Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 234

Some 2,000 Minsk residents demonstrated in bitterly cold weather on December 14 in support of Svaboda, the country’s main independent newspaper, recently banned by the authorities. (See Monitor, December 8) Svaboda’s chief editor, Ihar Hermenchuk, told the rally that the newspaper continues publication three times a week in electronic form, available on the Internet. The Svaboda team plans to start a successor newspaper next month, though the authorities may thwart the plan.

Organized as a "readers’ protest," the event coincided with a conference of independent journalists and media experts, held in Minsk under the aegis of the Council of Europe and the Belarusan Journalists’ Association — a group which defends freedom of expression in Belarus. The conference worked out a set of requests to the authorities regarding freedom of information and the legal defense of journalists. Concurrently in Salonikki, a European forum on the mass media adopted a resolution urging the Belarusan government to observe existing legal norms on freedom to publish. The Russian government delegation, comprised of senior Gostelekomradio and Goskompechat officials, unsuccessfully opposed the resolution.

On a brief "working visit" to Minsk, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for relations with the newly independent countries, Stephen Sestanovich, expressed the U.S. government’s concern over the fate of Svaboda specifically and the restrictions on freedom of expression generally in Belarus. (Belapan, Russian and Western agencies, December 13-15)

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka hit back during a meeting in Minsk with a group of prominent Russian nationalist writers, including Writers’ Union president Valery Ganichev, Vladimir Karpov, Petr Proskurin, and Valentin Rasputin. Lukashenka equated freedom of the media with nationalism, greed, dehumanization of society, poor taste, pornography, and other results of "copying foreign models" and of "allowing the free market to invade the spiritual sphere." Lukashenka and the visiting Russian writers discussed "the rebirth of Slavic unity, saving the Russian nation, and the need to resist the mass media that are dividing the people and those media’s leaders who act on orders from the international mafia." (NTV, December 12; Russian agencies, December 15)

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