Days before Belarusian vote, four newspapers forced to halt publication

New York, March 14, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Belarusian authorities’ escalating harassment of the country’s few independent newspapers as Sunday’s presidential election approaches. Four newspapers based in the capital, Minsk, have been forced to interrupt publication less than a week before the balloting in which incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko seeks re-election, according to local and international press reports.

Two newspapers—BDG: Deolvaya Gazeta and Tovarishch—suspended publication on Monday after a printing house in the neighboring Russian city of Smolensk informed them that their contracts had been canceled for “economic and political reasons,” the independent news agency Belapan reported. Independent newspapers started printing editions in Smolensk in 2004 after state-run Belarusian printing houses refused to do business with them.

A third newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, similarly lost its printing contract. Narodnaya Volya found an alternative printer in Smolensk this morning, but Belarusian police confiscated the copies after they were transported across the border around midday, the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

The independent newspapers accused Belarusian authorities of orchestrating the contract cancellations.

“When a week before the election someone refuses to print three papers, it is clear there are political reasons,” Reuters quoted Narodnaya Volya Managing Editor Svetlana Kalinkina as saying. “The authorities [in Minsk] must have done a deal with Russian authorities who found a way to pressure the printing house.”

State media has devoted effusive campaign coverage to Lukashenko, leaving opposition candidates only the small independent press to spread their message.

“President Lukashenko has undermined the legitimacy of the election by silencing the independent media,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “With broadcast media already under his control, the president is keeping Belarusian voters in the dark by preventing independent newspapers from printing and distributing their editions in Belarus.”

In a separate case, the Higher Economic Court suspended the independent newspaper Zgoda on Friday while the court examines a complaint filed by the Information Ministry, according to local press reports. The ministry filed the case after Zgoda reprinted controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed on February 17. (See the February 23 CPJ alert.) “The newspaper will be closed, a criminal case has been opened, and, if there are grounds, then all of the participants will be imprisoned because [publishing the cartoons] was a provocation against the government,” the news Web site Belarus Partisan quoted Lukashenko as saying on March 3.