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Belarus: Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote

Many newspapers had to reregister their names this year (AFP) This week Belposhta, Belarus's state postal service decided to exclude three private periodicals from its subscription catalogue for the first half of 2006. Belposhta is a monopoly, which disseminates the country's press through subscription. The move seems to be a repressive measure intended to marginalize the remainder of opposition-minded press in Belarus ahead of the 2006 presidential election.

The targeted periodicals are the daily "Narodnaya volya" and the weeklies "Salidarnasts" and "Zhoda." "Narodnaya volya" has a print run of 27,000 copies, "Salidarnasts" 5,400, and "Zhoda" 3,000. Belposhta explained the move against the newspapers in three similar notifications saying that, "Each economic entity has the right to be guided by economic expediency in its commercial activities."

Apart from this explanation sent to "Narodnaya volya," Belposhta also charged that the daily failed to notify it about a change of the printer.

The newspapers' editors were bemused by the decision, to say the least. "It is unclear how this concerned the distributor, as the schedule of publication did not change and the volume remained the same," "Narodnaya volya" Editor in Chief Svyatlana Kalinkina commented. "Narodnaya volya" has filed a suit against Belposhta over the subscription stoppage."Salidarnasts" Editor in Chief Alyaksandr Starykevich said that non-state media in Belarus are now entering "an era of the Internet and samizdat."

Both Kalinkina and Starykevich concur that it will be extremely difficult for them to organize an independent distribution network for their periodicals. "Narodnaya volya," "Salidarnasts," and "Zhoda" have long struggled to remain afloat in an unwelcoming media environment. Both domestic and foreign human rights activists have accused the Belarusian authorities of trying to liquidate or gag the independent media.

Old Campaign

"Narodnaya volya," as the largest of the three periodicals, was a special target for the authorities in the past two years. The daily was initially plagued with libel suits -- since March 2004, "Narodnaya volya" has received fines of some $90,000 in four separate libel cases.

In a country where the official monthly wage is around $200, such exorbitant damages were apparently intended to ruin the newspaper economically. However, each time the daily was able to collect the money for damages among its sponsors and readers and remain afloat.

In April, Zhanna Litvina, chairwoman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, predicted that the Belarusian authorities were seeking "a total cleansing of the information sector" in the country. Yelena Raubetskaya, chairwoman for the Fund for the Development of Regional Press, was even bleaker in her prognosis. She said that libel suits against independent media would be followed by the removal of major nonstate publications from state-run print shops and state-controlled press-distribution networks. "I am absolutely sure that by 2006, the nongovernmental press that writes about politics will no longer exist," Raubetskaya added.

Raubetskaya's prediction has unfortunately proved true. In September, Belsayuzdruk, Belarus's state monopoly that runs a nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands, terminated a contract for the distribution of "Narodnaya volya" after a court froze the newspaper's bank account and seized newsprint demanding payment of libel damages.

The same day, the Minsk-based printing plant Chyrvonaya zorka annulled its contract for printing the daily. "Narodnaya volya" -- like nearly a dozen other Belarusian independent periodicals, including "Salidarnasts" and "Zhoda" -- was forced to find a printer in Smolensk, a Russian provincial capital near the Belarusian border.

Name Changes

Apart from restricting distribution and applying economic pressure, the authorities employ other, more indirect, tactics against the independent press. In August and September, some independent newspapers in Belarus had to reregister under new names, because in May President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree limiting the use of the words "national" and "Belarusian" in the names of organizations. Private media outlets were not allowed to use both of these words in their names.

The presidential decree in particular compelled many newspapers to reregister: "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" ("Belarusian Business Newspaper") as "BDG; Delovaya gazeta," "Natsionalnaya ekonomicheskaya gazeta" ("National Economic Newspaper") as "Ekonomicheskaya gazeta," "Belorusskii rynok" ("Belarusian Market") as "Belorussy i rynok" ("Belarusians and the Market"); and "Belorusskaya gazeta" as "Belgazeta."

Many Belarusian commentators said that the reregistation was primarily intended to confuse and disorient the readers of independent periodicals and make it difficult for them to find their preferred publications on newsstands or in subscription catalogues.

This year, the Belarusian authorities also set a precedent by de facto nationalizing a private periodical. The situation occurred in May, during a Polish-Belarusian diplomatic row over the new leadership of the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB), which was supported by Warsaw but not recognized by Minsk.

Warsaw was forced to suspend the sponsoring of the SPB weekly "Glos znad Niemna" ("Voice From Over The Niemen River") after a state printing plant in Belarus refused to publish materials prepared by its editorial staff and published several fake issues of the weekly with articles reflecting only official Minsk's stance on the SPB standoff. "It is a de facto nationalization of an independent publication," Andrzej Poczobut, a ethnic Polish journalist in Belarus, told RFE/RL. "If you ask my opinion about who's behind this, I'm sure it is the [Belarusian] KGB."

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian opposition's choice to challenge Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election, believes that the official distribution restrictions against "Narodnaya volya," "Salidarnasts," and "Zhoda" testify to the Belarusian regime's growing uncertainty about how Belarusians will behave during the ballot. "The authorities' move looks surprising at first glance, as there are almost no independent newspapers left in the Belarusian news industry," Milinkevich said. "This means that the authorities are seriously afraid of the forthcoming presidential election and are seeking to deprive our people of the opportunity to hear an alternative point of view."

But this move also leaves him and his election staff with a thorny dilemma about how, if at all, the opposition will manage to present an alternative point of view to the electorate in the presidential campaign.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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