CPJ condemns criminal prosecution of independent journalists

New York, June 19, 2002—Belarusian journalists Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika, both of the independent weekly newspaper Pahonya, will give their final statements on Friday, June 21, in their ongoing criminal libel case. If convicted, the prosecution has requested prison terms of two-and-a-half years for editor-in-chief Markevich and two years for reporter Mazheika, said Belarusian news reports.

The journalists are accused of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko, which is a criminal offense under the Belarusian law.

The case stems from two September 2001 editions of Pahonya that criticized the president ahead of the September 9, 2001, presidential elections. 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.

On November 12, 2001, Pahonya, which is based in Hrodno, a city in western Belarus, was shut down by order of the Belarusian High Economic Court for criticizing Lukashenko. The online version of the newspaper continues to be posted.

“We are outraged that Belarusian authorities are seeking to imprison journalists for exercising their right to free expression and criticizing the head of state,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The Lukashenko regime is succumbing to truly ruthless methods in its campaign to annihilate independent journalism.”

In a separate incident on June 18, a district court froze the bank account of the daily newspaper Narodnaya Volya, which is based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Narodnaya Volya is the country’s largest independent publication.

According to news reports, the court’s actions against Narodnaya Volya are the result of defamation charges brought by two judges from the city of Zhodina, in central Belarus. The judges are seeking 2.5 million rubles (US$1,400) in damages.

Narodnaya Volya‘s editor-in-chief, Iosif Syaredich, intends to appeal the ruling.