New York, July 5, 2005—A district court in Minsk has handed down judgments against the opposition daily Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) in three separate civil defamation trials and ordered the daily to pay a total of 115 million Belarusian rubles (US$53,500) in damages, according to local and international reports.
Narodnaya Volya staff told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the damages may bankrupt the Minsk newspaper, one of the few non-governmental dailies in Belarus.
Two lawsuits stemmed from a February 19 piece headlined, “The appeal to the Belarusian people,” prepared and signed by 80 founders of an unregistered civil movement called Volya Naroda (The Will of the People). The commentary appealed to Belarusian citizens to push for democratic reforms and European standards of living.
On April 23, Narodnaya Volya published a list of approximately 10,000 signatures in support of the new movement.
Following the publication of the signatures, five workers from an industrial plant in the town of Saligorsk and four residents of the town of Kletsk filed civil defamation lawsuits against Narodnaya Volya, claiming that they never signed the appeal.
On June 9, Judge Vera Tupik at the Leninsky district court of Minsk ordered Narodnaya Volya to pay 6 million Belarusian rubles (US$2,800) in damages to three of the plaintiffs. In a separate trial the same day, Judge Tatyana Zhulkovskaya, also with the Leninsky district court of Minsk, ordered the paper to pay 9 million Belarusian rubles (US$4,200) to three other plaintiffs.
The third trial against Narodnaya Volya stemmed from a March 1 article headlined “A letter by Gaydukevich. And a fax to Gaydukevich.” The article included a copy of a 2002 fax from the Iraqi Ministry of Oil to Sergei Gaydukevich, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, asking him to pay a US$1 million debt to the ministry. In its fax, the ministry said it sought the money in accordance with an existing contract, but it did not explain the claim further. In its article, Narodnaya Volya questioned why the Iraqi Ministry of Oil was addressing Gaydukevitch and why the party leader would be involved in a business contract with a foreign oil ministry. The newspaper has stood by its story.
Following the article’s publication, Gaydukevich sued the newspaper for defaming him and publishing what he called erroneous information. On June 14, Judge Lyubov Valevich of the Leninsky district court ruled in favor of Gaydukevich and ordered Narodnaya Volya to pay 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$46,500) in damages.
Iosif Seredich, editor-in-chief of Narodnaya Volya, told CPJ that Valevich did not take into account the court testimony of a former deputy chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, Aleksandr Rabotai, who was working with Gaydukevich in 2001. He testified that the Liberal Democratic Party had a business relationship with the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, Seredich said.
Politically motivated civil libel lawsuits and exorbitant damages have debilitated the media in Belarus in recent years, forcing some outlets to close. (See CPJ’s 2004 summary of press conditions in Belarus).
“Given the politicized nature of judicial proceedings in Belarus, we are monitoring these cases with concern,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.