The parliament of Belarus has set March 19th as the date for presidential elections -- months earlier than expected. Opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich said moving up the date showed President Alexander Lukashenko feared his rival's rising popularity. "Lukashenko is afraid," Milinkevich told a reporter for The Associated Press. "It is evident," he said, "that the security services have informed him about real attitudes in society, that my support as a presidential candidate is drastically increasing."
But the political opposition has a tough road ahead. The government of Belarus continues to find new ways to limit free speech in the run-up to the election. The Belarusian parliament has given preliminary approval to a law that would make it a criminal offense to spread false information or discredit the government. Those convicted "shall be punished with six-month arrest or up to two years in jail," the bill says. In a written statement, the U.S. State Department said, "This bill seems clearly aimed at intimidating Belarusian citizens and stifling free speech as the country approaches presidential elections in 2006."
The United States, along with the European Union, urges the Belarusian parliament to reconsider its decision and to reject the draft legislation. "Adopting such undemocratic legislation," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, "could incur serious consequences for Belarusian authorities. The United States," he said, "remains ready to take further restrictive measures against the responsible Belarusian authorities in the event of failure to uphold international standards."
The free flow of information is being further threatened in Belarus by the state postal agency's announcement that it will no longer distribute several independent newspapers. They include Naradnaya Volya, Salidarnasts, and Zhoda. Some of these same publications are being harassed through spurious libel cases. The Belarusian government should stop its repression of free speech. U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Julie Finley put it well when she said: "Just what does the government of Belarus fear? The judgment and intelligence of fellow Belarusians? How very elitist. How very intolerant."
The U.S. supports the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus. President Lukashenko should do the same.
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.