Belarus continues to beleaguer free press

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Press freedom groups yesterday (4 January) urged Belarus to release dozens of journalists who they said were still in custody following a violent crackdown on opposition demonstrators in the wake of a presidential election last month.

The International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna, its affiliated South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Minsk to stop trying to intimidate independent reporters.

"We are alarmed at the arrests and jail sentences handed down to journalists," SEEMO Secretary-General Oliver Vujovic said in a statement.

On 3 January, Belarus freed one of five opposition presidential candidates it has held since the election. Police said they expected to release most of the remaining detainees soon. About 200 out of 650 were thought to still be jailed.

But Belarus has also decided to shut down the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe after OSCE monitors criticised as "flawed" the vote that handed President Alexander Lukashenko, 56, a fourth term in office.

The detention of opposition leaders and the police swoop on protesters have drawn criticism from the European Union and the United States, while Russia has supported Lukashenko.

Vujovic expressed special concern about Natalya Radina, editor of the website Charter 97, and Irina Khalip, correspondent for Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whom he said remained behind bars at a Minsk detention facility.

"For us, it is important that in Belarus journalists be able to work independently, professionally and freely, like in other countries."

The IPI/SEEMO statement quoted the Belarussian Association of Journalists as saying 24 journalists had been arrested in the crackdown and 21 were physically assaulted.

Some of the arrested journalists had been sentenced to up to two weeks' detention, while others remained under investigation.

The CPJ called on the European Union to link diplomatic relations with Belarus to the release of jailed journalists.

It said a new campaign by Minsk authorities to promote child safety could in fact cloak efforts to seize the three-year-old son of Khalip and former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, also imprisoned, from his grandparents. "The ugly attempt to place Khalip's young son in a foster home against his grandparents' will is an abomination. Such outdated Soviet intimidation tactics have no place in 21st Century Belarus," CPJ Europe stated.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

"We call on the European Union to make all further diplomatic and trade relations with Belarus dependent on the immediate and unconditional release of Irina Khalip, Natalya Radina and at least 20 other journalists currently behind bars," said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator Nina Ognianova said.

"The ugly attempt to place Khalip's young son in a foster home against his grandparents' will is an abomination. Such outdated Soviet intimidation tactics have no place in 21st century Belarus," she added.

"We call for an immediate end to all politicised raids on independent newsrooms and journalists' homes, and the return of all confiscated equipment," Ognianova said.

Oliver Vujovic, secretary-general of the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), said: "For us, it is important that in Belarus journalists be able to work independently, professionally and freely, like in other countries."

Relations between the EU and Belarus have been slowly improving after the low-point reached in the aftermath of the 19 March 2006 presidential election.

Parliamentary elections which took place on 28 September 2008 also fell short of democratic standards: the opposition failed to win any seats. 

In March 2006, the EU decided to impose travel bans on a number of Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, who is widely known as "the last dictator in Europe". The sanctions have not yet been lifted, but their application has been suspended. 

Such "carrot and stick" tactics were also illustrated by a document released on 21 November 2006, in which then-EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner outlined trade-offs regarding visa facilitation, commercial opportunities and economic relations from which the Belarus government would benefit by improving its record on human rights and democracy. 

Lukashenko paid a visit to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Pope in April 2009. 

In an exclusive interview for EURACTIV, the leader of the opposition in Belarus Alexander Milinkevich advised the European Union to make careful use of "carrots" with the authoritarian regime in Belarus in its attempts to boost democracy.

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