Squeezed by the expansion of NATO and the European Union to the west and tepid relations with Russia to the east, Belarus grew ever more isolated. In the face of that isolation, President Aleksandr Lukashenko continued his assault on the media in 2003, tightening his grip on the impoverished country. Local analysts suspect that Lukashenko's ironfisted approach to the media is an attempt to stifle criticism of his political allies in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2004, thus ensuring passage of an amendment to the constitution that would allow him to extend his term in office.

Belarus' obedient state media supported Lukashenko's authoritarian policies by discrediting political opponents and arguing that political and media restrictions are necessary to maintain political stability. Loyal judges and security officials punished journalists who questioned state policies, and the politicized bureaucracy charged excessive fees to print and distribute independent newspapers, while channeling budget subsidies, discounts, and tax privileges to the state-run media.

Though criminal libel laws have been in effect since 1999, officials used the statutes for the first time in 2002, targeting journalists who criticized Lukashenko's fraudulent re-election in 2001. Three journalists with independent newspapers – Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika of Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevich of Rabochy – received corrective labor sentences in 2002 for libeling the president in 2001 in pre-election articles.

Markevich and Mazheika received court-granted early releases in March 2003 after each had served the first six months of their two-and-a-half- and two-year sentences, respectively. Ivashkevich was amnestied in December after serving the first year of his sentence at a corrective labor facility. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists continued its campaign to decriminalize libel to no avail.

Politically motivated civil libel lawsuits resulting in exorbitant fines have debilitated the media, forcing some outlets, such as the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda, to close. In early 2003, the newspapers Vecherny Stolin and Provintsyyalka in the western Brest Region were suspended for allegedly libeling local government officials ahead of the March local elections. Both papers remained embroiled in libel lawsuits for much of the year.

In late May, the popular Minsk daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG) was suspended for three months after it received three warnings from the Information Ministry for allegedly defaming Lukashenko and improperly publishing information about court proceedings. BDG's attempts to appeal the suspension were rejected, and independent Belarusian publications that later printed BDG articles in their pages were harassed and in some cases suspended. The Moscow-based twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta published BDG for a time, and it finally resumed publication in Belarus in September.

Tense relations between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin over a stalled union proposal (Lukashenko wants a union of two equal states and Putin wants a union in which Belarus is subordinate to Russia) led Lukashenko's government to restrict public access to state-run Russian television and radio broadcasts, one of the few remaining sources of independent news in the country.

In June, the government expelled Pavel Selin, a Minsk correspondent for the Russian NTV television network, because he reported that authorities had interfered with the funeral procession of the celebrated pro-democracy Belarusian author Vasil Bykau. Selin, who has been officially declared persona non grata and banned from entering Belarus for five years, returned to Moscow. In early July, the Belarusian Council of Ministers closed NTV's Minsk bureau.

Belarusian authorities also cracked down on U.S. government-funded organizations providing assistance to local media. In July, the Foreign Ministry refused to extend the accreditations of the International Research and Exchanges Board and Internews Network, forcing them to close their Minsk offices and ending their media training programs.

Lukashenko raised the specter of yet another crackdown on the press when he announced plans to create an autocratic state ideology during his state-of-the-union address in April. The ideology would rely on the media to permeate every aspect of society and act as the "immunity system that protects society from internal and external threats." In the summer and fall, he continued to elaborate on plans to restore Soviet-style propaganda through the media, college lecturers, and a network of state propaganda organizations.

Lukashenko also called for a more repressive new Mass Media Law to punish independent media outlets that do not fit his "ideological" vision. He said that the legislation "should block those that want to manipulate the public opinion and intentionally misinform the population," and that he is "deeply convinced that journalism is a state-oriented profession."

The draft Mass Media Law was kept secret for much of 2003. Copies obtained by journalists in the fall revealed that it would simplify government procedures to shutter media outlets and expand the law's coverage to news Web sites, which have become an alternative source of information and opinion for Belarusians. The law awaited approval by Parliament at year's end.

The July 2000 disappearance of Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky continues to evoke local and international outrage and serves as a chilling reminder of the serious threats that journalists face. Although two former members of Belarus' elite Almaz special forces unit were convicted in 2002 of kidnapping Zadavsky, state prosecutors have failed to investigate allegations that senior government officials may have been involved. CPJ has repeatedly called for an independent international investigation of this case.

In late November 2003, a court in Minsk declared Zavadsky dead at the request of his widow, Svetlana. In mid-December, prosecutors announced they had reopened the Zavadsky investigation about 48 hours before the Council of Europe, a pan-Europe human rights monitoring organization, released a report alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the journalist's disappearance and its subsequent cover-up.

2003 Documented Cases – Belarus

SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
Posted: October 28, 2003

Alyaksandr Yaroshuk, Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions

Yaroshuk, president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, was sentenced to 10 days in prison for writing an article in the August 21 edition of the Minsk-based independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya that criticized the government.

The Leninsky District Court, in the capital, Minsk, convicted Yaroshuk of "contempt of court" because his article criticized a Supreme Court decision ordering the disbandment of the country's air-traffic controllers' union.

In his article, Yaroshuk branded the Supreme Court hearing that shut down the union "a show with a predetermined end" and "an insult."

On September 28, Yaroshuk was released from prison. A few days later, he published an open letter to Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko in the October 10 edition of Narodnaya Volya arguing that he was jailed for "divergent thinking."

NOVEMBER 28, 2003
Posted: June 7, 2004

Dmitry Zavadsky, ORT

Zavadsky, 29, a kidnapped cameraman with the Russian public television network ORT, was officially declared dead by a district court in the capital, Minsk. According to local press reports, the cameraman's widow, Svetlana Zavadskaya, initiated the judicial process in October 2003. Zavadsky's body was never recovered following his abduction.

The journalist was reported missing after he failed to keep a scheduled late-morning rendezvous on July 7, 2003, with his longtime colleague and friend Pavel Sheremet at the airport in Minsk.

Local media reported that Zavadsky had been seen inside the airport not long before Sheremet's flight arrived from Moscow. Zavadsky's car was later found locked and parked outside the airport building. A search for the journalist by local police and officials from the local prosecutor's office turned up no clues.

Sheremet, a former ORT bureau chief in Minsk who now heads the station's special projects department in Moscow, had recently traveled to Chechnya with Zavadsky to shoot "The Chechen Diary," a four-part documentary about the war there. CPJ sources in Belarus suspect that Zavadsky was abducted because he had footage that showed Belarusian security agents fighting alongside Chechen rebel forces.

Sheremet and Zavadsky's wife told reporters that shortly after Zavadsky returned from Chechnya, he began receiving phone calls from an unknown man who insisted on a meeting.

Zavadsky was President Aleksandr Lukashenko's personal cameraman until 1996. During the summer of 1997, local police detained Sheremet and Zavadsky while they were filming a documentary about smuggling between Belarus and Lithuania. They later received a suspended sentence for alleged illegal border crossing.

Sheremet has repeatedly accused Belarusian intelligence agents of being involved in Zavadsky's disappearance. Although investigators have publicly rejected this theory, Sheremet claims they do not rule it out in private. The Belarusian prosecutor's office has "cautiously hinted that former agents of the Belarus secret services, along with some of their Russian counterparts, might have been involved," Sheremet told the local news agency BelaPAN.

Senior Belarus officials, including Acting Interior Minister Mikhail Udovikov, have hinted that Zavadsky's disappearance may have resulted from his pro-Russian coverage of the war in Chechnya. They have also suggested that the journalist was kidnapped, either by his ORT colleagues, including Sheremet, or by members of the local opposition.

In addition to the threatening phone calls Zavadsky had received before his disappearance, two men were spotted trailing the journalist near his apartment building on the day he disappeared, Zavadsky's neighbors told police. The police commissioned artist sketches of the alleged stalkers but refused to release them. In early August 2000, police also collected samples of Zavadsky's hair from his family for testing without explaining the purpose of the tests.

Later that month, police classified Zavadsky's disappearance as a premeditated crime and announced they had identified five suspects. The primary suspect, a leader of the Belarusian branch of the ultraright Russian National Unity movement named Valery Ignatovich, was in prison by the end of 2000. Police ruled out the theory that Belarusian security agents had been involved in the crime.

On November 20, 2000, local independent media had received an unsigned e-mail from a person who identified himself as an officer of the Belarus State Security Committee involved in the Zavadsky investigation. The writer claimed that nine suspects had been arrested, seven of whom were either current or former officers of the Presidential Security Service, and that the suspects had confessed to killing Zavadsky and had named the place where his body was buried. According to the e-mail, the investigators had also found a shovel stained with Zavadsky's blood.

Additionally, the e-mail claimed that President Lukashenko refused to allow investigators to exhume the body, and that the case was later transferred from the Prosecutor's Office to the Interior Ministry to sabotage the investigation.

The next day, the Belarusian State Security Council denounced the allegations, while Lukashenko blamed Zavadsky's disappearance on Chechen kidnappers. At the same time, Sheremet told BelaPAN he believed that the information from the anonymous e-mailer might be trustworthy, while local sources told CPJ that they had received similar information from other anonymous sources close to the investigation.

A week after the e-mail was made public, Lukashenko fired four senior aides: his adviser on security issues, the chairman of the Security Council, the prosecutor general, and the head of the State Security Committee. Lukashenko claimed that the four men had been plotting a coup and had abducted Zavadsky in an effort to compromise the president.

Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov promised to resolve the case no later than January 2001. Local observers questioned the integrity of the investigation, however, given that Naumov once headed the special police unit, Almaz, some of whose members were suspected of being involved in the crime.

On March 14, 2002, two former Almaz members, Valery Ignatovich and Maxim Malik, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for abducting Zavadsky. Prosecutors argued that Ignatovich and Malik kidnapped the journalist in reprisal for an interview he had given to the Minsk-based Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta during which he alleged that certain unnamed Belarusians had fought with Chechen rebels against Russian forces.

The trial was held behind closed doors in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Journalists were only allowed into the courtroom for the reading of the sentence.

Zavadsky's lawyer and family said the trial failed to examine credible allegations that Belarusian authorities were also involved in the abduction. Sergei Tsurko, a lawyer for Zavadsky's family, claims that Ignatovich and Malik are scapegoats and that real responsibility lies with the Belarusian government.

On March 25, 2002, the missing cameraman's relatives filed a petition with the Belarusian Supreme Court, claiming that prosecutors had not sufficiently proven that Ignatovich and Malik were responsible for kidnapping Zavadsky. The petition urged further investigation into Zavadsky's abduction and his subsequent fate.

In June 2002, two former employees of the Prosecutor General's Office, Dmitry Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchek, who had alleged that President Lukashenko had derailed the investigation because of evidence linking a government-led death squad to Zavadsky's murder, were granted asylum in the United States.

Zavadsky's colleague Pavel Sheremet and local opposition groups have supported these claims.

The U.S. State Department has also publicly validated Petrushkevich and Sluchek's claims. "We think these revelations are important," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a June 19, 2002, press briefing.

Two weeks later, on July 3, 2002, Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and other U.S. officials met with Petrushkevich and Sluchek to discuss Zavadsky's disappearance and several other cases in which Belarusian individuals were allegedly murdered for political reasons, Agence France-Presse reported.

On November 28, 2003, a district court in Minsk declared Zavadsky officially dead. Judge Nataliya Andreyeva spent several hours examining evidence presented by the Public Prosecutor's Office that the ORT cameraman had died after his abduction and then officially changed Zavadsky's status from missing to dead.

"This was done for property-related reasons so that my apartment can be registered in my name," Zavadskaya told CPJ. "I still want to find out the truth about my husband and what happened to him."

The Public Prosecutor's Office ended its investigation into the Zavadsky case in January 2003, claiming they had pursued all available leads in the cameraman's disappearance.

On December 10, 2003, prosecutors announced they had reopened the investigation about 48 hours before the Council of Europe, a pan-Europe human rights monitoring organization, released a report alleging that high-level government officials were involved in the journalist's disappearance and its subsequent cover-up.

However, Ivan Branchel, deputy head of the prosecutor's Organized Crime and Corruption Department, sent a letter to Zavadskaya in early April 2004 informing her that the case was closed on March 31, 2004, said the Minsk-based human rights group Charter 97.

Authorities have refused to give Zavadskaya information about the investigation, which relatives of victims are authorized to obtain under Belarus law, said Zavadskaya.

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