After deadly metro blast, Belarus cracks down on press

New York, April 26, 2011–Belarusian authorities must immediately stop harassing independent media outlets in retaliation for their critical reporting on the recent lethal bombing on the Minsk subway, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Following the blast, authorities–including the Information Ministry, the general prosecutor’s office, and the Belarusian security service (KGB)–launched a campaign of intimidation against independent and pro-opposition media outlets that reported on the incident. The outlets targeted for retaliation have criticized the official investigation into the explosion and the rescue efforts.

Fourteen people were killed and more than 200 injured after an explosive device detonated at the busy Oktyabrskaya subway station in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, on April 11, during the evening rush hour. The Associated Press reported on Monday that authorities have five suspects in custody, including a man accused of having placed the bomb on the subway’s platform.

Authorities, including President Aleksandr Lukashenko, blamed the beleaguered Belarusian opposition for the blast. In an April 13 televised address, Lukashenko accused opposition activists of protecting those who carried out the attack. “Opposition must exist in our country but we will not have a fifth column,” he said. “All this rant about democracy has nothing to do with people’s power and the democracy that we have in our country.”

The same day, Belarusian Prosecutor General Grigory Vasilevich told journalists at a press conference in Minsk that his agency will be interrogating journalists who reported on the attack. Singling out independent news websites, Vasilevich pledged to “bring order on the Internet,” the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

“President Aleksandr Lukashenko is using the deadly blast on Minsk’s subway as an excuse to crack down on what’s left of the independent and pro-opposition press in Belarus,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The anti-press rhetoric and fear-mongering must stop.”

According to the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), which regularly documents attacks on the press, authorities have accused at least five independent and pro-opposition newspapers, including Narodnaya Volya, Solidarnost, Bobruisky Kuryer, Nasha Niva, and Volny Gorod, of publishing “false information” and “discrediting the government.” The Information Ministry, the general prosecutor’s office, and the KGB issued official warnings to the newspapers, calling on them to stop distributing “false information” about the bombing.

Under Belarus’s repressive media law, authorities can close down a publication that has received two official warnings within a year.

In the first week after the blast, access to the independent news website Charter 97 and the website of the independent newspaper Belarussky Partizan suffered massive denial of service (DOS) attacks, Charter 97 reported later. Both outlets covered the subway bombing.