Belarusian authorities have reprimanded two leading independent newspapers for their coverage of a subway bombing that killed 13, officials said Friday, raising fears the government could use the attack to muzzle a few remaining independent media outlets.
The Ministry of Information said it had issued a formal warning to the Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya dailies that their reports on Monday's bombing had hurt public interests and discredited authorities.
The reprimands have fueled concerns that authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's government was using the bombing as a pretext to uproot the last vestiges of political pluralism in the ex-Soviet nation.
The subway blast was the first deadly bombing in the tightly-controlled ex-Soviet nation of 10 million, an ethnically Slavic and largely Russian Orthodox nation with no significant separatist or religious militant groups. Belarus' beleaguered opposition has been largely peaceful, its rare rallies quickly dispersed by riot police. That has left terrorism experts puzzled over the possible motivations for a bombing attack there.
The United Nations Security Council earlier this week has strongly condemned "the apparent terrorist attack." A council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said "the word 'apparent' was included in this statement for a reason."
Officials said the main suspect in Monday's blast also was involved in a bomb blast at a concert in Minsk in July 2008, which wounded about 50 people, and two bombings in September 2005 in the city of Vitebsk that wounded 48 people.
Lukashenko already has ordered prosecutors to interrogate opposition activists over the bombing, and the prosecutor general has threatened to "bring order" to the Internet, the last outpost of free speech in Belarus.
Information Minister Oleg Proleskovsky said "it's time to end the irresponsible statements in blogs, social networks and other Internet resources."
Lukashenko described the subway attack as part of efforts by unspecified forces trying to subdue Belarus. "Even before the presidential elections we expected them to purposefully exert pressure and methodically destabilize the situation," he said.
Authorities have arrested five suspects in Monday's blast, including a man in his mid-20s accused of placing the bomb on the platform of Minsk's busiest subway station. Investigators haven't said yet who ordered the bombing.
Each of the two newspapers had received official rebukes for their past reporting. Under the Belarusian law, two such reprimands are enough for authorities to go to court to seek a media outlet's closure.
"Authorities are using the terror attack to make a shot of fear to the society and the media," said Andrei Skurko, the editor of Nasha Niva. "This warning has followed the past policy of curbing independent media."
The Ministry of Information accused Nasha Niva of publishing what it called an erroneous report about authorities failing to evacuate one of the victims of Monday's attacks for several hours. It accused the second newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, of discrediting Belarusian state television, but didn't elaborate.
Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, has run Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media.
He was declared the overwhelming winner of Decembers' presidential election, which was strongly criticized by international observers. Hundreds of opposition activists, including seven of the nine other presidential candidates, were arrested following massive protests sparked by the presidential vote.
Belarus is going through a severe economic crisis, with hard currency reserves running critically low and a possible currency devaluation looming.
Lukashenko on Friday said that economic troubles had been fomented by unspecified forces as part of their efforts to destabilize Belarus. "First came the currency market, then food market and then the subway blast occurred," Lukashenko said at a government meeting. "It was the entire chain."
Belarus' Health Ministry said a 47-year-old man has died from injuries sustained in Monday's bombing, taking the death toll from the attack to 13. It said 161 people remain hospitalized.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
(This version corrects typographical errors.)