MINSK – The longtime leader of Belarus warned Thursday that Western media could be expelled from the country over what he described as their “tendentious" coverage of the presidential election next month in which he is seeking a sixth term.
President Alexander Lukashenko, 65 became the first president of Belarus 26 years ago and has remained in office ever since, relentlessly quashing dissent in the ex-Soviet nation and extending his rule through elections that Western observers have criticized as rigged.
Lukashenko singled out two broadcasters for criticism, alleging that “tendentious” reporting by Britain's BBC and the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had encouraged riots. He also reproached government officials over the matter.
“Why are you tolerating them?” he asked at a meeting. “It was you who have accredited them here."
Lukashenko cited massive demonstrations in Kyiv's main Maidan Square that drove Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president from power in 2014.
“No need to wait until the end of the election campaign," he said. "Expel them if they don't abide by our laws, and call people to go out to the Maidans.”
He also criticized the Belarusian edition of Russian daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in comments that reflected tensions in relations with Belarus' main ally and sponsor, Russia.
The Vyasna rights center has said that 43 journalists have been briefly detained while covering opposition rallies since the start of Belarus’ presidential election campaign. A local reporter for RFE/RL had his nose broken by police during his detention.
On Wednesday, more than 200 Belarusian journalists put out a statement urging the authorities to stop detaining reporters.
"There is just one goal behind the authorities' actions - to scare journalists and to show them and the entire society that laws don't apply in view of supreme political interests,” the statement said.
Lukashenko is expected to easily win reelection on Aug. 9 despite the latest opposition protests, which were triggered last week when Belarus election officials barred the president's two main challengers from appearing on the ballot.
But simmering discontent over the country’s economic woes has posed a challenge to his rule. Since May, more than 1,000 people have been detained in Belarus for taking part in protests, according to Vyasna.
The Belarusian president has dismissed the coronavirus pandemic as “psychosis” and rejected any lockdown measures, but the economic fallout from the outbreak has badly battered the 9.5-million nation’s Soviet-style economy.
The World Bank has forecast that the Belarusian economy will shrink by at least 4% this year, the largest decline in a quarter-century.