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Belarus26 May 2003

OSCE alerted about major press freedom violations

Reporters Without Borders has voiced its concern about the threats to press freedom in Belarus to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the eve of a visit to Minsk on 25-28 May by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s ad hoc working group on Belarus.

In a letter to the working group’s chairperson, Uta Zapf, Reporters Without Borders highlighted three issues: the lack of transparency in the drafting of a new law on the news media, the obstacles to the creation and existence of independent publications, and the provisions for prison terms for defamation, which led to the detention of three journalists in 2002.

"We urge you, Madam Chairperson, to raise these questions with the parliamentarians and officials you meet during your visit to Belarus," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said.

A new version of the draft "law on the press and other media," first submitted in September 2001, was to have been published in March 2003 and debated in parliament from 2 April onwards. But the authorities have refused to release the latest drafts and a parliamentary vote has again been postponed, until autumn 2003. The lack of transparency in the preparation of this reform is preventing it from being analysed by human rights organisations and thereby preventing any warnings being issued about problems it might cause.

Many independent publications appeared in the years following independence, but today they are increasingly under threat. The creation of new publications, especially in the provinces, as well as the maintenance of existing publications, are hampered by means of bureaucratic obstacles. At least five newspapers have been temporarily shut down or prevented from appearing under various pretexts as a result of judicial decisions.

A regional court on 19 May refused to register the new legal address of the newspaper Volny Gorad, thereby preventing the newspaper itself from being registered. Information minister Mikhail Podgainy on 24 April ordered the closure of the independent regional newspaper Pravinstsyalka for three months because it changed its legal address and the subjects it writes about without coordinating with the information ministry and local authorities.

On 3 February, the court responsible for commercial matters in the Grodno region suspended the commercial licence of Ramuald Ulan, the founder of Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni, an independent weekly in the town of Smorgon, thereby condemning the newspaper to closure. The executive committee accused Ulan of violating the right to work, tax legislation and fire regulations in 2000 and 2002. On 26 November 2002, the information ministry invalidated the registration of the independent weekly Mestnoye Vremya on the pretext that its new address had not been legalised, although the law makes no provision for such a drastic sanction in such circumstances. Launched at the start of November, the newspaper was able to bring out only three issues.

Finally, the defamation law was the basis on which the courts sentenced three journalists to hard labour in 2002 and continues to be used against independent voices, such as Alexander Ignatouk, editor in chief of the newspaper Vechernyi Stolin. Accused of defaming a local official, Vladimir Pashkevich, and thereby preventing him from pursuing his professional activity, Ignatouk faces up to three years in prison.

The sentences of hard labour passed on Mikolai Markevich, editor of the regional newspaper Pagonya, and one of his journalists, Pavel Mazheiko, for insulting the president were lightened in spring 2003 inasmuch as they were allowed to serve their sentences in their home town. But Viktar Ivaskevich, the editor of the newspaper Rabochy, is still in a labour camp for an article he wrote and published accusing President Lukashenko of corruption.

By imprisoning these journalists, the authorities are violating international press freedom standards, which state that: "In the case of offences such as ’libelling’, ’insulting’ or ’defaming’ the head of State (...), prison terms are both reprehensible and out of proportion to the harm suffered by the victim" (18 January 2000 report of Abid Hussain, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression).

These journalists should be cleared of all charges and Ivaskevich should be freed immediately.

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