Squeezed by the expansion of NATO and the European Union to the west and tepid relations with Russia to the east, Belarus grew ever more isolated. In the face of that isolation, President Aleksandr Lukashenko continued his assault on the media in 2003, tightening his grip on the impoverished country. Local analysts suspect that Lukashenko’s ironfisted approach to the media is an attempt to stifle criticism of his political allies in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2004, thus ensuring passage of an amendment to the constitution that would allow him to extend his term in office.
Belarus’ obedient state media supported Lukashenko’s authoritarian policies by discrediting political opponents and arguing that political and media restrictions are necessary to maintain political stability. Loyal judges and security officials punished journalists who questioned state policies, and the politicized bureaucracy charged excessive fees to print and distribute independent newspapers, while channeling budget subsidies, discounts, and tax privileges to the state-run media.
Though criminal libel laws have been in effect since 1999, officials used the statutes for the first time in 2002, targeting journalists who criticized Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election in 2001. Three journalists with independent newspapers–Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika of Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevich of Rabochy–received corrective labor sentences in 2002 for libeling the president in 2001 in pre-election articles.
Markevich and Mazheika received court-granted early releases in March 2003 after each had served the first six months of their two-and-a-half- and two-year sentences, respectively. Ivashkevich was amnestied in December after serving the first year of his sentence at a corrective labor facility. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists continued its campaign to decriminalize libel to no avail.
Politically motivated civil libel lawsuits resulting in exorbitant fines have debilitated the media, forcing some outlets, such as the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda, to close. In early 2003, the newspapers Vecherny Stolin and Provintsyyalka in the western Brest Region were suspended for allegedly libeling local government officials ahead of the March local elections. Both papers remained embroiled in libel lawsuits for much of the year.
In late May, the popular Minsk daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG) was suspended for three months after it received three warnings from the Information Ministry for allegedly defaming Lukashenko and improperly publishing information about court proceedings. BDG‘s attempts to appeal the suspension were rejected, and independent Belarusian publications that later printed BDG articles in their pages were harassed and in some cases suspended. The Moscow-based twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta published BDG for a time, and it finally resumed publication in Belarus in September.
Tense relations between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin over a stalled union proposal (Lukashenko wants a union of two equal states and Putin wants a union in which Belarus is subordinate to Russia) led Lukashenko’s government to restrict public access to state-run Russian television and radio broadcasts, one of the few remaining sources of independent news in the country.
In June, the government expelled Pavel Selin, a Minsk correspondent for the Russian NTV television network, because he reported that authorities had interfered with the funeral procession of the celebrated pro-democracy Belarusian author Vasil Bykau. Selin, who has been officially declared persona non grata and banned from entering Belarus for five years, returned to Moscow. In early July, the Belarusian Council of Ministers closed NTV’s Minsk bureau.
Belarusian authorities also cracked down on U.S. government-funded organizations providing assistance to local media. In July, the Foreign Ministry refused to extend the accreditations of the International Research and Exchanges Board and Internews Network, forcing them to close their Minsk offices and ending their media training programs.
Lukashenko raised the specter of yet another crackdown on the press when he announced plans to create an autocratic state ideology during his state-of-the-union address in April. The ideology would rely on the media to permeate every aspect of society and act as the “immunity system that protects society from internal and external threats.” In the summer and fall, he continued to elaborate on plans to restore Soviet-style propaganda through the media, college lecturers, and a network of state propaganda organizations.
Lukashenko also called for a more repressive new Mass Media Law to punish independent media outlets that do not fit his “ideological” vision. He said that the legislation “should block those that want to manipulate the public opinion and intentionally misinform the population,” and that he is “deeply convinced that journalism is a state-oriented profession.”
The draft Mass Media Law was kept secret for much of 2003. Copies obtained by journalists in the fall revealed that it would simplify government procedures to shutter media outlets and expand the law’s coverage to news Web sites, which have become an alternative source of information and opinion for Belarusians. The law awaited approval by Parliament at year’s end.
The July 2000 disappearance of Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky continues to evoke local and international outrage and serves as a chilling reminder of the serious threats that journalists face. Although two former members of Belarus’ elite Almaz special forces unit were convicted in 2002 of kidnapping Zadavsky, state prosecutors have failed to investigate allegations that senior government officials may have been involved. CPJ has repeatedly called for an independent international investigation of this case.
In late November 2003, a court in Minsk declared Zavadsky dead at the request of his widow, Svetlana. In mid-December, prosecutors announced they had reopened the Zavadsky investigation about 48 hours before the Council of Europe, a pan-Europe human rights monitoring organization, released a report alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the journalist’s disappearance and its subsequent cover-up.