Belarus media harassed in run-up to presidential vote

New York, December 10, 2010–Belarusian authorities must stop harassing independent media outlets and journalists and allow them to cover the December 19 presidential elections without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On Wednesday, the Minsk-based pro-opposition news website Charter 97 reported that authorities had opened their third criminal case this year against the site, based on unspecified materials that prosecutors allegedly found in computers confiscated from Charter 97‘s newsroom in March.

Natalya Radina, the outlet’s chief editor, told CPJ she learned about the new development accidentally when she called the Minsk prosecutor’s office on Wednesday to inquire about the status of Charter 97‘s seized equipment. Sergei Ivanov, head of the investigations department at the prosecutor’s office, told Radina that the equipment will remain confiscated because a new criminal case was opened. He would not specify the possible charges, or say whether it concerned Charter 97 as a media outlet or its individual staffers.

“We call on Belarusian authorities to allow Charter 97 and other independent and opposition media outlets to do their job undisturbed,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The upcoming Belarusian presidential vote will not be legitimate if the press is intimidated, prosecuted, and denied access–and muzzled into silence.”

In March, Minsk police officers confiscated computers from the newsrooms of Charter 97 and the opposition daily Narodnaya Volya, as well as from the home of Irina Khalip, Belarus correspondent for the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Police said at the time that they were investigating allegations that news media had defamed the security service’s Gomel regional chief. A month later, Minsk prosecutors opened another defamation case against Charter 97 based on critical comments left by the website’s readers, Radina told CPJ.

Khalip and Radina told CPJ they believe authorities are preparing to crack down on independent coverage of the December 19 vote and its aftermath. Nine candidates will nominally challenge Alexander Lukashenko, but the results have already been decided, the journalists said.

In a separate case, Belarusian authorities denied an entry visa to Sweden-based freelance photojournalist Dean C.K.Cox, who had planned to cover the presidential vote for the Prague-based media organization Transitions Online. Cox, a veteran photojournalist and documentary photographer, has covered the former Soviet bloc for dozens of international outlets, including The New York Times and The Associated Press. He is completing a book on Belarus under Lukashenko’s rule.