Independent Belarus newspaper faces closure

New York, December 17, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply worried about a defamation lawsuit by a Belarusian senior government official against the independent weekly Novy Chas in the capital, Minsk. A ruling against the paper would bankrupt Novy Chas and force it to shut down, according to local CPJ sources.

In late October, Nikolai Cherginets, a member of the parliament’s upper chamber and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations and National Security, filed a civil lawsuit against Novy Chas’s publisher, Vremya Novostei, and its reporter Aleksandr Tamkovich. The suit stems from Tamkovich’s critical profile of Cherginets, published in the September 24 issue of Novy Chas, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Aleksei Korol, told CPJ.

The profile, titled “General-Senator Nikolai Cherginets,” criticized the politician’s literary credentials (Cherginets is also a writer) as well as his record of Soviet military service in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s and his rise in Belarusian politics.

“We are concerned about the charges against Novy Chas, which could result in the closure of one of only a handful independent publications remaining in Belarus,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on Nikolai Cherginets to immediately drop his lawsuit. As a public figure, he is subject to higher scrutiny and media criticism than private citizens.”

According to the filed claim obtained by CPJ, Cherginets felt that Tamkovich’s article damaged his “honor, dignity, and business reputation as a writer, politician, and general-senator.” In compensation for the alleged moral damage, Cherginets demands 500 million Belarusian rubles (about US$231,000) from Vremya Novostei; 100 million Belarusian rubles (about US$46,000) from Tamkovich; and the seizure of the property and financial assets of both the paper and the author—in the amount of the sought compensation—as a guarantee that the alleged damages would be covered.

In comparison, the average Belarusian salary is 740,000 Belarusian rubles (around US$340), according to the Belarusian Ministry of Labor as quoted by the national news agency BELTA.

In his defamation claim, dated October 26, to Pervomaisky District Court in Minsk, Cherginets does not offer any counterarguments to refute Tamkovich’s article; it only cites passages he considers damaging.

“We told Cherginets that he is welcome, anytime, to use the pages of Novy Chas if he wishes to write a rebuttal. However, he has refused,” Korol told CPJ. “The problem in Belarus is that officials see themselves as beyond criticism.”

Novy Chas is one of a small number of independent publications left in Belarus. It is forced to distribute its 5,000 copies through individual distributors and direct subscription because the Belarusian postal service and state-owned kiosks refuse to carry it.

Since its start in March, Novy Chas has given space to banned writers in Belarus. Cherginets, the plaintiff, serves as the head of the state Writers’ Union. The government shuttered an independent union of writers last year.

Korol, who saw his previous publication—the independent weekly Zgoda—shut down in the run-up to March 2006 presidential elections because of extensive coverage of the opposition, is pessimistic about the future of Novy Chas. “We will be forced to shut down if the court satisfies Cherginets’s demands,” Korol told CPJ. “If we lived in a normal country, the justice system would be on our side. Critical profiles of politicians don’t get you shut down in the United Kingdom, for example.”