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MINSK, Belarus – A secret apartment in an old Minsk building has become just the latest risky place for journalists from the independent Belsat television station to work.
The journalists take great precautions to elude detection, frequently moving their makeshift studio from one underground apartment to another, and transmit reports to Poland for broadcasting from there. Still they face regular searches and harassment.
In the run-up to Sunday's presidential election, the government has gone after journalists like those at Belsat who seek to skirt state censorship by broadcasting from outside Belarus. So far this year, 28 journalists in the former Soviet republic have been slapped with hefty fines, in some cases after intimidating interrogation by the KGB.
Even though authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is certain to win a fifth term, he appears determined to further tighten control over the media to head off any discontent in Belarus as economic troubles deepen.
"We destroy the myths of the official Belarusian propaganda, and in an election year this is especially dangerous for the government," said Belsat journalist Olga Chaichits. She was fined the equivalent of $300, twice the minimum monthly pay, after doing a story about the illegal demolition of 200 homes in a small town.
"The government has established total control over most of the media, but they are unable to control us," Chaichits said. "Therefore they want to intimidate us, sow fear and force us to give up independent journalism."
Since 2007, Belsat has been the only television station providing independent information in the Belarusian language. The journalists in Minsk, who have turned the apartment's bathroom into a studio, send their reports over the Internet to Poland. From there, they are broadcast by satellite and uploaded on Belsat's website, which uses a European domain.
Belarus-based journalists working for the Belarusian service of Poland's Radio Racyja and the Russian service of Deutsche Welle radio also are among those who have come under pressure. These journalists are vulnerable because their media organizations have been unable to get official accreditation in Belarus, exposing them to charges of "illegal preparation and dissemination of mass media products."
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, faces no serious competition in the election and is all but certain to win. His main enemy is the economy, which shrank by 4 percent in the first eight months of the year and stays afloat largely because of cheap oil and gas supplies from Russia.
"Lukashenko is scared," said analyst Valery Karbalevich. "In the context of the coming economic collapse, control over the media has become one of the key levers for retaining power in the country."
Two independent media outlets this week accused the government of blocking their websites after they ran stories about university students being forced to go to a public prayer session attended by Lukashenko and his 12-year-old son. The BelaPAN news agency and online publication naviny.by keep their computer servers in Belarus with a state-owned telecommunications company.
Belarus adopted a law in February allowing the government to block websites without obtaining a court order.
All television and radio stations in Belarus are under strict state control. The main newspaper, with a circulation of half a million, belongs to the presidential administration and is called Sovetskaya Belorussia, or Soviet Belarus. Small independent newspapers are barely able to survive due to a combination of political and economic pressures.
Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Civil Party, said state control over the media and political repression have made the election a farce. He initially had considered trying to get on the ballot, but in the end decided to call for a boycott of the election instead.
The election campaign is barely visible on the streets of Belarusian cities. There are few posters, and most voters would struggle to name the three other candidates — the leaders of two pro-government parties and a little known opposition activist.
Lukashenko had allowed opposition candidates to run in past presidential elections, although none of the votes was recognized in the West as free or fair. Most of the candidates who opposed him in 2010 were arrested soon after the polls closed.
One of them, Nikolai Statkevich, spent nearly five years in prison until Lukashenko unexpectedly pardoned him in August along with all five other remaining political prisoners. Their release was seen as an effort to improve relations with the West, which imposed sanctions on Belarus in response to the crackdown on dissent.
Statkevich said Sunday's election was the first to be fixed even before the vote.
"None of the three other registered candidates can say why they are running," he said. "The candidates are only playing the role of extras in Lukashenko's circus."