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Belarus: Ahead Of Vote, Independent Media Come Under Pressure

Independent media in Belarus are coming under increased pressure from the authorities in the run-up to the 9 September presidential election. As RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, many are worried about what they are calling a media crackdown. Among those concerned is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which just started a monitoring mission there.

Prague, 27 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Visits from the tax police. Entire print-runs seized. Premises sealed and bank accounts frozen.

Events like these are nothing new for the independent media of Belarus. But in the last couple of weeks they have become something of a typical occurrence as the country prepares to elect a president next month.

Incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- who some Western media have dubbed Europe's last dictator -- appears to be in a strong position. He's scoring high in the polls -- both those that measure a candidate's popularity and those that ask respondents if they believe the election will be rigged.

Uladzimir Hancharyk, Lukashenka's main challenger, has said he believes the elections will not be fair.

The country's Helsinki Committee has said it has information that the authorities are planning widespread ballot-fixing. It claims that extra ballots are to be printed, that officials at several electoral commissions have been ordered to meet "quotas" for voter turnout, and that ballots deemed wrongly marked will be exchanged.

With all this as a backdrop to the 9 September poll, Lukashenka appears to be in little need of any extra help.

But in a move akin to an extra insurance policy, the authorities are nonetheless cracking down on the independent media.

Last week, officials seized an issue of the independent daily "Narodnaya Volya" containing Hancharyk's election program. Belarus's tax police earlier seized 12 computers along with printers and a fax machine from the paper.

Officials told the Znamenie printing works -- which prints leaflets for Hancharyk -- that all material involving Hancharyk's campaign must be approved by the Central Electoral Commission, which is staffed by Lukashenka supporters.

The printing company Madzhik -- which publishes the opposition's most influential newspapers -- had its studio seized.

And authorities confiscated the entire print-run of a special election edition of the "Nasha Svaboda" newspaper.

Sophia Pugsley works in Belarus for Article 19, which monitors press freedom around the world.

She says she's been able to draw up a list of between 15 and 20 violations -- wryly headed "Stop Press!" -- in the past two weeks alone.

"Possibly the most important incident in the last week was the sealing of the premises of one of the few independent printing presses, Madzhik. They also had their bank account frozen. This has all been part of a financial inspection. As a result, the most important non-state newspaper, 'Narodnaya Volya,' has not been printed for the last two to three days. This also goes for another paper, 'Rabochii.' This has quite possibly affected about 16 non-state regional papers. There has been a whole spate of tax inspections started, most notably at 'Nasha Svaboda,' 'Narodnaya Volya,' and 'Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta.' These have resulted in 10 computers being seized at 'Narodnaya Volya,' one being seized at 'Nasha Svaboda,' and obviously the work of these papers has been hugely disrupted by having the tax police looking through their financial documents."

She says the noose has been tightening in recent weeks.

"It's certainly become more frequent. I've noticed the past week, ending August 24, there was an incident every day, of some paper having their equipment confiscated, or Madzhik, or some paper having the whole circulation of a special edition confiscated. [Something happened] every day last week and practically every day the week before that, so it's a definite crackdown that's happening."

Last week, the OSCE expressed concern over the seizure of the "Nasha Svaboda" election issue and called on the Belarusian government to stop what the organization called its "unending, problematic treatment of the independent press in Belarus."

Hrair Balian, who heads the mission of observers from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), arrived in Minsk last week.

Balian says his organization will take the "Nasha Svaboda" incident and other violations of press freedom into consideration when presenting its findings after the election.

"We have a database of what we consider human rights violations, violations of the freedom of expression exercised mostly against the independent or opposition media. We have a series of incidents that we have so far been able to document and this may not be exhaustive. And yes, we are very much concerned about these violations and what seems to be repression against the independent press."

Balian says his mission has been able to do its work without hindrance, although it was delayed due to bureaucratic feet-dragging by the Belarusian authorities.

But he says one part of the mission's monitoring activities will be rendered meaningless by the highly unusual system of early voting due to start next week.

Under this arrangement, voters will be able to cast their ballots at any time over a five-day period running up to the official election day. State employees will be encouraged to vote this way. Since the economy is still overwhelmingly in state hands, a sizeable chunk of the electorate could vote this way.

"We have concerns about this process because of the opportunities it presents for manipulation, for a number of reasons, all of which are grounded in election legislation. No one has to give any reason why they want to cast an early vote, so anyone can just decide to come forward, no reasons given. There are very little controls on the early voting process."

Balian says that at the end of each day no documents are prepared as to how many people have come in to the center and cast votes that day, so the next morning when the commissioners come back and open the polling station for a second day of early voting they have no idea if the boxes they left the night before have the same number of ballots in them as they found in them in the morning.

Also, when the votes are counted after election day, no record is kept as to how many votes were cast in the early voting process. They're mixed with the rest of the 9 September voting and counted together.

"We will monitor as much as possible but I'm afraid the monitoring will be meaningless, as there are no records kept at the end of each day and at the end of the process. So we can monitor, but what you can compare it against is a big question."

Balian says other OSCE countries have had early voting, but not in such a protracted process and with far stricter controls.

"This is the worst case of early voting I have seen in the OSCE region."

In another development potentially damaging to Hancharyk's campaign, yesterday (Sunday) Belarus deported a U.S. trade union official for allegedly meddling in the country's domestic affairs. Robert Fielding, from the AFL-CIO trade union, allegedly came out in support of Hancharyk during an appearance at a union meeting.

Balian said he will look into the incident to find out the circumstances of Fielding's deportation.