Two newspapers threatened with closure in Belarus

New York, April 29, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns attempts by the Belarusian Information Ministry to close down the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, and called on the ministry to stop its harassment of both publications.

On Monday, the ministry filed a motion with the Supreme Economic Court of Belarus to close down Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva on the basis that both papers have received two official warnings within a year, according to a statement published on the ministry’s website.  In the warnings, authorities accused the newspapers of publishing false information. Under Belarus’ repressive media law, authorities can close down a publication that has received two reprimanding notices within a calendar year.

Both newspapers learned about the ministry’s motion to shut them down from press reports; they were not directly contacted, staffers at both papers told CPJ.

“We call on the Belarusian Ministry of Information to withdraw its politically motivated action against Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva and allow the papers to publish without fear of further retaliation,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The unrelenting official campaign against the opposition and independent media in Belarus must be stopped.”

Svetlana Kalinkina, editor of Narodnaya Volya and a 2004 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, told CPJ that her paper received its first official warning several months ago, when it published an interview with an opposition activist. The officials’ stated objection, Kalinkina said, was that the activist’s organization was “not registered in Belarus.” The second warning came after Kalinkina wrote an opinion piece, satirizing the state television coverage of December post-presidential election protests in Minsk. Unable to grasp a metaphor about propaganda Kalinkina used to headline her piece, authorities accused her of publishing false information, she said.

Dmitry Pankovets, a reporter for Nasha Niva, told CPJ that his newspaper had received three warnings since last July in which authorities accused the paper of carrying allegedly false statements. Most recently, Nasha Niva was accused of making false statements by the Information Ministry, the general prosecutor’s office, and the Belarusian security service, known as the KGB, after it covered the deadly April 11 bombing at a Minsk subway, Pankovets told CPJ.

Since the December 19 presidential vote–declared rigged by international observers–Belarusian authorities have relentlessly pursued the opposition media and critical journalists. The KGB, police, and prosecutors have detained independent journalists for interrogation, imprisoned critical reporters on fabricated charges, raided their apartments and newsrooms, and confiscated their reporting equipment.