23 August 2005

IPI Strongly Condemns Continued Crackdown on Freedom of Expression in Belarus

According to information before IPI, the Minsk City Prosecutor's Office opened a criminal inquiry into the possible defamation of the President of Belarus in a series of satirical Internet cartoons. One of the cartoons' characters apparently bears a similarity to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka; others are similar to other government officials.

A group of Belarusian students, who created a civil association called "Tretij Shlyakh" (Third Path), faced accusations of tarnishing the reputation of the President of the Republic. If convicted, they could face prison sentences of up to five years under article 367 of the criminal code.

On 16 August, state security service (KGB) officers searched the apartments of Andrey Obuzov, the association's Website administrator, and Pavel Morozov, the project's coordinator, and seized their computer equipment. Obuzov and Morozov have not yet been officially charged, but have been questioned on the matter.

The short animated satirical cartoons were allegedly created by activists of "Tretij Shlyakh" and posted on its Website, which was temporarily shut down. It has also been reported that the cartoons were sent to Obuzov and Morozov by anonymous authors.

Commenting on the case, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, "IPI is deeply concerned that cartoons or satire can be considered an act of criminal defamation. Moreover, we are shocked that people still face criminal defamation charges in Belarus".

"Criminal defamation laws have been used by repressive regimes to shield public officials from scrutiny and criticism and consequently deprive the public of their right to be informed. The threat of being subjected to imprisonment often forces journalists to resort to self-censorship and encourages a culture of secrecy," Fritz said.