IFJ and SHC Condemn Belarusian Court for Ruling Svaboda Newspaper "Extremist"

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Swedish Helsinki Committee (SHC) today said that a recent ruling from a Belarusian court calling Svaboda newspaper extremist is an attempt to silence the independent newspaper, which has run foul of the country's state security."This is clearly a politically motivated case with a complaint brought by the state security because it was unhappy with coverage it had received in Svaboda," said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White. "This sets a terrible precedent that critical media in Belarus can be convicted of extremism solely for covering protests of groups that the government labels extremists. This makes any journalist liable to criminal prosecution for covering events that may be mildly embarrassing for the authorities."

The ruling came just weeks before Belarus parliamentary elections on September 28. The Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka has put an effort into convincing the international community that the elections will meet international standards for democratic elections.

"The ruling against Svaboda is a reminder to the international community of the level of repression against independent voices in Belarus," said Robert Hardh, SHC Secretary General. "Lukashenka is trying hard to convince the EU and others that the parliamentary elections are free and fair but he seems to forget that freedom of speech is a vital component in a democracy. By clamping down on Svaboda the regime clearly shows that it has no intent to allow the people of Belarus to receive other information than state propaganda."

On September 9 Judge Aliaksandr Toustsik of Iuje District Court ruled that an issue of non-registered Svaboda newspaper was extremist based on a complaint about an article in the issue and destroyed 5,000 copies of the issue, which had been confiscated by the police. The decision was not made public until September 19.

The ruling in the civil case came in response to an official appeal signed September 4 by Ihar Siarheenka, the head of Hrodna Regional Department of the KGB (the state security committee). His complaint was prompted by an article called "War in Georgia," which he claims "discredits" Belarusian police that prevented the Malady Front (Young Front) activists from holding an unsanctioned picket in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk.

In the complaint, Malady Front is described as a "radical and extremist organization" that was attempting to express solidarity with "unlawful actions of the Georgian authorities against the people of the South Ossetia." The complaint said that "the information in the newspaper contains anti-Belarusian trends and aims to discredit the home and foreign policy of Belarus".

The copies of Svaboda containing the article were confiscated on August 19 in Iuje Distric on the road from Minsk to Hrodna. The driver of the car was sentenced to pay legal expenses of 70,000 Roubles (23 Euros).

The Hrodna Regional Department of the KGB has also filed complaints against nine people for possession of extremist materials. These are a dozen publications, ranging from the Viasna human rights organisation's monitoring from 2004 to a recording from a pro-democratic concert, that have been confiscated by customs officials in Hrodna in the past two years. The case is expected to go to trial in October.

The SHC and IFJ are concerned that the court will follow the example of the Svaboda case in the trial against these nine people. IFJ and SHC also fear that the ruling will prompt Belarusian authorities to bring similar charges against other media that are critical of the government or the KGB and that all reporting on groups that the government labels "extremist" will be suspended if journalists fear that it could land them in court.

"This ruling will only increase the climate of fear that Belarusian media must work in and increase the incentive for self-censorship as journalists must make editorial decisions with the threat of prosecution," White said.

For more information:

Contact the IFJ at +32 2 235 2207

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries worldwide

Contact the SHC at +46 709 14 63 43 (mobile to information director Natasha Jevtic Esbjornson, currently in Minsk)



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