Reporters Without Borders reiterates its concern about the hounding of journalists in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for 19 December. Harassment by the authorities is severely curtailing the already limited freedom of the Belarusian media, which are still reeling from journalist Oleg Bebenin's mysterious death at the start of September.
The opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volia received a new information ministry warning on 13 September for allegedly "disseminating false information" about the Committee for State Control (SCC). The newspaper has received four official warnings in the space of 10 months and is facing the possibility of a three-month suspension or permanent closure if the authorities take it to court.
Reporters Without Borders is afraid that article 51 of the media law, which allows the authorities to suspend newspapers after two warnings, will be used to close critical newspapers or pressure them to censor themselves. Several independent newspapers already have the threat of closure hanging over them, after receiving warnings about "violations," including violations of the most minor kind.
Narodnaya Volia got its latest warning because of two articles at the end of August about alleged corruption and money laundering within the SCC. The information ministry gave the newspaper 10 days to publish a retraction. "The dissemination of false information about the Committee for State Control brings discredit on this institution, may affect its activities and have other negative consequences," the ministry said.
Narodnaya Volia deputy editor Svetlana Kalinkina told Reporters Without Borders she was surprised not to have been contacted by the ministry before being given the warning, which has been the procedure used in the past. She added that she was concerned that Narodnaya Volia and other critical newspapers could be shut down before the presidential election.
In a press release on 17 August, Reporters Without Borders had already expressed its concern about the spate of warnings received by Narodnaya Volia and another leading opposition newspaper, Nasha Niva, and the abuses arising from the new media law.
Other methods used to hound media include denying them access to advertising. This is the case with Babruyski Kurier, a paper based in the southeastern city of Babruysk. One of the country's oldest regional publications (founded in 1914), it is on the verge of bankruptcy because the authorities have told advertisers to boycott it. As a result of this unofficial but effective ban, it has been starved of advertising revenue and has been unable to publish since July.
The newspaper has been subjected to other forms of harassment by the Babruysk authorities. It has for example repeatedly been denied accreditation to cover events organised by the municipal council and other official activities. The combination of restricted access to information and financial pressure has resulted in its being unable to compete with other newspapers that steer clear of sensitive subjects.
In response to requests from the Bureau of Ideology, the prosecutor's office has sent several warnings to Babruyski Kurier on spurious grounds, which mean the authorities are now in a position to suspend or close the newspaper. But that may not be necessary if it fails to win back any of its advertisers.