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In Wake Of Minsk Bombing, Authorities Threaten Crackdown On 'Rumormongers'


Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to be losing control of the country's propaganda apparatus.
Just 24 hours after the April 11 terrorist bombing in a Minsk subway station, the case had been solved and the perpetrators of the crime had confessed.

"Today at 5 a.m., they made their confession," President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced on April 13. "The main thing is that we already know how this terrorist act was carried out and by whom. All we don't know yet is why -- but that will be known soon. Finding out is our main task."

And he made it clear that the investigation will be thorough and wide-ranging.

"Statements by various politicos must be probed," Lukashenka said. "Everyone must be questioned."

On April 14, Belarusian Prosecutor-General Ryhor Vasilevich went on television to denounce "certain" journalists who were allegedly publishing "insulting" reports and "dancing on the bones" of the bombing victims. He said that widespread allegations that the crime was carried out by the authorities to distract public attention from the country's deteriorating economic situation were "mocking and insulting in tone and substance."

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Vasilevich went on to say his office was investigating such reports and that soon suspects would be questioned and "punished."

On April 15, the Information Ministry said it had issued a formal warning to the dailies "Nasha Niva" and "Narodnaya Volya," saying their reports had hurt public interests and discredited authorities.

Quite A Contrast

Indeed, the contrast between the coverage of the bombing in the state-controlled media and the discussion of it on the Internet could hardly be more glaring.

State television and newspapers proceeded seamlessly from emphasizing the way ordinary citizens came together following the explosion to an all-out campaign to discredit the regime's political critics. But user-generated content on the Internet has been skeptical of the authorities from the beginning.

Footage from CCTV cameras shows a suspected bomber carrying a bulky sports bag at the subway station shortly before the blast.

"I think it isn't just that the authorities don't like what the independent media are writing, whether about the terrorist act or about other things, but rather it is in the direction that public opinion has taken," says Alyaksandr Starykevich, the editor of the Internet newspaper "Solidarnost."

"A lot of people are skeptical about the positions and the versions offered by the authorities. And with this powerful propaganda attack the authorities are trying to head off this tendency."

An Internet user going by the name "Krem-soda" left this comment on April 14 on the website of the nonstate newspaper "Nasha Niva": "The distrust toward the authorities and the state media has reached an unprecedented level. And when it's not possible to come up with reliable information, people turn to rumors. People believe rumors because they more often prove true than the false pronouncements of bureaucrats and the government."

Not The Desired Result

Starykevich argues that the problem is in the essence of the highly authoritarian system that Lukashenka has created.

"The authorities are under the impression that they created a monopoly on information," Starykevich says. "But this enormous propaganda apparatus is producing less and less positive results. The results are turning out to be not at all what Lukashenka was counting on."

Belarusians are eagerly seeking independent sources of information, he adds.

"Nasha Niva" Editor in Chief Andrei Dynko says the terrorist attack brought society together but drove a wedge between society and the authorities. He praises the work of municipal services and ordinary citizens during the immediate aftermath of the tragedy but says the state media reports and official announcements have been badly received.

"Attempts by the authorities to gain political dividends from the tragedy and to distract attention from economic problems are being perceived negatively," Dynko says. "The thinking of people now is diametrically the opposite of what we are hearing from our televisions."

Controlling Information Space

In an effort to maintain its grip on the situation, the government is using state media to vilify political opponents and independent media, "putting them on the same level with terrorists," Starykevich says.

Controlling the information space in Belarus is becoming increasingly challenging for Lukashenka. Internet penetration has increased dramatically in the country over the last decade or so. According to the World Bank, usage was just 1 percent in 1999 and reached more than 32 percent in 2008.

Dynko is worried about the latest ominous official statements hinting at a crackdown on independent journalists, not only because he is one himself but because such a crackdown can only make the division between society and the state worse.

"Some of the pronouncements sound very dangerous. But if all the independent sources of information are liquidated, that will lead to the quick development of uncontrollable processes in society," Dynko says. "After all, it is impossible to completely liquidate the Internet and satellite television."

written by Robert Coalson, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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