A hundred or so journalists staged a "A Day of Closed Newspapers" on 19 September 2003 to stress their rights, which had been particularly abused during the year. The authorities suspended and punished a dozen newspapers over several months, mostly because they had printed articles from the banned independent newspaper Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG). Every administrative excuse was used to block publication of the independent press and several printers were punished and some sacked for working with the papers.
The regime also targeted human rights groups and shut down several organisations that gave valuable help to the media. It also refused to cooperate with international organisations which firmly criticised the worsening conditions and did not allow the press freedom representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Freimut Duve, into the country in September.
A new press law was drafted in secret and aimed to further reduce press freedom. Registration fees for newspapers and radio and TV stations rose sharply in June. The government presented a new law in mid-December requiring government employees to ask permission before giving any information to the media.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) gathered 7,000 signatures in its continuing campaign for defamation to be decriminalised and asked the constitutional court to rule on the legality of the criminal code’s articles 367 (defaming the president), 368 (insulting him) and 369 (insulting a government official), which provide for imprisonment. Three journalists served forced labour sentences in 2003 for writing or publishing things considered insulting to President Lukashenko. They were freed during the year.
New information on a journalist who disappeared in 2000
The body of Dmitri Zavadski, a cameraman for the Russian TV station ORT who disappeared in Minsk on 7 July 2000, had still not been found by the end of 2003. The authorities told his widow Svetlana in a 27 February letter that they were closing the investigation into his death because "the vanished person has not yet been found." She refused to accept this and demanded that the enquiry be reopened.
The UN Commission on Human Rights asked Belarus on 17 April to investigate the possible involvement of government officials in the disappearance of him and three politicians. A court declared on 28 November that Zavadski was officially dead and no longer had the status of a disappeared person even though his body had not been found. Christos Pourgourides, the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur on missing people in Belarus, said on 4 December he had not been allowed to meet those accused of killing Zavadski or meet a member of the interior ministry’s special police force. The prosecutor-general’s office reopened the enquiry on 10 December, simply citing "the need to continue investigations."
The Zavadski family’s lawyer, Ihar Aksionchyk, was dismissed from the case on 11 October 2002 and given an 18-month suspended prison sentence for "slandering an official." He had told journalists that former members of the prosecutor’s office had accused Viktor Sheyman, the prosecutor-general and right-hand man of President Lukashenko, of ordering the kidnap and murder of several opponents, including Zavadski.
The Belarus supreme court on 16 July 2002 upheld a life sentence on the former head of the interior ministry’s special police force, Valery Ignatovich, and one of his subordinates for Zavadski’s kidnapping and presumed murder and for killing five other people in 2000. The authorities said Ignatovich decided to kill Zavadski because of an article he had written in 2000 revealing that Ignatovich had joined independence fighters in Chechnya.
Zavadski was President Lukashenko’s personal cameraman until 1996, when he resigned from the government-run TV station without the agreement of the authorities and joined the Russian station ORT. He was imprisoned for two months with an ORT colleague in 1997 after reporting gaps in Belarus security along the country’s border with Lithuania.
Three journalists freed
A court in Osipovichi (south of Minsk) reduced an 18-month hard labour prison sentence on Mikola Markevich, editor of the independent regional paper Pagonya, on 4 March 2003 and allowed him to return to his home in Grodno (near the Polish border). He was ordered to get a job, hand over 15 % of his pay to the government for a year and report regularly to the authorities. He had begun his sentence on 1 September 2002 for allowing publication on 4 September 2001 of accusations that President Lukashenko was involved in the disappearance of regime opponents, including Zavadski. Since his release, he has been forbidden to leave the country.
On 21 March, a court in the southern town of Zhlobin freed "for good conduct" Pagonya journalist Pavel Mazheiko, who had been jailed for a year at hard labour, also on 1 September 2002, for criticising the president in a September 2001 article.
Viktor Ivaskevich, editor of the opposition newspaper Rabochy, was amnestied and freed on 16 December from a labour camp in Baranavichy (southwest of Minsk), where he had been serving a two-year sentence at hard labour since 16 December 2002 for libelling the president in an article in mid-2001 (in a special elections issue) headed "A thief’s place is in prison" and accusing Lukashenko of corruption.
Harassment and obstruction
Reception of the state-run Russian TV station RTR was cut off on 1 February 2003 in the towns of Braslav, Bragin, Zhlobin, Zhitovichi, Maisk, Slonim, Smorgon and Krichev. The authorities said they wanted to encourage local stations.
The information ministry suspended the independent regional weekly Vecherny Stolin for three months on 26 February after warning it twice on the two previous days about articles it said were an "incitement to social intolerance and harmed people’s dignity" and about changing without official notice the topics the paper covered. The articles, on 1 and 8 February, likened local officials to gangsters.
Sergey Rykov, of the student organisation ZUBR, was arrested on 28 February and held for six hours for distributing its paper in Minsk. ZUBR members Luba Kuchinskaya and Alexei Levkovich were arrested on 2 March, also for distributing it in Minsk.
Culture minister Leonid Guliako, visiting the main library in Orsha (near the Russian border) on 17 April, threatened to dismiss the staff if they continued to display independent newspapers such as BDG and Narodnaya Volya.
The state broadcasting commission seized the equipment of the independent local TV station Mogilev 2 on 23 April, preventing it from broadcasting, on grounds that it did not have proper "health certificates" for the equipment.
Information minister Mikhail Podgainy ordered the suspension for three months on 24 April of the independent regional weekly Pravinstsyalka, for changing its legal address and printing political articles without consulting the ministry and local authorities.
President Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree on 24 April proclaiming that state radio and TV stations were "state institutions under the president’s authority."
Marina Koktysh, of the independent daily Narodnaya Volya, was summoned on 29 April by prosecutor Stanislav Novikov for "a talk" about her infractions of the press law by quoting the statements of former Minsk tractor factory boss Mikhail Leonov during a trial.
Alexander Silich, also of Narodnaya Volya, was summoned on 13 May before prosecutor Novikov who, with an army officer, Col. Grigory Shostak, expressed disapproval of an April Fool’s Day joke article claiming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was planning to flee to Belarus.
A court in Mogilev (near the Russian border) refused on 19 May to register the new legal address of the independent regional weekly Volny Gorad, which prevented the paper itself from being legally registered. Editor Sergei Nerovny was refused leave to appeal.
Elena Daneiko, Minsk correspondent of the Russian daily Izvestia, was reprimanded on 27 May by foreign ministry press chief Andrei Savinykh for a 22 May article about problems between Russia and Belarus that he said discredited Belarus and gave a bad image of its relations with Russia. He told her that information minister Mikhail Podgainy had asked his Russian opposite number, Mikhail Lesin, to punish Izvestia and threatened to cancel Daneiko’s work permit in Belarus. A 23 May article in a Lukashenko-controlled paper, Sovietskaya Belorussia, said Daneiko’s report had been dictated by enemies of unity between the two countries and that the Russian government was afraid of President Lukashenko.
The information minister suspended the country’s main independent paper, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG) and its monthly supplement, BDG Dla Sluzhebnoho Polzovaniya, for three months on 28 May for breaking the press law. The daily had been warned several times about articles on links between Miss Russia (Svetlana Koroleva) and President Lukashenko, and on the trial of businessman Mikhail Leonov, who Lukashenko had accused of embezzling state funds. On 17 June, the commercial supreme court rejected the paper’s appeal against one warning by the ministry for allegedly undermining Lukashenko’s dignity and reputation. Several Belarus and Russian newspapers began publishing BDG articles in solidarity from 3 June and were themselves suspended or seized. BDG was allowed to reappear on 29 August, but since no printer in the country would touch it, it was forced to print in Smolensk (Russia). It only managed two issues a week instead of four and the weekly supplement stopped publishing. The paper also lost part of its advertising revenue.
The information ministry warned the twice-weekly satirical paper Navinki several times between 20 and 22 May for publishing an article about the press law and another headed "Attack on public morals," as well as two photos of Lukashenko accompanied by what it said was "an insulting comment." Editor Pauluk Kanavalchyk was ordered on 20 May to pay a fine of 700 euros for publishing "false news discrediting the president" in a 20 March article about Lukashenko and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The press distribution firm Belsajuzdruk refused on 3 June to handle the latest issue of the paper and its staff learned it had been suspended for three months. The commercial supreme court rejected the paper’s appeal against the fine on 23 July. No printer in Minsk would handle Navinki in mid-October.
Uladzimir Celesh, head of the state printing firm Krasnaya Zevzda, was sacked by the information ministry on 4 June for printing issues of the independent weeklies Ekho and Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta containing articles from the suspended BDG.
The same day, Ekho, which had only been able to bring out one issue since it was founded, was suspended as it was about to print articles from BDG. The information ministry gave the paper two warnings for changing its legal address, title and the subjects it covered without applying for new official registration. Celesh told the paper he was breaking the printing contract with it and that he could not print the paper for "technical reasons."
Information minister Mikhail Podgainy told all radio stations on 7 June they must submit the contents of all their programmes to the ministry every day so it could check for press law violations as required by a 24 September 2001 presidential decree on monitoring radio programme content.
The information ministry warned the independent weekly Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta on 19 June and suspended it for three months for a 9 June article criticising the sacking of the head of the Krasnaya Zevzda state printing firm for working with the suspended paper BDG and others that had reprinted its articles in solidarity. The ministry had given it an initial warning on 11 June, officially because it had changed its legal address and the subjects it covered. Police stopped a lorry at Dubrovno (near the Russian border) on the night of 10-11 June and seized (without a warrant) 15,000 copies of Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta that had been printed in Smolensk (Russia) and contained articles from BDG. Krasanaya Sevzda had broken off its printing contract on 4 June, officially for technical reasons.
The foreign ministry ordered the Russian TV station NTV to close its office in Minsk on 7 July and banned it from operating in Belarus after threatening to do so several days earlier. The ministry had deported its Minsk correspondent, Pavel Selin, on 28 June, cancelling his work permit and banning him from Belarus for five years. The ministry demanded a broadcast apology for what it said was a "biased" report on the funeral of writer Pavel Bykov, an opponent of President Lukashenko. Selin had said police had deliberately obstructed the 20,000-strong funeral procession and that Bykov’s widow’s permit to live in Minsk had been cancelled.
He also noted the display of the banned red and white national flag used at the time of independence in 1991 which has become a symbol of resistance to Lukashenko’s regime. Selin said he thought the authorities were especially annoyed that he had allowed Stanislav Shushkevich, the first leader of independent Belarus, to say in the report that Lukashenko was "afraid to come to the funeral."
The foreign ministry refused on 7 July to renew the accreditation of officials in Minsk of the US organisation IREX/Promedia (International Research and Exchanges Board), saying they were involved in "irregular" activities. The NGO organised training for journalists, provided free Internet access, hosted the websites of about 30 independent newspapers and supplied state and privately-owned media with archives, photos and written material. Its Minsk representative, Robert Ortega, said it was a political decision and part of the regime’s constant efforts to restrict press freedom. The organisation stopped operating on 7 August.
The authorities refused on 12 July to renew the accreditation in Belarus of the Internews Network, a US-funded media aid organisation.
The Slonim printing works cancelled its contract with the independent weekly Mestnaya Gazeta Shag on 18 July, the day after the paper had carried articles from the suspended BDG. Alexander Ladiata, head of the Nesvizh Symon Budny printing firm, said on 28 July he had lost his job because he had agreed to print an issue of the paper three days earlier. The information ministry warned the paper on 16 September about violating publication standards. Editor Alexander Voitsekhovsky was summoned by the Baranavichy prosecutor’s office three times between 1 September and 16 October to explain why he had printed articles from BDG.
The cultural weekly Solidarnost, in Soligorsk (south of Minsk), was fined 2,000 euros on 13 August, officially for breaking advertising rules. The information ministry and the state control commission (which can investigate violations of any law) opened an enquiry into the paper in June after it printed articles from BDG on 3 June. The state printing firm refused on 11 June to print the paper because it again contained articles from BDG.
The independent weekly Region-Vesti was notified on 18 August by the Titul printing works in the Gomel region that it would not be handling the paper after 14 September, officially because it could not technically print the calendars put out by the paper. Editor Mikolai Pasedzka said the move was the authorities’ response to articles criticising local officials.
A Minsk court on 23 September ordered liquidation of the firm LLC Mestnoye Vremya Press, publishers of the weekly Mestnoye Vremya, saying the paper had filed its legal address with the authorities too late. On 16 April, it had won a court decision obliging the information ministry to register it again after the ministry had on 26 November 2002 cancelled its registration, saying that the paper’s new address had not been legalised, even though the law does not call for such a heavy penalty. The paper, launched in early November 2002, only managed to publish three issues.
The information ministry suspended the independent regional weekly Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni on 2 October "until it set up an editorial office." A court in Smorgon (in the Grodno region, near the Polish border) had fined editor Nikolai Slizh 130 euros on 24 April and ordered confiscation of all the paper’s sales revenue. The authorities accused it of failing to register properly.
Slizh, titular editor since founder-editor Ramuald Ulan had been deprived of his licence, had not managed to register himself with the authorities. The Grodno regional commercial court confirmed on appeal on 26 February its decision of 3 February to suspend Ulan’s commercial licence, accusing him of breaking labour, tax and fire safety laws in 2000 and 2002.
A Minsk court ordered the independent daily Narodnaya Volya on 17 November to pay 50 million rubles (20,000 euros) damages to the head of the state-run TV station, Yahor Rybakov. Journalists Marina Koktysh, of Narodnaya Volya, and Eleonora Yazerskaya, a former state TV presenter, were each fined 3 million rubles (1,200 euros). Rybakov complained about an October 2001 interview with Yazerskaya in the paper.
The Svetach printing firm refused in late November to print the independent weekly Den, which had just been relaunched by the former editor of the closed newspaper Pagonya, Mikolai Markevich, and his team. Den had managed to get registered again by the information ministry on 5 November.