Reporters Without Borders deplores the arbitrary seizure three days ago of the entire print run of the independent regional weekly Vitebsky Kuryer .
A truck carrying 10,000 copies of the newspaper from its printing plant in the Russian city of Smolensk was stopped by traffic police and escorted to a police station. Officers gave no reason for their action but the newspaper’s editor, Vadzim Barshcheuski, said a prosecution for illegal distribution in Belarus was likely to follow.
“An act of censorship on this scale is unacceptable,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Once and for all, the authorities must stop trying to prevent the distribution of independent newspapers. And Russia should remind its neighbour to respect the ‘single information space’ shared by the two countries.”
The weekly is officially registered in Russia and, like hundreds of Russian periodicals freely available in Belarus, it is entitled to be distributed without restriction. As part of their customs union, the two countries are linked by an agreement providing for a joint “information space”.
The municipality of Vitebsk has refused to grant the newspaper a distribution licence in the town, a decision backed by the Supreme Economic Court in 2010.
“Obviously, the authorities find the simple truth (published in our newspaper) even more dangerous than opposition periodicals,” Barshcheuski, told Reporters Without Borders.
He believed the seizure could be linked to the position taken by the newspaper in the run-up to parliamentary elections due in September this year. Other sources pointed out that the edition that was seized contained an article on the case of Ales Bialiatski, the head of the Vyasna human rights organization and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights, who was jailed for four-and-a-half years last August for "tax evasion".
Thanks to its independent status, Vitebsky Kuryer has succeeded in becoming part of the media landscape since it was founded in September 2009. By February 2010, its circulation had risen from 1,000 to 10,000. However, it was dropped from the official distribution network and has since been distributed by volunteers.
Just as the original newspaper it took its name from, the weekly has been the target of constant harassment by the authorities. Its entire print run has been seized several times, most recently last October before the local elections. It has also had to migrate its Web portal to another platform after it was blocked by the state telecoms monopoly Beltelecom in July 2010.
In April last year, Barshcheuski was among 18 people arrested in Minsk as they celebrated the birthday of the human rights campaigner, Valery Shchukin. The journalist was sentenced to 10 days’ imprisonment for "disorderly conduct".
Reporters Without Borders also demands the immediate and unconditional release of Alyaksandr Barazenka, a journalist with Belsat TV who was arrested on 9 January and sentenced to 11 days’ imprisonment for filming a picket outside the offices of the KGB in Minsk.
He immediately began a hunger strike in protest against his imprisonment. On 11 January the prison authorities allowed him to receive a parcel from his colleague Yulia Darashkevich but he was prevented from seeing his lawyer who wanted to ask about his state of health and discuss a possible appeal.
Watch a video on what happened (Nash Dom TV)
Read Vitebsky Kuryer online (Russian, Belarussian)