The presidential elections of 9 September 2001 in Belarus were preceded by eight months of pressure on independent newspapers in a country where the audiovisual media are under the authorities’ orders. Independent newspapers are constantly threatened with closure by the State’s monopoly on printing, distribution and advertising. The ten main independent titles are systematically harassed, and their journalists threatened. New decrees aiming to restrict the right to demonstrate and foreign aid to non-governmental organisations primarily target opposition media. Publishing statements or press releases by parties or human rights organisations not registered with the Ministry of Justice is forbidden. In December 2000 before the opening of the election year, the postal services increased postal costs for independent newspapers by between 400 and 600 per cent while at the same time reducing the rates for State-controlled publications.
In June, two former members of the State prosecutor’s office claimed they had proof of the authorities’ direct involvement in the disappearance in July 2000 of cameraman Dmitri Zavadski.
New information on a journalist who went missing before 2001
In a press release issued on 11 June 2001 two members of the Belarusian public prosecutor’s office, including Dmitri Petrushkevic in charge of the Dmitri Zavadski affair, accused the Attorney-General, Viktor Sheyman, and the deputy head of the presidential administration, Yuri Sivakov, of having set up a "death squad" in 1996 when they were respectively Secretary of the Security Council and Minister of the Interior. This death squad was said at first to be put in charge of eliminating the leaders of the criminal world before receiving more "political" assignments. The two public prosecutor officials said that the squad’s involvement in the disappearance of journalist Zavadski would be proved by genetically analysing the blood stain found in the boot of the vehicle of one of the presumed members of the squad. Cameraman Dimitri Zavadski vanished on 7 July 2000 at Minsk airport where he was supposed to meet one of the heads of Russian television’s ORT, Pavel Cheremet, when he got off the plane. His car was found in the airport’s car park. In 1996, Dimitri Zavadski left the State television to go work for ORT against the wishes of the Belarusian authorities. The President’s former personal cameraman, Zavadski was imprisoned with an ORT colleague for two months in 1997 after reporting on the weaknesses of the Belarusian security system along the border with Lithuania. On 11 May 2001 the Belarusian authorities announced that they had arrested several members of a gang suspected of kidnapping Dmitri Zavadski on behalf of the Russian extreme rightwing movement, RNU (Russian National Unit). The two public prosecutor officials who revealed the alleged existence of the "death squad" felt that the official findings in the investigation on the journalist’s disappearance had been "turned into a farce" by the authorities. On 24 October the trial of Valeri Ignatovich, Maxime Mlik, Sergei Guz and Sergei Saushkin opened; they were former agents in the special forces of the Ministry of the Interior, accused of kidnapping and murdering the journalist. On 25 October, their trial was postponed.
A journalist jailed
On 12 June 2001 Valery Shukin, a freelance journalist working for the newspapers Tovarish and Narodnaya Volia, among others, was thrown into the Minsk prison. On 15 March 2001 he had been sentenced to three months in prison for "vandalism" after trying to attend a press conference by the Minister of the Interior about the disappearance of members of the opposition. Only journalists from the State media were able to obtain official accreditation. Despite that, Valery Shukin came to the press conference and was violently attacked by the Interior Ministry guards, then sent to hospital.
Pressure and obstruction
On 9 January 2001 the printing press equipment of the publishing house, Magic, the country’s only privately owned publishing house and the printing press for most independent newspapers, including Balrauskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Nasha Svaboda and Narodnaya Volia, was seized by the police by order of the tax administration for "unpaid taxes". The printing press’s owner said that the equipment seized was worth four times the amount due. The printer was left with only a single press.
On 19 January the Attorney General’s office prosecuted the newspaper Nasha Svaboda ("Our Freedom") for "offences against the President’s honour". On 12 January the newspaper had published an article by psychiatrist Dmitri Schiguelski on the mental health of President Alexandre Lukashenko, suggesting he was suffering from a mental disorder with paranoid tendencies.
In early February the editorial board of the independent newspaper, Brestski Kourier ("The Brest Courier"), received a "warning" from the State Press Committee (three warnings, and the "wrong-doer" is shut down) for having circulated news about political parties, professional unions or other unauthorised groups. Brestski Kourier is one of the most popular independent regional newspapers.
In early February the independent newspaper, Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, received a "warning" from the State Press Committee for divulging investigation secrets in an article about the investigation into the officers of the special subdivision, "Almaz", suspected of having been involved in the disappearance of Dmitri Zavadski, correspondent for the Russian TV network, ORT.
On 2 March customs officials seized 745 copies of the newspaper Belaruskaya Vedamasti because it represented a "danger for the Belarusian political regime.
On 2, 11, 15 and 30 March vendors of the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda were arrested and harassed by the police.
On 16 March the offices of Borisovskie Novosti and the Centre for Human Rights in Borisov were searched by the police.
In March equipment was stolen from the editorial board of the independent newspaper, De Facto, in Moguilev. The journal had to suspend its activity.
On 25 March Dmitri Yegorov, a young photographer for the independent regional newspaper, Birzha Informacji, was arrested and held for several hours in a police car in the city of Grodno (western Belarus), just prior to the start of a demonstration organised by the opposition. He was hit, threatened and warned that he had "better not write articles about his arrest". He was then taken to a prison to show him "where journalists might be jailed", then freed. He then spent ten days in hospital because of the beating he suffered.
On 12 July the independent newspaper, Volny Grad, has its equipment seized by the police.
On 19 July the police confiscated the equipment of the newspaper Belarusky Uschod.
On 25 July the computer equipment of the editorial board of the daily Dyen was destroyed during a break-in. There was no sign of actual breaking and entering although the place was guarded by the police. A previous break-in of Dyen’s offices on 17 July prevented its publishing a special edition devoted to the unexplained disappearances of opposition personalities.
On 1 August the newspaper Dyen was forbidden to print on the premises of the Press House, a printing press directly administered by the State. The daily was punished for having "badly interpreted" a decision by the State Press Committee.
On 8 August the editorial board of Pagonya was threatened with closure by the secret services (KGB).
On 14 August the police confiscated the equipment of the newspaper Kutseyna.
On 17 August forces from the Ministry of the Interior confiscated the best part of the print-run of the daily Nasha Svaboda, that day’s edition of which included several articles critical of the authorities and news about the campaign by opposition candidate Vladimir Gonsharik.
On 22 August the Magic printing press’s equipment was again seized and its bank account frozen.
On 22 August ten computers were seized from the editorial board of the newspaper Narodnaya Volia by the police upon a request from the tax authorities.
On 23 August a computer belonging to the editorial board of the daily Nasha Svaboda was confiscated by the police for disobeying tax legislation.
On 24 August the newspaper Vabodniye Novosti received a warning from the State Committee for "circulating false news".
On 28 August the Minsk public prosecutor’s office ordered a stop to the printing of the edition of the daily Rabochy and opened legal action against it for insulting the President. The same day the police seized nearly 40,000 copies of the daily as "evidence". The authorities wanted to prevent
the circulation of an article entitled
"The Thief Should Go to Prison!", denouncing corruption by top-level leaders in power.
On 4 September President Alexandre Lukashenko declared in a campaign speech, "Lately we have relaxed our surveillance of the press, letting them do as they like. We must be patient. If we shut them up now, they’ll jump at the chance. We’ll settle accounts later (...). There are 250 foreign journalists here for the elections. They are here to harass our country. I just want to get through this period peacefully."
On 13 November the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the independent weekly Pagonya for slander against President Lukashenko following on an article questioning the President’s role in the disappearance of opposition leaders. Nikolaï Markevitch, editor-in-chief of Pagonya was sentenced on 13 December to pay a fine for having organised a demonstration on 19 November protesting the newspaper’s closure. He decided not to appeal the decision, saying that "the Belarusian courts serve the interests of one single person and not those of society."
On 19 November the public prosecutor’s office prosecuted Iosif Syardzish, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Narodnaya Volia for slander. He is blamed for having published a statement on 5 September by the opposition presidential candidate, Uladzimir Hansharyk, accusing the authorities of fixing the results of the electoral vote.
President Alexandre Lukashenko has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders