Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 2002 - Belarus

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2003
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2002 - Belarus, February 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5665528.html [accessed 20 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.

In May 2002, CPJ named Belarus one of the world's 10 worst places to be a journalist, highlighting the stifling repression of Europe's most authoritarian regime. The rest of the year brought more bad news for the country's besieged but strong-willed private media, with President Aleksandr Lukashenko tightening his grip on power while the economy floundered. Using a broad arsenal of weapons, Lukashenko carried out an unprecedented assault against the independent and opposition press.

Though criminal libel laws have been in effect since 1999, officials used the statutes for the first time in 2002, specifically targeting those journalists who had dared to criticize Lukashenko's successful, but controversial, fall 2001 re-election. Three journalists with independent newspapers – Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika of Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevich of Rabochy – received corrective labor sentences for libeling the president in pre-election articles. At year's end, all three were serving their terms.

During the second half of 2002, criminal cases were launched against an opposition politician for libeling the president in a published statement; against a woman for distributing anti-Lukashenko flyers; and against a journalist with the daily Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta for criticizing Belarus' prosecutor general. Meanwhile, a former lawyer for the mother of disappeared cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky received a one-and-a-half-year prison sentence for libeling the prosecutor general.

In September, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a prominent local nongovernmental organization, launched a campaign to repeal criminal libel clauses and even submitted a proposal to the Chamber of Representatives, the Parliament's lower house. The legislators, however, voted against placing the proposal on the agenda.

Politically motivated civil libel lawsuits, with exorbitant fines, also debilitated the media during 2002. In August, the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda was convicted of libeling the chairman of the State Control Committee and fined 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$55,000). Unable to pay, the publication was forced to close.

Local journalists told CPJ about more subtle financial pressures used to harass the independent press. During an October research mission to Belarus, CPJ found that nonstate media face financial discrimination. For example, according to local journalists, government officials pressure some advertisers not to buy space in publications that criticize Lukashenko and his regime. Government officials also regularly encourage companies to pull advertising and threaten them with audits should they fail to do so.

State publications received subsidies and other financial breaks that helped them weather escalating costs in 2002. The Belarusian postal service, Belpochta, which distributes almost all of the country's print media, increased newspaper delivery rates. That charge fell only on independent outlets, as did a new 5 percent tax levied in September by the Minsk City Council of Deputies.

In 2002, several independent newspapers – including Belaruskaya Maladzyozhnaya, Rabochy, Den, and Tydnyovik Mahilyouski – unable to shoulder the financial bur- dens, halted operation. In June, lack of money forced the private radio station Radyjo Racyja off the air.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko moved to strengthen state television – already an official mouthpiece. He announced the creation of the Second National Channel (BT-2), to join the existing First National Channel (ONT), as well as measures to bolster Stolichnoye Televideniye (Capital Television). Lukashenko also reduced the amount of broadcast time allocated for the hugely popular Russian television networks, ostensibly for financial reasons. But observers say the government has been displeased with Russian television, which frequently portrays Lukashenko and his administration negatively.

The July 2000 disappearance of Russian cameraman Zavadsky continues to evoke local and international outrage and serve as a chilling reminder of the scope of human rights abuses in Belarus. Although two former members of Belarus' elite Almaz special forces unit were convicted in 2002 of kidnapping the journalist, state prosecutors failed to investigate allegations that senior government officials may have been involved. In hopes of finding the mastermind behind the disappearance, the Zavadsky family has appealed the convictions. Although their appeal was initially rejected, the Prosecutor General's Office reopened the Zavadsky case in December.

March 24
Viktor Tolochko, ITAR-TASS HARASSED
Vasily Fedosenko, Reuters HARASSED

Tolochko, an ITAR-TASS photographer and Fedosenko, a Reuters photographer, were harassed when police violently dispersed an illegal opposition rally in the capital, Minsk. According to local and Russian reports, Fedosenko was forced into a police bus, and officers tore up his accreditation card and his plane ticket to Afghanistan, where he was headed for his next assignment. Meanwhile, police smashed Tolochko's camera. Most detainees were released soon after, including the journalists.

April 26
NTV HARASSED

The Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry denied accreditation to a film crew from NTV, a Moscow-based Russian television network. The crew had already arrived in the country's capital, Minsk, from Moscow. NTV's Minsk bureau explained that they needed a second television crew in Minsk so one could cover President Aleksandr Lukashenko's upcoming trip to the areas of Belarus polluted by the Chernobyl catastrophe while the second covered the traditional opposition rally known as "The Chernobyl Route." The ministry did not comment on its decision.

August 2
Mikhail Padalyak, Nasha Svaboda LEGAL ACTION
Nasha Svaboda LEGAL ACTION

The Minsk-based independent thrice-weekly Nasha Svaboda and its reporter, Padalyak, were convicted of defamation by Minsk's Moskovsky District Court, which fined the publication 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$55,000) and ordered Padalyak to pay a 5 million Belarusian ruble (US$2,700) fine.

The court also ordered Nasha Svaboda to pay for a retraction to be printed in the state newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya and in Respublika, a Council of Ministers publication. The lawsuit – filed by Anatol Tozik, chairman of the State Control Committee – came after Nasha Svaboda published a July 16 article alleging that Tozik had complained to Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko about Prosecutor General Viktar Sheiman's professional conduct.

The lawsuit was filed days after Lukashenko publicly announced his distaste for what he called the media's attempts to "discredit highest-level officials" with "false information" and the president's desire to punish those who "disseminate" these "distorted facts." In 1999, Nasha Svaboda's predecessor, Naviny, closed after the same court levied an excessive fine against the publication of US$50,000 in a defamation lawsuit filed by Prosecutor General Sheiman, who was at that time head of the Security Council.

August 31
ORT CENSORED

Belarusian authorities banned the Russian network ORT (currently renamed Pervy Kanal), which broadcasts in Belarus on the First National Channel, from airing a film titled "The Wild Hunt-2" in Belarus. The film was made by Pavel Sheremet, former head of ORT's Minsk bureau and a colleague and friend of disappeared ORT cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. "The Wild Hunt-2" alleges government involvement in the disappearances of Zavadsky and opposition politicians in Belarus. While ORT's Russian audience saw the film, the Belarusian First National Channel aired another program.

September 1
Mikola Markevich, Pahonya IMPRISONED
Paval Mazheika, Pahonya IMPRISONED

Markevich and Mazheika, both of the independent weekly newspaper Pahonya, were convicted on June 24, 2002, by the Leninsky District Court in the city of Hrodna, in western Belarus, of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The journalists were sentenced to two-and-a-half and two years, respectively, of corrective labor. The case stemmed from two September 2001 editions of Pahonya that criticized the president ahead of the widely disputed September 9, 2001, presidential elections.

The sentences were later reduced to 18 months for Markevich and 12 months for Mazheika. They began serving their corrective labor terms on September 1, 2002. The two men live in detention centers under police supervision and perform compulsory labor. They were the first journalists convicted under a criminal libel law passed in 1999, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison for libeling the president.

During a 10-day research mission to Belarus in the fall of 2002, CPJ visited both journalists and brought them supplies and also lobbied the government for their releases. In August 2002, Markevich reported that the Hrodna City Executive Council had denied a petition to register his new publication, Holos. Previously, Markevich had submitted four other prospective newspapers for the council's approval, all of which were denied.

September 20
Irina Khalip, For Official Use LEGAL ACTION

The Prosecutor's Office in the capital, Minsk, initiated a criminal libel case against Khalip, a journalist with For Official Use, the supplement of the leading daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. The case stemmed from an article published in the supplement alleging that Belarusian prosecutor general Viktor Sheiman was involved in a bribery scheme. The case was ongoing at year's end.

September 24
Andrei Pachobut, Pahonya HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Iryna Charnyauka, Pahonya HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Andrei Maleshka, Pahonya HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

Beginning in late September, Maleshka, Pachobut, Charnyauka, and other staff of Pahonya were regularly summoned to the local police office and questioned about the newspaper's online version. After the Belarusian High Economic Court shuttered Pahonya in November 2001 for libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Pahonya's staff continued to post an online version of the publication.

In September 2002, the Hrodna Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation into Pahonya's online activities, accusing the newspaper of illegally distributing printed materials. However, the journalists contend that because Belarusian law does not regulate Internet publications, it is illegal to prosecute them as regular media outlets.

October 30
Mykhailo Kolomyets, Ukrainski Novyny KILLED (Motive unconfirmed)

The body of Kolomyets, co-owner and director of the Kyiv, Ukraine­based Ukrainski Novyny news agency, was found on October 30 hanging from a tree in a forest in northwestern Belarus, near the city of Maladzechna, according to Ukrainski Novyny.

Kolomyets' colleagues said that they reported the journalist missing on October 28, after he had failed to come to work a week earlier. According to Ukrainian police, the journalist had traveled to neighboring Belarus on October 22. Lyubov Ruban, a friend of Kolomyets', said that the journalist called her that day and informed her that he was planning to commit suicide.

Although Kolomyets had received no known threats for his work, colleagues say that the journalist may have been targeted because of the agency's reputation for independent reporting, or because of the large financial stake he held in the company. Ukrainian authorities are investigating the case.

November 26
Mestnoye Vremya HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

The Belarusian Information Ministry rescinded the independent weekly Mestnoye Vremya's registration and blocked its bank accounts. Mestnoye Vremya had begun publishing on November 1, 2002. Days later, the Minsk District Executive Committee annulled a decision allowing the newspaper to rent editorial offices where it was then based. This decision made it possible for the Information Ministry to rescind the registration for a regulation violation because the editorial address published on the newspaper's pages and its actual address were different. At year's end, the newspaper was suing the Minsk District Executive Committee and demanding that its registration be reinstated.

December 16
Viktar Ivashkevich, Rabochy IMPRISONED

Ivashkevich, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Rabochy, was convicted by a court in the capital, Minsk, of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko and sentenced to two years' hard labor. Under Belarus' Criminal Code, libeling the president is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The case stemmed from an article in a special August 2001 issue of the newspaper titled "A Thief Belongs in Prison," which accused Lukashenko's administration of corruption. Rabochy's special issue never reached its readers because prosecutors seized 40,000 copies of it and submitted them as evidence in the case.

A Minsk District Prosecutor's Office charged Ivashkevich with criminal libel almost a year later, on June 20, 2002.

The journalist's trial began on September 11, 2002, and he was convicted five days later, on September 16. Ivashkevich appealed the verdict, but on October 15, the Criminal Cases Collegium of the Minsk City Court upheld his sentence. In early December, prosecutors rejected a request by the journalist to serve his corrective labor in Minsk. On December 16, he left the capital for Baranovichy, a city 85 miles (136 kilometers) southwest of Minsk, where he is serving his term.

During a 10-day research mission to Belarus in the fall of 2002, CPJ met with Ivashkevich to discuss his case, his publication's dire financial situation, and press freedom conditions in Belarus.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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