Arrests, jailings mark pre-election press crackdown

New York, March 16, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the latest government crackdown against independent journalists in the days before Sunday’s presidential election. Police arrested at least four journalists this week, and local courts handed them sentences of five to 10 days in jail on charges of hooliganism.

Andrei Pochobut, editor of the magazine Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, and Andrei Pisalnik, editor of the newspaper Glos Znad Niemna na Uchodzstwie, were arrested in the western city of Grodno. The Polish-language publications are distributed to the country’s ethnic Polish minority. Pochobut was arrested on Monday under unclear circumstances and charged with petty hooliganism; he was sentenced the next day to 10 days in jail. Pisalnik was arrested, charged with hooliganism, and sentenced to five days in prison—all on Wednesday. He was accused of “swearing in public at a bus stop,” according to CPJ sources and local press reports.

Valery Shchukin, a correspondent for the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya in the northeastern city of Vitebsk, was arrested on Wednesday while seeking accreditation to cover the presidential vote. He was charged with insulting members of the Vitebsk election commission. A local court sentenced him today to seven days in jail for hooliganism, Narodnaya Volya Managing Editor Svetlana Kalinkina told CPJ in a telephone interview today.

Police in the border city of Vitebsk seized the entire press run of Narodnaya Volya on Tuesday as the newspaper staff was transporting copies from its printer in Smolensk, Russia. See CPJ’s March 14 alert:

In another incident, police in the western city of Pinsk detained Viktor Yaroshuk, a reporter for the independent newspaper Myastsovy Chas, on Wednesday. A local court sentenced him to five days in jail the same day. The circumstances of his detention and arrest, as well as the details of the charges and court verdict against him remain unclear, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported.

Incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko is seeking re-election in Sunday’s balloting. CPJ and others have documented a wave of repressive government steps designed to restrict coverage of opposition candidates. See the following CPJ alerts from February 10 and March 2, and the Belarus country summary from CPJ’s annual report, Attacks on the Press in 2005.

“Belarusian authorities have charted an appalling course of press censorship, harassment, and intimidation, thus ensuring that citizens are denied basic campaign coverage,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We demand the immediate and unconditional release of our colleagues, and we call on police to release seized copies of Narodnaya Volya. Belarusian authorities should immediately stop their campaign of intimidation against the independent press and allow journalists to cover the elections freely.”

Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov told journalists at a Minsk press conference today that the ministry cannot “guarantee their safety” in case of public demonstrations on election weekend. “If a crowd gathers on Oktyabrsk Square in Minsk and you get in the crowd and start some kind of actions there, who will be able to guarantee you safety?” the news agency Belta quoted Naumov as saying.

Also today, Belarusian Security Service chief Stepan Sukhorenko told a Minsk news conference that opposition supporters who take to the streets and “destabilize the situation” will be charged with terrorism, Agence France-Presse reported. If sentenced, protesters could face “up to 25 years, or life in prison, or capital punishment,” AFP quoted Sukhorenko as saying.