Belarusian journalist harassed, denied press accreditation

New York, March 5, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Belarusian authorities to renew work credentials for Andrzej Poczobut, a local correspondent for Poland’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and to investigate recent harassment of him and his family in the western city of Hrodno. Poczobut’s credentials were pulled after he reported on the policies of President Aleksandr Lukashenko and the activities of the Belarusian security service.

Poczobut had applied for a continuation of his press accreditation with the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; his current one expired on February 24. When he called the Ministry on Tuesday to check on the progress of his application, a press secretary told him it had been denied because he had insulted Lukashenko in a series of articles published in Gazeta Wyborcza last month, Poczobut told CPJ. The denial came after [an anonymous threat of retaliation if he did not stop his critical journalism, coupled with similar phone calls to his family.

“We are incensed by the Belarusian authorities’ punishment of Andrzej Poczobut for his critical reporting by denying him press credentials, and call on the Foreign Ministry to renew them,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Instead of going after a journalist for doing his job, the government should investigate the harassment against him and his family.”

Poczobut’s allegedly insulting articles covered a recent police initiative to enforce the fingerprinting of male residents; the deportation of three Polish Catholic priests; new criminal lawsuits launched against recently released political prisoners; and talks between Lukashenko and European Union officials. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the articles biased and insulting to the president, according to local news reports.

This is not the first time Poczobut has faced harassment and obstruction. On February 6, someone cut the leather upholstery of his Hrodno apartment’s door, and stuck in a note that warned the journalist to stop his critical reporting or face retribution, he told CPJ. In the next days, people repeatedly called his family, including his 8-year-old daughter on her mobile phone, asking questions about his whereabouts and not giving their names. “She refused to talk to them, but was frightened,” Poczobut said.

The harassment coincided with Poczobut’s work on an investigative report for Gazeta Wyborcza about the activities of a high-ranking Belarusian security service official. When he reported the harassment to the police, they called it “hooliganism,” Poczobut said. Gazeta Wyborcza published the article on Monday, the day before Poczobut found out he had been denied press accreditation.

Poczobut became a full-time correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza a year ago; prior to that, he headed the embattled Polish-language Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, an independent magazine distributed to Belarus’ ethnic Polish minority. He was among the independent journalists arrested on spurious charges of “hooliganism” in the government crackdown surrounding the March 2006 presidential elections that cemented Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule in Belarus.