PRIOR TO THE OCTOBER 15 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS, President Aleksandr Lukashenko cracked down on political dissent in Belarus, including the independent media. Lukashenko, who refused to step down when his term expired in 1999, was expected to maintain his repressive ways in 2001, when the country faces presidential elections.
Three months before the election, opposition parties announced an anti-election campaign, Boycott-2000, which was widely supported by the opposition media. As the race drew to a close, hundreds of opposition activists were detained and fined for distributing anti-election materials. The press was severely harassed as well. Ultimately, most international observers condemned the election as undemocratic.
On September 13, police raided the Magic printing house in Minsk and confiscated one third of the print run on a special edition of the independent weekly Rabochy. The paper urged its readers to stay away from the polls, which authorities claimed was illegal. Police also detained Rabochy‘s editor, Viktar Ivashkevich, and Magic’s director, Yury Budzko, charging them with “propagandizing an electoral boycott.” Five days later, Budzko was acquitted, while Ivashkevich was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine. Belarusian legal experts told CPJ that the ruling, while legal under the country’s Administrative Code, violated the Electoral Code as well as the Constitution.
Authorities then continued to harass Magic, the largest independent printer in the country. On October 14, the company’s bank accounts were frozen. Two days later, tax authorities seized US$500,000 worth of property to cover a US$3.5 million judgment against the U.S.-based Soros Foundation, whose Belarus office had transferred printing equipment to Magic before being forced to shut down in 1997 on accusations of tax evasion.
Authorities sealed Magic’s main printing press on January 9, 2001, but the company was able to continue printing 16 independent newspapers on a second press. Magic director Budzko, meanwhile, claimed that officials had suggested his company’s problems could end if it stopped printing independent publications. Charter 97, a local watchdog organization, charged that authorities were moving to ban all private printers in advance of the presidential election.
The State Press Committee, an agency that monitors the media, issued warnings to dozens of publications under Article 5 of the Press Law, which punishes such offenses as using mass media to incite national or social hatred, dissemination of information defaming the president and other high-ranking officials, and dissemination of information on behalf of political and civil groups not registered with the Justice Ministry. Publications can be shut down after two warnings from the committee in a single year. In 2000, however, many warnings were later revoked by the committee itself or overturned by local courts. But the mere threat of closure was a form of harassment that encouraged self-censorship, according to local journalists.
Another threat came from a 1999 presidential decree that required all publications to re-register with the Justice Ministry by January 2001. Local journalists and human rights groups asserted that only a handful of publications were able to complete the burdensome registration process by year’s end. They feared the registration system could lead to judicial sanctions and tax audits against critical publications.
Numerous Belarusian journalists were subjected to harassment and violent attacks from authorities last year. On March 25, police detained 35 local and foreign journalists covering an opposition rally in Minsk. Some of the journalists were beaten and illegally searched, while police deliberately damaged their equipment. On April 25, a KGB officer threatened to arrest Yahor Mayorchyk, a free-lance contributor to the Belarusian service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, unless he agreed to become an informer (Mayorchyk declined). And on May 1, police at an opposition rally in the city of Mogilev attacked two local journalists, Igor Irkho and Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. Both were then detained for several hours.
After the July 7 disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT, local journalists received an anonymous e-mail message accusing nine people in his murder, including seven current or former officers of the Presidential Security Service. The message, from a person allegedly involved in the investigation, claimed that the nine suspects were in custody, had confessed to killing Zavadsky, and had disclosed where his body was buried.
Local sources told CPJ that other unnamed sources close to the investigation had corroborated this information. They suspected that Zavadsky was abducted because he had footage that showed Belarus security agents fighting alongside rebel forces in Chechnya. His disappearance, along with earlier kidnappings of several opposition politicians, fostered a climate of fear in the country. At year’s end, it seemed unlikely that Zavadsky was still alive, and it was unclear how much light the official investigation would shed on his disappearance.
Alexander Kolpakov, NTV
Konstantin Morozov, NTV
Yelena Lukashevich, RTR
Sergey Pushkin, RTR
Dmitry Novozhilov, ORT
Dmitry Zavadsky, ORT
Marja Vernikovska, TV Polonia 1
Shimon Gelevsky, TV Polonia 1
Yegor Mayorchik, Radio Liberty
Mikhas Stelmach, Radio Liberty
Yury Drakokhurst, Radio Liberty
Algerd Nevyarousky, Nasha Svaboda
Larisa Klyuchnikova, ITAR-TASS
Dmitry Yermak, Belorusskaya Gazeta
Polina Stepanenko, Pravo Na Volyu
Aleg Grudzilovich, Nasha Svaboda, Belarusian Association of Journalists
Irina Khalip, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta
Alexander Tomkovich, Svobodnye Novosti, Belarusian Association of Journalists
Valery Kalinovsky, Zvyazda
Tatyana Snitko, Nasha Niva
Marina Babkina, The Associated Press
Alexander Tichonov, Maladzevy Praspect
Arsen Storulis, Navinki
Valentin Gernovich, Rabochy
Viktor Ivashkevich, Rabochy
Yury Dzedinkin, photographer
Vladimir Kormilkin, photographer
Viktor Drachev, photographer
Slavomir Adamovich, Nasha Niva
Leonid Kanfer, TVC
Alexei Pokrovsky, TVC
Vadim Kaznacheev, Nasha Svaboda
Valery Schukin, Narodnaya Volya
Alexei Schydlovsky, Nasha Svaboda
Lyubov Lyuneva, Radio Liberty
More than 2000 helmeted riot police detained 35 local and foreign journalists who were covering a protest demonstration in Minsk, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
The rally was held to protest the official ban on a previous march that was to have been part of opposition-staged festivities commemorating the 1918 founding of the Belarusian National Republic. More than 7000 protesters attended the event.
Photographers and correspondents from 11 Belarus newspapers were detained, along with two local TV cameramen and other journalists from Russia, Poland, France, and the United States. Some were also beaten, including correspondents from the Russian television channels ORT and RTR, whose equipment was deliberately damaged by police.
The detainees were forced into police vehicles and taken to an Interior Ministry facility in Minsk. Some were illegally searched and none were allowed to contact colleagues, family, or friends. Film shot by press photographers was reportedly confiscated and exposed. Police offered no explanation for their actions.
All the journalists were freed by midafternoon. CPJ denounced the detentions in a March 27 news alert.
Yahor Mayorchyk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Mayorchyk, a free-lance contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service, was summoned for questioning at KGB headquarters in Minsk, on the pretext that his military service file had to be updated. During the 90-minute meeting, according to Mayorchyk, a KGB officer tried to recruit him as an agent, and threatened that “the same thing will happen to you that happened to Babitsky” if he refused to cooperate.
CPJ protested the harassment of Mayorchyk in a May 25 letter to President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Igor Irkho, De Facto
Irkho, a journalist with the independent newspaper De Facto, was attacked by police while attempting to cover an opposition rally in the town of Mogilev, according to local sources. Irkho’s camera was damaged in the attack; he was also arrested and detained for several hours.
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta
Police arrested Aleksandrovich, a correspondent with the newspaper Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, and detained him for several hours when he tried to cover a May 1 opposition rally in the town of Mogilev.
On May 2, five journalists from the independent newspaper Reporter were detained when they gathered in Lenin Square in Grodno to protest the city government’s continued refusal to register their newspaper. They were reportedly held in police custody for three hours before their release.
When Reporter submitted an application for registration in February, the Grodno Municipal Executive Council declined to license the paper on the grounds that the paper’s office building lacked the required “passport of technical condition.” According to CPJ sources, the refusal was an attempt by the council, which was in the process of registering its own newspaper, Vecherny Grodno, to stifle competition in the local media market.
CPJ wrote to President Aleksandr Lukashenko on May 25, urging him to support the newspaper’s application for a license. Reporter remained unregistered at year’s end.
The independent weekly Nasha Niva was threatened with closure when the Office of the General Prosecutor issued a second warning accusing the paper of “abuse of freedom.”
The warning came four days after the paper lost its appeal of an earlier warning. Under Belarusian law, two such warnings can result in the closure of a media outlet.
The second warning resulted from an April 10 article entitled “Infection of Fascism: A. Lukashenko Copies A. Hitler,” while the first related to a March 13 letter to the editor that the authorities claimed showed “intolerance against Russians.”
Both warnings invoked Article 5 of the Media Law, which covers “abuse of the freedom of mass media.” CPJ wrote to President Aleksandr Lukashenko on May 25, saying it believed the press law was being used to prevent journalists and citizens from expressing their opinions freely, and urging him to use the power of his office to revoke the General Prosecutor’s warning against the newspaper.
Nasha Niva was still publishing at year’s end, although the official warning remained in effect.
Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta
Two independent Minsk newspapers, the Russian-language Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (published four times a week) and the Russian/Belarusian daily Narodnaya Volya received two warnings each from the State Press Committee for allegedly inciting ethnic intolerance. Under Belarusian law, a media outlet can be shut down after two warnings from the Press Committee.
Narodnaya Volya was reprimanded for an article by Ivan Markovich that posed the rhetorical question, “Should we ask NATO for help?” Another warning was issued after the paper published an article by one of the leaders of an opposition political party, the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, on the pretext that the party was not registered with the Ministry of Justice. Hence, the Press Committee ruled, the newspaper had no right to disseminate information on its behalf.
On May 31, after meeting with Narodnaya Volya editor in chief Iosif Syaredzich, Press Committee chairman Mikhail Padhayny revoked both warnings, saying they had been issued by mistake.
Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta received its first warning for a February 22 article by Semen Buchkin, entitled “Prayer in the Birkenau Concentration Camp.” According to the Press Committee, the article created “tension in Polish-Jewish relations.” The second warning was issued after the paper published a reader’s reaction to the article that allegedly “offended the citizens of the Russian Federation.”
Immediately after receiving the warnings, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta announced its intention to file a lawsuit against the committee.
At hearings on June 18 and 22, the Belarus Supreme Arbitrage Court ruled that both warnings against Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta were groundless. The Court ordered the Press Committee to pay the newspaper 52,000 rubles (US$40) in compensation.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
Vladimir Morozov, editor of the Mogilev daily De Facto, was officially reprimanded for an April 27 article that had allegedly stirred up “social intolerance.”
The offending article was an excerpt from an address by former Parliament chairman Syamon Sharetsky marking the 55th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Prosecutor’s Office claimed that De Facto had “incited national hatred” and “abused the freedom of mass media” by publishing the piece, thus violating Article 5.1 of the Media Law.
Under Article 16, a media outlet can be closed after receiving two warnings for violations of the Media Law.
Yaraslau Biaklemishau, Belarusian State TV and Radio Company
The Belarusian State TV and Radio Company agreed to settle its dispute with Biaklemishau, a director and on-air host who had been fired for giving air time to opposition leaders.
Under the deal, the journalist dropped his demand to be reinstated in his original position. The company agreed to pay compensation equal to the amount of his average monthly income for the period since his dismissal.
Biaklemishau was fired on March 15, following a March 9 broadcast of his program “Krok-2” during which guests criticized the authorities for having a negative attitude toward the arts. Company officials accused Biaklemishau of violating broadcast rules.
In late March, Biaklemishau filed a complaint with the Belarusian Association of Journalists, claiming management had failed to state the article of the Labor Code under which he was dismissed.
Dmitry Zavadsky, ORT
Zavadsky, 29, a cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT, has been missing since July 7, when he failed to keep a scheduled late-morning rendezvous with his longtime colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet at the airport in Minsk.
Local media reported that Zavadsky had been seen inside the airport not long before Sheremet’s flight arrived from Moscow. Zavadsky’s car was later found locked and parked outside the airport building. A search for the journalist by local police and officials from the prosecutor’s office turned up no clues.
Sheremet, a former ORT bureau chief in Minsk who now heads the station’s special projects department in Moscow, had recently traveled to Chechnya with Zavadsky to shoot a four-part documentary about the war. CPJ sources suspect that Zavadsky was abducted because he had footage that showed Belarus security agents fighting alongside Chechen rebel forces.
Sheremet and Zavadsky’s wife told reporters that shortly after Zavadsky returned from Chechnya, he began receiving phone calls from an unknown man who insisted on a meeting.
Zavadsky was President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s personal cameraman until 1996. During the summer of 1997, Sheremet and Zavadsky were detained by local police while filming a documentary about smuggling between Belarus and Lithuania. They later received a suspended sentence for alleged illegal border-crossing.
In news alerts published July 12 and August 11, CPJ expressed grave concern about Zavadsky’s disappearance and urged Belarus authorities to conduct an immediate and thorough search for him. In late December, as evidence increasingly suggested the involvement of Belarus security forces in the journalist’s abduction, CPJ called on Lukashenko to appoint an independent prosecutor with full authority to investigate the case and prosecute those responsible.
Sheremet has repeatedly charged that Belarusian intelligence agents were involved in Zavadsky’s disappearance. Although investigators have publicly rejected this theory, Sheremet claims they do not rule it out in private.
Senior Belarus officials, including Acting Interior Minister Mikhail Udovikov, have hinted that Zavadsky’s disappearance may have resulted from his pro-Russian coverage of the war in Chechnya. They have also suggested that the journalist was kidnapped, either by his ORT colleagues or by members of the local opposition.
Two men were spotted trailing the journalist near his apartment building on the day he disappeared, Zavadsky’s neighbors told police. The police apparently commissioned artist sketches of the alleged stalkers, but have so far refused to release them. In early August, police also collected samples of Zavadsky’s hair from his family for testing, without explaining the purpose of the tests.
In late August, police classified Zavadsky’s disappearance as a premeditated crime and announced that they had identified five suspects. The primary suspect, a leader of the Belarusian branch of the ultra-right Russian National Unity movement named Valery Ignatovich, was in prison at year’s end. Police ruled out the theory that Belarusian security agents had been involved in the crime.
On November 20, local independent media received an unsigned e-mail from a person who identified himself as an officer of the Belarus State Security Committee, involved in the Zavadsky investigation. The writer claimed that nine suspects had been arrested, seven of whom were either current or former officers of the Presidential Security Service, and that the suspects had confessed to killing Zavadsky and named the place where his body was buried. According to the e-mail, the investigators also found a shovel stained with Zavadsky’s blood.
The e-mail claimed that Lukashenko refused to allow investigators to exhume the body and that the case was later transferred from the Prosecutor’s Office to the Interior Ministry in order to sabotage the investigation.
A week after the e-mail was made public, Lukashenko fired four senior aides: his adviser on security issues, the chairman of the Security Council, the prosecutor general, and the head of the State Security Committee. He claimed the four men had been plotting a coup, and had abducted Zavadsky in an effort to compromise him.
Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov promised to resolve the case no later than January 2001. Local observers questioned the integrity of the investigation, however, given that Naumov once headed the special police unit Almaz, some of whose members were suspected of involvement in the crime.
The State Press Committee issued a warning to the monthly cultural magazine Arche for illegally changing its title and arranging overseas distribution.
The July issue of Arche, which circulates to a small group of specialists in Belarus politics, history, and culture, came out under the title Arche-Skaryna and listed addresses of distributors in Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine.
Andrey Dynko, director of the company that publishes Arche, noted that the warning coincided with the refusal of the state distributor, Belkniga, to distribute the June issue, and with the Belarusian Publishing House’s refusal to print the August issue.
Both Dynko and Arche’s editor linked the “mild repressive measures” directed against their magazine to its published criticisms of the state-owned magazine Belaruskaya Dumka. They also noted that this was the first time that a cultural publication had received such a warning. Under Belarusian law, a media outlet can be shut down after receiving two warnings from the Ministry of Information.
Viktar Ivashkevich, Rabochy
Dzmitry Kastiukevich, Rabochy
Yury Budzko, Magic
Police confiscated 112,000 copies of a special edition of Rabochy, nearly a third of the independent weekly’s total print run, from the Magic publishing house in Minsk. Rabochy, published in Minsk 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 in itself 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 the boycotting of 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.
Budzko was acquitted at his September 18 trial in Minsk. However, the next day the same local court found Ivashkevich guilty as charged and ordered 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 5200 rubles (US$4).
The court also ruled that the government’s confiscation of Rabochy was legal. The newspaper appealed both rulings. In December, a higher court overturned both the fines and the newspaper confiscation as violations of the Electoral Code.
Aleksandr Feduta, Moskovskie Novosti, Narodnaya Volya
Shortly after 9 p.m., Feduta, a reporter for the Moscow-based Moskovskie Novosti weekly and the Minsk opposition daily Narodnaya Volya, was assaulted by an unknown individual outside the door of his apartment in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The attacker hit Feduta once in the face and then fled. The journalist suffered a concussion, a broken tooth, and a broken nose.
In addition to his journalistic work, Feduta was also running for parliament as an independent in the October 15 elections. After registering as a candidate, Feduta started receiving anonymous phone threats.
Feduta had worked as President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s public relations aide until 1994, when he quit to protest the government’s crackdown on independent media. Since then, Feduta has been a harsh critic of Lukashenko. Police launched a criminal investigation into the attack, but had apparently made no progress at year’s end.
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Tax authorities seized US$500,000 worth of property from the Magic company, a Minsk-based private printing house that produces nearly all Belarus’s independent publications.
Tax inspectors first showed up at Magic’s premises on October 13, two days after the company’s bank accounts were frozen, to catalog the company’s printing equipment.
On September 13, while confiscating copies of the independent weekly Rabochy from Magic’s premises (see September 13 case), the police illegally requisitioned the company’s financial records. After studying the records, police learned that Magic had leased its equipment from the Soros Foundation, a U.S.-based charitable organization funded by financier George Soros.
The Soros Foundation pulled out of Belarus in 1997 under pressure from the government of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, which charged it with violations of tax law and threatened to confiscate the foundation’s property unless it paid the government US$78,000.
Before leaving the country, foundation staffers leased their printing equipment to Yury Budzko, Magic’s general director. On this pretext, authorities claimed that Magic was responsible for the Soros Foundation’s alleged debt to the Belarusian government (which had by now grown to US$3.5 million), and seized its property to cover the debt.
According to local experts, this action violated Belarusian law, which provides that a third party cannot be held financially responsible for the actions of its benefactor.
On December 18, the Belarus Higher Commercial Court ruled that Magic’s assets had been legally seized.
Magic’s printing press was sealed by the authorities during the evening of January 9, 2001. The company’s director announced that despite technical difficulties, Magic would continue printing 16 independent newspapers on its second press. But he added that the authorities might interfere with that press as well.
On November 1, Nasha Slova, an independent Minsk weekly owned by the Francisk Skaryna Belarusian Language Society, received a formal warning from the State Press Committee for disseminating information on behalf of an unregistered public organization. Legally, a media outlet can be shut down after two such warnings.
The committee’s letter, sent to the paper on October 25, notes that on September 6, Nasha Slova published a statement from the Grodno Association of Democratic Veterans of War and Labor, addressed “to the country’s leadership and all people of good will.” According to the letter, the newspaper thus violated Article 5, Part 1, Paragraph 9 of the Law on Press and Other Mass Media, since no such organization is registered with the Grodno Regional Council.
Oleg Trusov, chairman of the Belarusian Language Society, insisted that the association had in fact completed all registration requirements, giving the paper grounds to appeal the warning in court.
On December 6, State Press Committee chairman Mikhail Padhayny revoked the warning.
The December 29 issue of the Minsk-based twice-weekly newspaper Nasha Svaboda came out with four blank pages that had been allocated for “Stinger,” the paper’s satire section. The day before, officials from the State Press Committee, apparently annoyed with a previous “Stinger” feature that satirized President Aleksandr Lukashenko, summoned the manager of Magic, the private press that prints Nasha Svaboda and other independent publications, and ordered him to remove the section or be shut down.
State tax authorities had recently seized printing equipment from the Magic company in a separate proceeding (see October 16 case).
The only private television station in Minsk, Channel 8, went off the air at year’s end. The Communications Ministry had just refused to extend a rental contract for the station’s transmitter, even though Channel 8’s license was valid until 2004.
Starting January 1, 2001, the channel’s frequency was allocated to the STV network, run by Minsk’s local government. STV used to air 15-minute news programs four times a week on Channel 8.