Sandwiched between Cuba and Myanmar on Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press listing, Belarus has little to celebrate on World Press Freedom Day on May 3. And the already dismal situation in the authoritarian country is definitely taking a turn for the worse.
The New York-based NGO Freedom House this year lists Belarus among the 10 worst-rated countries on its index, states where "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens' access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression." Those 10 states are Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
And the Freedom House report was written before authorities in Minsk began court proceedings to shut down the country's two main remaining independent media outlets -- the newspapers "Nasha niva" and "Narodnaya volya." The Information Ministry has issued each of the newspapers three official warnings in recent months over "wrong coverage of events."
'Who Will Hear Us?'
The stepped-up pressure on the independent media in Belarus is part of a general crackdown on political dissent following the disputed reelection in December of longtime President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The repression only got worse following the April 11 terrorist bombing in the Minsk subway system, which left 14 dead and scores injured.
Renowned actress Zinaida Bandarenka published an open appeal to Lukashenka urging him to end the persecution of the two papers.
"I think he is acting as if he hasn't noticed our appeal," she says. "There is still a small hope, but then, when they really do shut down these papers…This is our last chance to address him. There is no other opportunity. If they close these papers, who will hear us? Will the official media publish our pain and our cries? Of course not."
The government's steps against the two papers provoked criticism from the media freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Dunja Mijatovic says the move will "further diminish media pluralism in the country."
Minsk ordered the OSCE to close down its Belarus office at the beginning of the year, following OSCE criticism of the December 2010 presidential election.
'They Will Close, Of Course'
Opinions about what will happen next are divided on the streets of Minsk.
"A lot of people read these newspapers. Everyone buys them. They are quite popular," one man says. "And they really write about what people want to hear, what they want to know. Apparently someone doesn't like that, and so they will close the papers, of course."
"I don't think they will be shut down," another man says. "It would just give another reason to argue that the principles of democracy are violated in Belarus, that we have here the last dictatorship in Europe."
The Belarusian Association of Journalists is calling on ordinary citizens to appeal to the Information Ministry and ask officials to withdraw their case against the newspapers. Association lawyer Andrey Bastunets tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the goal is to keep the case from making it to court.
"If the case goes to court then, most likely, the verdict will not be in favor of the independent media," Bastunets says. "Therefore, it is important to morally sway the representatives of the organ that filed the case -- the Information Ministry -- so that they feel that we aren't talking about two independent publications, but about their readers, people who are being deprived of their chosen publications."
The case is scheduled to begin on May 11.
For now, journalists at the two newspapers are impressed with the support they have received from readers and the general public. "Narodnaya volya" Deputy Editor Marina Koktysh says the paper has been targeted by officials before, when they barred the state newspaper-kiosk system from selling it and when their printer suddenly refused to print it.
As a result, the paper's staff remains defiant and is preparing contingency plans to move underground or to publish from abroad. For now, Koktysh says, the paper is actively working the system.
"You know, as they say, hope dies last," she says. "We don't plan to get on our knees before anyone, not before Lukashenka, not before any of his bureaucrats. But we think that now we need to knock on every door. Even if they are closed. And if there is even the smallest chance to save the newspaper, we have to grab it."
By RFE/RL. Published on 3 May 2011
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.