President Aleksandr Lukashenko continued his assault on the independent and opposition press in 2001, and he managed to cling to power in September 9 presidential elections amid charges of human rights violations and extensive electoral fraud. Throughout the year, independent publications faced harassment, censorship, seizures, and closures for criticizing the regime. Little progress was made in the infamous case of disappeared cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky, and troubling legal “reforms” were proposed at end of the year.
Press freedom abuses intensified in the month prior to the September poll. On August 17, police from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized 400,000 copies the special election issue of the independent triweekly Nasha Svaboda, which endorsed opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik and predicted Lukashenko’s defeat.
While the government launched spurious tax audits against several opposition newspapers in advance of the poll, the most significant crackdown occurred on August 22, when the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized equipment and froze bank accounts of the Magic publishing house, which prints most Minsk-based independent papers. Authorities sealed Magic’s printing presses, blocking the publication of dozens of independent newspapers, Stepan Zhirnostyok, Magic’s executive director, told CPJ.
Magic’s owner, Yuri Budko, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the committee officials justified their actions by referring to an earlier court order that Budko had successfully challenged in 2000.
The publishing house resumed work five days later, after Budko agreed to appoint the deputy head of the State Press Committee, Vladimir Glushakov, as the acting director of Magic during the ongoing investigation, local and international sources reported. While at Magic, Glushakov censored the independent publications Rabochy, Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta, and Narodnaya Volya for allegedly defaming President Lukashenko. Glushakov stopped working at the Magic publishing house three days after the election, local sources told CPJ.
During the election period, Belarusian authorities denied a number of international monitors entry into the country, including a CPJ consultant who intended to monitor press conditions in Belarus prior to the September 9 poll.
Meanwhile, little progress was made in the investigation into the case of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman with the Russian public television station ORT who vanished on July 7, 2000. Zavadsky’s disappearance shocked Belarusian society and also served as a grim reminder of the security risks journalists face in Belarus.
Credible leads have implicated high-level Belarusian government officials in the disappearance. In June, Dmitry Petrushkevich, a member of the investigative team on the Zavadsky case, and Oleg Sluchek, a former Prosecutor’s Office employee, went into exile in the United States and alleged that a “death squad” created by high-level government officials to eliminate Lukashenko’s political opponents killed Zavadsky.
Throughout the year, CPJ issued numerous statements calling for an independent, international investigation and urging the government to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, a year and a half after the journalist’s disappearance, Zavadsky’s fate remains unknown.
The investigation has focused on four suspects–Valery Ignatovich, Maksim Malik, Aleksei Guz and Sergei Saushkin–known as the Ignatovich Group. Officials claim that Ignatovich, a former officer of the elite special forces unit, Almaz, and a member of the ultranationalist organization Russian National Unity, led the gang that abducted the journalist.
Although Belarusian authorities have neither found Zavadsky’s body nor established a plausible motive, in May, they charged members of the Ignatovich Group with kidnapping the journalist. According to the official theory, he was abducted in revenge for filming Belarusian military servicemen, including Ignatovich, as they fought alongside rebel forces in Chechnya.
On October 24, the Minsk Regional Court began the trial of the Ignatovich Group, according to local and international sources. Despite the fact that Zavadsky’s wife, along with local civic organizations and opposition activists, demanded an open trial, it remains closed to the public. Proceedings continued into 2002, and in January, Interior Minister Naumov announced that regardless of the trial’s outcome, the investigation into Zavadsky’s disappearance would continue.
Legislation amending the 1995 Media Law, slated for review by the National Assembly in spring 2002, will further restrict the independent press in Belarus. Although the draft law simplifies registration procedures and increases the number of warnings the government must give publications before closing them for violating regulations, the legislation contains many vague provisions that can be used to curb independent media.
The amended law prohibits the mere mention of unregistered political parties or civic organizations; enjoins media outlets from receiving money from foreign or anonymous donors; and introduces new regulations for publications with a print run of less than 500 copies that could be used to censor them.
The law allows the Information Ministry to annul a media outlet’s registration without judicial authorization. If it passes, the draft law will only add to the sizable arsenal of tactics used by the Lukashenko regime to stifle the independent press.
On the orders of the regional Press Department, the Brest Regional Printing Press refused to publish the first issue of the independent newspaper Svobodnaya Zona, which was intended as a business supplement to the weekly Brestsky Kuryer.
The paper was banned on the pretext that its publisher did not have a contract with the printer.
Svobodnaya Zona was registered with the State Press Committee on January 21, 2000. Under the Press Law, all new publications must print their first issue within a year to keep their registration certificates valid.
The day after the print run was blocked, Svobodnaya Zona’s publisher arranged to have the paper printed in Minsk.
The state-run Sverdlov Printing Press, the only printing house in Mogilyov Region, refused to publish an issue of the independent weekly De-fakto unless the newspaper agreed to cut an article about President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s mental health.
The story discussed a January 12 article by psychiatrist Dmitry Shchigelsky that ran in the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda. Shchigelsky suggested that Lukashenko suffers from a serious psychiatric disorder and is unfit for office.
According to the De-fakto staff member who delivered the issue to the printer, a foreman noticed the article on Lukashenko and demanded that it be removed. After the staff member protested, the foreman referred him to the printer’s director and to the state security services. Ultimately, De-fakto agreed to replace the article with a collection of jokes.
The next week, the newspaper published a front-page story about the episode, denouncing it as an incident of illegal censorship.
Valery Shchukin, Narodnaya Volya
Shchukin, a correspondent with the Minsk-based independent daily Narodnaya Volya, was charged with hooliganism after trying to enter a restricted press conference held by Internal Affairs Minister Naumov the day before, local sources reported.
Only journalists on a previously approved list were allowed to attend the press conference. Although Shchukin had called ahead, he was refused access because the list had already been compiled, said local sources. When the journalist attempted to enter the press conference, the guards stopped him and physically removed him.
Shchukin was sentenced to three months in prison, according to local and international sources. He unsuccessfully appealed the verdict and began serving his prison term on June 12, local sources reported. Shchukin was released on September 12, 2001.
At the request of the State Press Committee, the General Prosecutor’s Office filed criminal libel charges against the twice-weekly independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda over an article that questioned the mental health of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
The article, published on January 12 under the headline “Doctor’s Verdict,” was written by a psychiatrist who claimed Lukashenko suffers from a serious psychiatric disorder that makes him unfit for office.
The paper’s editor argued that to determine whether the article was libelous, a court would have to order an independent psychiatric evaluation of Lukashenko.
Under Belarus’s new Criminal Code, which took effect on January 1, persons convicted of libeling the president face fines, up to two years of community service, or up to four years in prison.
In mid-June, the online information agency Yu. S. News (www.yusnews.com) reported that the charges against Nasha Svaboda had been dropped.
The State Press Committee issued a warning to the independent Brest weekly Brestsky Kuryer for reporting on a meeting of the Regional Belarus Civil Movement, a local non-governmental organization.
The press committee ruled that the story made a statement on behalf of an organization not registered with the Justice Ministry, a violation of Article 5 of the Media Law.
According to Belarusian law, a media outlet can be closed if it receives two such warnings in one year. The newspaper filed an appeal in mid-February.
On April 13, the High Economic Court of Belarus revoked the warning, ruling that the article in question was a news report and could therefore not be classified as a statement on behalf of the Regional Belarus Civil Movement.
Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta
After publishing a story on abuses by state security police, the independent Minsk daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta was warned for allegedly breaching Article 5.2 of the Press Law by reporting on a continuing investigation.
Under Belarusian law, a media outlet can be shut down after two official warnings.
Deputy Prosecutor Gen. Mikhail Snegir’s warning to editor Pyotr Martsev came in response to a December 19, 2000, article entitled “The Blood of Almaz.” It described crimes allegedly committed by former members of a special police unit called Almaz.
The focus of the article was former Almaz member Valery Ignatovich, the main suspect in the July 2000 kidnapping of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman for Russian Public Television (ORT). The article asserted that Belarusian officials were deliberately covering up the crime.
Gen. Snegir claimed the newspaper had violated the press law by disclosing details of an ongoing investigation. Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta’s management argued that they had not violated the law because the information was obtained independently.
Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi
The State Press Committee issued warnings to the independent daily Narodnaya Volya and to the local edition of the Moscow-based Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi for breaching Article 32 of the Media Law, which stipulates that media outlets are responsible for the accuracy of the information they publish.
Under Belarusian law, a news organization can be shut down after two warnings from the Press Committee.
The committee argued that both newspapers had violated the law by describing the prominent Belarusian writer Vasil Bykov as an exile. The committee claimed that Bykov was not forced out of the country but had left of his own free will.
Sergei Nerovny, Volny Horad
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Nikolai Motorenko, Nash Volny Horad
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Vadim Stefanenko, Malady Front
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Nerovny, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Volny Horad in the city of Krichev; Stefanenko, Krichev leader of the opposition organization Malady Front; and Motorenko, editor of the newspaper Nash Volny Horad, were convicted of illegal production and distribution of printed materials.
Each was fined the equivalent of 50 monthly minimum-wage salaries (3,600 rubles, or approximately US$150).
On February 2, 2001, police searched a night train delivering Volny Horad from Smolensk, Russia, just across the border from Krichev, and confiscated 507 copies of the newspaper.
On February 7, police detained Stefanenko at the Krichev railroad station. He had just arrived from Smolensk with 296 copies of Volny Horad and 302 copies of Nash Volny Horad. The police later destroyed the newspapers.
Five days later, the Krichev City Council sent a letter to Smolensk city authorities asking them to do everything in their power to prevent Volny Horad from being printed in Smolensk. Krichev authorities justified the request by claiming that the newspaper had criticized the prospective political union between Russia and Belarus.
On February 13, 2001, police attempted to seize copies of the two newspapers at the Krichev railroad station. But when officers arrived, they found a group of journalists with video cameras waiting. A search of Stefanenko revealed a single copy of the government newspaper Sovetskaya Belarus.
Nerovny and Stefanenko were each fined 50 minimum wages at a February 20 hearing. In a separate hearing on March 2, the Krichev City Court convicted Nerovny of illegal entrepreneurial activities and fined him another 50 minimum wages, which by March had risen to 5,700 rubles (approximately US$250).
Motorenko was fined 50 minimum wages at a March 6 hearing.
Government officials interrupted the broadcasts of ORT, RTR, and NTV, three leading Russian television channels operating in Belarus, and replaced their programming with Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Victory Day speech.
Victory Day is a national holiday that celebrates the Soviet Union’s World War II victory over Nazi Germany. Authorities did not restore the Russian channel’s regular broadcasts until late Wednesday morning.
Lukashenko explained that a technical error caused the channels to be shut off and his speech broadcast all over the country. He dismissed the delay in restoring regular programming as simple clumsiness.
Yuri Svirko, Diena
At the request of the Belarusian Presidential Protection Service (BPPS), the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s Commission for Accrediting Foreign Media Correspondents issued a warning to Svirko, a reporter for the Latvian newspaper Diena.
The warning came after an April 10 confrontation in which Svirko, who had a valid pass to the Belarusian National Assembly’s House of Representatives, was denied entry into the session hall to hear President Aleksandr Lukashenko give a speech. An officer stopped the journalist at the building’s third security checkpoint. When Svirko tried to enter the hall, the officer twisted the reporter’s arms behind his back and hauled him to the press center.
On April 17, 2001, Svirko filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus, but no action was taken.
Vadim Stefanenko, Volny Horad
Sergei Nerovny, Volny Horad
Nikolai Motorenko, Volny Horad
Krichev authorities launched a criminal case against journalists Stefanenko, Nerovny, and Motorenko of the Krichev-based weekly Volny Horad, according to local reports.
The journalists were accused of holding police officer Rybchinsky (first name unavailable) hostage on July 12, when police raided the newspaper’s offices and seized technical equipment. The offices were also serving as the local headquarters of opposition presidential candidate Semyon Domash.
The journalists maintained that Rybchinsky burst into the offices and failed to identify himself as a police officer; the journalists simply closed the door behind him, according to the Belarusian news agency BelaPan.
Three months later, the prosecutor dropped the criminal case against the journalists for lack of evidence, Belarusian sources reported. At the end of October, the Krichev Prosecutor’s Office reopened the case and then promptly closed it once again.
On November 12, BelaPan reported that local authorities again filed criminal charges against the three journalists but less than a month later closed the case again. No charges were pending at year’s end.
Police raided the offices of the Krichev-based weekly Volny Horad and seized three computers, a scanner, a television set, and a VCR, according to local and international press reports.
On July 18, a court in Krichev found the newspaper guilty of violating Decree No. 8, which bars the use of foreign grants for activities that encourage agitation. The court rubber-stamped the confiscation of the newspaper’s computer equipment.
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. Under the 1996 U.S.-Belarus Bilateral Assistance Agreement, U.S. government assistance is exempt from Decree No. 8.
CPJ circulated an alert about this incident on August 23, 2001.
The offices of the independent, thrice-weekly newspaper Den were burglarized twice within a one-week period, according to local and international sources.
On July 17, unknown individuals broke into Den‘s offices and stole computer equipment. The robbery took place after Den‘s published reports criticizing high-level government officials.
The paper was about publish a special issue implicating the government in the disappearances of several well-known people, according to Belarusian and international reports. All materials related to the special edition disappeared after the robbery, acco7ding to the nongovernmental organization Charter 97.
On July 24, the newspaper’s offices were again burglarized and critical computer equipment was stolen, local and international sources reported.
Prior to the robberies, the editorial team completed work on the special issue. CPJ could not confirm if Den published the issue, but the paper was still publishing at year’s end.
The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Aleksandr Tomkovich, linked the two robberies, pointing out that in both cases there were no signs of forced entry and that the thieves only stole equipment needed for publication, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Officials from the Markovka village Prosecutor’s Office, accompanied by police, seized a computer, a printer, and a fax modem from the weekly Belaruski Uskhod, according to local press reports.
The equipment had been provided by the international nonprofit organization IREX, which successfully contested the seizure in the Khotimks Regional Court on August 15. The equipment was returned to the newspaper’s headquarters five days later, on August 20.
CPJ circulated an alert about this incident on August 23, 2001.
Police from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized 400,000 copies of the independent, thrice-weekly newspaper Nasha Svaboda in advance of the September 9 presidential elections.
The special election issue, which endorsed Vladimir Goncharik, the only opposition candidate running against incumbent president Aleksandr Lukashenko, predicted the president’s defeat in the upcoming poll. (Lukashenko ultimately won what most observers dismissed as a fraudulent election.)
Officials did not file actual charges against Nasha Svaboda, but claimed that they confiscated the paper’s print run at the Magic publishing house in Minsk because Magic had not adequately prepared certain financial documents.
However, Nasha Svaboda editor-in-chief Pavel Zhuk maintains that because the newspapers were the property of Nasha Svaboda and not of Magic, police had no right to seize them.
Though officials took nearly the entire 480,000 print run, Nasha Svaboda staff managed to retain 80,000 copies and distribute them by hand in Minsk.
CPJ published an alert about the seizure on August 20.
Officials from the State Committee for Financial Investigation seized several computers and other technical equipment from the independent daily Narodnaya Volya.
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 reported that the investigation was slated to continue until September 19, but no charges were ever filed.
Despite these difficulties, Vyachaslau Orhish, a correspondent with the newspaper, maintained that Narodnaya Volya would continue to publish.
Around the same time, the State Committee for Financial Investigation also launched audits of two other independent newspapers, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta and Nasha Svaboda. Neither publication was charged.
CPJ issued an alert about this case on August 23, 2001.
Magic publishing house
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, Yuri Budko, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the committee officials justified their actions by referring to an earlier court order that Budko 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 Zhirnostyok, Magic’s executive director, told CPJ.
On August 27, the publishing house resumed work after Budko reached an agreement with the State Press Committee to appoint the deputy head of the committee, Vladimir Glushakov, as the acting director of Magic during the ongoing investigation.
Local sources told CPJ that Glushakov stopped working at Magic three days after the election. CPJ issued an alert about the case on August 23, followed by a protest letter to President Aleksandr Lukashenko on September 5.
Deputy head of the State Press Committee Vladimir Glushakov, who was appointed acting director of the Magic publishing house in advance of September 9 presidential elections, suspended printing of a special issue of the independent newspaper Rabochy after about 40,000 copies had already been printed.
Glushakov claimed that printing could not proceed without a preliminary payment from Rabochy, 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 president Lukashenko and his administration of corruption.
CPJ protested this incident in a September 5 letter to Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko.
The Central Election Committee warned an opposition candidate for the presidency against distributing four independent newspapers to voters free of charge.
The committee issued an official warning to Vladimir Goncharik, electoral opponent of Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko, for allegedly “bribing” voters by distributing free copies of the independent newspapers Nasha Svaboda, Den, Rabochy, and Belaruskaya Maladzyozhnaya.
Another warning from the committee could have resulted in Goncharik’s being disqualified. CPJ protested the incident in a September 5 letter to President Lukashenko.
Deputy head of the State Press Committee Vladimir Glushakov, who was appointed acting director of the Magic publishing house in advance of September 9 presidential elections, censored two articles from an issue of the independent newspaper Predrinimatelskaya Gazeta.
One of the censored articles pointed out that Lukashenko was violating the Belarusian Constitution by seeking a third term in office. 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.
CPJ protested the incident in a September 5 letter to Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Deputy head of the State Press Committee Vladimir Glushakov, who was appointed acting director of the Magic publishing house in advance of September 9 presidential elections, censored the independent Narodnaya Volya.
The September 5 print run was allowed to proceed only after editors removed a collage that expressed support for President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s electoral opponent, Vladimir Goncharik.
Narodnaya Volya was also forced to remove allegedly defamatory phrases from an upcoming special issue.
CPJ protested the incident in a September 5 letter to President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta
BelaPan news agency
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarusian Service
During the September 9 presidential election, authorities blocked access to online versions of several major opposition newspapers, including Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Nasha Svaboda, and Belarusskaya Gazeta.
The Web sites of the independent BelaPan news agency, Radio Racyja, and the Belarusian Service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also experienced unexplained service interruptions on election day.
Until they were blocked, the independent media outlets were posting up-to-the-minute reports of violations at polling stations, local press and election monitors reported.
The Internet campaign site of Vladimir Goncharik, President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s main opponent, was also jammed, as were the sites of the civic organizations Charter 97 and Independent Monitoring.
Prior to the elections, Charter 97 had criticized Lukashenko for a range of alleged offenses. In particular, Charter 97 publicized credible allegations by former government officials implicating the president in the murder of Dmitry Zavadsky, a cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT who has been missing since July 7, 2000.
Several hours after the polls closed on September 9, according to Charter 97, President Lukashenko announced plans to ban the Russian channel TV-6 from operating in Belarus, though he never followed through on the threats.
Unlike the propaganda-filled Belarusian state television, Russian television stations have not shied away from criticizing Lukashenko. In return, the president has periodically threatened to expel Russian journalists.
On September 10, correspondents from the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya, the BelaPan news agency, and the Latvian newspaper Diena were denied access to a presidential news conference, according to Charter 97. At the press conference, President Lukashenko promised to “support journalists the way I supported them before.”
CPJ documented all these abuses in a September 21 news alert.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
The State Press Committee warned the independent Brest-based weekly Brestsky Kuryer for publishing the statement of an unregistered political organization, a violation of the Press Law.
The statement, titled “Stop the persecution of democratic candidates for president of the Republic of Belarus!,” was signed by leaders of local opposition parties, civic organizations, and labor unions, some of which were not registered with the government.
The High Economic Court of Belarus rejected the newspaper’s appeal, according to Radio Racyja.
On November 5, the Brest regional printing house refused to print Brestsky Kuryer because of the September warning. Printing house officials maintained that printing could resume only if they received written permission from the Regional Executive Committee.
The newspaper requested permission from the committee, without success. In mid-November, Brestsky Kuryer was forced to print its upcoming edition in Smolensk, Russia, local sources reported.
Soon after, the Brest regional printing house resumed publishing Brestsky Kuryer.
The Hrodno-based independent weekly Pahonya was shut down after the Belarusian High Economic Court found the publication guilty of insulting President Aleksandr Lukashenko and publishing the statements of an unregistered civic organization, according to local and international press reports.
The newspaper had received two prior warnings in relation to these charges.
Pahonya received the first warning on November 17, 2000, and the second warning in early September 2001. Prior to the second warning, the regional prosecutor’s office confiscated Pahonya‘s entire print run and opened a criminal case against the newspaper.
Pahonya‘s editor-in-chief, Mikola Markevich, filed a complaint in December with the High Economic Court of Belarus regarding its decision. At year’s end, the newspaper continued to publish online.
Andzhei Pisalnik, Pahonya
Paval Mazheika, Pahonya
Mikola Markevich, Pahonya
Markevich, editor of the Hrodno-based independent weekly Pahonya, was charged with participating in an unsanctioned rally to protest the recent banning of the paper. Pahonya reporters Pisalnik and Mazheika were charged with the same offense.
Pahonya was shut down on November 12, after the Belarusian High Economic Court found the publication guilty of insulting President Aleksandr Lukashenko and publishing the statements of an unregistered civic organization (see November 12 case).
The rally was held on November 19. That same day, the three journalists were asked to come to the Leninsky District Police Department, where they were charged with violating the Belarusian Administrative Code.
On November 26, the Leninsky District Court found Mazheika and Pisalnik guilty of participating in an unsanctioned rally and issued them a warning, local and international sources reported.
Markevich’s hearing was scheduled for December 5, but was postponed because the court misplaced his file, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. On December 13, the Leninsky District Court found Markevich guilty of organizing and participating in an unsanctioned rally and fined him the equivalent of 50 minimum wages.