Determined to forestall the kind of democratic uprising that toppled the government in neighboring Ukraine, authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko and his government crushed dissent in the run-up to the March presidential election—and well beyond. Official results showed that Lukashenko collected 83 percent of the vote to gain a third term, but international observers said the election fell far short of democratic standards. Authorities arrested dozens of domestic and foreign journalists who tried to report on the campaign and subsequent demonstrations in the capital, Minsk, over voting irregularities. In the months surrounding the election, the Lukashenko administration made it nearly impossible for independent and opposition media to deliver news and opinion to their audiences. The state postal service refused to deliver newspapers critical of the government; the state distribution agency banned sales of such papers on newsstands; printing houses refused to print them under government pressure; and border police confiscated entire press runs of publications that managed to find alternative printers abroad. Under such dismal conditions, papers set up distribution systems reminiscent of the underground press in Soviet times, selling copies from their newsrooms and dispatching volunteers to deliver them door-to-door to subscribers. Even then, some volunteers were arrested, CPJ research shows.
Despite all these difficulties, print media were freer and more diverse than their broadcast counterparts. With no independent radio or television, mainstream news programming was replete with pro-government and anti-West propaganda, CPJ found in a 2006 mission to Belarus. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ named Belarus one of the world’s 10 Most Censored Countries.
Attacks started in the first days of the year, when border police in the northeastern Vitebsk region confiscated two issues of the largest opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya. The January 3 and 9 issues—about 30,000 copies each—carried coverage of opposition presidential candidates and criticism of government efforts to suppress their campaigns, said Svetlana Kalinkina, deputy editor of Narodnaya Volya and a 2004 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Narodnaya Volya was banned from newsstands and denied postal distribution; banks refused to accept deposits into the paper’s account from would-be readers trying to purchase a subscription. Authorities in the town of Soligorsk, Minsk region, harassed local residents who signed a petition asking that Narodnaya Volya be allowed to return to newsstands and be distributed through the mail. Police started visiting the 180 Soligorsk petitioners on January 6, according to press reports, asking them to explain their support of the newspaper.
On January 31, police in Zhlobin confiscated several hundred copies of Tovarishch, the official newspaper of the Belarusian Communist Party, from a distributor transporting copies out of town. The seized copies included coverage of candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich, Lukashenko’s main rival. The national postal service, Belpochta, excluded Tovarishch from its 2006 subscription catalogue, effectively barring it from being mailed, the press freedom group Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported. Tovarishch was one of several opposition titles forced to print in Smolensk, Russia, because printing houses in Belarus refused to take on the sensitive job. The state-owned distribution agency, Belsoyuzpechat, had announced in late 2005 that it would stop selling 19 opposition and independent newspapers, including Narodnaya Volya and Tovarishch, on newsstands, according to press reports and CPJ sources.
To assess press conditions in the run-up to the presidential vote, CPJ traveled to Belarus in February and documented authorities’ aggressive campaign to suppress critical reporting and block alternatives to government-sanctioned news. In a subsequent press conference, CPJ called on the Russian Federation, the European Union, and the United States to renounce the March 19 election if the government continued its widespread suppression of campaign news and opinion. CPJ’s news conference was held in Moscow because of Belarusian government press restrictions.
In February, Minsk prosecutors exploited an international controversy to obstruct and ultimately shutter the independent Minsk weekly Zgoda, one of the few news outlets to cover opposition candidate Aleksandr Kozulin. Belarusian state security service (KGB) agents confiscated the paper’s computers, computer disks, and other electronic equipment after Zgoda reprinted in its February 17 edition several controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The drawings ran alongside an article headlined “Political Creation” that chronicled the uproar caused by the cartoons. The Higher Economic Court in Minsk closed the 5,000-circulation paper on March 17, two days before the presidential election, according to the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Zgoda Deputy Editor Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, who authorized publication of the cartoon, fled Belarus in fear of criminal prosecution, local sources told CPJ.
Foreign journalists who tried to cover the campaign were also harassed. In late January, Belarusian police stopped a Ukrainian television crew at a border checkpoint and confiscated video footage they said was “antistate.” The crew, from the independent Inter network, was returning to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, from an assignment in the Belarusian region of Gomel when a border patrol seized videotapes of interviews with local residents, some of whom complained that the coming vote was not a presidential election “but a Lukashenko election,” Inter journalist Aleksei Ivanov told the daily Kommersant-Ukraine. Belarusian authorities did not return the footage.
In late February, authorities expelled Polish journalist Waclaw Radziwinowicz, a reporter with Poland’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, who had traveled on a valid visa and press accreditation to report on the elections. Border guards detained Radziwinowicz at a train station in the western city of Grodno and ordered him to return to Poland because his name was on an unspecified government list of people barred from entering the country, according to international press reports.
As the vote neared, authorities became more overtly aggressive in quashing dissent. When Kozulin tried to enter a March 2 meeting where Lukashenko was to speak, plainclothes agents assaulted the candidate and took him to a police station, according to press reports. As journalists tried to document the confrontation, officers turned on them. Oleg Ulevich, a reporter for the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda Belorussii, suffered a concussion and a broken nose; an unidentified Reuters cameraman was beaten as well.
Days before the election, four independent and opposition newspapers were forced to halt publication. The independent newspaper Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta and the opposition papers Tovarishch and Narodnaya Volya suspended publication on March 13 after their printing house in Smolensk said it was canceling their contracts for “economic and political reasons,” according to the news agency Belapan. The titles had been printed in Smolensk since 2004, when Belarusian printers refused to accept the jobs. Workers for Narodnaya Volya, which found another printer in Smolensk, were stopped by border police when they tried to transport copies of the March 14 edition back to Belarus. Police in the city of Vitebsk confiscated the press run, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said.
The final days of the campaign also saw authorities in Grodno, Vitebsk, Pinsk, and Minsk arresting at least eight reporters, photographers, editors, and camera operators for offenses such as “hooliganism,” “swearing in public,” and “insulting officials,” and handing them sentences of five, 10, and 15 days in jail.
Belarusian officials, wary of the sort of public uprising that toppled Ukraine’s government in the 2004 Orange Revolution, moved aggressively to counter public demonstrations and news coverage of them. On election eve, KGB head Stepan Sukhorenko told a news conference that opposition supporters who took to the streets to “destabilize the situation” would be charged with terrorism, according to Agence France-Presse. The same day, Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov told journalists at a Minsk press conference that the ministry could not “guarantee their safety” if they sought to cover public demonstrations, the news agency BelTA reported.
During election weekend, independent news Web sites reported ongoing technical difficulties; police jailed three Belarusian editors without explanation; authorities barred at least four Russian journalists from covering the vote; and a border patrol seized a Ukrainian television crew’s news footage from a Minsk opposition rally.
As Lukashenko emerged with a victory, he received important backing from Russian President Vladmir Putin. The Russian leader sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko, saying that the results “demonstrate the confidence of the electorate in your policies.” The Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of a dozen former Soviet republics, chimed in to declare the vote free and fair.
Other election observers disagreed. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the vote “severely flawed,” citing a pattern of government intimidation, suppression of independent voices, and vote-counting irregularities.
About 7,000 people gathered in Minsk’s October Square on March 20, the day after the vote, to protest election flaws. Two hundred remained in the square several days later, forming an encampment in freezing temperatures. Early on March 24, riot police stormed the encampment, detained journalists, and barred others from filming or taking pictures of the crackdown. In all, the press freedom group BAJ documented the arrests of 26 Belarusian and foreign journalists, many of them on charges of “hooliganism,” in the week following the election. Among those detained were a Canadian freelance reporter, two journalists with a Georgian television station, a Russian information agency correspondent, a Ukrainian newspaper reporter, and a Polish radio journalist.
The European Union and the United States denounced the postelection crackdown, imposing financial and travel sanctions against Lukashenko and a number of government officials. Only Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, defended Lukashenko, saying the protests were unauthorized and the government’s response appropriate. By September, a court in Minsk had sent one-time presidential contender Kozulin to jail for five and a half years for organizing an unsanctioned rally.
Local authorities also sought to retaliate. In April, the Ideological Department of the Minsk City Executive Committee, a municipal government body, told the independent weekly Nasha Niva that it was not welcome to operate in Minsk any longer. The April 10 letter to Nasha Niva cited Editor-in-Chief Andrei Dynko’s presence and arrest at the October Square demonstrations. Despite the directive, Nasha Niva continued to publish, celebrating its centennial in November.
Authorities cracked down on other rallies and on the journalists who tried to cover them. A day before demonstrators gathered in Minsk on April 26 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine, police in the eastern city of Bobruisk detained journalists Nikita Bytsenko and Yuri Svetlakov, of the independent newspaper Bobruisky Kuryer, as they prepared to travel to the rally, BAJ said. Police stopped them in the street, checked their documents, and detained them without explanation. Both were held overnight and released after the rally was over. Border police also denied entry to two crews from the Polish public television channel Telewizja Polska that sought to cover the Chernobyl anniversary. The April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the now-abandoned northern Ukrainian town of Priyat led to considerable contamination in Belarus.
Authorities reported no progress in investigations into the July 2000 disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman for the Russian television channel ORT who is presumed dead, and the October 2004 slaying of Veronika Cherkasova, a reporter for the Minsk opposition weekly Solidarnost. Prosecutors said they had no suspects and were thus suspending their investigation into the murder of Cherkasova, who was found in her apartment with multiple stab wounds. Cherkasova had written about KGB surveillance and alleged arms sales to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.