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7/28/04 - ASSAULT ON FREEDOM IN BELARUS - 2004-07-28

The government of Belarus has launched yet another assault on academic freedom, the right of assembly, and freedom of the press.

On July 21st, 2004, the government of Aleksandr Lukashenko informed the European Humanities University, a private institution, that it would terminate the lease on its main building. At the same time, the government is trying to force the university’s rector to resign. These strong-arm measures are jeopardizing the future of the school and its contributions to intellectual life and academic freedom in Belarus.

On the same day, Belarusian police used excessive force to disperse a large group of pro-democracy activists in the capital, Minsk. The demonstration was called to mark the tenth anniversary of President Lukashenko’s oppressive regime. Dozens of people were arrested when they attempted to unfurl banners. Others were herded onto buses by police and driven outside the city where they were beaten, threatened, and reportedly had personal items such as jewelry and watches removed.

A Russian state television station broadcast the demonstration. Shortly afterwards, authorities shut down T-V Rossia’s office, accusing it of exaggerating the size of the rally despite the fact that other independent media sources had similar estimates of its size.

T-V Rossia journalist Dimitri Petrov was exercising his right to freedom of speech and media. He was fulfilling his journalistic responsibility by reporting the situation as it unfolded. Yet the Belarusian authorities stripped him of his accreditation for what they called “gross distortion of facts.”

These most recent acts of repression indicate that the Belarus government is not serious about developing a democratic society. As Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy said:

“The prerequisites of having a free access to independent and objective information is really the first stage of any society which is moving along the path of democracy. It seems that in Belarus things are really moving in the opposite direction because the public finds itself pretty much in an information void.”

It is hard to see how Belarus can become more integrated into the West if the government continues its campaign against civil society and independent voices.