Cover harvests not protests: Belarus leader threatens to expel foreign journalists

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday threatened to expel foreign journalists whom he accused of inciting protests against him ahead of an August election, urging them to focus on the harvest instead.

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus July 3, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

The 65-year-old former Soviet collective farm boss faces the biggest challenge in years to his iron-fisted rule of the eastern European country, as anger swells over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and human rights.

Two of his main election rivals have been jailed and another disqualified from standing against him at the Aug. 9 election, prompting the opposition to rally around the wife of one of the candidates standing in her husband’s place.

“They are calling for riots. Why do you tolerate this?” Lukashenko said at a government meeting, accusing the media of organising the protests and hurling “insult after insult”.

“There is no need to wait for any end of the electoral campaign. Expel from here if they do not comply with our laws and call people to the Maidans.”

Lukashenko has accused the opposition protesters of trying to overthrow him in the same way as the Russian-backed President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by the Maidan street protests in 2014.

He urged journalists to focus their coverage elsewhere.

“Let them go into the field where there is really a battle going on today, a struggle for the harvest,” he said.

They should “take a picture of a combine harvester. Tell us about these ordinary people - hard workers who feed the country. They’ll all run to the shops tomorrow, these hacks, to buy a piece of bread for themselves, relatives, friends, children.”

Hundreds of people were detained by police last week after the central election commission refused to register some opposition candidates, all but ensuring victory for Lukashenko, in power for 26 years.

Human rights activists say more than 1,100 people, including journalists, have been detained in a widening crackdown since the start of the election campaign.

Writing by Pavel Polityuk; editing by Matthias Williams