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Attacks on the Press in 1996 - Belarus

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1997
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1996 - Belarus, February 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c564f728.html [accessed 1 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Belarus slides further into dictatorship, as reforms lag under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a former communist bureaucrat. The president tightened the gag on the media when he insisted on holding a public referendum Nov. 24 on conflicting new drafts of the constitution, despite resistance from the legislative and judicial branches. In the run-up to the referendum, state-owned broadcasters carried reports largely flattering to Lukashenka, barred the parliamentary opposition from getting any air time, and remained silent about large protest rallies and police violence. Local independent news organizations and the foreign media, which did cover the opposition, were repeatedly accused by the president and other top officials of "nonobjectivity."

The Lukashenka government employed a variety of repressive methods from the Soviet past to control the media, such as banning or blocking broadcasts, denouncing out-of-favor journalists on national television, forcibly appointing government loyalists to state-owned media, and threatening to expel noncompliant foreign reporters. Just as in the Soviet era, the Belarusian public often relied on foreign broadcasters to learn about events in its own country. Some journalists, such as Svetlana Alexeyich, a frequent contributor to Russia's Izvestiya and a frequent target of officially supported libel suits in Belarus, were compelled to publish abroad.

Throughout the year, spurious tax inspections and nuisance lawsuits under vaguely worded press laws that punish libel, "insult of the head of state," "incitement of social intolerance," and "undermining of national security" plagued a dozen opposition newspapers. They were fined thousands of dollars for alleged violations of tax regulations, and were prevented from mailing copies to subscribers, or sometimes from publishing at all in Belarus. Resourceful editors found printers in the neighboring Baltic countries and quietly brought their press runs back to Belarus, but risked detention and confiscations at the border.

In August, the government shut down the only independent radio station. Speaking in Parliament, on television, and elsewhere, the president lambasted the Russian television stations ORT, NTV, and RTR for covering public controversies. On Nov. 19, Lukashenka issued a decree cutting off ORT and NTV's communication lines to Belarus, but revoked the decision after the Russian government objected. During the week of the referendum, electronic mail to and from Belarus was blocked, and the independent Web site www.belarus.net, which carries the on-line version of the daily Vecherniy Minsk and other information, reported that an unidentified hacker had damaged its server on Nov. 22. In December, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry again threatened that foreign journalists who "distort reality" would lose accreditation, and the Belarusian Security Council accused the Russian media of "inciting political tension in society."

March 19
Nikolai Galko, Narodnaya Gazeta, HARASSED

Galko, editor of the parliamentary daily Narodnaya Gazeta, was fired by order of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The president cited Galko's "failure to carry out his duties" as the reason for his dismissal. One year earlier, on March 17, 1995, Galko's predecessor, Iosif Seredich, was dismissed by the president for "inciting violence and political unrest." Narodnaya Gazeta is known for its criticism of the president's policies and its liberal slant.

April 26
Eduard Terlitsky, Radio Liberty, ATTACKED
Elena Lukashevich, Imya, ATTACKED
Leonid Sveridov, Russian State Television (RTR), ATTACKED
Oleg Trizno, Free-lancer, IMPRISONED
Vladzimir Dzyuba, Belarus Radio, IMPRISONED
Oleg Bebenin, Imya, ATTACKED
Oles Mikolaichenko, Nasha Slova, ATTACKED
Tsesary Golinsky, Gazeta Wyborcha, ATTACKED

Police who were dispersing participants in an unauthorized protest march marking the 10th anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant beat and detained several journalists. Terlitsky, a reporter for Radio Liberty in Minsk, was clubbed by a policeman and received head injuries that required several stitches. Lukashevich and Bebenin, reporters for the Belarusian independent newspaper Imya; Sveridov, a reporter for Russian state television (RTR); Mikolaichenko, a reporter for the Belarussian independent newspaper Nasha Slova; and Golinsky, a reporter for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcha, were all also beaten by police. The free-lance journalist Trizno, who contributes to several banned Belarusian opposition papers, was arrested and sentenced to five days in jail on charges of "insulting a policeman." He was released on May 2. His wife was also required to pay 75, 000 rubles (US$6) to cover the cost of his stay in jail. Belarus Radio correspondent Dzyuba was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail on administrative charges of "disturbing the peace." According to his colleagues, Dzyuba is conducting a hunger strike to protest his detention. In a letter to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, CPJ protested the policemen's treatment of journalists and urged Lukashenka to order the immediate release of Trizno and Dzyuba.

May 3
Alexander Kushner, Free-lance photographer, HARASSED
Alexander Stupnikov and crew, NTV, ATTACKED, CENSORED
Leonid Sveridov, Russian State Television (RTR), HARASSED

Government security agents harassed and attacked several journalists who were covering May Day rallies in Minsk attended by opposition leaders and Communist and trade union activists. Members of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's security detail stopped Kushner, a free-lance photographer, as he was attempting to photograph them and exposed his film. Stupnikov, a correspondent for the independent news television station NTV, was stopped by plainclothes agents who refused to present identification. The men attacked Stupnikov's crew, beating one cameraman until a crowd began to gather. As a result, NTV was unable to file a story about the rally. As he was driving home from the event, Sveridov, an RTR correspondent, was followed by several men driving in a car with tinted windows. The driver of the car cut him off and forced him to stop. The men got out and showed Sveridov their identification so quickly that he was unable to read it. They threatened to smash his windows unless he got out of his car. He refused to cooperate, and eventually they drove away. Shortly thereafter, Sveridov interviewed the deputy head of President Lukashenka's administration, Uladimir Zamyatalin, who told him that Russian television companies were filing "inflammatory reports" and that "the most serious measures would be taken."

June 22
Yury Drakokhrust, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), THREATENED

Galina Drakokhrust, the wife of RFE/RL correspondent Yury Drakokhrust, was attacked in Minsk by unidentified assailants, who issued a threat against Yury during the assault. Three men forced their way into the Drakokhrusts'locked apartment at 2 a.m. and attacked Galina, beating her and warning her to "tell your husband about this." The RFE/RL correspondent was in Poland on a business trip when the break-in occurred. His wife was knocked unconscious by her assailants, and awoke in a bathtub full of hot water. Nothing had been stolen from the apartment. Galina called the police, who took fingerprints, although she had noticed that at least one assailant was wearing gloves. Yury Drakokhrust, who is known by the pseudonym Marat Dymov, regularly reports on Belarusian news and politics for RFE/RL, an international radio station funded by the U.S. Congress. He said he believes the Belarus government sanctioned the attack on his wife in retaliation for his coverage of a recent government crackdown on opposition political parties and media. Specifically, he had reported incidents in which police assaulted journalists attempting to cover demonstrations against the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka or to publish independent newspapers, which are either suspended or banned altogether in Belarus.

August 19
Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Belaruskaya Gazeta, HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Belaruski Rynok, HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Imya, HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Nasha Niva, HARASSED
Narodnaya Volya, HARASSED
Semida, HARASSED
Svaboda, HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Svabodnie Novosti Plus, HARASSED
BelaPAN, HARASSED
Minsk Economic News, HARASSED

Tax authorities began imposing penalties, including stiff fines, on Belarus' leading independent or opposition weekly newspapers for alleged tax infractions. As of November, at least nine newspapers had been affected: Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG), Belaruskaya Gazeta, Belaruski Rynok, Imya, Nasha Niva, Narodnaya Volya, Semida, Svaboda, and Svabodnie Novosti Plus. BelaPAN, the country's only independent news agency, was subjected to a tax inspection, and another weekly, Minsk Economic News, the only English-language newspaper in Belarus, was warned that it, too, would be penalized by the tax inspectorate. BDG, Belaruskaya Gazeta, Belaruski Rynok, Imya, and Svaboda were handed fines ranging from 600 million to 2 billion Belarusian rubles (approximately US$42, 000 to $118, 000), and their bank accounts were temporarily frozen. Officials charged BDG and other newspapers with writing off unsold copies as a loss, instead of reporting them as a "hidden source of profit." Imya was penalized for taking cash directly from subscribers, rather than following the usual procedure of having the post office accept the subscription payments, but authorities had already prohibited the post office from assuming that function. BDG and others managed to get their accounts released on Sept. 10, but they still must pay the fines. Some of the papers have appealed to the Supreme Economic Court to overturn the fines. Most of the newspapers continued to publish in spite of the penalties, but those with frozen bank accounts had no funds to buy newsprint and faced the depletion of their stocks within a few issues. Although Belarusian law prohibits employers from withholding payrolls even when the government has suspended the employers' accounts, at least one paper was unable to pay its workers. All opposition papers in Belarus continued to have difficulties distributing their publications through state-run kiosks and were forced to use unauthorized vendors. CPJ on Sept. 11 wrote to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to express concern about the government crackdown.

August 31
Radio 101.2 FM, CENSORED

The Ministry of Communications disconnected the state-owned transmitter rented by the popular independent station Radio 101.2 FM in Minsk. On Aug. 30, the ministry had faxed to the station a copy of an internal memo claiming that "in order to eliminate interference in the reception" of Radio Altai, a government station, Radio 101.2 FM could no longer operate the transmitter. The independent station has appealed the suspension, but the government has refused to allocate another frequency. Officials suggested that Radio 101.2 FM temporarily broadcast with a weaker signal or move its antenna to a suburban site. Both actions would reduce the station's audience of more than a million listeners, and moving the antenna would be costly and time-consuming. Editors at the station said that in more than a year of operation, they had received no complaints from the ministry concerning interference. Radio 101.2, the only nongovernmental station broadcasting in the Belarusian language, went on the air July 21, 1995, offering mainly musical programming, news, and retransmissions of BBC, Deutsche Welle, and other foreign programs.

September 14
Pavel Sheremet, Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, THREATENED
ORT, THREATENED

Sheremet, then editor in chief of the biweekly Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta and a free-lancer for ORT, Russia's public television channel, was warned by Uladzimir Zamyatalin, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's deputy chief, that ORT's Minsk bureau would be closed if Sheremet's material were broadcast. The material was aired anyway. CPJ on Sept. 11 wrote to Lukashenka to express concern about the ongoing government crackdown on the media.

September 19
Svaboda, THREATENED, LEGAL ACTION

The State Committee for the Press, the body which grants Belarusian newspapers their licenses, informed the opposition newspaper Svaboda that it was in violation of the press law and began proceedings against the paper in a Minsk commercial court. The action stemmed from an article that ran under the headline "The Devil's Bible" on Sept. 17. The article, written by Alexander Starikevich, a correspondent for the Russian daily Izvestiya, allegedly libeled the Belarusian head of state and other officials. On Oct. 24, Ihar Hermenchuk, editor of Svaboda, was warned by the deputy public prosecutor that his newspaper might be suspended because of the article. The prosecutor threatened to take action if Svaboda committed similar violations within a year. CPJ appealed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on Nov. 18 to cease any further harassment of the press.

October 30
Brest Kuryer, THREATENED

The prosecutor of the Brest region issued an official warning to the newspaper Brest Kuryer on allegations of unspecified "incitement of social intolerance," a violation of Article 5 of the press law. The alleged violation was in connection with articles that were critical of Belarus' president. The warning noted that if the newspaper continued such violations, authorities would launch proceedings to close it. CPJ appealed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on Nov. 18 to cease any further harassment of the press.

November 13
Pavel Sheremet, ORT, THREATENED
Alexei Stupnikov, NTV, THREATENED

In a speech to the Belarusian Parliament, and again in television appearances Nov. 14 and Nov. 17, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called for the expulsion of Sheremet, the Minsk correspondent for ORT, Russia's public television channel, and Stupnikov, correspondent for NTV, Russia's independent television station. Lukashenka also threatened to ban Russian broadcasting in Belarusian territory. He claimed that the journalists were not accredited and denounced them as "enemies." Sheremet, who is also deputy editor of a leading independent newspaper, Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, is a native of Belarus. Stupnikov has permanent resident status in Belarus. Both have publicly displayed their accreditation from the Belarusian Interior Ministry. ORT and NTV ran shots of their press cards on Nov. 14. CPJ appealed to President Lukashenka on Nov. 18 to cease any further harassment of the press.

November 19
NTV, CENSORED
ORT, HARASSED, CENSORED

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree cutting off the transmission lines connecting the Russian public television channel ORT and the Russian independent channel NTV with Belarus. Lukashenka justified the move by saying that the Russian channels were not objective in their news coverage. The restrictions were removed later the same day. ORT earlier had been ordered by the Belarusian Television and Radio Co. to vacate the Minsk studio it rents from the company by Nov. 10. Local ORT correspondent Pavel Sheremet and his staff refused to leave the premises because ORT's contract was valid until Dec. 31. CPJ appealed to Lukashenka on Nov. 18 to cease any further harassment of the press.

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