Belarus30 April 2002
Keeping the Public Informed: A Status Report on Attacks against Freedom of the Press in Belarus
April 2002 - Survey led by Alexandre Lévy - Jean-Christophe Menet
Will 2002 mark the starting point of a détente in the battle for freedom of information?
For several years, Reporters without Borders [Reporters sans frontières (RSF)] has considered the status of press freedom in the Republic of Belarus as an example of one of the worst situations in the world today. The fact that Belarus still maintains a Soviet-type regime despite the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the totalitarian abuse that has typified President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime since 1996 and the country’s alienation from the international arena, have precluded any significant improvement in the situation. The Republic of Belarus is the only state on the European continent that is neither a member, nor "guest" country of the Council of Europe, while the Ukraine and Russia joined the Pan-European organization in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Moreover, the general lack of interest in this country of only ten million inhabitants, of which one fourth of the population was decimated in World War II, and which, more recently, was particularly impacted by the Chernobyl disaster (23% of its territory was contaminated, as compared to just 5% of the Ukraine), has further alienated Belarus.
Today, the freedom of information issue is a key factor for any potential development of democracy in Belarus. Despite the fact that the country’s principal media-the State television channel and the largest-circulation daily press-are under direct State control, an independent opposition press, financial press, popular press, and regional press have managed to grow. Press staff members constantly have to deal with State-run printing and distribution monopolies, government pressures on advertisers, subsidies reserved for State-controlled media, and a ban on foreign financing. In addition, they are always the target of a variety of intimidation measures. The case involving the disappearance of cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky, in 2000, strongly affected the journalist community, inasmuch as the March 2002 trial of the journalist’s alleged murderers did not attempt to shed all possible light on the exact circumstances of his abduction, and a great many questions about this case remain unresolved. The presidential elections of September 2001 were, moreover, preceded by a multitude of pressures of all sorts that were brought to bear on those publications most critical of the government.
Since then, the Belarus authorities have announced reforms that will affect the news sector, and, in particular, the creation of a second national television channel that will not be State-controlled and the passing of a new Press Law, the content of which was the subject of discussions in January 2002 between the Minister of Information and the Commission on Science, Culture and Education of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. From 2 to 8 March, a Reporters without Borders’ delegation met in Minsk with leaders of the opposition press, as well as with the Minister of Information and prominent officials working closely with the government. These meetings confirmed the importance attributed by all parties in the dialogue initiated with Europe to questions involving freedom of information.
Belarus has never been a member of the Council of Europe, and its "special guest" status with the Parliamentary Assembly, which had been extended on the expectation that the country would join, was suspended in 1997. Yet the Council of Europe appears to be the organization best suited to help the country move toward adopting democratic standards in respect of freedom of the press. Relations between Minsk and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)-the only Pan-European organization of which Belarus is still a member-have, indeed, become even more strained since the 2001 presidential election campaign. Government officials accuse the organization of working to overturn the regime, refuse to let the head of OSCE’s local Belarus mission return to the country, and are requesting that its mission office in Minsk be closed. At the same time, Belarus authorities are stating that they want to initiate information-related reforms while maintaining control over the process, yet demonstrating that they are open-somewhat-to the Council of Europe’s requests. It is also anticipated that the Belarusian Parliament will, in the near future, deliberate on the capital punishment moratorium requested by the Council.
Based upon the testimonies gathered in Minsk by Reporters without Borders, the purpose of this report is to describe the general status of the media landscape in Belarus, to list the main attacks that have been made on freedom of information and to outline the prospects opened up by reforms that may be implemented within the framework of a dialogue with European organizations. This information has compelled Reporters without Borders to urge the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly to intensify its discussions with Belarus officials on issues pertaining to freedom of information, to support the development of a free and pluralistic press, and to lay down clear-and specific-conditions pertaining to freedom of information in order to re-establish more formal relations between Belarus and the Council of Europe.
Status of the Belarus Media:
A Singular Landscape
The national Belarus television network, which consists of a single channel directly controlled by the State, does not allow for any plurality of information. One thousand periodicals are currently registered with the Ministry of Information, which includes many government agency-related institutional publications, "Deputy Regional Councils," public associations, State-owned businesses, kolkhoz (collective farms) and other scientific and educational establishments. However, just twenty-odd national and regional weekly and daily publications are in the general news press category. Among them, only one-controlled by the presidential regime-accounts for over half of the total print run of all daily and weekly papers published in the country. The so-called opposition press, which must constantly deal with a long line of discriminatory measures, cannot-even taking into account its circulation on all titles combined-match the total circulation of the largest State-controlled daily newspaper.
This singular landscape, however, should not deter observers from being aware of the diversity of media that exists today in Belarus, and the improving demand that some of them are experiencing.
The State’s television monopoly and its dwindling audience:
The power of Russian television channels
The sole national Belarus television channel, BT 1, is totally controlled by the State. The Belarusians are nonetheless free to watch, and certainly do so in massive numbers, all of the major national Russian channels-ORT, RTR, NTV, etc. The most affluent can also subscribe to cable TV for $US 18 to 20 per month and thereby get the leading international channels. In some areas of Minsk, some international channels can even be picked up without any subscription. However, in more remote areas, only Russian channels and the State channel can be accessed. Numerous cities and regions have their own television channels, most often via cable, but these only broadcast entertainment shows or local news.
The Belarus national television channel, BT 1, by the very admission of those with close ties to the government, is not "up to par." Old black-and-white Soviet movies, history shows and folklore-type entertainment are offered between news broadcasts and a few daily news breaks. Old-fashioned, not to say boring, BT 1 gives the precedence to news related to the initiatives of government representatives such as, and primarily, the President, and gets poor ratings. It is the Russian television channels that are filling this void of Russian language programming, led by ORT, the "top channel" in Belarus households. They have an enormous influence over the local population. Not only do Belarusians watch the entertainment shows and movies transmitted non-stop over Russian channels, but also their talk shows, political debates and news programmes. "ORT can easily mould the political future of this country" commented a Western diplomat based in Minsk. Consequently, the implicit support demonstrated by Russian TV channels for Alexander Lukashenko, prior to the September 2001 elections. played a decisive role in his victory. "This was part of a deal struck with the owners of these channels, industry entrepreneurs who also happen to be close to the Kremlin: the support of their media in exchange for a foothold on the Belarus market," revealed an analyst from Minsk. "But Lukashenko has been somewhat slow to fulfil his promises, which explains the recent change of tune in relations with him." In fact, several Belarus observers are pointing to ORT’s increasingly critical attitude toward the President. For example, early in 2002, he was interviewed in a very harsh style by the host of a very popular ORT program. "It was the first time that Belarusian TV viewers ever saw their president treated that way." This change of tune could also be explained by the softening of Russo-American relations in the wake of the September 11 attack, and by the Kremlin’s desire to disassociate itself-at least in appearance-from a "hoodlum" State, to paraphrase the American expression.
A mastodon at the President’s service
Sovietskaya Belarus ("Soviet Belarus"), with its 330,000 copies, is undoubtedly the heavyweight of the country’s daily press. It is directly owned by an association consisting of members of the presidential administration. The State is its sole shareholder. It is the only newspaper to be distributed throughout the Belarus territory, even in the most remote villages and countryside. All of the country’s official administrations and institutions subscribe to Sovietskaya Belarus, including State-owned businesses and libraries. The newspaper is printed in the State Press Centre and shipped by the national post office network at reduced rates. Additionally, its purchase price-its subscription price, in particular-is lower than that of the opposition newspapers, whose managers are often accusing it of "unfair competition." Sovietskaya Belarus benefits from spot ads on the national television channel and poster campaigns in major cities. The newspaper has three supplemented editions, one for the outlying regions, one for the city of Minsk (with superior news content and print quality, as compared to the others) and one Sunday edition. Most of the Belarus’ State-owned businesses, as well as a few Russian companies, regularly buy advertising space in this newspaper.
Sovietskaya Belarus’s editor-in-chief, Pavel Yakubovich conceals neither his very close ties with the head of the country, nor the primary purpose of his publication: to serve the interests of the Belarus Presidency. Thus, on the eve of the September 2001 elections that led to the re-election of President Lukashenko for his third term, Yakubovitch mobilized his entire team of some fifty journalists so as to provide the best media coverage of the campaign conducted by the outgoing president. Sovietskaya Belarus therefore faithfully reported the President’s every move and exerted its influence to discredit opposition candidates and the initiatives of Belarus human rights activists. Even if, behind closed doors, Yakubovitch admits his commitment to the democratic values applicable in Western Europe, and considers that the place and future of Belarus are, indeed, in a broader Union, his newspaper is radically opposed to OSCE’s presence in Belarus: "Our country is different from other ex-communist nations in that it is undergoing a peaceful and progressive transition devoid of ethnic clashes or major social upheavals. Why prolong the presence of the OSCE here? We are not in the Balkans!" Yakubovitch considers his newspaper to be one endowed with an "educational" and "cultural" mission. "We want Sovietskaya Belarus to serve as a genuine vector for culture and literature in our country; we want our citizens to continue to read and educate themselves."
Needless to say, Sovietskaya Belarus, unlike opposition newspapers, has not experienced printing and distribution problems. This newspaper does not have to deal with monthly tax audits, or judicial or administrative harassment from the authorities. In early March, however, a complaint was filed against the newspaper by the Chairman of the Belarus Helsinki Committee, Mrs. Tatiana Protko, who, during the electoral campaign, read an article-much to her surpriseæthat quoted excerpts from her private conversations with OSCE representatives in Minsk. "These were a series of conversations of a strictly private and confidential nature that I had over the phone and in the office of the head of the OSCE mission in Minsk," she said. "Someone probably recorded them in order to compromise me, and even more importantly, the OSCE. So I decided to sue the newspaper for invasion of privacy." Yakubovitch, who obviously feels uncomfortable on the subject, also explained "Yes, this document from the Belarusian State Security Council was, in fact, passed on to me. The information that it contained was clearly acquired in a somewhat underhanded way, but that was none of my business. As the manager of the largest-circulation government newspaper, I am legally obligated to publish all official documents that I receive... I did so, along with a brief explanation of how this information was obtained and where it came from." Would he have published this information if he had not been "legally obligated" to do so? "Personally, no," answered the editor-in-chief, "because I feel that such practices contribute to a very negative image of our country. But do I have a choice? I am just an underling. If I had owned Sovietskaya Belarus, I would have changed many things in this newspaperæits name, to begin with, which is too reminiscent of the Soviet Union, but such is not the case."
"Countering propaganda with tougher propaganda"
The Narodnaya Volya daily
The Narodnaya Volya daily, headed by Iosif Syaredzich, former editor-in-chief of the parliamentary journal, is considered one of the most "critical" of the country’s half-dozen opposition newspapers. Narodnaya Volya, which has a circulation of 37,000, and its managing editor are thus the subject of at least two libel suits and have received numerous warnings from the State Press Committee. On at least two occasions prior to the presidential elections, the Committee forced the journalists of Narodnaya Volya to print the newspaper with "blank blocks" in the place of scheduled articles criticizing the government. But the newspaper’s managing editor, who is known for his strength and determination, seems unaffected by these attacks: "I am used to court trials and to printing problems," he affirmed, reminding the interviewer that, in the past, his newspaper had to be printed in Lithuania. Narodnaya Volya employs a dozen young journalists, most of whom are in their thirties and whose energy their managing editor is quick to praise: "They write nearly five papers’ worth of lines every day, attend all the press conferences, and oversee the printing of the newspaper Monday through Sunday." Known for its virulent tone (in Narodnaya Volya, President Lukashenko is commonly referred to as a "fascist" and "criminal"), and the newspaper is often scorned for its bias, not to mention its staff’s lack of professionalism. "My journalists do not need an internship abroad. When they go there, it is not to learn but to rest. I would be curious to see whether a Western journalist could keep up with our work pace," counters Syaredzich. However, he is quite adamant about his newspaper’s objectives: "We need to counter the State propaganda with our own tougher and smarter propaganda. But for the time being, the government is winning in terms of numbers: how can we compete with State newspapers that have a circulation of nearly 400,000? "
Syaredzich says that he is proud to be a "full" owner of his newspaper and that he would welcome funding from abroad: "I need financial support to increase the circulation of my newspaper and further expand it." Criticizing the European Union’s "insensitivity" and "lack of generosity," the editor-in-chief regrets that, to date, his newspaper’s revenue has been supplemented only by a few American subsidies. The managing editor also admits that he cannot profit fully from new advertising space income, as no company has been willing to display their name in his publication for fear of reprisals by the authorities.
An independent and influential financial daily
Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG)
Revenues from the sale of advertising space are not a problem for the country’s main financial daily, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG), even though this newspaper is opposed to Belarus official policy. "Even if the State-owned corporations have not yet taken that step, major international companies based in our country are glad to advertise in BDG," explained Svetlana Kalinkina, the newspaper’s assistant editor-in-chief. In her opinion, the situation has done nothing but improve since the "dark years" of the Lukashenko regime-referring to the aftermath of the Belarus Parliament’s dissolution in 1996. "We have adopted an opposition differentiation strategy," explained Mrs. Kalinkina. Her goal is to make BDG a "comprehensive" newspaper that would be an indispensable tool for understanding the changes occurring in the country. The readership consists mainly of urban executives, private business entrepreneurs, university employees, etc. Since it is not readily available or popular in outlying areas, the newspaper is primarily distributed in the major cities, particularly in the capital, Minsk. The newspaper’s management has consequently decided to do without the services of Belpost, the State-controlled distribution network, known for the excessive rates that it imposes on the private press. "We have implemented our own distribution network that relies upon an independent door-to-door sales force and points of sale," said the journalist. In the capital and outlying areas, the newspaper subsequently employs a certain number of older female retirees (babushkas) and young people who sell the paper in underground pedestrian crosswalks and along some broad city streets. These individuals often have to deal with the police who pursue them for "illegal selling" or "panhandling," depending upon the authorities’ mood-particularly just before elections. "In Minsk, we often have distribution problems," complained Kalinkina. "In Gomel, we are practically banned, whereas in Brest, everything is working out perfectly. It all depends on the local authorities’ attitude." The journalist affirmed that the newspaper has followed all of the proper procedures to obtain the permits necessary for door-to-door selling and that it is making sure that the babushkas have all these documents. "But they are still being arrested by the police," she deplored.
BDG has a circulation of 25,000 to 27,000 copies per day. The weekend edition, which is fully supplemented, has experienced peak printing and distribution periods. The newspaper draws most of its revenue from direct sales (subscription sales being very limited as result of the excessive rates imposed by postal services) and from advertising. The newspaper’s website project, on the other hand, is sustained by a European grant from the Tacis program. After having used the services of the Magic publishing firm, which is now prohibited from printing any newspaper that covers news events, BDG is printed in a small State printing facility-Krasnaya Zvezda-whose owner takes orders from the most senior levels of government. However, this "standardization" of the newspaper’s situation is, for many observers, a direct consequence of a change in strategy on the part of the journalists who have become much less aggressive and critical of the regime. For Kalinkina, this trend is more likely attributable to the "professionalization of the newspaper" She pointed out that BDG was the paper that recently revealed the Belarus government’s alleged arm sales to Iraq, a piece of news that aroused the ire of the American administration. Like all Belarusian newspapers not controlled by the State, BDG is the constant subject of warnings from the State Press Committee, and its managers often have to appear in various courts throughout the country. "But we win all of our cases," Kalinkina cheerfully added.
The daily employs thirty or so editors, all in their late twenties, who have generally "learned their trade in the field." It also publishes articles by prestigious contributors such as economists, authors and college professors. "Our ambition is to become the most influential newspaper in the country," emphasized the assistant senior editor, while she deplores the "unfair" manner in which the State-owned press competes with them, as well as the State’s monopoly of the town’s poster display space. For example, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the founding of BDG, the newspaper’s management tried-in vain-to purchase space on several Minsk billboards to display the news about its anniversary. The Minsk city hall systematically denied the repeated requests from the paper’s news staff. However, on a brighter note, Kalinkina added that the "who’s who" among the political and media circles-opposition and government supporters alike-did manage to attend the party that the newspaper organized on this occasion.
A Moscow tabloid prospers in Minsk
In Belarus, the primary opposition newspapers only rarely-except when special issues are published during an electoral campaign-manage to achieve a circulation of over 30,000. On the other hand, State newspapers routinely reach a combined circulation of close to 400,000, of which at least 300,000 copies can be accounted for by Sovietskaya Belorussia alone-a newspaper directly controlled by the presidential administration. Their only competition happens to be the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, the former Union of Communist Youth organ, produced in Moscow which has become, since Perestroika, a tabloid with a circulation of several million circulating throughout Russia and some ex-Soviet republics. "Ours is a Russian newspaper registered in Belarus and subject to local press laws," commented Julia Slutskaya, editor-in-chief of the Belarusian edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda, based in Minsk. "Each day, we produce several pages on local news, including-if there is a breaking story-the front page. The rest comes from the main news desk in Moscow. Some week-ends, we distribute up to 325,000 copies in Belarus." Slutskaya also stated that the newspaper does not receive any funding from Moscow, but that its editorial policy has remained unbiased. When asked what this policy was, she replied: "To focus on local news, always provide content suitable for the average readership, use eye-catching photos and headlines, etc." A member of the newspaper’s editorial staff characterized this approach as a "British-style" tabloid technique. Indeed, Slutzkaya, whose press training had been in London, adamantly supports this media approach: "Our aim is certainly not to produce a political bulletin and, since our main concern is revenue. We want our newspaper to attract a maximum number of people." This explains why, on March 5, while the entire Belarusian and Russian press was busy presenting a detailed analysis of the progress being made at the Alma Ata Summit in Kazakhstan, where a meeting was in progress between member-countries of the CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States, which replaced the USSR), Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a story about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s skiing exploits right next to the Summit’s headlines. The newspaper generally avoids making any personal attack on the Belarusian President. This might account for the fact that the Press Centre, the State’s official printing facility, has always printed the newspaper. "It is the only one that can print our newspaper’s rather complex lay-out," the editor-in-chief explained. Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose circulation is constantly growing in Belarus, also has an original distribution system supported by both the State postal services and independent sales points. Its circulation is still limited in the countryside where, according to Slutzkaya, press readers almost systematically subscribe to the State newspaper, Sovietskaya Belarus.
A semi-clandestine radio station
In the place of street addresses on the business cards of Radio Racija’s journalists, there is a discreet post office box number in Minsk, an e-mail address and a Polish cellular telephone number. Some members of the news desk crew of this radio station (which succeeded the popular 101.2 FM station closed by the authorities in 1996) insist on continuing to work from the Belarusian capital. They do this despite the fact that their headquarters has been moved to Warsaw, Poland, from where Radio Racija is now transmitting. "Officially, we are registered here as a small private business," admitted the station’s editor-in-chief, Juras Karamanau, who heads a handful of journalists working under quasi-clandestine conditions from a make-shift studio in a large, discreet apartment situated at the further end of a backyard of a central- Minsk building. In 1996, on the eve of the constitutional referendum on the renewal of President Lukachenko’s term, 101.2 FM had been shut down because, according to the authorities, its broadcasting signals were interfering with the frequency used by Minsk police. "A technical pretext, in view of the fact that this was a purely political decision," recalled Juras. As a matter of fact, the Belarusian authorities never attempted to seek a technical solution for this alleged frequency problem; all they did was issue a writ to purely and simply shut down the station and reassign its frequency to a radio station controlled by a youth organization known for its ties with the President. After three months of technical setbacks and negotiations, Radio Racija’s journalists managed to obtain authorization from the Polish government to work and broadcast their programmes over short, long and medium frequencies from Warsaw, to an audience that would officially consist of the large Belarusian minority group living in eastern Poland. In reality, Radio Racija can be picked up nearly everywhere in the Belarusian territory, although the quality of reception leaves something to be desired. Juras Karamanau claims that the station is fortunate enough to have the support of many Belarusians residing in Poland and, above all, financial aid from the American State Department. "On the other hand, we are not getting a single Euro from Europe," the journalist commented.
The reporters and technicians working for Radio Racija are very young, expert in the use of new technologies and of the Internet, and trained, for the most part, in American journalism schools. They consequently practice a "Western" type of journalism emphasizing interviews, news broadcasts and cultural programmes that promote the Belarusian language and culture, as opposed to the Moscow counterpart. Explained Juras, "Our goal is to be an objective and realistic news radio station." Each day, Radio Racija offers two hours of live broadcasts but it is still impossible to evaluate its impact on the population. "We have a very broad audience in Minsk and, primarily, in more remote areas, where people speak only Belarusian," declared the radio’s editor-in-chief. Nonetheless, many Western diplomats believe that the station’s audience and influence is still insignificant. Stressed one staff member, "We cannot compete with the official FM radio stations that broadcast popular music, and that have a far better reception, since their transmitters are out in the country."
Despite their quasi-clandestine status, Radio Racija’s journalists still manage to bring on the air quite a number of guests from Minsk. "But if contacting the opposition leaders is no problem for us, government officials want nothing to do with us," noted Juras with regret. His station colleagues receive no professional recognition for their work: "We cannot credit a media that does not exist," explained the authorities. The names of Radio Racija’s staff members are thus never mentioned on the lists of journalists authorized to attend press conferences given by members of the government. Consequently, radio reporters have to obtain and convey their information over the telephone and via the Internet. The constantly updated radio station’s website popularity is growing and, according to one Russian search engine, already ranks among the country’s five most visited sites. "Regardless, we are not giving up on getting back our frequency in Belarus one day" asserted Juras Karmanau.
Status of the Attacks on Freedom of Information:
Crackdown on the Press
In the last few years, throughout the former Soviet Union territory, the independent press has been targeted by incumbent government officials and political, economic, judicial and criminal authorities who have been increasingly interfering with the right of journalists’ to enjoy freedom of expression. Countless methods have been used to silence critical or investigative members of the press: murders, abductions, incarcerations, police brutality and intimidation, judicial harassment, and abusive tax audits. The situation in Belarus has been exemplified, in recent years, by the case involving the disappearance of journalist Dmitri Zavadsky and the openly discriminatory measures taken by those in power against the opposition press.
The disappearance of cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky
Unlike in other countries of the former Soviet Union-notably Russia and the Ukraine-sordid assaults and slayings of journalists in Belarus are virtually non-existent. The "Glasnost" era (which occurred later and was more controlled in Belarus than in neighbouring countries), the much smaller number of independent newspapers, the apparently less serious activities of mafia groups, and the openly totalitarian approach adopted by the regime that leads to increased self-censorship on the part of journalists, all account for this difference. In neighbouring Ukraine-a country five times larger in terms of population-ten journalists have been killed in unexplained circumstances, and forty-one violently assaulted and seriously wounded since 1998. In 2001 alone, according to the Moscow-based Foundation for the Defence of Glasnost, a total of seventeen journalists were assassinated in all of the Russian Federation’s Republics combined. The disappearance in Minsk, on 7 July 2000, of young Belarusian cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky occurred more than one year after the disappearance, in 1999, of three of President Lukashenko’s opponents: the former Minister of the Interior, Yuri Zakharenko, the former member of Parliament Viktor Gontchar, and the entrepreneur and owner of the Krasika publishing firm, Anatoly Krassovsky. The journalist’s presumed assassins have already been arrested and sentenced, but a great many questions about this case remain unexplained.
The President’s former personal cameraman, Dmitri Zavadsky, left the State television organization in 1996, without the consent of the Belarus authorities, to join the Russian television channel, ORT. He was imprisoned along with a colleague from ORT for two months in 1997, following a news report about the deficiencies of Belarus security along the Belarus-Lithuania border. In the winter of 1999-2000, ORT sent him on a news assignment to Chechnya, where he learned that a Belarusian mercenary, Valery Ignatovitch, a former agent with the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior’s special forces, had been arrested by Russian forces while supposedly serving in the Chechen army. Upon his return to Minsk, this story attracted the interest of the press and the BDG daily newspaper published a lengthy interview with the cameraman. His wife, Svetlana, recalls that "some people who refused to identify themselves would phone to say that they had read the article on my husband’s interview and wanted to meet him, and then hang up. Sometimes, they claimed to be police officials. We were starting to be scared." The press also revealed that the mercenary, Valery Ignatovitch, was allegedly the second most important member of the Russian ultra-nationalist organization, Russian National Unity (RNU, an extreme-right group), in which he was responsible for the "physical and military training of its members." Following BDG’s publication of the Zavadsky interview and the broadcast of a news report by the Russian NTV channel, Gleb Samoilov (the head of this movement), supposedly dismissed Valery Ignatovitch and warned him not to have any contact with RNU members. Samoilov was murdered some time later. According to the version espoused by Belarus authorities, Ignatovitch allegedly decided to take revenge on Zavadsky. The latter disappeared on 7 July 2000 at the Minsk airport, where he had gone to welcome, after he landed, Pavel Sheremet, one of the Russian ORT channel’s bureau chiefs. Zavadsky’s vehicle was recovered in the airport’s parking lot. On 11 May 2001, Belarus authorities announced that they had arrested four former agents of the Ministry of Interior’s special forces, including Valery Ignatovitch, who were "suspected of having kidnapped Dmitri Zavadsky on behalf of the RNU, the Russian extreme right movement." On 14 March 2002, the Minsk District Court sentenced them to life in prison for the murder of five people and for the "disappearance" of the journalist.
Many questions have gone unanswered, despite the credibility of the alleged murderers’ motive. A lead curtain did, indeed, fall over this case as from September 2000-when Vladimir Naumov was appointed to the position of Minister of the Interior and the creator of the special "Almaz" units, veritable praetorian guards reporting solely to the President, which included the accused. Oddly, the Minsk court made no attempt to locate the body of the vanished journalist, nor to determine the exact circumstances of his abduction, let alone the identity of his likely assassin. No member of the press was permitted to meet with the protagonists of this case, nor to attend court sessions. Zavadsky’s family members were only convened at specific times to testify as witnesses. As the journalist’s wife said, "One cannot help but remark the difference between the brutality of the murders that these four men are accused of committing, and Dmitri’s disappearance, which was a delicate operation, planned and executed very discreetly and professionally. His disappearance can only have been engineered by former or current members of the secret services." She also mentioned the mysterious shovel that bore traces of the journalist’s blood and miraculously materialized in the suspects’ car, despite the fact that no police report had previously mentioned it. Zavadsky’s colleague and friend, Pavel Sheremet, still does not understand why the alleged murderer, Valery Ignatovitch, waited six months after BDG published the journalist’s revelations before carrying out his revenge. "Why didn’t he simply kill him, which these people know full well how to do, rather than make him disappear?" Sheremet asked.
In a communiqué released on 11 June 2001, two former members of the Belarus public prosecutor’s office, who are in hiding abroad, including Dmitri Petrushkevic, the head prosecutor in the Dmitri Zavadsky case, accused the Attorney General, Viktor Sheyman, and Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration, Yuri Sivakov, of having created a "death squad" in 1996. At that time, they occupied the positions, respectively, of Security Council State Secretary and Minister of the Interior. Initially, this group was supposedly directed to murder mafia leaders before being entrusted with more "political" missions. They supposedly carried out a series of "executions" with the same weapon that was used to execute death row convicts.
Could this squad be implicated, acting with or without the help of the main defendant in the case, Valery Ignatovitch, in the journalist’s murder-which is what many observers believe it is-in the disappearance of the three opposition leaders that occurred one year earlier? The two public prosecutors are convinced that they are. As a matter of fact, in light of their disclosures, several top officials leading the investigation, including the head of the Belarusian KGB and the examining judge in charge of this case, have been removed from office. According to Pavel Sheremet, since that time all of the documents related to the inquiry have mysteriously vanished. "Two other examining judges and the main witness have died of a heart attack," he added.
Dmitri Zavadsky’s disappearance in July 2000, like that of his Ukrainian colleague, Georgiy Gongadze, which happened in Kiev two months later under very similar circumstances, are largely responsible for the resurgence of concern on the part of civil society in both countries. An inquiry to identify all responsible parties involved in the abduction and probable murder of Dmitri Zavadsky will have to be high on the agenda of any democratic trend that may develop in Belarus.
The Valery Schukin case
On 12 June 2001, journalist and human rights activist Valery Schukin was incarcerated in a Minsk prison. It would seem that he was the only journalist to have been imprisoned in 2001 for a relatively long period after being sentenced. In 2002, six journalists who had been taking part in a demonstration in Grodno (in western Belarus), on the eve of the opening day in the trial of the Pahonya newspaper’s editor-in-chief and journalist were sentenced by a local court judge to spend three to ten days in jail for having insulted the Belarusian President.
Valery Schukin, a veritable icon of the Belarusian opposition, with the allure of a patriarch, is a human rights activist and freelance contributor to opposition newspapers, mainly the Tovarisch and Narodnaya Volya dailies. The police force knows him well, and systematically prevent him from attending any official event. According to Schukin, this attitude can be explained by the special animosity that he inspires in President Lukashenko. As Schukin explains, "he cannot stand the sight of me and must have given explicit orders about me. Not only does he know me very well but he also enjoys bearing grudges." As a former member of the Belarusian Opposition Parliament, which the President dissolved in 1996, Valery Schukin, who does not let controversy stop him from getting his job done, nonetheless continues, in his role as a journalist, to attend press conferences given by members of the government. For example, on the day of the so-called "press briefing" held at the Ministry of the Interior by the new Minister, Vladimir Naumov, he was spotted by police guards, but nonetheless attempted to enter the room where the press conference was taking place. He was quickly restrained and pinned to the ground by three uniformed officers, but during the struggle, he received a deep cut on one of his legs from the door’s broken window. Immobilized and wounded, Schukin had to wait for almost twenty minutes before an ambulance arrived. He was hospitalized for a week, having lost a great deal of blood. Interviewed the next day by a Narodnaya Volya journalist, the Minister of the Interior issued this statement about the incident: "As far as I am concerned, Schukin is not a journalist. I would simply like him to show as much respect for the laws as the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens. Instead, he enjoys acting like a human rights advocate-the "I go where I want, when I want" type. But whichever he is pretending to be-a journalist or a human rights activist-it doesn’t entitle him to any special rights."
As the result of a complaint lodged by the Ministry of the Interior, Valery Schukin was sentenced, on 15 March 2001, to three months in prison for "hooliganism." Despite appeals filed by the journalist, the court sustained its ruling and, on 12 June, Schukin was incarcerated in Jodinskoe Prison, near Minsk. "I was jailed with common-law prisoners, many of whom had been given life sentences for murder," he recalled. "But I never saw the guards commit any violent acts, even though it often occurs in this prison." The journalist also feels that he was not badly treated during his three months in custody. But they did shave off his beard by force and put him in solitary confinement several times as punishment for "acts of insubordination and rebellion," such as "raising his head" during supervised walks. "Actually," recalls the journalist, "I would constantly remind them of my rights under prison regulations, which I had studied to the letter." As the September 2001 presidential elections approached, he reminded the prison administration that he had voting rights and demanded that they give him an urn with a lock. He also pointed out to the prison warden that the only electoral poster on display in the prison was a picture of President Lukashenko. His mail was read and censored: "From my cell, I wrote seventeen articles for my newspaper, which all disappeared, not to mention many letters to my family and a few prominent people." The reporter received visits from family relatives, as well as from representatives of the Belarusian Association of Journalists ("BAJ," a non-official organization) and from the OSCE. "After my stay in prison, I’m not afraid of anything anymore," concluded Schukin. I am a Captain in the Soviet Naval Reserve and just as I served the army, I will continue to do my duty, which is to oppose Lukashenko’s regime. To do that, I am even willing to go back to jail. I will continue to loudly and publicly protest until they drive him out." Schukin has now completed his jail sentence.
Police brutality and intimidation:
Maintaining the pressure
The Belarus police and armed forces, as well as numerous "special" services that report directly to the President of the Republic, have been ostentatiously and efficiently patrolling Minsk streets, especially during demonstrations by the regime’s opponents. In this type of situation, reporters-particularly photographers and cameramen-are often harshly driven away, or even arrested, by police. On 25 March 2000, police officers arrested thirty-six journalists who were covering the massive "Freedom March" organized by the main opposition party, the Belarusian Popular Front. Among them were many members of the foreign press, including correspondents from the AFP and Itar-Tass press agencies, a Polish television channel, the Russian NTV, ORT and RTR television channels, and Radio Liberty. Placed under guard, along with nearly 300 other individuals, in a gymnasium that had been transformed into a temporary detention centre, most of them were released a few hours later on the outskirts of the city. On 27 March, the Minister of the Interior’s spokesman apologized to the arrested journalists. The Minister of the Interior, Yuri Sivakov, who was soundly criticized by President Lukashenko-mainly for having placed foreign journalists under arrest-resigned one month later.
This kind of preventive approach does not always apply. On 25 March 2001, Dmitri Yegorov, a young news photographer with the independent regional newspaper Birzha Informacji, was interrogated and held for several hours in a police car in the city of Grodno (in western Belarus), just prior to a demonstration organized by the opposition. The journalist was hit, threatened, and warned that, "it would not be in his best interest to write any articles about the interrogation. He was then taken to a prison to see "where journalists can be jailed," after which he was released. The journalist was hospitalized for ten days as a result of his beating. Just before they were to appear in court under charges of having insulted the President, the reporters who demonstrated in Grodno on 6 April 2002, in support of Pahonya’s editor-in-chief and reporter, were fined by a local judge and some of them sentenced to several days of "administrative detention."
The police force is also specifically used, quite apart from any law enforcement operations, to harass members of the opposition press. These pressures intensified on the eve of the presidential elections of September 2001. Throughout the month of March 2001, police interrogated and harassed news vendors selling the independent newspaper, Nasha Svaboda. In the summer of 2001, there were an increasing number of "police raids" on newspaper offices, coupled with quasi-systematic confiscation of work equipment. Their obvious purpose was to neutralize the newspapers most critical of the regime within a few weeks of the elections. On 12 July, for example, police seized equipment belonging to the Volny Grad independent newspaper. On 19 July, they confiscated equipment from the Belaruskiy Uschod paper, and on 14 August, did the same thing to the Kutseyna paper. On 17 August 2001, the Ministry of the Interior’s security forces seized most of the Nasha Svaboda daily’s print runs, whose issue that day included several articles critical of the government, as well as information about the campaign led by opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik.
In addition to these equipment seizures, there have been suspicious burglaries, the purpose of which was clearly to prevent publication of the newspapers concerned. In March 2001, the De Facto newspaper in Moguilev had to suspend operations after their newsrooms were burglarized. On 25 July 2001, the computer equipment in the Dyen daily’s newsroom was put totally out of commission during a burglary. No sign of infraction was found, even though the premises were being guarded by police. A previous burglary of the Dyen offices on 17 July had prevented the paper from publishing a special issue devoted to the unexplained disappearances, in 1999, of several opposition leaders. The Customs Service has also been asked to participate in this harassment strategy. In March 2001, customs officers seized part of the Belarusskaya Vedamasti newspaper’s press runs, on the pretext that they represented "a danger to the political regime" of Belarus.
Criminal prosecution and judicial harassment
"Slander against the President"
The criminal proceedings instigated against the press involve cases in which the President’s personal integrity is being questioned. The Belarus Penal Code provides for sentences of up to five years of imprisonment for committing "slander against the President." As of this report’s publication date, no journalist has been sentenced to prison without possibility of parole in 2001 and 2002 for this offence. Legal actions against members of the press are usually brought by public or local prosecutors.
For example, in January 2001, the Belarus public prosecutor’s office instituted an action against the newspaper, Nasha Svaboda ("Our Liberty") for slandering the President by publishing an article by psychiatrist Dr. Dmitri Shigelsky about President Alexander Lukashenko’s mental health, which suggested that he was suffering from a psychological disorder accompanied by paranoid tendencies. The case involving this newspaper is still being examined by the court. The institution of legal proceedings also enables authorities to prevent the articles named in the complaint from being published. On 28 August, the Minsk public prosecutor’s office ordered that the printing of the Rabuchy’s daily edition be halted, and sued the paper for slandering the President. On that same day, the police seized close to 40,000 copies of the daily as "exhibits," apparently to prevent circulation of an article entitled "The Thief Should Be in Jail!" exposing the corruption of senior government officials. On 19 November, the public prosecutor’s office also brought a libel suit against Iosif Syaredzich, editor-in-chief of the Narodnaya Volya newspaper, on the grounds that he had published a statement made on 5 September by the opposition candidate in the presidential elections, Uladzimir Hancharik, accusing the government of tampering with electoral ballots. Nearly one and a half years later, the newspaper’s staff still does not know whether these legal actions will end in a trial, or if the case is considered closed.
One of the most serious cases was probably that of the Pahonya newspaper, although the Information Minister is minimizing the charges brought against this "small regional newspaper" based in Grodno (a city in western Belarus). Nikolai Markevitch, the paper’s editor-in-chief, and Pavel Mozheiko, a reporter, were sued for "slandering the President" after the newspaper printed an article questioning the President’s role in the disappearance of some of his opponents. The controversial nature of the subject, the newspaper shut-down ordered by the Belarus Supreme Court in November 2001, the mobilization of the opposition and of human rights organizations, and the demonstrations that were held in support of the paper (despite such events being systematically prohibited and repressed by the police) have made Pahonya a case symbol of the current battle for freedom of the press in Belarus. The first court hearing, initially scheduled for 9 April 2002, was postponed indefinitely, since the Court President, Nikolai Sergueiko, became ill on that same day. In the days preceding the opening of the trial, the opposition press and human rights organizations in Minsk and abroad had expressed their support of the accused. A demonstration by journalists, in Grodno, led to fourteen of them being arrested and six sentenced to several days in jail.
The manner in which the Pahonya journalists’ will be tried, sanctions that will be imposed and the verdicts passed will serve as a test of any potential détente in terms press freedom in Belarus.
Once a newspaper has been issued two warnings by the Ministry of Information (which has replaced the former State Press Committee), or by any type of court judge within a given year, it can then be definitively declared closed down. This constant threat-without remedy at law-is one of the primary means used to control and maintain pressure on the press. This was exemplified on 13 November 2001, when the Belarus Supreme Court ordered, after two previous warnings, that the Pahonya weekly be closed down for having published an article implicating the President in the disappearance of some of his opponents. One month later, Nikolai Markevitch, Pahonya’s editor-in-chief, was fined for having organized a protest march against the ruling to close the paper. He waived his right to file an appeal, since, in his opinion, "Belarus courts serve the interests of one person, not those of society."
Threats to close down newspapers are common and are not limited to cases involving lawsuits. In early February 2001, the news staff of the Brestski Kurier ("The Brest Courier"), one of the most popular regional independent newspapers in Belarus, received a warning from the State Press Committee for having "circulated information about political parties, trade unions, and other unauthorized groups." That same month, the independent newspaper Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta was issued a warning by the same Committee for having "violated the confidentiality of an official inquiry" in an article about an investigation of the agents in the special "Almaz" subdivision, suspected of being involved in the disappearance of journalist Dmitri Zavadsky, in July 2000. On 24 August, 2001, the Svabodniye Novosti paper was issued a warning by the State Press Committee for "disseminating false information." On 29 March 2002, the Ministry of Information issued another warning to the Narodnaya Volya daily for making "unfounded statements about the President." On 20 March, the newspaper had printed the following lines, retranscribed from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website: "Given the involvement of authorities in arms trading, and the privatization, by the Presidential administration, of the most profitable sector of the Belarusian economy, it doesn’t take much effort to imagine the amounts of money that Alexander Lukashenko would like to launder in Austria."
Other discriminatory measures
State monopolies, abusive tax audits and the ban on foreign financing
Forty-seven public media received State subsidies in 2001. The Ministry of Information announced that this number had been limited to thirty-six in 2002, and would have to be further reduced in subsequent years. Five of the subsidized media are directly owned by the President’s administration or by various ministers, including Sovietskaya Belarus, the State’s own daily newspaper. Most of the others are written for young readers or to "promote Belarusian language and literature." The grant-awarding process functions at the government’s sole discretion, and no reason is provided for their approval or refusal. A positive change might be forthcoming, however, in view of the announcement by the Minister of Information that a Joint Public Advisory Committee will soon be established "consisting of both State officials and independent members."
The rates charged by government media distribution and printing monopolies represent substantial hidden subsidies for the State-controlled media, while independent newspapers, for the most part, are severely handicapped. In February 2000 the editors-in-chief of six of the largest privately owned media in Belarus: Narodnaya Volya, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Belarusskaya Gazeta, Svobodnie Novosti, Belaruski Rinok and Komsomolskaya Pravda Belorussii, had sent an open letter to Prime Minister Vladimir Yermoshin to demand an end to the discriminatory measures being imposed by the State. To the contrary, the situation deteriorated in 2001-an election year. In December 2000, the country’s postal services raised the distribution rates charged to independent periodicals by 400 to 600%, while State-controlled publications benefited, at that time, from rate reductions. There was increased pressure from the tax authorities, who were behind the confiscation, by police, of most of the newspaper equipment prior to the September presidential elections. On 22 August, ten computers in the Narodnaya Volya newsroom were seized by police acting on behalf of the tax authorities. On 23 August, a computer was confiscated by law enforcement officers from the Nasha Svaboda newsroom for non-compliance with tax laws.
The Press Centre is a State-controlled printing facility that publishes Sovietskaya Belarus and a dozen other newspapers, including Komsomolskaya Pravda. The periodicals published in this facility face the constant threat of being shut down, were they to print an article openly critical of the authorities. On 1 August 2001, publication of the Dyen newspaper was halted for having "improperly interpreted" a decision made by the State Press Committee. Magic, the country’s only private publishing company, which (with the financial support of the Soros Foundation) had managed, until 2001, to print most of the country’s independent newspapers-including Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Nasha Svaboda, Narodnaya Volya and Femida-Nova-was forced by authorities to stop printing any daily edition. On 13 September 2000, police raided the publisher’s offices. More than 110,000 copies of the Rabochy weekly, a newspaper owned by the "Independent Belarusian Trade Union," were seized (about one third of its total print run). Rabochy had urged its readers to take part in the "Boycott 2000" campaign by the opposition just prior to the October 15 elections. Viktar Ivashkevich, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Dzmitry Kastiukevich, its lawyer, and Hury Budzco, Magic’s General Manager, were arrested. After two hours in police custody, they were charged with issuing "propaganda for an electoral boycott" and sentenced to pay modest fines. The Magic publishing firm’s bank accounts were frozen and the printing equipment used to produce independent daily newspapers was seized to eliminate Foundation Soros’ tax liability, of approximately EUR 88,100. On 3 November, the Soros Foundation vainly attempted to lodge a complaint against the government.
In 2001, the tax authorities ordered that the press used by Magic to print the daily newspapers be placed under seals for "unpaid taxes." Only one press is still in operation: it publishes a directory of businesses and shops, and a Minsk entertainment and leisure activity guide.
Status of Reforms Now Underway:
Making New Progress
The Minister of Information has announced the upcoming creation of a Joint Public Advisory Committee that will "consist of both State representatives and independent members." He also specified that, in addition to granting subsidies to Belarusian publications, this body could be endowed with wider powers to "control the media." Nonetheless, the specific functions of this new body, its composition and the way in which it will appoint "independent members" have apparently not yet been determined. This project, however, gives a new dimension to future discussions with European organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that defend freedom of information.
Most importantly, the two main reforms announced, which are expected to be implemented in 2002, should be closely monitored because of their potential to disappoint, or-to the contrary-to measurably improve conditions for the exercise of information freedom and plurality in Belarus.
Audio-visual sector reform
In February 2002, a presidential decree ordered the creation of a second national television channel in Belarus-BT 2-which may use the frequency previously assigned to ORT. Officially, the goal of creating a second national television channel is "to promote competition in the audio-visual sector," and, above all, "to provide more choices to the population so that they can obtain more complete, reliable and timely information." The government which, through the Ministry of Information, is expected to contribute up to 51% of the channel’s operating budget, will therefore find itself, de facto, the primary decision-maker in terms of the channel’s editorial policy. BT 2’s director, Grigory Kissel, who was appointed by the President in March 2002, had formerly managed Belarus’ first national television channel from 1995 to 2002, before being appointed as the Belarusian Ambassador in Romania, from which post he has just been recalled. "He is the one who had transformed BT 1 into a boring and ideologized channel," commented the BDG. "Here we thought he was in exile, when he was actually anticipating a new position."
Belarus pro-opposition journalists are consequently talking about an attempt to "clone" BT 1 in order to take up more audio-visual space, but even more critically, to nibble away at the influence that Russian television channels have over the country. As of May 2002, BT 2 will start broadcasting over the frequencies and channel previously reserved for ORT, "but will be bound by the terms of an agreement concluded with the Russian channel’s management," asserted its new executives and the Minister of Information, Mikhail Podgainy. "One thing is certain," stressed Kissel, "ORT will continue to broadcast in this country." It is likely, however, that some of ORT’s flagship programmes will be eliminated and replaced by BT 2 broadcasts. "Therefore, the Belarus television audience will have to say goodbye to the political talk show, Vremena featuring the star anchor, Vladimir Pozner," predicted a staff member of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, who recalls that, on the eve of the Belarusian elections, this programme had hosted four opposition candidates and interviewed the OSCE’s Minsk representative. The staff member also recalled that this programme had aroused the ire of President Lukashenko, who had accused ORT of pursuing a policy that conflicted with the interest of his country and had threatened to "get even with the Russian channels after the elections." At that time, he had said "I don’t want to pressure anybody but when the elections are over, we are going to have second thoughts about who we work with." Today, the director of the new channel, together with the Minister of Information, Mikhail Podgainy, promise that "in order to avoid any political conflicts, the Vremena show will be kept on the air." The Minister of Information has furthermore announced the creation of new programming for the State national BT 1 television channel, in which "all politicians will be able to participate." The President’s representatives had approved a memorandum of agreement on access to State-controlled media, but its terms have not yet been met. Minister Podgainy admitted in January 2002, in Strasbourg that "the law governing television needs improvement. I am open to any suggestions." Considering the critical nature of what is at stake for the plurality of information in Belarus, European organizations must not fail to respond to this proposal.
The Press Law
Amendments to the "Law on the Press and Other Mass Media of the Belarus Republic," which has been in effect since 1995, as drawn up and submitted for deliberation in the year 2001. They guarantee "the independence of the media," free access to official information and adherence to the international agreements signed by the Republic of Belarus. Yet they still include many provisions that do not comply with European democratic standards. The Ministry of Information stated that it has duly noted the comments from foreign observers, including Article 19’s international organization. Early on in this process, the Council of Europe had offered to have its experts examine the bill but Belarus authorities did not accept the offer at that time. A more in-depth discussion with the Minister of Information was finally scheduled at the initiative of the Commission on Science, Culture and Education of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in January 2002, in Strasbourg. Minister of Information Mikhail Podgainy then promised to send, upon his return to Minsk, the Russian and English versions of the bill to experts and competent organizations and "to consider their opinions, which does not mean that they will all be taken into account." As of the date of this report, the definitive bill has yet to be made public. A debate in the Belarusian Parliament on information-related issues, announced in April, has not yet been held.
Three provisions that were maintained in the last public version of the draft are major obstacles to the free access of information. The legal ban on disseminating "false information" is contrary to all democratic standards pertaining to freedom of expression. It forces the press to censure itself, allows for malicious prosecution, and precludes any investigative journalism. Another prohibition-the ban against distributing statements or communiqués issued by political parties or social organizations that have not registered with the Ministry of Justice was introduced by way of amendments to the Press Law at the very end of 1999. The penalties that may be incurred amount to one hundred times the average salary of a Belarusian journalist. This provision, a direct instrument of censorship, protects State propaganda and targets non-registered opposition groups, as well as international human rights organizations. The repeal of these provisions must be insisted upon, even if such a repeal is very unlikely, given the regime’s current status and the ban on financing from foreign countries must also be lifted. Finally, free access to, and the publication of, official information are still subject to restrictions in the Press Law. According to Belarusian legislation, free access to official information already exists. Official press conferences are theoretically open to all media journalists. Despite some complaints from pro-opposition journalists, it would appear that this rule is now generally complied with, except in the case of the journalist and human rights activist, Valery Schukin, mentioned earlier. On the other hand, the Belarusian administration continue to totally prohibit periodicals from publishing legislative enactments, since only competent government agencies are authorized to publish the legal documents that fall within their purview. The Minister considers that "the publication of legislation is a serious business. We must do everything possible to ensure that the texts that reach our citizens are in their proper and due form." The Sovietskaya Belarus State-run daily, to the contrary, is compelled to publish any information that it receives from a government body. Today, these two relics of the Soviet model are two obstacles that freedom of information will need to overcome.
These facts and testimonies gathered in March 2002, in Minsk, have induced Reporters without Borders to urge the European organizations, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, to intensify their discussions with Belarus on freedom of information issues.
RSF specifically urges the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe:
to consider sending Council of Europe experts to Belarus more frequently;
to support the development of a free and pluralistic press;
to lay down clear-and specific-conditions pertaining to freedom of information in order to re-establish more formal relations between Belarus and the Council of Europe;
to that special end, to regularly evaluate the Belarus situation as concerns European standards pertaining to freedom of information, and to maintain an open dialogue on the subject with Belarusian authorities.
RSF requests government officials of the Republic of Belarus:
to agree to fully clarify the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Dmitri Zavadsky and to identify and hold responsible all parties who played a part in that crime;
to ensure that no prison sentence is passed for an offence based on the expression of an opinion and to change the provision of the Penal Code that provides for a five-year prison sentence for defamation;
to ensure that the future law governing the media will conform to European standards and to submit that law to open debate;
to end economic and political discrimination against non-governmental media;
to implement television reform that will ensure a genuine plurality of audio-visual information.
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