20 May 2018, Sunday, 16:46
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«Investigative Journalism»: Lukashenka Keeps Destroying Independent Press

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On January 24 one of the most long-standing independent sites “Charter’97” was blocked by the decision of the Ministry of Information.

The chief editor of the site Natallia Radzina stresses that repressions against the opposition media started almost 20 years ago.

“In 1997 the Human Rights Initiative “Charter’97” was established on the basis of the Czechoslovak Charter-77. It was originally presented as the declaration signed by more than a hundred most famous people of the country: representatives of the political, cultural and human rights elite. The document stated that the country turned to the dictatorship. It proclaimed intention to fight for human rights and democracy. More than 100 000 Belarusians signed it. People collected signatures on the streets, people came to editorial offices to sign it. In 1998 journalist Aleh Byabenin established “Charter’97”, Natallia tells.

According to her, since the very beginning the Belarusian special services have started intimidating journalists cooperated with the Charter.

“People were told that in case of further cooperation with the site they would face problems. As for business, after the kidnap of opposition businessman Anatol Krasouski in 1999, businessmen were simply afraid to help any opposition initiatives. It was hard for us to find premises, we constantly got refusals, and we had to work in private apartments. At the same time, we understood that we were under constant surveillance. Until 2010 we could work in Belarus,” the editor tells.

On the eve of the presidential elections in 2010, the authorities began to thoroughly clean any manifestations of opposition activity. The Charter also got into hot water, especially considering the fact that its founder Aleh Byabenin became on of heads of election headquarters of the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.

“Lukashenka started the suppression of the freedom of speech from TV channels. He put under control all of them and closed independent programs. In 1996 he closed the only independent radio station in the country and turned to newspapers. By 2004 almost all printed press was cleaned. Then Lukashenka noticed an increased influence of Internet resources. As a result, in 2010 four criminal cases were initiated against our journalists. The editorial office was constantly searched, on September 3 Aleh Byabenin was murdered. I have no doubt that it was a murder. Unfortunately, the European countries hushed up the matter because of their market interests. It was the time of negotiations between Lukashenka and the EU,” Natallia recalls.

The Belarusian authorities stated that Byabenin had committed suicide. After the dispersal of the protest action of many thousands on 19 December 2010 all opposition presidential candidates, activists and opposition journalists, including Natallia Radzina, were arrested. The Charter editor found herself in the KGB prison.

“I was accused of organization of mass riots – I could face up to15 years in prison. Conditions were disastrous. First, I was completely isolated. I was not allowed any letters, newspapers, lawyers, relatives. I had to sleep on wooden floor in overcrowded ward. It was cold, there was no hot water, I was not allowed to the toilet. I stopped drinking water, it caused serious health problems. I was interrogated from dawn till dusk. I was personally interrogated by former KGB officer and now Minister of Internal Affairs Ihar Shunevich. The governor of prison also had me interrogated. He threatened that I could not give a birth (as the result of their bullying with the toilet). They constantly forced me to sign a paper on cooperation with the KGB. I refused it, but I know that many people finally surrendered,” Natallia shares her memories.

Radzina spent almost two months in prison. Later she was released under the recognizance not to leave.

“The EU threatened Lukashenka with economic sanctions, and then he started releasing the most famous politicians and journalists. However, criminal cases against us are still open. I was not allowed to live in Minsk then and I had to leave to Kobryn, my small Motherland. My passport is still in the KGB prison,” Natallia says.

She spent two months in Kobryn.

“I tried to continue my work, but every time I told what was going on in prison and called on the West to seek the release of political prisoners, I was taken to the KGB and again threatened to return to custody,” she recalls.

Having realized that she could not escape a constant pressure Nataliia decided to escape. Russia turned to be the only country I could leave without the passport. She was really lucky. It was the time of a personal conflict between Lukashenka and the Kremlin. Russian TV channels broadcast the movie about the Belarusian dictator, and Russian authorities did not extradite opposition members.

“Anyway, it was really hard. A week before the escape, I have to hide on the territory of Belarus. I threw out my cell phone. I spent more than four months in Moscow, as it turned out no embassy did not agree to sent me to the West without a passport. Thanks to the help of human rights activists, in particular, Svetlana Gannushkina, I was able to leave. She got the UN Refugee Agency and the Dutch Embassy involved, and as the member of the Human Rights Council of the President of Russia, she asked Dmitry Medvedev to provide me with documents to leave the country. During those four months my parents got no news about me,” Natallia tells.

As a result, the editor of the Charter managed to get political asylum in Lithuania, and she moved to Warsaw on invitation of the Polish Government.

“Now journalists and volunteers from Belarus cooperate with us. Of course, under full anonymity. Open cooperation with the Charter may inflict a criminal case. By the way, our site was often blocked, but they were short-term blockings – the period of elections or opposition rallies. For 5-6 years we were on the black list and we were blocked in institutions. For the first time we have been blocked throughout the country. Last summer the website of the political opposition – The Belarusian National Congress – was blocked without any court decision. Our website was next, it has been blocked allegedly for “a threat to the national security”, Radzina said.

Natallia names the strengthening of defence and law enforcement agencies as the possible reason for the blocking. The editor stresses that regardless of Belarusian “power games”, the authorities have been long destroying the freedom of speech, and the decision about the Charter looks a logical extension of the dictatorial policy.

“I think the one who suffers the most from this decision is Lukashenka’s regime. The blocking proved that the regime remained the same, and it is barely possible that “decent houses” of Europe will want to deal with the Belarusian leader. In addition, the outflow of investors from the high-tech park has started. Last year Lukashenka adopted the decree on digital economy. But how can the digital economy develop in the country when opposition sites are blocked? The OSCE and the Foreign Ministry of Lithuania have already spoken out on the incident, and some MEPs said they would insist on the cessation of the dialogue with Lukashenka’s regime. In short, this situation does not play in favor of the dictator, meanwhile, the number of readers of the Charter is increasing. Nevertheless, we must reach out for the unblocking. I believe we will succeed. Of course, we need solidarity and help of people from all over the world,” Natallia summed up.

Kseniya Kirillova, «Investigative Journalism»