|As the editor of the popular Minsk business daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG), Svetlana Kalinkina challenged the neo-Soviet policies of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko by publishing information the government did not want the public to have. The criticism stung because BDG is known for accuracy, professionalism, and nonpartisanship.
Authorities retaliated against BDG with legal and bureaucratic harassment, filing lawsuits, seizing print runs, detaining journalists, and conducting politically motivated tax inspections. In early 2004, the post office and state-run press refused to distribute the paper. With the Information Ministry harassing any printer that worked with BDG, it was forced to print in neighboring Russia. By September 2004, BDG, while appearing online, had all but disappeared from newsstands.
Frustrated and realizing that independent journalism had a limited future with Lukashenko in power, Kalinkina took a leave of absence to work to defeat an October referendum to allow Lukashenko to seek unlimited terms of office. The day the referendum won, in voting widely regarded as fraudulent, thugs beat independent TV reporter (and former CPJ awardee) Pavel Sheremet in Minsk. Three days later, Kalinkina’s former BDG colleague Veronika Cherkasova was stabbed to death in her apartment, a murder that has yet to be solved.
Despite the limitations of independent journalism in Belarus, Kalinkina will begin work later this year as editor of the daily Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will). “The main problem for Belarusian journalism is that it has become a hostage to the overall situation in Belarus, including the authorities and the weak opposition,” Kalinkina says. “And because of the arrogance of existing power, the media are caught in the middle and are forced to take sides.”
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Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, I am greatly honored to be here with you today.
Receiving an award is always a privilege but this award is especially dear to me because it comes from a highly regarded organization such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose founders are esteemed American journalists.
I represent Belarus, a former Soviet republic, in which communist, totalitarian habits linger.
Historically, Belarus has been torn between Western Europe and the Russian Empire, between Western democracy and Eastern despotism.
Geographically, we are in the middle of Europe –nestled between Poland and Russia– but President Lukashenko is often called the last European dictator, because even Russians enjoys more civil rights and democracy than we do.
At least, for now.
In the Soviet Union, those who told the truth and criticized the authorities were branded public enemies and spies, and were either thrown in jail or exiled.
In Belarus, authorities see journalists as the enemy.
Any criticism of the president may be considered a basis for criminal prosecution.
Several of my colleagues have experienced the cruelty of Belarusian prisons.
Foreign journalists are deported without explanation because of their professional activity.
In recent months, authorities deported several Russian and Ukrainian journalists, and just before my flight to New York, a French television crew was expelled and banned from Belarus for five years.
More and more, foreigners are denied entry in Belarus. Such was the case last summer with a group of U.S. senators, headed by John McCain.
Lukashenko wants to build a new iron curtain, but the creation of a communist reservation in the very center of Europe, in the 21st century, should not be allowed to happen.
And we can resist only with your help.
Thank you for your solidarity with the journalists of Belarus. Thank you for your help. I hope next time we will meet in a free and democratic Belarus.