Attacks on the Press 1999: Belarus

President Aleksander Lukashenko, facing international condemnation for his boldfaced attempts to cling to power, resorted to increasingly crude tactics to rein in his media opponents.

On July 20, President Lukashenko lost what little democratic legitimacy he still had when he refused to step down after his five-year term ended. Western countries, including the United States, have refused to recognize the constitutional referendum he orchestrated in November 1996, which allowed him to dissolve Parliament, extend his term, and grant himself sweeping new powers.

Local newspapers cannot afford to ignore warnings from the State Press Committee, which acts as the government’s censor. Two such warnings can lead to the closure of a media outlet. On May 16, members of the dissolved 13th Supreme Soviet (the Belarusian Parliament) and the former Central Elections Commission held unsanctioned presidential elections, which the Lukashenko regime strongly opposed. On February 15, the State Press Committee issued warnings to seven independent newspapers that had published information about the coming elections.

In late March, police arrested former premier Mikhail Chyhir after he announced his intention of running in the May 16 election. The election itself was tainted to such an extent that the results were not recognized by many of the participants. But it did spark anti-government protests that continued through the summer. As the protests multiplied, Lukashenko used dirtier methods to suppress any challenge to his rule. A number of prominent opposition figures simply disappeared, and several others went into exile to avoid a similar fate.

A well-known publisher, Anatoly Krasovsky, owner of the Krasika publishing house, vanished in September. In a bureaucratic assault on civic groups, trade unions, and political parties, Lukashenko also ordered all nongovernmental organizations, including press associations, to reregister in July in accordance with rigid new licensing regulations.

In a trend new for Belarus, government officials filed and won a number of costly civil-libel suits against independent newspapers, placing some under serious financial strain while bankrupting at least two periodicals, Imya and Naviny. On September 29, Naviny editor Pavel Zhuk published the last issue of his triweekly paper after authorities froze the newspaper’s accounts and seized its assets in order to collect a fine in a defamation suit filed by a top security official.

Anticipating a huge penalty in the suit, Zhuk had already registered a new paper, Nasha Svaboda, to replace the bankrupt Naviny. Several other editors also launched parallel publications in order to ensure that they could keep publishing if their papers lost a lawsuit or were shut down under the press law. But the government quickly caught on to this strategy. On October 4, the State Press Committee suspended the registration of nine Minsk-based periodicals, including Nasha Svaboda, that had not yet published their first issues. All were newly registered backup publications.

The State Press Committee claimed that the nine periodicals had failed to obtain proper approval for opening their offices, as required under a selectively enforced provision in the press law. A month later, the committee allowed the publications to register, after they obtained the necessary approval. But the episode told independent publishers that the regime was prepared to counter their attempts to defy the government and stay afloat.

Also in October, Lukashenko issued a directive ordering tax police to conduct hostile audits of local firms that had business arrangements with independent newspapers: advertisers, printing houses, graphics firms, and financial-services companies. The move frightened many of these firms into breaking their contracts with the newspapers, forcing some to print outside Belarus and further limiting their already meager domestic support base.

February 15
Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta THREATENED, LEGAL ACTION

At a February 15 press conference, Michael Podgainy, chairman of the Belarusian Press Committee, announced that the press committee had issued official warnings to six independent newspapers, of which he named five: Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Svobodnie Novosti, Naviny, Narodnya Volya, and Pahonya. The sixth newspaper to receive a warning was Nasha Niva. The action came in response to the recent publication, in all six newspapers, of the opposition Central Electoral Committee’s announcement that, in accordance with the 1994 constitution, presidential elections were scheduled for May 16.

The press committee also issued a warning to the independent newspaper Imya for a February 4 article entitled “Election: Dangerous Zone,” by Irina Khalip, the paper’s editor, who reported on the Central Electoral Committee’s activities. According to the Belarusian press law, a second warning to these newspapers could lead to their closure.

In his official warning, Podgainy stated that the seven newspapers’ coverage of the coming presidential elections amounted to inciting the overthrow of the state. The elections were organized by former members of the 13th Supreme Soviet, which was disbanded in 1996 following a constitutional referendum. On the basis of this referendum, which violated the rule of law as well as Belarus’ procedural norms, President Aleksander Lukashenko’s term was extended to 2001 and the 13th Supreme Soviet was disbanded. These illegal actions prompted an international outcry. To this day, much of the international community views the 1994 constitution as the legitimate constitution and the 13th Supreme Soviet as the legitimate parliamentary body.

On May 7, Justice Susla of the Supreme Economic Court of Belarus rejected Svobodnie Novosti‘s appeal, thus upholding the warning issued by the State Press Committee. On May 13, the appeals of Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Naviny, Narodnya Volya, Pahonya, Imya, and Zgoda were also rejected. The hearing proceeded despite the fact that the plaintiffs were not present in the courtroom.

The plaintiffs had requested on May 12 that the trial be postponed, as several of their lawyers were away or preoccupied with other cases. Their requests were denied. The ruling was rendered after little more than an hour, a surprisingly short time considering that the court admitted, in a May 10 letter to the plaintiffs, that the case was “complicated, of social and political significance, and had attracted the interest of international organizations.”

The plaintiffs’ appeals were originally filed separately, although the court reviewed them as one case. A second warning to any of these newspapers could result in their forced closure.

March 2

Local police searched the offices of the independent, Hrodna-based newspaper Pahonya. Records and other documents were confiscated. Before leaving, one of the policemen smiled at the paper’s editor, Mikola Markevich. “We’ll see you soon,” he said.

Pahonya was one of six newspapers that the official Belarusian Press Committee warned against covering the opposition Central Election Committee’s attempts to organize presidential elections in accordance with the 1994 constitution (see February 15 case).

Even before this incident, the newspaper had been subjected to regular bureaucratic harassment. In the last week of February, the paper’s electricity was turned off for three and a half hours on a day when it was going to press. The state claimed that the power cut was a “mistake.” On April 9, 1997, the newspaper was thrown out of its office by the local police and the KGB, which taped the incident. Some of the employees, including the editor, were forcibly carried out of the building.

The city gave Pahonya new office space, but at year’s end the building still lacked running water, toilets, and doors. Despite prompt rent payments and numerous pleas that the building be renovated, authorities did nothing.

April 7
Oleg Gruzdilovich, Naviny HARASSED

Agents of the Committee for State Security (KGB) picked up Gruzdilovich, a reporter for the independent newspaper Naviny, near the entrance to his house and took him to KGB headquarters for questioning. The arrest was apparently related to a March 19 article written by Gruzdilovich and published in the independent newspaper Naviny. Entitled “A Plan to Ensure Measures for Disrupting the Presidential Elections,” the article discussed an alleged internal KGB document outlining measures to suppress the opposition.

Gruzdilovich asked that his lawyer be present during the interrogation–a right guaranteed by Article 62 of the Belarusian constitution. Senior KGB investigator Gennady Gnadko refused his request. Consequently, Gruzdilovich refused to answer any questions. He also declined to sign a pledge not to disclose the content of the interrogation. He was released after about four hours.

July 22
Irina Makavetskaya, Gomelskaya Dumka LEGAL ACTION

A court in the town of Gomel ordered Makavetskaya, a correspondent for the independent Belapan news agency and a regular contributor to the newspaper Gomelskaya Dumka, to pay nearly 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$500) to Viktor Mayuchy, head of the regional television station, on the grounds that she had defamed him in an article published in Gomelskaya Dumka.

In her article, Makavetskaya alleged that the television director sold commercial television spots to a Gomel religious group and then presented the reports as actual news. The court ruled that the station director had violated no laws. Makavetskaya planned to appeal the decision.

In a July 29 letter to Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko, CPJ protested the government’s use of criminal-defamation statutes and civil-libel laws to stifle the independent press.

July 22
Irina Khalip, Imya

Police detained Khalip, editor of the independent newspaper Imya, and confiscated her office computer. Khalip was charged with criminal libel of Oleg Bozhelko, the Belarusian prosecutor general, for claiming he was involved in covering up the case of a local entrepreneur who had been arrested on corruption charges in June.

This was the third defamation case brought against Imya in the past year.

While Khalip was in detention, police searched her apartment and confiscated her travel documents. After a long day of threats and interrogation, Khalip was released late that night. Police returned the documents in time for her scheduled July 24 departure to the United States, where she attended a three-week training seminar organized by the United States Information Agency.

July 26
Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta LEGAL ACTION
Viktor Martynovych, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta LEGAL ACTION

A Minsk court ordered the independent newspaper Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta to pay 2.1 billion Belarusian rubles (US$7,900) to Judge Nadzeya Chmara in compensation for “moral damages” allegedly inflicted on her by the newspaper’s coverage of the corruption trial of Vasil Staravoytau, director of the collective farm Rassvet. Judge Chmara presided over the politically charged trial.

The court also ordered staff reporter Viktor Martynovych to pay Judge Chmara 100 million rubles (US$500) in damages. Martynovych had published a series of articles attempting to prove that Judge Chmara had followed government orders to issue a guilty verdict against Staravoytau.

Although prosecutors argued that Martynovych’s reporting showed pervasive bias, they could prove only that the journalist was wrong to claim that Judge Chmara had no computer in the court when she drafted her computer-generated judgment against Staravoytau.

The newspaper’s staff said the fines were unprecedented and financially crip-pling in the context of the current economic situation in Belarus, where most journalists earn less than US$100 per month. Accord-ing to CPJ’s most recent information, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta planned to appeal the decision.

September 30
Nasha Svaboda (Naviny) CENSORED
Belorusskiye Novosti CENSORED
Kurier Navakrudskiy CENSORED
Minskaya Nedelya CENSORED
Novaya Gazeta CENSORED
Politsobesednik CENSORED
Korrespondentsia Internatsional CENSORED
Politichesky Sobesednik CENSORED

Viktor Guretsky, director of the State Press Committee’s licensing board, canceled the registration of nine Minsk-based publications, claiming they had failed to obtain local authorities’ approval before opening their offices, as required under a provision of Belarus’ press law.

Guretsky claimed his committee had hitherto enforced the provision only outside Minsk, adding that the publications involved had one month to seek the needed authorization and reregister.

None of the periodicals had yet published its first issue. The suspension served as a warning to independent publishers that the authorities could put them out of business at any stage.

The newspapers included Nasha Svaboda, which publisher Pavel Zhuk set up to replace the thrice-weekly Naviny in anticipation of losing a costly lawsuit that threatened to bankrupt the paper. Authorities also sus-pended Belorusskiye Novosti, published by the independent Belapan news agency, Kurier Navakrudskiy, Minskaya Nedelya, and Novaya Gazeta.

Also banned were the journals Politsobesednik, published by the Communist Party of Belarus, and Kurier, owned and edited by Ihar Hermianchuk, former editor of Svaboda (an earlier incarnation of Naviny). The magazines Korrespondentsia Internatsional and Politichesky Sobesednik were also on the list.

On November 8, following a slew of international protests, State Press Committee head Mikhail Podgainy announced that all nine publications had been legally registered after obtaining the necessary approvals.

October 18
Narodnaya Volya HARASSED
Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta HARASSED
Svobodniye Novosti HARASSED
Belorusskaya Gazeta HARASSED

The Belarus State Tax Committee ordered Minsk tax authorities to conduct a series of hostile audits on 30 businesses that pro-vided printing, graphic design, financial, or advertising services for five independent newspapers: Narodnaya Volya, Naviny, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Svobodniye Novosti, and Belorusskaya Gazeta.

Among the targeted businesses was Medzhik Press, the only commercial printing house in Minsk willing to work with any of these publications. As a result of the audits, Medzhik Press and the other firms canceled their business arrangements with some of the five papers.