Belarus jails agents of free speech

Twenty-two independent journalists have been rounded up and detained in Belarus, in what media freedom groups are condemning as a 'post-election crackdown' on freedom of speech.

The arrests of nine media professionals from countries including Canada and Russia came on Friday, just five days after the contested re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Their detention at an undisclosed location coincides with the arrest of 13 other journalists, including internet writers and freelancers, who were last week detained in Belarus cells, some brutally, for their anti-state views.

Reports from the capital Minsk, which has become a hotbed of violent protest, claim independent writers have been jailed on trumped up charges of hooliganism, obscenity and "taking part in an unauthorized gathering."

Riot police acting on orders from Lukashenko took to the streets on Thursday, reacting to growing protest from opposition parties who had successfully rallied around 10,000 supporters.

Propelled forward by Western commentators who have condemned Lukashenko for his totalitarian rule, the protesters attempted to turn their march into a movement to 'liberate' Belarus from its reelected President.

According to Reuters, the march on a detention center in the capital that houses dissidents served to expose differences in the opposition alliance, which could provide the President with ammunition to consolidate his position.

Minsk has meanwhile condemned the European Union and Washington for tinkering on "the verge of anti-Belarussion hysteria," in answer to claims national elections were rigged, according to statements obtained by the news agency.

The state power has added that an atmosphere of "absolute calm" now governs the capital and nearby cities, in a move to silence protests from the West.

Contrary to the claims, Reporters Without Borders said the recent arrests of independent journalists have been designed to "sow a climate of terror in the country."

"The independent journalists should be immediately released," the Paris-based group said, calling on representatives of foreign countries in Belarus and on neighbouring countries to intervene on behalf of the jailed reporters.

The group condemned Belarus jails for holding media professionals in "overcrowded shocking conditions," including unhygienic cells and beds made from a series of wooden planks.

 

28th March 2006

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