko strengthened control over the KGB and denounced the changes in neighboring Kyiv as “sheer banditry under the guise of democracy,” according to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Projecting a Soviet-style siege mentality, he lashed out at the United States and Russia in February for allegedly using the international media to foment dissent and exert “information pressure on Belarus,” according to local press reports.
Opposition parties were excluded from the new parliament, and increasingly took their grievances to the streets. But police brutality against protesters, imprisonment of opposition politicians, the imposition of new media restrictions, and ongoing abuses against the independent press squelched most dissent.
The government relied on security forces, prosecutors, judges, media regulators, pro-government businesses, and a secretive and powerful bureaucracy to create a climate of fear for independent journalists. Officials filed lawsuits, imposed fines, revoked accreditations, blocked access to printers, confiscated equipment, and detained and harassed journalists.
Nominally independent radio and television stations avoided politically sensitive subjects for fear of losing broadcasting licenses. The small number of independent newspapers available in the capital, Minsk, and other urban areas dwindled even further. The independent press retrenched but tried to circumvent the crackdown. Limited-circulation underground newspapers were distributed informally and free of charge, the U.S. media training organization IREX reported. Some newsstands secreted independent newspapers behind their counters and sold them in defiance of government regulations. But going underground was risky, too. The independent newspaper Zgoda, which had moved its operations into a Minsk apartment, was raided by the KGB in March for working illegally in a residential location, according to local press reports.
The main opposition daily Narodnaya Volya and business daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta were nearly bankrupted by politicized libel convictions that led to the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in fines, sizeable amounts in a country where the average monthly salary is roughly equal to US$200.
The obedient state media, closely managed by the administration, continued to flood cities and the countryside with pro-Lukashenko propaganda, vilifying opposition leaders and urging voters to support the president or face Western domination. In May, state-run Belarusian Television sought to link a rise in drug and weapons trafficking to street protests organized by the political opposition, RFE/RL reported.
The state propaganda machine penetrated deeper into society, with students and government workers attending mandatory “ideology classes” promoting Lukashenko’s policies and demonizing the West. Even entertainment radio was politicized. The Information Ministry issued official warnings to three FM stations in January—Unistar Radio BDU, Novoe Radio, and Hit FM—for not playing enough Belarusian music during prime time.
The government used politicized courts and a maze of legal regulations to cripple the few remaining pro-democracy organizations operating in the country. Western media training organizations, which had been ousted from the country in 2003, and the Belarusian Association of Journalists struggled to assist independent journalists, despite severe government restrictions on foreign funding for local organizations. In April, the Supreme Court shuttered the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research after it published polling data contradicting the official results of an October 2004 referendum, according to local press reports.
A steady flow of new regulations and informal orders put a stranglehold on the media’s ability to operate freely. Lukashenko signed a presidential decree on May 31 that banned independent media and non-government organizations from using the words “Belarus” or “national” in their titles and required them to reregister with new names in three months, according to local and international press reports. In June, the president signed a law increasing taxes on newspaper distributors, the Belapan independent news agency reported. That same month, the KGB was authorized to search local and international non-governmental organizations without a warrant, RFE/RL reported.
Police and prosecutors did not report any progress in solving the October 2004 murder of Veronika Cherkasova, a reporter for the Minsk opposition newspaper Solidarnost who was stabbed to death in her apartment at a time when she was investigating illegal Belarusian arms shipments to Iraq. Police claimed the murder was related to Cherkasova’s personal life and focused on her 15-year-old son as the suspect. Although family and colleagues believe the murder could be work-related, authorities have refused to consider Cherkasova’s journalism as a motive for the crime.
Authorities continued to obstruct an investigation into the July 2000 disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman for the Russian public television network ORT. In July, police in Minsk violently dispersed a rally in which several dozen of Zavadsky’s relatives, friends, and colleagues met to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his disappearance. The journalist’s widow, Svetlana Zavadskaya, was hospitalized with a concussion after a police officer punched her in the face and destroyed a portrait of the journalist. Zavadskaya later filed a complaint, but the prosecutor’s office refused to open an investigation, Belapan reported.
The KGB reacted aggressively to government criticism on the Web. New government regulations require Internet cafés to register users and to block access to foreign-based news Web sites such as those run by RFE/RL and the Charter 97 human rights organization, IREX reported.
In August, KGB agents raided apartments in Minsk and the western city of Grodno occupied by members of an informal group of computer programmers calling themselves Trety Put (The Third Way). The programmers had produced and posted on the Web a short cartoon clip mocking Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. The KGB questioned several programmers, confiscated 12 computers, and shut down the group’s Web site, mult.3dway. Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against three of the programmers on charges of defaming the head of state, a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.
In December, the president signed a measure that effectively criminalized media criticism of the government and set penalties of up to five years in prison. Western governments voiced growing concern over Lukashenko’s authoritarian policies, with the Polish government taking a particularly active role in supporting Belarusian journalists, human rights activists, and opposition parties. (Ethnic Poles make up about 4 percent of the Belarusian population.) Authorities in Minsk responded by expelling visiting Polish journalists, seizing control of Polish community organizations, and increasing harassment of local Polish-language media. In May, state printers refused to publish the Grodno-based Polish-language weekly Glos Zna Niemna; fake, pro-government copies of the weekly were distributed in June. In July, Glos Znad Niemna Editor-in-Chief Andrzej Pisalnik and several other ethnic Polish journalists protesting government abuses were fined or briefly imprisoned.
Authorities were especially harsh with correspondents from the Russian media, a product of ongoing bickering between Belarusian and Russian authorities. Aleksei Ametyov, a correspondent for the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine, and Mikhail Romanov, a reporter for the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, were detained and imprisoned for more than a week in April in retaliation for reporting on an opposition rally in Minsk.