Independent reporters in authoritarian Belarus complain of harassment, confiscated computers

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Four independent journalists in authoritarian Belarus said Thursday the state security service has interrogated them and seized their computers and documents as part of an investigation into a libel suit.

Since their media outlets last month published an open letter by police complaining that a former security officer had falsified criminal cases, the journalists say they also have had their private electronic correspondence scanned.

"Under the pretext of a libel case, a real war has been started to destroy independent journalists and independent sites," said one of the journalists, Irina Khalip, Ukraine correspondent for Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Authorities have refused to comment on the alleged harassment of Khalip, Svetlana Kalinkina and Marina Koktysh of the Narodnaya Volya newspaper, and Natalya Radzina, editor of the opposition website Charter 97.

The Washington-based Freedom House group placed Belarus in the worst category for media freedoms in a report Thursday. Other former Soviet countries Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also were in the list of countries judged as having little or no independent reporting.

Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders called for the return of the computer equipment and the immediate cessation of the harassment of the four journalists in Belarus, which it linked to next year's presidential elections.

Run by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, Belarus has been labeled Europe's last dictatorship.