Vitebsky Kurier, an independent biweekly based in the northeastern city of Vitebsk, appealed to the commercial supreme court on 20 February against an order issued by a lower court on 12 January under which it should be evicted from its premises tomorrow, Reporters Without Borders has learned from Zanna Popova, the head of the company that publishes the newspaper.
The biweekly has requested that the eviction order should be stayed until the supreme court issues its ruling. But the supreme court has not yet responded to the appeal and has set no date for a hearing, leaving the newspaper in a limbo, Popova said.
“Administrative harassment is commonplace in Belarus,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The authorities have used this method to make it impossible for many independent publications to appear or to be distributed, when they do not shut them down altogether. The privately-owned weekly Den, for example, stopped publishing in 2005 after its contracts to rent premises were repeatedly rescinded.”
The press freedom organisation added: “President Alexandre Lukashenko is determined to maintain his control over people’s minds come what may, and the method he has chosen allows him to do this discreetly.”
The attempts to evict Vitebsky Kurier began in October. On 12 January, the information ministry gave the newspaper two weeks to register its new premises or risk suspension. It is now in an absurd situation from which there seems no way out - a situation familiar to most independent publications in Belarus. It cannot register an address with the ministry without the consent of the local authorities, which they refuse to give, and it can continue using the address already registered with the ministry because the rental contract has not been renewed.
Another independent newspaper, the Minsk-based Nasha Niva, is also threatened with suspension and closure. Its fifth rental contract was rescinded under pressure from the authorities at the start of January. The latest contract was cancelled after secret service agents went to the office of the owner of their premises. The newspaper has been trying in vain to find new offices since April 2006.
Nasha Niva was even ready to move to premises outside the capital, but the possibility did not bear fruit. In the meantime, it is using the Minsk offices of the Pen Club but Viktor Guretsky, the head of the information ministry’s licence department, said in an interview to Reporters Without Borders that the newspaper could be closed down if it continues to use a fictitious and unregistered address.