Representatives of independent media in Belarus Tuesday said it is most unlikely that next month's presidential election will be free and fair.
Olga Stuzhinskaya, a Belarus media analyst in Brussels, says the March 19 election will be rigged.She says incumbent president Aleksander Lukanshenko has ordered the enactment of new measures to block dissent. "In particular, a so-called anti-revolution law has been adopted. For example, there have been amendments to the criminal code, which say if you are talking-in their words-something bad about your country, you can be jailed for up to three or five years. So (even) what we do here today can easily be considered as discrediting the Republic of Belarus," she said.
President Lukanshenko has ruled Belarus for 10 years and is expected to win a third five-year term. Another speaker at the forum sponsored by Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Svetlana Zavadskaya, said the March 19th date was selected by Mr. Lukanshenko because of its proximity to the closely watched March 26 parliamentary election in neighboring Ukraine. The Belarus authorities, she said, assume that the western news media will be preoccupied with the Ukraine vote and thus pay less attention to the one in Belarus.
Marina Raklei, a journalist with the independent Belapan news agency, says Belarus independent media are under increasing government pressure. "The latest tactics (of the government) denies the possibility of (newspapers) being printed in Belarus as neither the private nor the state-owned publishing houses are eager or ready to cooperate with an independent paper," he said.
Raklei said the media are essentially state controlled. It is impossible, she said, to purchase any foreign newspapers in the country.
The democratic opposition in Belarus, a country of ten million people, has selected a candidate to run against Mr. Lukashenko. He is Alaksandr Milinkevich, a 59 year-old physicist. He has been denied access to the media.
Belarus is an authoritarian semi-communist state with many similarities to the old Soviet Union.