Authorities crack down on independent journalists


New York, March 27, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a sudden crackdown by Belarusian authorities against independent journalists in the last few days. Today, the Belarusian Security Service (known as the KGB) raided the offices of independent broadcasters and the apartments of more than a dozen journalists, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported. Two journalists were detained and beaten on Tuesday in a separate incident.

On Tuesday, opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko staged a mass rally in Minsk commemorating the 90th anniversary of a short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic. Police violently dispersed the march and arrested up to 100 participants, with at least four journalists among them, according to international news reports.

Independent weekly Nasha Niva reporters Syamyon Pechanko and Andrei Lyankevich were beaten and detained while reporting from the rally, Dmitry Pankovets, a Nasha Niva reporter, told CPJ. Both men had press badges and Nasha Niva IDs, which were ignored by police, Pankovets said. Yesterday, the Moskovsky District Court in Minsk charged Pechanko with committing an administrative law violation by organizing an unsanctioned rally and was sentenced to 15 days in prison—all in one sitting. Pechanko did not organize the rally, his colleague Pankovets told CPJ. Lyankevich was released after signing an agreement not to leave the city.

“We are extremely concerned by this abrupt, wholesale crackdown on the independent press in Belarus,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the authorities to immediately release Syamyon Pechanko, drop charges against Andrei Lyankevich, and return all the confiscated equipment to the other harassed journalists. The independent media must be allowed to bring the news to the people of Belarus and to the world without fear of retribution.”

According to the BAJ, KGB agents searched the apartments of more than a dozen independent journalists looking for defamatory information about Lukashenko. The journalists were affiliated with Poland-based independent broadcasters Belsat, Radio Raciya, and European Radio for Belarus, all of which transmit to Belarus.

The raid started simultaneously in several cities—Minsk, Brest, Gomel, Mogilev, Vitebsk, Bobruisk, and Beryoza. The agents confiscated computers, videotapes, voice recorders, and other equipment. Belarusian law punishes libeling the president with up to four years in jail. Several journalists were reportedly briefly detained and questioned by KGB agents.

According to Belarusian press reports, the raids were connected to a criminal case opened in August 2005 against a Web site that published a series of animated Internet cartoons satirizing Lukashenko. The case was opened under Article 367 of the Belarusian penal code, “Defaming the President of the Republic of Belarus.” The series was created by anonymous cartoonists and posted on the Web site by the site’s creators, Pavel Morozov, Andrei Obozov, and Oleg Minich. The site belongs to the civic group Third Way, which advocates for democratic reforms in Belarus. The two-minute animations mocked Lukashenko’s rule, his immediate circle, and brought allegations of election-rigging.

Also briefly detained at the Tuesday rally were Ruta Rybcheuskine and Jonas Grishkonis—reporters from the Lithuanian National Radio and Television company; they were released the same day, but police confiscated their footage from the event, the BAJ reported.

Before rounding up protesters and journalists, authorities in the Belarusian capital sanctioned the annual rally but assigned a different location for it. When the organizers led participants to the central Yakub Kolas square, they found the area cordoned off by police.

Often called Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko has reined in independent and opposition media, bringing publications to their knees through a combination of punitive measures. The government relies on security forces, prosecutors, judges, media regulators, pro-government businesses, and a secretive and powerful bureaucracy to create a climate of fear for independent journalists. Officials file lawsuits, impose fines, revoke accreditations, block access to printers, confiscate equipment, and detain and harass journalists. Nominally independent radio and television stations typically avoid politically sensitive subjects for fear of losing broadcasting licenses.