Kseniya Kirillova – Journalist. Analyst. Writer.
On January 24 one of the most long-standing independent sites “Charter’97” was blocked by the decision of the Ministry of Information. The chief editor of the site Natallia Radzina stresses that repressions against the opposition media started almost 20 years ago.
“In 1997 the Human Rights Initiative “Charter’97” was established on the basis of the Czechoslovak Charter-77. It was originally presented as the declaration signed by more than a hundred most famous people of the country: representatives of the political, cultural and human rights elite. The document stated that the country turned to the dictatorship. It proclaimed intention to fight for human rights and democracy. More than 100 000 Belarusians signed it. People collected signatures on the streets, people came to editorial offices to sign it. In 1998 journalist Aleh Byabenin established “Charter’97”, Natallia tells.
According to her, since the very beginning the Belarusian special services have started intimidating journalists cooperated with the Charter.
“People were told that in case of further cooperation with the site they would face problems. As for business, after the kidnap of opposition businessman Anatol Krasouski in 1999, businessmen were simply afraid to help any opposition initiatives. It was hard for us to find premises, we constantly got refusals, and we had to work in private apartments. At the same time, we understood that we were under constant surveillance. Until 2010 we could work in Belarus,” the editor tells.
On the eve of the presidential elections in 2010, the authorities began to thoroughly clean any manifestations of opposition activity. The Charter also got into hot water, especially considering the fact that its founder Aleh Byabenin became on of heads of election headquarters of the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.
“Lukashenka started the suppression of the freedom of speech from TV channels. He put under control all of them and closed independent programs. In 1996 he closed the only independent radio station in the country and turned to newspapers. By 2004 almost all printed press was cleaned. Then Lukashenka noticed an increased influence of Internet resources. As a result, in 2010 four criminal cases were initiated against our journalists. The editorial office was constantly searched, on September 3 Aleh Byabenin was murdered. I have no doubt that it was a murder. Unfortunately, the European countries hushed up the matter because of their market interests. It was the time of negotiations between Lukashenka and the EU,” Natallia recalls.
The Belarusian authorities stated that Byabenin had committed suicide. After the dispersal of the protest action of many thousands on 19 December 2010 all opposition presidential candidates, activists and opposition journalists, including Natallia Radzina, were arrested. The Charter editor found herself in the KGB prison.
“I was accused of organization of mass riots – I could face up to15 years in prison. Conditions were disastrous. First, I was completely isolated. I was not allowed any letters, newspapers, lawyers, relatives. I had to sleep on wooden floor in overcrowded ward. It was cold, there was no hot water, I was not allowed to the toilet. I stopped drinking water, it caused serious health problems. I was interrogated from dawn till dusk. I was personally interrogated by former KGB officer and now Minister of Internal Affairs Ihar Shunevich. The governor of prison also had me interrogated. He threatened that I could not give a birth (as the result of their bullying with the toilet). They constantly forced me to sign a paper on cooperation with the KGB. I refused it, but I know that many people finally surrendered,” Natallia shares her memories.
Radzina spent almost two months in prison. Later she was released under the recognizance not to leave.
“The EU threatened Lukashenka with economic sanctions, and then he started releasing the most famous politicians and journalists. However, criminal cases against us are still open. I was not allowed to live in Minsk then and I had to leave to Kobryn, my small Motherland. My passport is still in the KGB prison,” Natallia says.
She spent two months in Kobryn.
The editor-in-chief of the independent Belarusian website Charter-97 Natalia Radzina arrived in Paris at the invitation of the French Foreign Ministry