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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IREX Fears Closure of Its Belarus Office

The Belarus office of IREX, a major supporter of academic exchanges and independent media development, said Thursday that it fears being shut down after Belarussian security services called it a threat to national security and a tool for espionage.

Two state-controlled television channels have broadcast a documentary film titled "Spider's Web" in the past week in which KGB spokesman Alexander Bazanov declared that there is a gap between IREX's " irreproachable" stated goals and its true activities.

"Through its actions, IREX today is creating a threat to Belarus' national security," Bazanov said. He said the organization was a "platform for the activity of special intelligence organs."

The film, which was broadcast with no credits, also accused IREX of planning to build local radio transmitters to broadcast misinformation about Belarus.

Bob Ortega, IREX's representative in Belarus, denied the allegations and said they might stem from dissatisfaction over the organization's assistance to Belarus' independent media.

"Our only objective is to help media provide reliable, truthful and accurate news to the Belarussian public. Our activities are completely transparent and identical in scores of other countries," Ortega said by telephone from Minsk.

President Alexander Lukashenko's government has taken a heavy handed approach to independent media and has closed and suspended a number of news organizations critical of the government.

Ortega said IREX's registration expires Aug. 7 and he fears the Foreign Ministry will refuse to extend it in light of the allegations. He said he applied for re-registration June 9 and has yet to hear back from the ministry.

He said that in another worrying sign, the authorities have audited IREX five times in the past two years. The most recent audit ended two weeks ago.

A spokesman for the State Control Committee, which carried out the audits, declined to comment on the results of the recent check and would not say what prompted it. He redirected questions to the KGB. KGB officials could not be reached for comment Thursday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said IREX's application is being reviewed and declined further comment.

IREX, which receives funding from the U.S. government, has been operating in Belarus since 1997. It had no problem renewing its registration when it first expired in 2000, Ortega said. "Since Lukashenko's reelection [in 2001], there has been an escalation in the number of attacks on independent media organizations in this country," he said.

Western governments have criticized Lukashenko for human rights abuses on a number of occasions in recent years. Lukashenko, in turn, has accused the West and international organizations of trying to undermine Belarus. Last year, he expelled observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe after the OSCE called his September 2001 re-election fraudulent.

IREX has worked in the former Soviet Union for more than three decades. It has a program supporting independent media in Russia, but its main focus here is on academic exchanges.