Reporters Without Borders and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) today condemned the Belarusian government`s refusal to allow opposition candidates equal access to the country`s media during the recent election campaign which saw President Alexander Lukashenko re-elected by over 80% of the vote in very tense circumstances.
They accused the authorities of "very serious attacks on press freedom during the entire campaign." They noted that the press was almost entirely controlled by the president and simply relayed government propaganda, which Lukashenko had said was its proper role.
The two organisations accused the authorities of snuffing out freedom of expression during the election and muzzling the press to ensure Lukashenko`s victory. They called on the international community to urgently press the Belarusian government to punish these actions and to promote media diversity in Belarus.
Press freedom violations during the campaign and the actual vote (see our report: "Institutionalised harassment of the news media" - 16 March 2006).
- The authorities have systematically hounded the independent media for nearly two years. Only two weeklies, BelGazeta and Belorusy i Rynok, have been allowed to get printed and freely distributed in Belarus and they only have a small circulation. The majority of other papers have been forced underground.
- During the campaign, two papers harassed by the regime tried to publish manifestos of opposition presidential candidates. The authorities seized 250,000 copies on 3 March of an issue of the independent paper Narodnaya Volya (already banned from sale and distribution) devoted to candidate Alexander Kazulin. On 17 March, two days before the election, the opposition paper Tovarishch, which had disappeared from circulation in recent months, came out with a special print-run of 200,000 about the manifesto of candidate Alexander Milinkevich. Police immediately seized all the copies.
- The largely state-controlled press echoes the opinions of President Lukashenko. A special issue of the president`s paper, Sovietskaya Biélorussia, printed more than 800,000 copies of an issue on 15 March exclusively about Lukashenko`s manifesto.
- The president dominates the country`s entirely state-run TV stations, appearing there nearly every day since the start of the campaign. He made a long speech of nearly three hours on 2 March at the opening of a special session of an All-Belarusian People`s Congress (congress of government workers). The biggest TV station, BT, broadcast the whole speech, which was about the government`s economic achievements and Lukashenko`s development plans for the next five years. It re-broadcast half the speech in news programmes that evening and the next day.
- The BAJ says the news programme Nashi Novosti, on the government TV station ONT, gave 89.6% of its air time over to presidential election candidates between 21 February and 4 March. But candidates Milinkevich and Sergei Gaidukevich were not mentioned at all and Kazulin got just 0.4% of the air time. BT gave 58% of its coverage to Lukashenko and only 0.1% to Kazulin and 0.2% to Milinkevich. The elections commission only stipulated brief coverage for all the candidates, of two half-hour programmes each during the entire campaign.
- As well as being excluded from the media, the opposition was also denigrated by the authorities. A report by BT on 20 March about a meeting of opposition supporters disputing the official results called the protesters "queers" and said organisers had handed out beer to them.
- Access to several opposition websites was blocked on election day (19 March), probably by official order. The opposition Charter 97 site came under a "denial of service" technical attack that shut it down from 4 p.m. until next day at 11 a.m. Its editor, Natalya Radina, told Reporters Without Borders that the site had been similarly attacked during the 2001 presidential campaign and the 2004 referendum. The website of the US-funded Radio Svaboda only became accessible again on 20 March at 1 p.m. and opposition candidates` sites www.milinkevich.org and www.kozylin.com at 10 a.m. that day.
- The authorities refused to allow critical journalists into the country to cover the elections, including Laure Mandeville, of the French daily Le Figaro, who was refused a visa and told in an official letter that she had written lies about the situation in Belarus. Between 20 February and 17 March, at least four journalists from the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and Radio Bialystok were deported. Three other journalists from the Ukrainian TV stations 1+1, Tonis and 5Kanal were also expelled after covering a meeting in support of candidate Milinkevich.
- At least four other Ukrainian and Polish journalists were arrested and sentenced to between five and 10 days in prison between 12 and 15 March. Andreij Poczobut, editor of the Polish magazine Polski na uchodzstwie, has been held since 14 March officially accused of "hooliganism." He has gone on hunger-strike and is also refusing water to protest against his imprisonment. He was taken to hospital for treatment on 19 March.