When 14 European Union members banned President Alexander Lukashenko from entering their countries in November 2002, the two main Belarus TV stations did not report it. The public media is totally controlled by a government that is shunned by the rest of Europe for being a throwback to the Soviet era. Independent media are systematically harassed, especially by information minister Mikhail Podgainy, who uses bureaucratic obstacles, trials and direct threats as means of censorship.
Three journalists were sent to labour camps in the space of a few months for insulting the president after denouncing his corruption or his involvement in the disappearance of journalist Dmitri Zavadski. Strong international reaction and demonstrations all over the country were met with official silence and with police brutality.
The Belarus Association of Journalists launched a nationwide campaign in September against articles of the criminal code used by the authorities to prosecute journalists - article 367 on libelling the president, article 368 on insulting him, article 369 on insulting a government official - in order to collect the 50,000 signatures needed for parliament to review the code. But in November, parliament refused.
On 10 December, 250 people formed a human chain in Minsk to demand the truth about the disappearance of several regime opponents between 1998 and 2000, including ORT cameraman Dmitri Zavadski. The trial of former members of the interior ministry’s special police, which ended in the summer, did not establish the exact circumstances of Zavadski’s murder or who had ordered his kidnapping. Journalists were not allowed access to those involved in the case or to attend the trial.
New information on a journalist
who disappeared before 2002
A special sub-committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, set up in 2002 to investigate the disappearance of opposition figures in Belarus, reported on 27 November that the Belarus authorities had still not given satisfactory responses about the fate of Dmitri Zavadski, cameraman for the Russian TV station ORT, who disappeared on 7 July 2000 and whose body has not been found.
The Zavadski family’s lawyer, Ihar Aksionchyk, was dismissed from the case and given an 18-month suspended prison sentence on 11 October for "slandering an official." He had told journalists on 13 February 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 upheld on 16 July a life sentence on the former head of the interior ministry’s special police force, Valery Ignatovich, and one of his subordinates for the kidnapping and presumed murder of Zavadski and for killing five other people. Ignatovich reportedly decided to kill Zavadski because of an article he had written in 2000 revealing that Ignatovich had joined the independence fighters in Chechnya.
Zavadski, formerly 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.
Four journalists imprisoned
The regional court in Grodno, near the Polish border, rejected on 15 August 2002 the appeals of Nikolai Markevich (editor) and Pavel Mazheiko (journalist) of the opposition paper Pagonya against sentences of respectively a year and a half and a year at hard labour for libelling President Lukashenko (article 367-2 of the criminal code). Markevich was convicted of allowing publication of several articles in the paper on 4September 2001 and Mazheiko for criticising the president in an article headed "Come and vote." The articles accused the president of involvement in the disappearance of government opponents, including Zavadski.
Markevich was sent to the Osipovichi labour camp (south of Minsk) on 1 September and Mazheiko to one in the southern town of Zhlobin. Protests were staged during the trial, which was delayed several times and closely followed abroad, and led to several incidents, including the arrest on 5 April of 13 journalists for illegally demonstrating.
A court in Minsk sentenced Viktor Ivaskevich, editor of the independent newspaper Rabochy, to two years at hard labour on appeal on 15 October 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. Some 40,000 copies of the paper were seized. Ivaskevich was transferred on 16 December to a labour camp in Baranavichy.
Journalist and human rights activist Valery Shukin, of the newspaper Narodnaya Volya, was arrested on 28 July in the village of Pogranichny while covering a protest against the destruction by the authorities of a church belonging to the independent Orthodox movement. He was sentenced to 15days detention for "violation of a frontier area and refusing to obey orders".
Three journalists arrested
Andrey Pachobut, Irina Chernyavka and Andjei Pisalnik, journalists in Grodno, were arrested on 28 July 2002 in the village of Pogranichny while covering a protest against the destruction by the authorities of a church belonging to the independent Orthodox movement. They were held by police overnight and given a small fine for "parking in a frontier area."
Pressure and obstruction
Prosecutor Stanislav Novikov summoned Irina Makovetskaya, correspondent in the southern town of Gomel for the daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG), on 7 February 2002 and questioned her about an article in the paper in December 2001 which said legal officials had covered up a police brutality case. The journalist learnt of the summons only the day before. Soon after the article appeared, the secret police chief of the Gomel region, Anatoly Tsakun, publicly said he would "deal with" the journalist.
The state-run company television company BT, which has a TV monopoly, told Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta on 6 February that advertising it had already paid for would not be broadcast because, said BT advertising manager Alexander Ganush, the paper had reported on BT for the previous two years in an "distorted and insulting" way and was no longer wanted as a BT customer.
The same day, M. Petrushyn, deputy head of the Minsk city executive, banned the paper from advertising its 10th anniversary in the streets of the city, saying such an occasion was not an important event for the community.
On 11 February, the country’s supreme court upheld a 13 November 2001 order shutting down the Grodno opposition weekly Pagonya for libelling the president in an article about his role in the disappearance of his opponents.
President Lukashenko said on 28 March that the state radio and TV lacked "statist ideology" and that the "ideological content" of the TV would henceforth be under his control.
The foreign ministry said on 25 April that it had warned Pavel Selin, correspondent of the Russian TV station NTV, after a series of reports about repression of the opposition in Belarus. Selin had been summoned to the ministry the day before and asked to deny the truth of the reports and to apologise for their "biased and groundless" content.
Edvard Skobelev, editor of the newsletter put out by President Lukashenko’s office, urged state-run literary magazines in mid-May not to publish work by writers who criticised the government and called several of the country’s well-known writers "politically retarded." Freimut Duve, press freedom representative of the Organisation for European Security and Cooperation (OSCE), strongly condemned the statement on 20 June.
The country’s economic supreme court rejected on 13 June the appeal of Iosif Siaredzich, editor of the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya, against his conviction for "harming the reputation" of the president. The information ministry had sued the paper at the end of March for mentioning on 20 March a Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) item saying the president’s office was involved in arms-trafficking, embezzlement and money-laundering. Article 47 of the press law says however that media using material from other media are not responsible for their content.
The foreign ministry threatened in writing on 1 August to cancel the accreditation of all journalists working for the Belarus service of RFE/RL in Minsk. Sudden renovation work began the station’s rented offices and forced most journalists to work in makeshift offices and the station to seek new premises. A few weeks earlier, the radio had started programmes featuring several literary paper editors sacked by President Lukashenko.
Intruders broke into an apartment serving as the office of the independent weekly Zhoda on the night of 5 August and removed computer hard drives and modems, thereby preventing publication of the next issue. Editor Aleksei Korol said it may have been a warning by the state security police.
Nikolai Markevich, editor of the banned weekly Pagonya, said on 7 August that officials in the town of Grodno had refused to register a new paper called Golos. In early March, they had also refused to register Newspaper Pagonya, saying its name was too similar to the banned Pagonya.
Alexander Starikevich, editor of the trade union paper Belorussky Chas since September 2000, was dismissed on 8 August at the request of the deputy head of the presidential office, Leonid Kozik, who had just been appointed head of the Belarus Trade Union Confederation. He had been angered by the journalist’s refusal to allow him to monitor the paper’s content.
On 12 August, on the eve of a meeting in Moscow between President Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the authorities suspended relay broadcasts of the Russian radio stations Yunost and Mayak and restricted those of the Russian TV stations RTR, NTV and Kultura. The Belarus state TV programme Panorama said this was because of "lack of funds" to pay for their broadcasting in Belarus. The broadcasts were partly restored on 16 August, two days after the end of Lukashenko’s visit.
President Lukashenko threatened on 17September to prosecute Alexander Silich, correspondent of the independent daily Narodnaya Volya, if he continued to "provoke" him. The journalist had asked the president at a Minsk press conference about the existence of secret funds. Matias Brutman, of the German daily Handelsblatt, was also threatened with legal action for asking the president about his alleged involvement in the disappearance of his opponents.
Minsk public prosecutor Vyacheslav Terekhovich, filed suit on 18 September against Irina Makovetskaya, correspondent in Gomel for the daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, for harming his reputation and writing inaccurate articles about the corruption trial of several members of the University Medical Institute in Gomel, including Prof. Yury Bandazhevsky, an expert on the effects of radioactivity on humans. The journalist had expressed doubts about the conclusions of Terekhovich, the examining judge in the case.
The same day, Irina Khalip, of the daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, was summoned by the prosecutor general’s office. She was told she was being sued for libelling prosecutor-general Viktor Sheyman and that the paper had been given a warning for publishing, in a supplement in August, an article by her accusing Sheyman of dropping an investigation after taking bribes. She had already been questioned on 13 August about the article and the case investigation was due to be completed on 23 February 2003.
The economic supreme court rejected on 16 October a complaint against the information ministry by the weekly Svobodnye Novosti for illegally withdrawing its licence to publish. Minister Mikhail Podgainy had sided on 22 August with one of the paper’s co-founder, Sergei Atroschenko, who had shut down the paper, frozen its bank account and sacked its editor, Alexander Ulitionok, without consulting his partners, saying the paper was losing money and only surviving through grants from the US embassy.
On 5 November, police questioned journalists Iulia Doroshevich and Andrey Pachobut, of Pagonya, which was banned in 2001, about the paper’s Internet website.
Bailiffs seized computer equipment from the independent Minsk weekly Nasha Svoboda on 6 November. On 27 August, editor Pavel Zhuk had announced the paper was closing for financial reasons after a court on 2 August ordered journalist Mikhail Podolyak and Nasha Svoboda to pay respectively five million rubles (7,300euros) and 100millionrubles (49,000euros) in libel damages to state control commission chairman Anatoly Tozik for an article in July accusing him of complaining to President Lukashenko that prosecutor-general Viktor Sheyman was incompetent. The paper closed down after the seizure.
The information ministry cancelled on 26 November the registration of the independent weekly Mestnoye Vremya, saying its new address was not legal, even though the law does not provide for such a heavy sanction for this. The paper, which started up at the beginning of the month, was only able to publish 6,000 copies.