Reporters Without Borders today expresses its deep concern in respect of the conditions in which journalists and political opponents have been held since the demonstrations of 19 December 2010.
“The pressures exerted on them and their defence teams, and the efforts to limit dissemination of news about them, recall the repression campaigns of the Soviet era,” the organization says today.
Visits by lawyers to their clients are strictly limited under the pretext that the detention centre only has one room set aside for this purpose. The lawyer for Natalia Radzina, editor in chief of Charter 97, was able to see her on 19 January 2011. He found her unwell, suffering from bronchitis and influenza. Irina Khalip, journalist with Novaya Gazeta and wife of opposition candidate Andrei Sanikov, has not seen a lawyer since 30 December.
The couple (at present in prison and facing jail terms of five to 15 years) have been subject to psychological pressures, with the Belarusian authorities saying that the mother of Irina Khalip needed to be declared suitable if she was to take care of the couple’s three year old son.
Otherwise he would be placed in an orphanage. After 10 days the grandmother was finally able to take over his care. The couple have also been accused by the official journal of having fomented a coup d’état, backed by Poland and Germany
In another development on 20 January the Minsk Bar Association (MCBA) advised its members only to reply to written questions from journalists and to require them to submit their articles before publication.
“The MCBA has published this recommendation under pressure from the justice ministry which is trying to limit as much as possible access to news about the political opposition and journalists facing prosecution for taking part in an illegal demonstration,” said Andrei Bastunets, lawyer for the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a partner organization of Reporters Without Borders.
“This recommendation is not a legal act and should not have legal consequences.” If the advice is followed, journalists will no longer be able to conduct interviews by telephone. This directive will help isolate the detainees and prevent them being defended at the national or international level.
Pressure continues to be exercised on media professionals. On 18 January, Barys Haretski, correspondent of the Polish radio station Racyja, was given a 14-day jail sentence. He had been arrested on 17 January by a KGB officer while interviewing contacts of opposition activists on the grounds that he did not have accreditation. He was charged with having taken part in the demonstration of 19 December. But on that day he was covering the demonstration for Radio Racyja.
He is one of about 30 journalists arrested for taking part in the demonstration, although they were simply carrying out their duties. The KGB officers also searched the apartment of his mother and brother. Movsun Gaszhiyev, the correspondent of the Russian daily Kommersant, has also been the victim of this kind of pressure. He was told by the foreign ministry that his accreditation ( which he has had since 2008) will not in the end be extended because of “inexactitudes” in his documents.
Also on 17 January Yohen Vaskovitch, a young journalist from Bobruisky Kuryer was arrested and sentenced, for the second time, to 10 days in prison for “vandalism”. His editors say that on 16 December, the day he is supposed to have committed the offence, he was on a job observing the electoral process in several polling stations. He had already been given a 12 day sentence on 19 December and had refused to sign an undertaking that he would not take part in a demonstration. His apartment was also searched and his computer seized.
On 20 January the heads of the official station ONT told journalist Siarhey Darafeyeu that he would soon be banned from presenting the discussion programme Vybar. The decision came a month after the special edition “Election Day” during which he had openly questioned the legality of the presidential vote. He succeeded in making the official from the electoral commission recognize that the electoral process had been blemished by violations of the law. He also asked officials to explain why voters were not allowed to organize demonstrations and why opposition members had not been able to act as observers.
Darafeyeu says he did not break the law and does not understand why he can no longer present the programme.
“All the programmes I have presented are in full agreement with Belarusian law and journalistic norms,” he told Reporters Without Borders.
Finally in recent days at least six BAJ members have been questioned by KGB officers about the 19 December demonstrations.
While President Alexander Lukashenko (who was officially sworn in on 21 January) strives to defend the legitimacy of his re-election, the European and US authorities have announced sanctions against his regime.
On 20 January the European Parliament condemned the repression conducted by the Belarusian government and called for the organization of new free and democratic elections. The committee of ministers of the Council of Europe is due to take a decision on 31 January on the restriction of visas for Belarusian officials and on a freeze on the financial aid given by the International Monetary Fund. A group of US senators has called on the European authorities to undertake joint measures with the United States, entailing real consequences, to stem the repression.