May 25, 2000
His Excellency Alexander Lukashenko
President of Belarus Republic
VIA FAX: 011-375-172-23-58-25
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by the recent confiscation of more than 100,000 copies of the Minsk-based independent weekly Rabochy.
On September 13, according to local sources, police confiscated 112,000 copies of a special edition of Rabochy, nearly a third of the total print run, from the Magic publishing house in Minsk. The newspaper, published by the Belarusian Free Trade Union, had urged its readers to participate in the “Boycott-2000” campaign being organized by the opposition prior to the October 15 parliamentary elections. The police claimed that publishing a call to boycott the election was illegal.
Police also arrested Rabochy founder and editor Viktar Ivashkevich, Rabochy attorney Dzmitry Kastiukevich and Magic general director Yury Budzko. After being detained in a local police station for two hours, they were charged with “propagandizing an electoral boycott.” Additional charges were filed against Budzko as the publisher of the newspaper.
According to Belarusian legal experts consulted by CPJ, the recently approved Belarusian Electoral Code does not prohibit boycotting elections or advocating their boycott. While such boycotts are illegal under the country’s Administrative Code, this prohibition violates the Belarusian Constitution, which prohibits censorship, as well as the freedom of expression guarantees established under international law.
Budzko was acquitted at his September 18 trial in Minsk. However, the next day the same local court found Ivashkevich guilty as charged and sentenced him to pay a fine of 13,000 Belarusian rubles (US$13, or five months salary at the local minimum wage). Kastiukevich was ordered to pay a fine of 5,200 Belarusian rubles. The court also ruled that the government’s confiscation of Rabochy was legal. The newspaper plans to appeal both rulings.
The confiscation of Rabochy and the arrest of the newspaper’s editor and lawyer are part of a pattern of press abuses documented by CPJ that suggest a deliberate effort on the part of Belarusian authorities to silence critical voices prior to next month’s parliamentary elections.
For example, in a speech Your Excellency gave on August 23 introducing Viktar Chykin, the newly appointed chief of the State Broadcasting Company, you argued that broadcast media are responsible for conveying the ideology of the state. You also stated that private individuals would not be allowed to enter the field of broadcasting as owners or investors, according to local sources. In the same speech, you announced that a local Minsk television channel would be transformed into a second national network. This would give the state complete control over television networks in the country. Local commentators believe that authorities are seeking to assert control over the broadcast media in advance of the upcoming elections.
On August 21, the Chairman of the State Press Committee, Mikhail Padhayny, sent a letter to all newspaper editors reminding them that under a 1999 presidential decree, all publications must register as either for-profit or non-profit entities by the end of the year. Local journalists and human rights groups fear that this registration system could lead to punitive judicial sanctions and tax audits against critical publications.
As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues around the world, CPJ condemns these violations. We urge you to ensure that all charges against Rabochy are dropped and that the confiscated newspapers are released to the public. While the Belarusian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of the press, it is the responsibility of your government to ensure that these rights exist not only in principle but in practice.
Thank you for your attention. We await your comments.
Ann K. Cooper