Government intensifies press crackdown ahead of election

New York, March 17, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists deplores the ongoing government crackdown on independent media in Belarus ahead of a presidential election Sunday. Authorities barred two Polish journalists from entering the country to cover the poll, seized the print-run of an opposition newspaper, and pressured a cable TV operator to drop a Russian broadcaster, media reported.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko has moved aggressively against the media to curb coverage of candidates challenging his bid for a third term in office.

“We condemn President Lukashenko’s continuing intimidation and censorship of the press,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “No election can be valid when the public is deprived of independent political reporting and national debate is stifled.”

Lukashenko is seeking a third term after securing a constitutional amendment passed in October 2004 in a vote that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said “fell significantly short” of democratic standards.

Today, police in the capital Minsk seized the entire 200,000 print-run of Tovarishch (Comrade), the official newspaper of the Belarusian Communist Party, the news agency Belapan reported. Editor Sergei Voznyak said police gave no explanation for the seizure. The issue contained the election program of opposition candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich, Belapan said.

Also today, guards at the Bobrovniki-Berestovitsa border crossing turned back journalists Marek Zabrodzki and Jerzy Leszczynski of Polish radio Belostok, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Both journalists had valid business visas and press accreditation from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

On Thursday, cable TV operator Kosmos TV stopped transmissions by the international Russian television channel RTVi. The channel had been regularly broadcasting a program on Belarus since February. Kosmos TV said the change was due to technical problems that were not likely to be fixed until after the election, the human rights monitor Charter 97 said.

But RTVi Director Mikhail Borshchevsky told RFE/RL that the channel received a call from Kosmos TV on Thursday saying that the cable operator was instructed “from above” to halt RTVi broadcasts. The channel had planned to broadcast a program on the presidential election that day.

For more information about the crackdown, see the CPJ alerts from March 16, February 10 and March 2, and the Belarus country summary from CPJ’s annual report, Attacks on the Press in 2005.