In May 2002, CPJ named Belarus one of the world’s 10 worst places to be a journalist, highlighting the stifling repression of Europe’s most authoritarian regime. The rest of the year brought more bad news for the country’s besieged but strong-willed private media, with President Aleksandr Lukashenko tightening his grip on power while the economy floundered. Using a broad arsenal of weapons, Lukashenko carried out an unprecedented assault against the independent and opposition press.
Though criminal libel laws have been in effect since 1999, officials used the statutes for the first time in 2002, specifically targeting those journalists who had dared to criticize Lukashenko’s successful, but controversial, fall 2001 re-election. Three journalists with independent newspapers–Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika of Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevich of Rabochy–received corrective labor sentences for libeling the president in pre-election articles. At year’s end, all three were serving their terms.
During the second half of 2002, criminal cases were launched against an opposition politician for libeling the president in a published statement; against a woman for distributing anti-Lukashenko flyers; and against a journalist with the daily Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta for criticizing Belarus’ prosecutor general. Meanwhile, a former lawyer for the mother of disappeared cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky received a one-and-a-half-year prison sentence for libeling the prosecutor general.
In September, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a prominent local nongovernmental organization, launched a campaign to repeal criminal libel clauses and even submitted a proposal to the Chamber of Representatives, the Parliament’s lower house. The legislators, however, voted against placing the proposal on the agenda.
Politically motivated civil libel lawsuits, with exorbitant fines, also debilitated the media during 2002. In August, the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda was convicted of libeling the chairman of the State Control Committee and fined 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$55,000). Unable to pay, the publication was forced to close.
Local journalists told CPJ about more subtle financial pressures used to harass the independent press. During an October research mission to Belarus, CPJ found that nonstate media face financial discrimination. For example, according to local journalists, government officials pressure some advertisers not to buy space in publications that criticize Lukashenko and his regime. Government officials also regularly encourage companies to pull advertising and threaten them with audits should they fail to do so.
State publications received subsidies and other financial breaks that helped them weather escalating costs in 2002. The Belarusian postal service, Belpochta, which distributes almost all of the country’s print media, increased newspaper delivery rates. That charge fell only on independent outlets, as did a new 5 percent tax levied in September by the Minsk City Council of Deputies.
In 2002, several independent newspapers–including Belaruskaya Maladzyozhnaya, Rabochy, Den, and Tydnyovik Mahilyouski–unable to shoulder the financial bur-
dens, halted operation. In June, lack of money forced the private radio station Radyjo Racyja off the air.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko moved to strengthen state television–already an official mouthpiece. He announced the creation of the Second National Channel (BT-2), to join the existing First National Channel (ONT), as well as measures to bolster Stolichnoye Televideniye (Capital Television). Lukashenko also reduced the amount of broadcast time allocated for the hugely popular Russian television networks, ostensibly for financial reasons. But observers say the government has been displeased with Russian television, which frequently portrays Lukashenko and his administration negatively.
The July 2000 disappearance of Russian cameraman Zavadsky continues to evoke local and international outrage and serve as a chilling reminder of the scope of human rights abuses in Belarus. Although two former members of Belarus’ elite Almaz special forces unit were convicted in 2002 of kidnapping the journalist, state prosecutors failed to investigate allegations that senior government officials may have been involved. In hopes of finding the mastermind behind the disappearance, the Zavadsky family has appealed the convictions. Although their appeal was initially rejected, the Prosecutor General’s Office reopened the Zavadsky case in December.
Viktor Tolochko, ITAR-TASS
Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters
Tolochko, an ITAR-TASS photographer and Fedosenko, a Reuters photographer, were harassed when police violently dispersed an illegal opposition rally in the capital, Minsk. According to local and Russian reports, Fedosenko was forced into a police bus, and officers tore up his accreditation card and his plane ticket to Afghanistan, where he was headed for his next assignment. Meanwhile, police smashed Tolochko’s camera. Most detainees were released soon after, including the journalists.
The Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry denied accreditation to a film crew from NTV, a Moscow-based Russian television network. The crew had already arrived in the country’s capital, Minsk, from Moscow. NTV’s Minsk bureau explained that they needed a second television crew in Minsk
so one could cover President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s upcoming trip to the areas of Belarus polluted by the Chernobyl catastrophe while the second covered the traditional opposition rally known as “The Chernobyl Route.” The ministry did not comment on its decision.
Mikhail Padalyak, Nasha Svaboda
*he Minsk-based independent thrice-weekly Nasha Svaboda and its reporter, Padalyak, were convicted of defamation by Minsk’s Moskovsky District Court, which fined the publication 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$55,000) and ordered Padalyak to pay a 5 million Belarusian ruble (US$2,700) fine.
The court also ordered Nasha Svaboda to pay for a retraction to be printed in the state newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya and in Respublika, a Council of Ministers publication. The lawsuit–filed by Anatol Tozik, chairman of the State Control Committee–came after Nasha Svaboda published a July 16 article alleging that Tozik had complained to Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko about Prosecutor General Viktar Sheiman’s professional conduct.
The lawsuit was filed days after Lukashenko publicly announced his distaste for what he called the media’s attempts to “discredit highest-level officials” with “false information” and the president’s desire to punish those who “disseminate” these “distorted facts.” In 1999, Nasha Svaboda‘s predecessor, Naviny, closed after the same court levied an excessive fine against the publication of US$50,000 in a defamation lawsuit filed by Prosecutor General Sheiman, who was at that time head of the Security Council.
Belarusian authorities banned the Russian network ORT (currently renamed Pervy Kanal), which broadcasts in Belarus on the First National Channel, from airing a film titled “The Wild Hunt-2” in Belarus. The film was made by Pavel Sheremet, former head of ORT’s Minsk bureau and a colleague and friend of disappeared ORT cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. “The Wild Hunt-2” alleges government involvement in the disappearances of Zavadsky and opposition politicians in Belarus. While ORT’s Russian audience saw the film, the Belarusian First National Channel aired another program.
Mikola Markevich, Pahonya
Paval Mazheika, Pahonya
Irina Khalip, For Official Use
The Prosecutor’s Office in the capital, Minsk, initiated a criminal libel case against Khalip, a journalist with For Official Use, the supplement of the leading daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. The case stemmed from an article published in the supplement alleging that Belarusian prosecutor general Viktor Sheiman was involved in a bribery scheme. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
Andrei Pachobut, Pahonya
Iryna Charnyauka, Pahonya
Andrei Maleshka, Pahonya
Beginning in late September, Maleshka, Pachobut, Charnyauka, and other staff of Pahonya were regularly summoned to the local police office and questioned about the newspaper’s online version. After the Belarusian High Economic Court shuttered Pahonya in November 2001 for libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Pahonya‘s staff continued to post an online version of the publication.
In September 2002, the Hrodna Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Pahonya‘s online activities, accusing the newspaper of illegally distributing printed materials. However, the journalists contend that because Belarusian law does not regulate Internet publications, it is illegal to prosecute them as regular media outlets.
Mykhailo Kolomyets, Ukrainski Novyny
The Belarusian Information Ministry rescinded the independent weekly Mestnoye Vremya‘s registration and blocked its bank accounts. Mestnoye Vremya had begun publishing on November 1, 2002. Days later, the Minsk District Executive Committee annulled a decision allowing the newspaper to rent editorial offices where it was then based. This decision made it possible for the Information Ministry to rescind the registration for a regulation violation because the editorial address published on the newspaper’s pages and its actual address were different. At year’s end, the newspaper was suing the Minsk District Executive Committee and demanding that its registration be reinstated.
Viktar Ivashkevich, Rabochy