Updated at 15:34,14-12-2017

Independent media under attack ahead of Belarus presidential election

Alec Luhn, The Guardian

Journalists face fines and arrest as they attempt to provide an alternative to pro-Lukashenko state channels

Katerina Tkachenko, a journalist at an independent television station in Belarus, used to keep a bag by the door with warm clothes and a toothbrush in case KGB agents came.

For a long time the risk of prison was such a reality, Tkachenko said.

It was December 2010, after long-time president Alexander Lukashenko had been declared the winner of the presidential election with an unlikely 80% of the vote, and thousands of Belarusians had taken to the streets in protest.

In the days that followed, opposition leaders were arrested and the homes of activists and independent journalists raided by security forces.

On 26 December, the rented apartment where Tkachenkos TV station Belsat had been based was searched, but journalists had already moved. They left only an old typewriter with a sheet of paper that read: Specially for you.

A few days later KGB agents raided Tkachenkos home, confiscating her laptop and an archive of old family movies.

Five years later, as the country approaches presidential elections on Sunday, the independent media are once again under fire.

Now its harder, said Tkachenko. Their tactics changed. They summon our journalists to court after this or that piece and the judge fines them.

Once again, Lukashenko is certain to win the election, this time with broad support, partly due to constant positive coverage on state-controlled local news channels.

The three challengers running in the presidential race have only been allowed two half-hour appearances on state television each, plus a televised debate this weekend in which Lukashenko did not take part.

A few independent news outlets, including Belsat and Radio Racja, struggle to provide a more critical view of issues such as the ongoing recession. Denied registration in Belarus by the authorities, they report in Belarusian but broadcast from neighbouring Poland. Belsat is part of the Polish public television channel TVP, while Radio Racja is funded by the Polish government.

When early voting started on Tuesday, state television channel Belarus 1 interviewed famous cultural figures praising the stability brought by the current regime. Belsat, on the other hand, noted reports that soldiers, students and state employees had been forced to vote early in the past to falsify results.

According to Gennady Barbarych, a correspondent for Radio Racja, most independent television and radio stations have closed down since Lukashenko took office in 1994. Even though he promised not to touch the press, repressions started and only grew, he said.

Under a 2009 law that requires reporters working for foreign media to get accreditation from the Belarusian foreign ministry, independent journalists often receive court summons and fines.

At any moment they can detain you, and even if they dont convict you, you will spend three hours in court, said Belsat correspondent Sergei Kovalyov, who was once jailed for 10 days for hooliganism after he filmed an opposition rally in 2011.

Although neither Belsat nor Radio Racja had figures on the size of their audience, the journalists say their reporting is making an impact at least on the regime itself.

KGB employees and the presidential administration start their day looking at independent media. You need to know your enemy, said Lyubov Lunyova, who works at Belsat and the newspaper Narodnaya Volya. People often tell us that after our publications, guys came from the [security] organs to deal with the issue.