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Fears of Violence Grow: Belarus Election Campaign

IFJ Concern for Safety of Journalists As Fears of Violence Grow in Belarus Election Campaign

The International Federation of Journalists is deeply concerned about the mounting attacks on press freedom and threats to the physical safety of journalists in the final days before the presidential elections in Belarus on Sunday, 19 March.

The security services in Minsk issued a warning yesterday that they would be unable to guarantee the safety of journalists covering opposition demonstrations. This announcement came following weeks of arrests, newspaper closures and physical intimidation.

“Belarus journalists will be putting their lives on the line this weekend as they attempt to report the Presidential election process and political demonstrations,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “It is intolerable for the authorities to abandon their duty to protect citizens carrying out lawful activities. They must guarantee the safety of journalists and to end all attacks on press freedom immediately.”

The IFJ’s concerns arise after a series of recent incidents including:

• This morning, the latest edition of Tovarisch, an independent newspaper published in Moscow and freely delivered to Belarus, was confiscated by the authorities.

• Yesterday, the Belarussian state security committee announced that participants in a demonstration in support of opposition candidates planned for Sunday could face terrorism charges, and punishments of between 8 years in jail or execution. The interior minister said journalists covering the event would be kept in an area determined by the security services – if they left that area their safety would not be guaranteed.

• The print run of two issues of the independent weekly newspaper Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) were seized by police on Wednesday as they were being transported into Belarus from Russia.

• Another independent newspaper, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (Belarussian Business Newspaper), failed to appear after its Russian printers declined -- its editor claims after Russian political pressure -- to print the pre-election edition.

• Two editors of the independent Polish-language newspaper Glos znad Nemna (Voice Over the Nemen River), with considerable readership in Western Belarus, were arrested in Grodno this week for “using foul language” and sentenced to 5 and 10 days in jail. The arrests follow a concerted campaign by local authorities against independent newspapers.

• The independent newspaper Zgoda (Unity) was closed by a court in Minsk after the Ministry of Information accused the paper of inciting religious hatred. The paper’s editor had intended to publish the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but had been instructed by his publisher not to do so.

• A correspondent of the Belarussian edition of the Russian mass-circulation tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda (Komsomol Truth) was assaulted by plain-clothes police while trying to cover the arrest of an opposition candidate on 2 March.

“This is about scaring journalists and spreading fear in society,” said Zhanna Litvina, head of the Belarussian Association of Journalists. “Journalists have professional duties and are obliged to report events, but now we are being obstructed”.

The attacks are a continuation of a concerted campaign by the authorities over the last eight years against independent newspapers and broadcast media, during which increasingly restricted access to printing and distribution facilities and advertising has been combined with egregious libel suits and arbitrary and bloated fines from an array of state bodies.

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