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Belarus: Independent Newspaper Finds New Means To Overcome State Interference

Anatoly Lebdko with seized copies of 'Narodnaya volya' (RFE/RL) With the Belarusian authorities increasing pressure on independent media in recent months, some newspapers are being published and printed abroad. One of those, the independent daily "Narodnaya volya," is being published in the Russian city of Smolensk and then transported to Minsk. The authorities have made life difficult for the paper -- a recent print run was kept for days at the border -- but a network of activists is trying to turn the government interference to its advantage.

PRAGUE, 25 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Publishing an independent newspaper isn't easy these days in Belarus.

Anatol Lyabedzka, the head of the opposition Belarusian United Civic Party, on 12 January helped journalists from "Narodnaya volya" get back thousands of copies of the newspaper, which were detained by police at the Russian-Belarusian border.

"I have a feeling of solidarity and understand how important the press is for us," Lyabedzka says. "Together with the editor in chief of 'Narodnaya volya' I went to a little Belarusian town at the border with Russia and we negotiated with police officials for eight hours in order to rescue 30,000 issues of 'Narodnaya volya.'"

Lyabedzka says the police officers demanded an array of documents, asked hundreds of questions, and called Minsk for instructions every half an hour. The demands, he says, were ridiculous and annoying -- ironic, he says, as formally the border between Belarus and Russia is open and no documents for goods are needed.

Media Clampdowns

Such state interference is nothing new. For years, domestic and foreign rights activists have accused the authorities of attempting to gag independent media in Belarus.

In September 2005, the state-run monopoly that runs a nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands stopped distributing "Narodnaya volya" after a court froze the newspaper's assets, demanding payment for damages in a pending libel case.

And then in November 2005, Belarus's state postal service excluded three periodicals from its 2006 subscription catalogue. One of those publications was "Narodnaya volya."

"Narodnaya volya" has been published in Smolensk since October. "Belaruskaya delovaya gazeta," considered by many to be the most influential independent daily in the country, is also published in Smolensk.

New Networks

Now, Lyabedzka says, independent newspapers have to rely on others if they want their publications to be read: "Activists from political parties and active citizens are doing this job. When the newspaper gets to Minsk it is distributed to the regions, where there are people who subscribe to 'Narodnaya volya' or buy it directly from the newspaper office. [The activists] bring the paper to the places where people live."

Around 30,000 copies of the newspaper were held on the border (RFE/RL)

And Lyabedzka says there is another way to distribute the newspaper -- selling it directly to people on the street. This tactic works, he says, and is a good opportunity for activists to speak with people during the campaign for the 19 March presidential election. Lyabedzka says he himself distributes the newspaper on the street and enjoys it.

Svyatlana Kalinkina, the editor in chief of "Narodnaya volya," says life is more difficult for the newspaper now. But she agrees with Lyabedzka that pressure from the authorities has in some ways benefited the paper.

"I can say with certainty that the newspaper has found new readers. Such people who earlier knew nothing or even were not interested [in reading the newspaper,]" Kalinkina says. The newspaper is now being read by different groups of people. Now we have seen that not only the [Belarusian] national-orientated part of society reads it, but that the readership has become much broader."

Election Campaign

The independent media plays an important role in Belarus's upcoming presidential election, which incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is widely expected to win. There is little or no mention of the election in Belarus's state-run media.

The united opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, tells RFE/RL that every independent newspaper "is precious" and their survival is crucial.

"There is a huge hunger for information. Even if a newspaper reaches readers a week after it is published, under the current conditions people read it regardless," Milinkevich says. "We, with the help of our initiative group, are helping to create an alternative distribution network for 'Narodnaya volya' and also for other newspapers."

So could this be the rebirth of samizdat in Belarus? Lyabedzka seems to think so."Currently, there is more and more underground media [in the country.] It includes leaflets, and everything that is published illegally," he says. "I think the authorities have begun to understand that, if they continue fighting with 'Narodnaya volya' considering it to be the main opponent, something else will be born. And to fight with that will be even more difficult."

But for now, perhaps there won't even be the need for samizdat. Editor Kalinkina says that since the incident earlier this month, there have been no more problems at the border. The biggest problem, she says, is the atmosphere of uncertainty it creates with the paper's journalists not knowing if their stories will even be read.

Video Roundtable On Belarus/Ukraine

Video Roundtable On Belarus/Ukraine

On December 8, 2005, RFE/RL and the Policy Association for an Open Society (PASOS) jointly conducted a roundtable discussion on issues relating to Belarus's post-Soviet transition. To view video of the roundtable, click here.

See also:

Belarus: Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote

Can Belarus's Opposition Unite To Challenge Lukashenka?

Belarus: The Slow-Boiling Dictatorship