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Belarus Blocks and Shutters News Outlets as Protests Swell

2020-08-22 21:17:26
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MINSK, Belarus – Authorities in Belarus have blocked more than 50 news media websites reporting how the country has been shaken by two weeks of protests demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko step down after 26 years in power.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported the closures on Saturday, including locations for US-funded Radio Liberty and Belsat, a Poland-funded satellite TV channel targeting neighboring Belarus.

The move is unlikely to prevent Belarusians from keeping up to date with events through the medium that has emerged as the main electronic platform of the protests: the instant messaging service Telegram. But the crackdown is another sign that the government is trying to get the narrative of recent events under control.

On Friday, the state publishing house stopped printing two top independent newspapers, Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing faulty equipment.

Protests that were historic in Belarus for their size and duration erupted after the August 9 presidential election, which election officials said Mr. Lukashenko's sixth term in office in a landslide. Protesters say the official results are fraudulent and are calling on Mr Lukashenko to resign.

Police reacted harshly in the early days of the protests, arresting thousands of people and beating many violently. But the police crackdown has only broadened the scope of the protests, and anti-government attacks have been staged at some of the country's main factories, former footholds for Mr Lukashenko. Some police officers have posted videos of them burning their uniforms and quitting.

In a massive rally of resistance, an estimated 200,000 protesters gathered in the capital Minsk last weekend. But Mr Lukashenko has not been overrun by insisting that the protests against him threaten the existence of Belarus, and the question now is whether protesters reappear in similar numbers amid veiled threats of violence against him. them.

Mr Lukashenko's main election challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, this Sunday called for another major rally of opposition. One of Minsk's most popular nightlife districts was atypically empty on Saturday night as many young people in the capital were preparing for what could become a key day in the movement against Mr Lukashenko.

"We are closer than ever to our dream," Ms Tikhanovskaya said in a video message from Lithuania, where she took refuge after the elections. Some former presidential challengers in Belarus have been imprisoned for years.

Public statements of support for Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, have been relatively modest. A pro-government rally in Minsk last weekend drew about a quarter as many people as the protest march.

On Saturday, only about 25 people showed up for a bike ride to show support for the president, while hundreds of women dressed in white formed a chain in Minsk to protest his government.

“Threats, intimidation, blocking no longer work. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians are saying to him "Get out" from all corners and squares, "said Anna Skuratovich, one of the women in the chain.

Protesters say they are fed up with the country's declining living standards and are angry about Mr. Lukashenko's dismissal from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Lukashenko has claimed that the protests were inspired by Western forces, including the United States, and that NATO is deploying troops near the western border of Belarus. The alliance denies that claim.

On Saturday, Mr Lukashenko spoke at a meeting of several thousand supporters Grodno, where he threatened to shut down factories on strike. Strikes have hit some of the country's largest companies, including vehicle and fertilizer manufacturers, a potential blow to the largely state-controlled economy.

Authorities on Friday threatened protesters with criminal charges in an attempt to stop the protests. Investigators have also called several opposition activists for questioning.

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