May 03, 2005

Belarus - 2005 Annual report

President Lukashenko's authoritarian regime tightened its grip in 2004, substantially reducing freedom of all kinds and including a systematic crackdown on the independent press. The information minister used bogus bureaucratic reasons to suspend a dozen newspapers in the run-up to parliamentary elections and a referendum on 17 October. The independent press is fighting to survive and is overshadowed by government media that mostly spouts propaganda.

"The state media's job is to promote the government's ideas," said electoral commission president Lidia Ermoshina about the role of the media in backing the regime's appeal for a "yes" vote in the 17 October 2004 referendum to amend the national constitution to allow President Alexander Lukashenko to run for a third term. The broadcast media enthusiastically backed the amendment and gave no voice to opposition views. Information minister Vladimir Rusakevich also silenced what little open dissidence there was by suspending the few independent papers as the referendum and parliamentary elections approached.

At least 11 independent or pro-opposition newspapers were suspended between June and October for between one and three months, with a peak during the six weeks before the October elections. They included Allo ! Kuplyu, Lyuboi Kapriz, Menyayu, Narodni Predprinimatel, Navinki, Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni, Prodam, Rabochaya Solidarnost, Regionalnaya Gazeta, Regionalniye Vedomosti and Vremia, all of them accused of trumped-up bureaucratic irregularities, such as failure to keep to regular publication dates, language rules and lack of a registration certificate.

The country's most popular independent paper, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG), was systematically obstructed from January on. The post office, which delivered copies to subscribers nationwide, and the government distribution firm Belsayuzdruk cancelled their contracts with the paper for 2004. Irina Makovetskaya, its correspondent in the southern town of Gomel, received night-time death threats on 10 January.

The independent weekly Den paper was forced to move its printing operation to neighbouring Russia after a string of sudden confiscations, searches by the secret police, eviction from its premises and the refusal of printers around the country to handle it. Its editor, Mikolai Markevich, former editor of the weekly Pagonya (closed in 2001), was sentenced to 18 months forced labour in 2002 for allegedly insulting Lukashenko.

The authorities also moved against foreign media and Ukrainian freelance journalist Mikhail Podoliak was deported on 21 June and banned from the country for five years after being accused of trying to "destabilise" the country in what he wrote. Officials announced the closure of the Minsk office of the Russian TV station Rossia on 23 July for broadcasting "biased reports" about an opposition demonstration two days earlier.

Pressure on the independent media did not let up after Lukashenko's election victory on 17 October. Police arrested and beat several journalists on election day and during later opposition protests. Some foreign TV journalists said they were prevented from transmitting their film. Pavel Cheremet, of the Russian station Perviy Kanal, was beaten up by two strangers on election day and then arrested.

The courts, controlled by the government, imposed heavy fines that threatened media with bankruptcy and closure and led journalists to strictly censor themselves. The supreme court confirmed in June a 20,000 euros damages award against on the independent paper Narodnaya Volya for libelling former state TV head Yahor Rybakov.

Elena Rovbetskaya, editor of the weekly Birzha Novostei, was fined 500 euros (the equivalent of six months salary) on 30 September for "offending the honour and dignity" of the president.

Dmitri Zavadski has been missing since 2000 Those responsible for the disappearance in 2000 of cameraman Dmitri Zavadski were still unpunished. The investigation into it was closed in early April 2004 shortly before the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly said very senior officials may have been personally involved and that this had been covered up. Christos Pourgourides, the Council's special rapporteur on missing people in Belarus, said in a report in January that three top officials were suspected in the disappearance of Zavadski and several other people. The officials were Viktor Sheyman, the prosecutor-general and former head of national security, the then interior minister, Yuri Sivakov (currently sports and tourism minister) and Dmitri Pavlichenko, head of a special police unit.

Zavadski vanished in Minsk on 7 July 2000. He was Lukashenko's personal cameraman until 1996, when he resigned from the government-run TV station 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. His body has never been found.

After a secret trial, the Belarus supreme court upheld a life sentence on the former head of the interior ministry's special police force, Valery Ignatovich, on 16 July 2002 and on one of his subordinates, Maxim Malik, for Zavadski's kidnapping and presumed murder and for killing five other people in 2000.

The authorities claimed Ignatovich decided to kill Zavadski because he felt targeted by an interview the journalist gave the daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta in 2002 saying he had met Belarusians fighting with independence fighters in Chechnya. The trial did not establish details of the kidnapping or who ordered it.

In 2004:

- 1 journalist was still missing

- 9 were arrested

- 7 physically attacked or threatened

- 1 expelled

- and 26 media outlets censored

Personal account

"My paper disturbs people"

Andrei Shentorovich edits the weekly Mestnaya Gazeta in the town of Volkovysk. It is one of the few independent and privately-owned publications in Belarus. He staged a 21-day hunger-strike in October 2004 after the paper was suspended by the authorities.

Why did you go on hunger-strike ?

I wanted to protest against the paper's suspension, which I was told about by the information ministry on 14 October. It came just three days before the referendum allowing President Alexander Lukashenko to stay in power. So I began the hunger-strike.

The worst of it was that I was fined about $500 on 25 November for supposedly organising a demonstration without permission from the Volkovysk regional authorities. But all I'd done was go on hunger-strike. My lawyer argued in vain that I hadn't provoked the public, hadn't roamed the streets proclaiming my opinion and that it was just a personal gesture. The fine was to scare me and make me shut down the paper for good.

Why did they suspend the paper ?

The information ministry cancelled my publication licence for a bogus reason, that the paper didn't have a legal address in Volkovysk. In fact it didn't because the authorities had refused to register it so it could have one. So the paper hasn't appeared for the past month. It clearly disturbs people. It has a circulation of more than 8,000, a lot for a town of only 140,000 people. It's a "dissident" paper than provides readers with reliable news about things the pro-government media just doesn't mention. No printer in Belarus will handle it, so I get it printed in Smolensk, which is 800 km away, in Russia.

Did the hunger-strike achieve anything ?

It was important for me to protest against the regime's deliberate destruction of press freedom. Independent papers are closing down all the time. Fines and bureaucratic harassment are all part of a plan to stifle dissent and stop it being published and spread. We now have a tame media that just says everything's fine in Belarus. It's Lukashenko's famous "vertical administration" system and it's worse than under Soviet rule. The authorities conjure up a new law every day to stifle independent voices.

December 2004

Personal account "The regime's grip is tightening" Zhanna Litvina is president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), which won the European Parliament's 2004 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, encouraging it in the battle for press freedom. What did being presented with the Sakharov Prize in December mean to you ? Two Belarusian organisations, us and Zubr, were short-listed for it so it means we're recognised by all the European Union's democratic forces. It's big international publicity for the BAJ and a powerful support for all my colleagues who've been fighting for a free media over the past decade. The prize reassures us we aren't alone in the battle in a country cut off from the outside world. How are you going to use the 50,000 euros prize money ? If we're allowed in the end to use it - it depends on various government bodies - we're going to set up independent facilities to print and distribute existing independent publications and also open a journalism school to teach worldwide journalistic principles. The next meeting of the BAJ board will make a final decision. Is a media "revolution" possible any time soon in Belarus, like the one that happened between the two rounds of Ukraine's presidential election ? Definitely not. The regime's grip on the media is tightening. All independent voices are systematically hounded by absurd bureaucratic devices. A score of publications have been suspended since the beginning of 2004. Several alternative papers, such as Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta and Solidarnost, are forced to print abroad, in Smolensk (Russia). So the independent press is shrinking. Journalists have a big problem getting news. Those granted accreditation are mainly the ones who follow the official line and put out propaganda. The regime sees the media's job as simply to echo government views. Is the mysterious murder of journalist Dmitri Zavadski in 2000 going to be forgotten ? The BAJ is campaigning for a new investigation. The regime certainly isn't doing much to solve the case, to say the least. December 2004