Reporters Without Borders today voiced support for the political asylum request which Andrei Shentorovich, the founder and editor of the Belarusian independent weekly Mestnaya Gazeta, made yesterday in Ukraine, according to an RWB press-release, forwarded to UNIAN.
Constantly harassed by the Belarusian authorities for years, Shentorovich finally left Belarus on 27 March, eight days after President Alexandre Lukashenko`s controversial reelection. Based in the western city of Volkovysk, Mestnaya Gazeta was one of Belarus` few independent publications. Shentorovich had been publishing it since 2001.
"We are tired of seeing how the harassment of independent journalists continues to increase in Belarus," Reporters Without Borders said. "Shentorovich is not the only editor to have left the country in recent years to escape the systematic political repression. His decision is yet further evidence that dissident journalists are pushed to the limit and then forced out."
Shentorovich was arbitrarily arrested on 18 March, a day before the presidential election. He told Reporters Without Borders the Volkovysk police forced him to get out of his car and took him off to prison. Charged with hooliganism, he was sentenced to three days in detention in a summary trial on 19 March.
The Belarusian authorities not only told him to stop publishing his articles but also prevented hm from voting. More than 20 independent journalists fell victim to the wave of arrests that followed the presidential election and, like Shentorovich, were arbitrarily sentenced to several days in prison for hooliganism.
Shentorovich had published articles denouncing corruption by local officials. The authorities recently struck his newspaper from the commercial register and withdrew it from sale in news stands. At the same time, all local printers bowed to official pressure and refused to print it. Shentorovich had to change printers four times. Last year he began having it printed in the Russian city of Smolensk, a solution adopted by other newspapers harassed by the authorities such as BDG Delovaya Gazeta, which is now closed.
Shentorovich went on hunger strike in October 2004 to protest against his newspaper`s arbitrary suspension by the information ministry, which claimed that it did not have a legal address. Shentorovich remained on hunger strike for three weeks, saying he was the victim of "the programmed disappearance of press freedom."
At least three Belarusian journalists have requested political asylum since 2004. They are Nikolai Posedko of the Svetlogorsk-based newspaper Region Vesti, who sought asylum in Sweden; Aleksandr Silish, the editor of the independent daily Narodnaya Gazeta, who sought asylum in Belgium; and Oleg Minish, who sought asylum in Ukraine last year after being accused by the secret service of insulting President Lukashenko in a cartoon on the www.mult.3dway.org website.