Authorities moved aggressively to control the Internet, introducing sweeping new restrictions that allow the government to monitor citizens’ use of the Web. President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s administration continued its practice of suppressing dissent—but paid a price in May when the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) denied Belarus a seat following international criticism of the country’s poor human rights and press freedom record.
The Council of Ministers adopted regulations in February that require Internet café owners to maintain records of Web sites accessed by customers, and to make those logs available to law enforcement agencies. Belarusians were already required to present identification in order to use Internet cafés, and authorities have long blocked opposition and critical Web sites.
Ostensibly designed to control violent and sexually explicit content, the new regulations include vague language about “forbidden” Internet activities that leaves interpretation to the state security agency. The agency, known as the KGB, appeared ready to enforce the new rules. “The regulation has a pre-emptive character. Those who wish to use anonymity with illegal purposes would not want to do so now,” KGB spokesman Valery Nadtochayev told the Belarusian news agency Belapan.
Belarusian television and radio broadcasters provide virtually no independent news coverage of politics or sensitive issues, CPJ research shows. With broadcast media under their thumb, authorities continued to focus their attention on what remains of the independent print press. The opposition newsweekly Vitebsky Kuryer fought off a government-inspired eviction effort in March only to see its printer, the state-run Vitebsk Publishing House, terminate its contract, according to local news reports. The editorial staff used office printers to produce the paper for about a month, until the weekly was able to renegotiate its contract with the state printer, the Minsk-based human rights group Charter 97 reported. CPJ research shows a pattern of government harassment against Vitebsky Kuryer. In 2006, the newspaper faced defamation charges and was twice forced to change its location after receiving eviction notices.
The government also used its distribution powers to harass the independent press. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a press freedom group based in the capital, Minsk, said the state-owned postal service Belpochta and distribution agency Soyuzpechat had stopped providing service to 16 independent newspapers, including the popular newspapers Narodnaya Volya, Tovarishch, Nasha Niva, Svobodnye Novosti Plyus, and Brestsky Kuryer. The papers switched to private vendors and volunteer distributors, prompting authorities in the cities of Brest, Vitebsk, and Gomel to arrest and threaten those distributors. In June, Brest city council deputy chairman Vyacheslav Khafizov sent letters to local independent newspapers ordering them to stop distributing their publications, BAJ reported.
Authorities wielded search-and-seizure powers, too. In August, Lenin District Court officials raided the offices of Belarus’ largest opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, confiscating computers and production equipment. Officials cited the paper’s failure to pay a 2006 fine as the reason for the raid, Charter 97 reported. The next month, Minsk police entered the offices of Tovarishch, the official newspaper of the Belarusian Communist Party, and confiscated 10,000 copies of its latest issue, claiming they were not printed at the publishing house named on the paper’s banner. The printing house rule is one of many arcane and selectively enforced regulations designed to obstruct the independent press, CPJ research shows. The seized edition of Tovarishch was dedicated to an upcoming opposition rally in the city of Minsk, BAJ said.
Throughout the year, KGB security agents and police officers arrested journalists on spurious charges that ranged from the petty, such as lack of accreditation and “hooliganism,” to the very serious, such as treason. Contributors to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Warsaw-based Radio Polonia, and the private Belarusian station Radio Racyja were among those detained on supposed accreditation violations, according to local reports. In March, CPJ protested the arrest of Igor Bantsyr, correspondent for the independent Polish-language Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, after a Grodno city court sentenced the journalist to 10 days in prison for “uncensored swearing” in public. Grodno police filed the same charges when officers detained Bantsyr and independent journalist Ivan Roman at an opposition rally on October 10, local press reports said.
Reporter Valery Shchukin and photographer Yury Dedinkin with the daily Narodnaya Volya, the country’s largest opposition newspaper, were forced out of polling stations in Vitebsk and Minsk while covering local elections in January. In March, Minsk police arrested Shchukin as he was covering unapproved opposition rallies marking a brief period of Belarusian independence in 1918. On June 8, the Vitebsk Pervomaisky District Court found Shchukin guilty of “insulting electoral committee members” and fined him 1,490,000 rubles (US$700), BAJ reported.
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. In October, Minsk prosecutor Mikhail Ivanov told journalists the investigation of Cherkasova’s murder had been suspended due to a lack of suspects. Cherkasova, who had written articles about KGB surveillance and alleged arms sales to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, was found dead in her apartment with multiple stab wounds.
In May, heeding concerns over Belarus’ poor human rights record, the UNHRC rejected the country’s bid for a seat on the council. BAJ was among the press freedom groups that had opposed the bid. In its letter to the UNHRC preceding the vote, BAJ stated: “Electing a representative of Belarus to the U.N. Human Rights Council will mean a devaluation of this body and will make it impossible for the council to carry out the role of protecting the human rights and freedoms entrusted to it.”
The international community continued calling on Lukashenko to introduce political and economic reforms and to stop harassing opposition party members and independent journalists. René van der Linden, president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, aired his concerns in a January meeting with Vladimir Konoplyov, speaker of the Belarusian parliament. Van der Linden also called for an international fact-finding mission into what opposition leaders called Belarus’ growing ranks of political prisoners, RFE/RL reported. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a pan-European human rights body, expressed its concerns over the fate of political prisoners and young opposition activists detained and arrested on falsified charges.
The year also saw a shift in the country’s international relations. In January, Russia temporarily cut off oil and gas supplies after Belarus balked at price increases of more than 100 percent. The move triggered an eight-month-long dispute, raised questions about Russian-Belarusian cooperation, and prompted Lukashenko to announce a search for alternative energy resources. In May and June, Lukashenko hosted leaders of two energy-rich states: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and President Hugo Chávez Frías of Venezuela. Lukashenko signed energy and military-supply contracts with both countries, announced an agreement to develop an oil field in Iran, and vowed joint cooperation against “Western pressure,” according to international press reports.