Police detain two journalists preparing to cover opposition rally

New York, April 27, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns authorities in Belarus for preventing local and foreign journalists from covering an opposition rally in the capital Minsk on Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Police in the eastern city of Bobruisk detained journalists Nikita Bytsenko and Yuri Svetlakov of the independent newspaper Bobruisky Kuryer Tuesday as they prepared to travel to the rally commemorating the disaster in neighboring Ukraine, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a Minsk-based media watchdog, reported. Also on Tuesday, Border police denied entry to two crews from the Polish public television channel Telewizja Polska. See: http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/europe/belarus26apr06na.html

Officers stopped Bytsenko and Svetlakov in the street, checked their documents and, after receiving instructions over a mobile phone, detained the journalists without explanation, Olga Babak, editor of the BAJ news bulletin, told CPJ.

The journalists were held overnight and released Wednesday after the rally. They were charged with using obscene language and disobeying police orders. “It’s become standard procedure for authorities to sentence journalists to short-term jail sentences on similar charges,” Babak said. The journalists deny the charges. They are scheduled to appear in court May 3.

“We condemn this latest example of harassment which is designed to suppress coverage of the activities of the opposition,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on the Belarusian authorities to drop all charges against our colleagues Nikita Bytsenko and Yuri Svetlakov immediately.”

Dozens of opposition and independent journalists were arrested, summarily tried, and handed jail terms of between five and 15 days on spurious charges of hooliganism and using obscene language in public around presidential elections on March 19. For more information, see http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/europe/belarus28mar06na.html. U.S. and EU officials called the March 19 vote, which secured President Aleksandr Lukashenko a third term, deeply flawed.