New York, N.Y, June 17,
1998 --The Belarusian State Committee on the Press
issued a warning on June 1 to the Minsk-based independent
Belarusian weekly newspaper Zdravy Smysl for allegedly
providing "distorted information" to its readers that
could result in the paper's closure. The warning came
after Zdravy Smysl reported that Belarus President
Aleksander Lukashenko was named one of the 10 worst
"Enemies of the Press" in May by the Committee to Protect
Journalists (CPJ), the New-York based press freedom
Zdravy Smysl will appeal the
State Press Committee's warning. A second warning issued
before the end of the year would cause the paper to be
shut down for three months.
On May 6, Zdravy Smysl quoted a
broadcast by Radio Liberty (RL) reporting on CPJ's
"Enemies of the Press" announcement, which was released
for World Press Freedom Day May 3. In reporting that
President Lukashenko was named an enemy of the press, RL
cited CPJ's description of a secret March directive of
Press Committee, called "On
Enhancing Counter-Propaganda Activities Towards
Opposition Press," as the latest example of repeated
violations of press freedom in Belarus. The RL broadcast
was quoted by Zdravy Smysl in a Russian translation, in
which the word "directive" (razporyazhenie) appeared in
Russian as "decree" (ukaz). The State Press Committee
seized on this linguistic inconsistency to accuse the
newspaper of presenting false information to the public,
in violation of Article 16 of the press law.
In discussing the incident, Igor
Chertkov, the paper's editor, agreed that the word
"directive" was mistranslated, but he noted that the
paper had not spelled the word "decree" with a capital
letter, as it would have been if it referred to a
specific legal act. Moreover, said Chertkov, an official
decree would have been attributed to the president, but
his name was not cited in this regard.
Chertkov maintained that the
government had seized upon a minor linguistic imprecision
as an excuse to shut down the newspaper.
Chertkov told CPJ that authorities had made
several attempts to silence the paper in the past two years. Zdravy
Smysl regularly publishes articles detailing Press freedom violations,
inhumane prison conditions, and police brutality in Belarus--information
rarely made public in the Minsk press.
Although some copies of Zdravy
Smysl are distributed free of charge, most are sold
through the monopoly state distribution network. The
state collects between 40 and 45 percent of the profit
from sales, a heavy burden for private media.
Chertkov said that last autumn
Zdravy Smysl was fined 52 million rubles (about $1,650)
for alleged non-compliance with the state-run
distribution rules. The fine forced the newspaper to
reduce its print run from 23,000 to
Chertkov told CPJ that the
newspaper's offices were ransacked on the night of June
18, 1997, when an unidentified assailant attacked three
volunteer workers and the night watchman, and destroyed
several computers and fax machines. Nothing was reported
stolen, but one of the victims was hospitalized with a
skull fracture. According to Chertkov, the assailants
were looking for reporters' notes and research materials.
The case was reported to the police, but to date no
suspects have been arrested.