Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 226

The High Court of Economic Arbitration has ordered the immediate closure of the country’s main independent newspaper, Svaboda. The newspaper, whose last issue appeared on November 25, reflected the views of the democratic opposition. Belarusan journalists and Helsinki Committee members told The Monitor that Svaboda’s editorial board is applying for registration of another newspaper; and will publish underground if registration is denied. Meanwhile, Svaboda is putting out an electronic version at on the Internet.

Svaboda was being published three times a week and had a commercial circulation of 90,000, according to chief editor Ihar Hermyanchuk. It had temporarily been printed in neighboring Lithuania to circumvent official restrictions on independent publishing in Belarus. A draft press law currently examined by the presidentially-appointed parliament would ban the import of "harmful" printed matter from abroad and would also penalize independent publication on Internet pages.

The court — whose jurisdiction was disputed in vain by defense counsel — handed down its ruling on November 25 following a complaint by the State Committee for the Press, which incriminated several Svaboda articles essentially for political views reflected therein. The State Committee had previously issued several warnings against the newspaper on the grounds that it created "tensions in society and between society and the authorities." The chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Leni Fischer has condemned the closure of Svaboda as a "dictatorial" measure and announced that it considers an appropriate response.

The ban on Svaboda also raises a major issue of language policy, often overlooked by outside observers. Svaboda, while bilingual in Belarusan and Russian, was even so the republic’s main publication in the Belarusan language. Its closure leaves in existence only a few, marginal newspapers in the Belarusan language, apart from the government newspaper Zvyazda. But the latter’s circulation is dwarfed by that of the Russian-language official newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussia. The authorities’ policy with regard to the mass media forms part of a broader effort to roll back the modest gains achieved in recent years by the native language and culture. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government has reinstituted the Soviet-era policy of linguistic Russification. (Monitor interviews, Belapan, Russian and Western agencies, November 24-December 1)

Lukashenka, Chernomyrdin Chart Russia-Belarus Union Programs.