published: March 6, 2005 6:00 am

Belarusian journalist reminds us why freedom is worth fighting for

By ROBERT C. Gabordi

Pavel Mazheika is a young man who has seen a lot more than his 26 years would suggest.

He is the managing editor of a weekly newspaper (circulation 5,000) in Grodno, Belarus, near the border of Poland and Lithuania. His newspaper's right to publish has been suspended by the government.

In 2002, Mazheika and his editor were sentenced to hard labor working in construction and exiled to an area badly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1996. At the time, Mazheika was working at a newspaper called Pahonia (Pursuit). It, too, was shut down by the government. He was sentenced to a two-year term.

Mazheika and his editor were accused of slandering the president, Aleksandar Lukashenko. An editorial Mazheika wrote questioned the president's fitness to be re-elected and listed accusations to support that, including allegations that Lukashenko had brutally eliminated political opponents. Human rights advocates, including some in the U.S. Congress, also have signaled warnings about the Lukashenko regime.

Some 20 newspapers have now been closed by the government in Belarus under Lukashenko.

Mazheika has spent the last two weeks at the Asheville Citizen-Times, learning how American newspapers work. He has visited with Asheville community and political leaders, attended a City Council meeting and spoken through a translator to two local Rotary Clubs.

Next week, we will tell you more about Mazheika through articles and columns, including one that he will write. The timing of his visit was perfect.

Newspapers and broadcast outlets across America will take part in a project called Sunshine Sunday-Sunshine Week, an effort by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to increase public awareness of First Amendment issues and open government in the United States. Mazheika's story will be a central part of our efforts in this.

We have been impressed with his passion and his courage. It reminds us that we must all be vigilant in protecting our freedoms. It makes us long for a time when Americans loved freedom so much.

Belarus is a small landlocked nation of slightly more than 10.3 million people. It is closely aligned with Russia and serves as a buffer between Russia and the Ukraine. It is of little strategic or economic consequence to the United States or any other western democracy. Russia and Belarus are closely linked, having signed a treaty in 1999 calling for greater political and economic unity. In other words, journalists like Mazheika are on their own. They have little hope for outside help. Yet, they fight on with remarkable courage.

Sadly, Americans have become all-too lackadaisical about our own freedoms, both locally and nationally.

 After nearly three years, the state government is still withholding the release of records and documents from the families of eight men who died in the Mitchell County Jail fire. A lawsuit filed by the Citizen-Times seeking the release of the records remains tied up in the courts.

 Just a little more than a year ago, a Citizen-Times reporter was threatened with arrest by Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford for doing her job.

 The Pentagon has forbidden photographs of flag-draped caskets returning from Iraq as part of its effort to control what Americans know about the war. I'm not sure I would publish such photographs, but I certainly object to the government deciding what we can and cannot publish and what you can and cannot see.

 The Bush administration is now embarking on changing the rules on how the public gets access to information, saying citizens should have to justify why information should be released, not on just classified materials, but also a broad spectrum of government documents. Previously, the government had to justify withholding information owned by the public from citizens.

A growing number of people seem to be willing to accept the erosion of freedom in America. In part, that's because schools are closing student newspapers and broadcast outlets and failing in their responsibilities to teach civics, citing budget constraints. Actually, it's unfair to place all the blame on the schools when we all share in the fault. But it is important to ask why Americans are so willing to give up basic freedoms.

Only 51 percent of high school students believe newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of stories, according to a recent landmark study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More than a third of students say the First Amendment gives Americans too much freedom, although about 75 percent say they either do not understand it or take it for granted. Presumably, these students have never lived in Belarus.

Knowing and teaching about our own freedoms is everyone's responsibility. In part, that's what Sunshine Sunday is all about. That's the story we hope to tell you next week. It's only a little odd that a lesson in a basic American freedom comes from a determined Belarusian.

Robert C. Gabordi is executive editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times. He can be reached at (828) 232-5954 or