MINSK The Belarussian government has seized property and frozen the bank account of one of the country's leading private printing shops in a bid to stop it from producing independent newspapers.
"Obviously, someone has given orders to several state agencies that don't normally cooperate with each other to organize a campaign against our company," said Yury Budko, owner of Magic printing house.
He added that officials did not try to hide the fact that the crackdown was a reaction to the firm's printing of independent press during recent parliamentary elections.
One of Magic's clients, the Rabochy newspaper, had in one issue called on the electorate to ignore the Oct. 15 vote, claiming it would be fixed in favor of President Alexander Lukashenko's supporters.
A local judge acquitted the pair of trying to disrupt the election, but tax authorities seized Magic's records and issued an order barring the printing press from being transferred to any other party.
Government officials claim the press should be confiscated to cover a debt held by its alleged owner, the Belarussian Soros Foundation. As the press' operator, Magic went under financial investigation, and its bank account was frozen.
The Belarussian Soros Foundation, a grant-making organization financed by the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI), said that it had to close down its operation in 1997 after local authorities claimed it owed tax-collecting authorities about $80 million in back debts.
A year before, the foundation had given Magic a grant to set up the printing facilities, but OSI officials say the press is its property, and that OSI had leased it to Magic directly.
Although there is no official state censorship in Belarus, government officials have made many attempts to suppress the country's several dozen independent outlets, many of which publish scathing criticism of Lukashenko and his entourage.
"Authorities tried to pressure us during the 1996 Referendum," said Budko. "But unlike now, four years ago, the authorities didn't even try to create an appearance of justice."
The results of that controversial referendum, not recognized by United States and Europe, gave Lukashenko sweeping powers and extended his mandate by two years. Official pressure on Magic eased after Lukashenko's victory, but authorities have not left Magic alone since.
According to Budko, some officials openly told him they would never have bothered if his company printed only entertainment publications and did not get involved with independent newspapers.