published: March 13, 2005 6:00 am

Freedom of the press not a right in Belarus

Reporter jailed for criticizing his country's president

By John Boyle

Belarussian journalist Paval Mazheika enjoys some local scenery during a visit to the area and the Asheville Citizen-Times as part of a program through the International Center for Journalists.

In America, criticizing the president gets you late-night laughs on television or maybe a syndicated newspaper column.

In Belarus, it gets you prison time - with hard labor.

Paval Mazheika, 26, knows that all too well. In June 2002, a Belarussian judge found him guilty of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko before the September 2001 election in a column he wrote for his newspaper, a weekly independent called Pahonia (Pursuit). The judge sentenced Mazheika to two years in prison, his editor-in-chief to two and a half.

Mazheika spent six months in a labor camp, doing construction work and cutting logs 400 miles from his home in Hrodna. The town where Mazheika served his time, Zhlobin, remains contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown.

After six months, Mazheika was released for "good behavior." Now, four years later, Mazheika still fervently believes he was right to state his beliefs - and that it is the job of every journalist to always pursue the truth.

"I'll say I would write this column again today," Mazheika said through an interpreter. "I committed no crime. I expressed my opinion."

In May 2002, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private nonprofit dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, named Belarus "one of the world's 10 worst places to be a journalist," citing "the stifling repression of Europe's most authoritarian regime." The CPJ maintains that Lukashenko has used "a broad arsenal of weapons," including a criminal libel law, to carry out "an unprecedented assault against the independent and opposition press."

Mazheika and an interpreter, Nicholas Berkoff, visited USA Today and the Citizen-Times for two weeks in late February and early March to learn how American newsrooms work. They visited via a U.S. State Department program facilitated by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C.

Belarus still repressive

The situation in Belarus is no better today. Lukashenko is still president and has become even more repressive, a frightening prospect for the country's 10 million residents as they struggle with a slow economy and rampant corruption.

"Paval's case demonstrates what happens when governments think they have the right to control journalists and the media," said Alex Lupis, Europe program coordinator at CPJ. "It's an extreme case, imprisoning a journalist, but it's just an example of what some politicians think - that they know best what information the media and society should have."

Mazheika was born and raised in Hrodna, a city of about 300,000 people in western Belarus, near the Polish and Lithuanian borders. His father is a retired police lieutenant colonel and his mother is a foreman at a food processing plant.

Mazheika graduated from the University of Hrodna, majoring in culture and history. But he knew early on, especially as the former Soviet Union crumbled and possibilities seemed endless for his newly independent country, that he wanted to be a journalist.

"I think it was my desire to participate in changing the world," he said, adding that this became an obsession. "I wanted to share my knowledge, to put people on the right and true path, as it were."

He started working as a journalist in his teens and scored his first byline at age 16. He says he "acquired a tremendous amount of experience in a short period of time."

Any American journalist can understand the magnetic pull he felt to his profession. Mazheika truly has ink in his veins.

"I really felt it was my honor, and I have a sense of achievement working for a newspaper and seeing my name in print," Mazheika said.

In the column that got him tried, Mazheika wrote straightforwardly about what kind of president he wanted for his country.

"I believe in this column I was not speaking as a columnist, per se, but rather as a citizen of my country," he said.

Mazheika said he didn't want a president who had turned neighboring countries into enemies or relied on fear to silence the opposition.

"I wanted to see a president who would be capable of drawing on the talents of the people, in the best sense, rather than relying on death squads to do its business," he said.

At the time of the trial, the CPJ's executive director, Ann Cooper, decried the prosecution.

"For journalists to be criminally prosecuted for daring to criticize the head of state shows Lukashenko's utter contempt for press freedom," Cooper said.

Mazheika says opposition politicians in Belarus have "disappeared." The CPJ says the July 2000 disappearance of Russian cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky "continues to evoke local and international outrage and serves as a chilling reminder of the serious threats that journalists face." In that case, two former members of Belarus' special forces were convicted of kidnapping Zadavsky, but prosecutors have not investigated possible connections to senior government officials.

Pahonia was closed in November 2001. Mazheika says their prosecution was simply a "show trial" designed to send a chilling message to journalists in Belarus.

"The regime is scared of any alternative thought or opposing views that could shake the pillars or foundation of that regime," Mazheika said.

Government shuts down newspapers regularly

Although he has continued in journalism, ostensibly as the managing editor of a newspaper called Den (The Day), Mazheika says the government has instituted a litany of bureaucratic rules that make it impossible to publish or distribute the paper. For awhile they actually had the paper printed in Russia and distributed it in Hrodna - an 800-mile round trip - but the government created new rules on distribution that caused it to suspend publication over the past six months or so.

Mazheika will not give up, though, even though 25 independent newspaper folded or were shut down last year in his homeland. About 20 still operate, but mostly in the countryside and not in major cities.

An enthusiastic and outgoing man, Mazheika feels energized by the American newsrooms' teamwork that he witnessed and the access to real information, not just propaganda disseminated by the state. Journalism calls him, because he can give voice to his people.

With that in mind, he burns to produce a newspaper in his country again.

"I am convinced that freedom - not just freedom of expression - is an inviolable right of my person and every other person as well," he said. "I can't see my life being complete without that."