Belarus Independent Newspaper Threatened with Closure

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New York, N.Y, June 17, 1998 --The Belarusian State Committee on the Press issued a warning on June 1 to the Minsk-based independent Belarusian weekly newspaper Zdravy Smysl for allegedly providing "distorted information" to its readers that could result in the paper's closure. The warning came after Zdravy Smysl reported that Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko was named one of the 10 worst "Enemies of the Press" in May by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the New-York based press freedom group.

Zdravy Smysl will appeal the State Press Committee's warning. A second warning issued before the end of the year would cause the paper to be shut down for three months.

On May 6, Zdravy Smysl quoted a broadcast by Radio Liberty (RL) reporting on CPJ's "Enemies of the Press" announcement, which was released for World Press Freedom Day May 3. In reporting that President Lukashenko was named an enemy of the press, RL cited CPJ's description of a secret March directive of the State

Press Committee, called "On Enhancing Counter-Propaganda Activities Towards Opposition Press," as the latest example of repeated violations of press freedom in Belarus. The RL broadcast was quoted by Zdravy Smysl in a Russian translation, in which the word "directive" (razporyazhenie) appeared in Russian as "decree" (ukaz). The State Press Committee seized on this linguistic inconsistency to accuse the newspaper of presenting false information to the public, in violation of Article 16 of the press law.

In discussing the incident, Igor Chertkov, the paper's editor, agreed that the word "directive" was mistranslated, but he noted that the paper had not spelled the word "decree" with a capital letter, as it would have been if it referred to a specific legal act. Moreover, said Chertkov, an official decree would have been attributed to the president, but his name was not cited in this regard.

Chertkov maintained that the government had seized upon a minor linguistic imprecision as an excuse to shut down the newspaper.

Chertkov told CPJ that authorities had made several attempts to silence the paper in the past two years. Zdravy Smysl regularly publishes articles detailing Press freedom violations, inhumane prison conditions, and police brutality in Belarus--information rarely made public in the Minsk press.

Although some copies of Zdravy Smysl are distributed free of charge, most are sold through the monopoly state distribution network. The state collects between 40 and 45 percent of the profit from sales, a heavy burden for private media.

Chertkov said that last autumn Zdravy Smysl was fined 52 million rubles (about $1,650) for alleged non-compliance with the state-run distribution rules. The fine forced the newspaper to reduce its print run from 23,000 to
10,000 copies.

Chertkov told CPJ that the newspaper's offices were ransacked on the night of June 18, 1997, when an unidentified assailant attacked three volunteer workers and the night watchman, and destroyed several computers and fax machines. Nothing was reported stolen, but one of the victims was hospitalized with a skull fracture. According to Chertkov, the assailants were looking for reporters' notes and research materials. The case was reported to the police, but to date no suspects have been arrested.