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Belarus

Key Developments

» Authorities ease verdicts in three high-profile cases.

» KGB fails to substantiate charges in teddy bear case.

The authoritarian regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko made a few concessions this year while trying to improve relations with the U.S. and the European Union. Authorities reversed their repressive stance in several high-profile cases, including dropping criminal defamation charges against one journalist and allowing Irina Khalip, a reporter serving a suspended jail term, to travel outside Belarus. The KGB also announced that it would not file charges against a journalist who was accused of complicity in an illegal border crossing in what became known as the "teddy bear case." Critics of the government warned the EU that Lukashenko was not implementing liberal reforms but merely trading "hostages" in exchange for the EU's easing of political and economic sanctions. Reports by a local press freedom group, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, supported the accusations: Authorities continued to harass Khalip, detained independent journalists, and denied accreditation to critical broadcasters and several local journalists. A court declared that a press photo album contained extremist materials and ordered it destroyed. Lukashenko instructed KGB's digital arm, the Operative Analytical Center, to intensify its control over the Web, saying that the media and social networks had the capacity to destabilize the country.



  • 3

    High-profile cases dropped
  • 45

    Arbitrary detentions
  • 9

    Warnings for accreditation
  • 41

    Photo album copies declared extremist
 

Authorities reversed their decision in at least three high-profile cases after the regime's attempts to sway the EU to lift sanctions on Belarus.


Breakdown of the cases:

Andrzej Poczobut

In March, authorities announced they had finished a preliminary investigation on criminal defamation and insult charges against Poczobut, and said that they had found the charges unsubstantiated. Poczobut was released on bail in June 2012 after spending nine days in jail. In September, a regional court reviewed Poczobut's fulfillment of a suspended prison sentence in relation to another libel case, dating to July 2011, and withdrew the possibility of jailing him for three years, as called for by his sentence.

Anton Suryapin

In June, the KGB announced that it had finished investigating the infamous "teddy bear" case and would not file charges against photojournalist Suryapin. In July 2012, Suryapin was arrested and held by the KGB for 34 days after he broke the news that a plane had dropped plush toys pinned with press freedom slogans over Minsk. The journalist was accused of complicity in an illegal border crossing.

Irina Khalip

In July, a court in Minsk reviewed Khalip's compliance with her two-year suspended prison term, and determined that the journalist did not have to serve two years in prison, as called for by her sentence. Earlier in the year, Khalip's travel ban was briefly lifted, and she took a trip to meet her husband, the former opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.
 

Authorities continued to stifle press freedom with familiar tactics: sending journalists to jail. Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the Minsk-based press freedom group, said at year's end that it had documented at least 45 incidents of journalists detentions and arrests in 2013.

Of those targeted, Aleksandr Yaroshevich, was jailed twice during the year, according to news reports and CPJ research. Several of the journalists were rounded up in mass detentions during the year.


Mass detentions:

3

Detained in February and November

6

Detained, arrested in April

4

Detained in June and July

16

Detained in October
 

At least nine local journalists, some of whom contribute to foreign outlets, received official warnings that they were practicing journalism without official accreditation, which is illegal, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported.

Authorities continued to deny accreditation to local contributors for foreign and exiled news outlets, and harassed them for carrying out unlicensed work or over allegations of distributing false information about events in Belarus. In some cases, prosecutors targeted reporters who contributed to news outlets that had been refused registration by authorities.


Journalists caught in the web:

3

Local contributors to the Poland-based satellite channel Belsat warned by prosecutors

2

Local correspondents for the Belarusian service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty warned by prosecutors

1

Regional reporter for independent newspaper Vitebskiy Kuryer warned by prosecutors

3

Independent regional reporters warned by prosecutors in the western city of Grodno
 

In a ruling reminiscent of medieval Europe, a district court in the western city of Grodno declared that the 2011 edition of Belarus Press Photo—a collection of images by winners of an independent press photo contest—contained extremist materials and "deliberately contorted" life in Belarus. The court ordered copies of the publication destroyed and imposed fines against two contest organizers and a finalist who had brought the albums into the country.


Photos in the cross-hairs:

November 2012

Regional customs officials confiscate copies of the Belarus Press Photo book from Yulia Doroshkevich, the contest organizer, as she returns to Belarus from neighboring Lithuania, where the albums were on exhibit.

January 2013

The KGB gets a hold of the albums and calls in "experts" to review them and analyze images for potential extremism.

April 2013

The Oshmyansky District Court orders the destruction of 41 copies of the 2011 edition of the Belarus Press Photo book, and orders Doroshkevich and two others to pay 217,500 Belarusian rubles (about US$25) in fines and litigation costs.

June 2013

The Grodno Regional Court upholds the verdict, denying an appeal.



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