CPJ condemns prosecution of independent journalists

New York, April 9, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the criminal prosecution of Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika, editor-in-chief and reporter, respectively, at the Hrodno-based independent weekly Pahonya.

The journalists are accused of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko and face up to five years in prison if convicted. The trial, which was set to begin today in the Leninsky District Court in Hrodno, has been postponed indefinitely due to the judge’s illness, CPJ has confirmed.

The case stems from three articles published in the September 4, 2001, edition of the newspaper that criticized the president ahead of the September 9, 2001, presidential elections, according to the Minsk-based independent daily Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. Lukashenko cracked down on the local press during the run-up to the poll, in which he claimed victory amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

“For journalists to be criminally prosecuted for daring to criticize the head of state shows Lukashenko’s utter contempt for press freedom,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper.

Journalists detained at protests
On April 5, local police in Hrodno broke up three protest rallies in support of the Pahonya journalists, according to local press reports.

Ten journalists were detained and tried in an administrative court on the same day for participating in the demonstrations. Eight were sentenced to several days in jail, and two were fined.

On November 12, 2001, Pahonya was shut down by order of the Belarusian High Economic Court for insulting Lukashenko, though the online version of the newspaper continues to be published regularly.