September 5, 2001
His Excellency Aleksandr Lukashenko
President of Belarus Republic
Via Facsimile: 011-375-172-23-58-25
Via World Wide Web:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged by your government’s relentless attacks on the independent press during the run-up to the September 9 presidential election.
Without the unfettered circulation of ideas and exchange of information, free and democratic elections are not possible. Your recent actions against the press indicate a strong likelihood that next week’s elections will be neither free nor fair.
Since coming to power in 1994, Your Excellency has established an authoritarian regime that regularly violates the fundamental right of press freedom.
In addition, last year’s disappearance of Russian public television ORT cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky intensified the atmosphere of fear and intimidation in which the independent media must work in Belarus. Zavadsky’s fate remains unknown despite credible leads that have emerged over the last year implicating government officials, including Your Excellency, in his disappearance.
Attacks on the press and human rights abuses are disturbingly commonplace in Belarus, but during these last two months prior to the election, seizures and harassment have intensified. These actions against the independent press denied the public access to information about your opponent, Vladimir Goncharik.
You have also refused visas to human rights workers and international election observers, including a CPJ consultant who sought to monitor press freedom conditions in the run-up to the elections. Your escalated assault on independent media outlets prevents the public from receiving information that does not favor your candidacy, thereby making it doubtful that voters will have the information needed to make a free choice.
Specifically, we wish to draw your attention to the following recent incidents:
Seizure of technical equipment from the weeklies Volny Horad and Belaruski Ushod:On July 12, police seized equipment, some of which was leased under a U.S. government aid program, from the Krichev-based weekly Volny Horad for violating Decree No. 8, which bars the use of foreign grants for activities that encourage “agitation.”
Under the 1996 U.S.-Belarusian Bilateral Assistance Act, however, all U.S. assistance is exempt from the decree. On August 3, the U.S. State Department condemned the seizure, noting that two of the three computers belonged to the U.S. embassy in Minsk.
On July 20, according to local press reports, officials from the Markovka village prosecutor’s office, accompanied by police, seized a computer, a printer, and a fax modem from the weekly Belaruski Ushod.
The equipment was provided by the international nonprofit organization IREX, which successfully defended the case in the Khotimsk Regional Court on August 15. The equipment was returned to the newspaper’s headquarters five days later, on August 20.
Seizure of 400,000 copies of the independent triweekly Nasha Svaboda: On August 17, police from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized 400,000 copies of the independent triweekly Nasha Svaboda, according to local and international sources.
The special election issue, which endorsed Vladimir Goncharik, the only opposition candidate running against Your Excellency, predicted your defeat in the upcoming poll.
According to local sources, though officials did not level specific charges, they said they confiscated the paper’s print run at the Magic publishing house in Minsk because Magic had not adequately prepared certain financial documents.
Seizure of technical equipment of the independent daily Narodnaya Volya:On the evening of August 21, officials from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized several computers and other technical equipment from the independent daily Narodnaya Volya, according to local and international reports.
Officials claimed they confiscated the computers in order to determine whether the paper had a legal right to use them, given that they were borrowed from private individuals. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that the investigation is slated to continue until September 19.
“The goal of this measure is to paralyze the work of the editorial office at the time of…the presidential election,” Vyachaslau Orhish, a correspondent with the newspaper, told RFE/RL.
Ongoing harassment of Magic publishing house:On August 22, the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized equipment and froze bank accounts of the Magic publishing house, which prints most Minsk-based independent publications. Magic’s owner, Yury Budz’ko, told RFE/RL that the committee officials justified their actions by reference to an earlier court order that Budz’ko successfully challenged last year.
Authorities sealed Magic’s printing presses, preventing the publishing house from printing Narodnaya Volya, Rabochy, and more than a dozen other independent newspapers, Stepan Zhirnostek, Magic’s executive director, told CPJ.
On August 27, the publishing house resumed work only after Budz’ko reached an agreement with the State Press Committee to appoint deputy head of the committee, Vladimir Glushakov, as the acting director of Magic during the ongoing investigation, local and international sources reported.
On the same day, Glushakov suspended printing of a special issue of Rabochy after about 40,000 copies were already printed. He claimed that Magic could not continue to print without a preliminary payment from the newspaper, according to CPJ sources.
Although Rabochy delivered a payment the next day, printing did not resume. Instead, a Minsk district prosecutor’s office seized the copies already printed and submitted them as evidence in a criminal defamation case stemming from an article in the special issue that accused you and your administration of corruption.
In addition to Rabochy, on August 31, the new leadership of Magic censored the independent Predprinimatel’skaya Gazeta, according to local and international sources. One of the censored articles pointed out that by running for a third time, Your Excellency violates the Belarusian Constitution. Another piece reminded readers that it is a criminal offense for government officials to falsify election results. In place of the articles, the paper ran blank spaces.
On September 5, the independent Narodnaya Volya became the latest victim of Glushakov’s censorship, local and international sources reported. Today’s issue was printed only after a collage titled “Lukashenko is the past, Goncharik is the future” was removed from the paper’s front page. Narodnaya Volya is also being forced to remove allegedly defamatory phrases from an upcoming special issue before being published.
Restrictions on distribution of independent press:
Your Excellency also continues to interfere with the distribution of the independent press. Most recently, local and international sources report that on August 27, the Central Election Committee warned your opponent, Vladimir Goncharik, against “bribing” voters by distributing independent newspapers Nasha Svaboda, Den’, Rabochy, and Belaruskaya Maladzyozhnaya free of charge. Another warning from the committee could result in Goncharik’s disqualification from the elections.
Democratic elections depend on a press that is free to report on all issues and viewpoints without fear of retribution or censorship. CPJ therefore urges you to work for the immediate elimination of all obstacles inhibiting the work of the media. Specifically, we call on Your Excellency to:
- Uphold Article 33 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, which forbids censorship and guarantees freedom of opinion and convictions, as well as their free expression, to each citizen of Belarus;
- Immediately return all equipment seized from media outlets;
- Allow publishing houses to print freely and without government censorship; and
- Abandon laws that, under the pretext of protecting Belarus’ constitutional order, allow your government to persecute journalists and media outlets for doing nothing more than their professional duty.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper