Police confiscate copies of opposition newspaper

New York, February 1, 2006—Police in the southern Belarusian town of Zhlobin confiscated several hundred copies of Tovarishch (Comrade), the official newspaper of the Belarusian Communist Party, on Tuesday, the independent news agency Belapan reported.

Vladimir Katsora, a Tovarishch distributor, was transporting copies to the city of Gomel. The seized issue contained coverage of the presidential campaign of opposition leader Aleksandr Milinkevich, who is running against President Aleksandr Lukashenko in the March 19 vote, the Minsk-based human rights organization Charter 97 reported.

Tovarishch Editor Sergei Voznyak told Belapan that the newspaper had complied with requirements for distribution in Belarus, and he called the Zhlobin police action “illegal.” Police did not publicly disclose the reason for the seizure.

“We condemn the seizure of Tovarishch and demand that police return the publication immediately and allow its unfettered distribution,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We also call on Belarusian authorities at every level to stop their crackdown on the opposition press, particularly in the run-up to presidential elections when a variety of news sources is crucial for voters to make an informed decision.”

At least two other cases of official harassment of Tovarishch have been reported. In November 2005, Gomel police seized 72 copies of the paper from another distributor. Police detained the distributor, Marya Bahdanovich, for two hours, and took all of the copies she carried, the Minsk-based media watchdog Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported.

On December 2, 2005, the postal service Belpochta excluded Tovarishch from its 2006 subscription catalog, effectively barring the newspaper from being mailed, BAJ reported.

Tovarishch prints in Smolensk, Russia, because printing houses in Belarus refuse to take on the politically sensitive job. Like many other opposition newspapers, Tovarishch relies on volunteers to distribute directly to readers.

In a separate case on Tuesday, police in the capital, Minsk, harassed distributors of Belarus’ largest opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya. Several people were handing out the latest issue at a Minsk metro station when police ordered them to leave, Charter 97 said.