Reporters Without Borders is concerned to see that a bombing in the Minsk metro on 11 April, which killed 13 people, has prompted a new round of official warnings to the news media similar to previous attempts to intimidate and silence them.
“We urge the government to stop the almost daily harassment and threats against journalists who are just trying to do their job,” the press freedom organization said. “The Minsk metro bombing must not be used as a pretext to gag the media.”
The warnings, issued by the information ministry or the attorney-general’s office, have increased in frequency in the past few days. Journalists trying to cover the metro bombing are being accused of defamation or spreading false information. After two warnings for media law violations, a journalist’s permit or a media’s licence can be withdrawn.
The independent weekly Nasha Niva received a warning on 15 April for “falsely reporting” that one of the victims of the bombing had not been evacuated from the metro station until late in the night. The Committee for State Security (KGB), which already searched the newspaper several times this year, issued another warning on 18 April, accusing it of revealing confidential information about the investigation.
Nasha Niva editor Andrei Surko has also been reprimanded for publishing an op-ed piece by a former army colonel suggesting that the security services could have orchestrated the bombing. Surko insists that no law was broken because “a warning at the bottom of the opinion page says the newspaper is not responsible for the views expressed.” The attorney-general’s office accused him of “discrediting the Belarusian state to the detriment of the public interest.”
The newspaper Narodnaya Volya received an information ministry warning on 15 April accusing it of publishing false information that defamed the Belarusian state radio and TV. The supreme court examined a complaint against the newspaper by the state television station and gave the go-ahead for a prosecution.
Anatol Sanatsenka, the editor of the privately-owned newspaper Bobruyiski Kuryer (one of whose journalists, Vauhen Voskovich, has been jailed since January), has been criticized for an article he wrote for the Belaruspartisan.org website on 12 April in which he wondered who had most to gain from the bombing.
The attorney-general sent a warning to Aleksandr Starykyevich, the editor of the online newspaper Solidarnosts, the same day accusing him of baseless speculation in an article examining various theories as to who might have been behind the bombing.
Sergei Nyaruny, the editor of Volny Horad, a regional newspaper based in the eastern city of Mahilou, received a written warning from the Krychaw regional prosecutor on 19 April about an article voicing scepticism about the guilt of the suspects arrested in connection with the bombing. The article aimed to “discredit and insult the police, the state and Belarusian society in its entirety,” the prosecutor claimed, threatening to prosecute him if he published more articles on the subject.
Everything seems to indicate that the Belarusian authorities are not tolerating any independent coverage of the 11 April bombing, and are using it to get rid of problematic journalists. Vitebsky Kuryer editor Aleh Barshcheuski, who was arrested at the same time as a number of opposition and human rights activists supposedly implicated in the bombing, was sentenced yesterday to 10 days in prison on a hooliganism charge.
The Internet is also being targeted. Charter97.org and Belaruspartisan.org, two websites that are critical of the government, have in the past few days been the victim of DDoS attacks designed to make them hard to access. Attorney-general Grigori Vassilyevich openly declared his desire to “sort out” the Internet on 12 April.
The various attacks on the media reflect the extremely aggressive comments that both the attorney-general and President Aleksandr Lukashenko have been making. Accusing the media of “creating panic” on 13 April, Lukashenko said: “I have given orders for the wicked [journalists] to be pursued, detained and interrogated as criminals.”
The events of the few days constitute a new chapter in the crackdown on journalists that began immediately after the controversial elections on 19 December.