18 May 2005

Government persists in judicial hounding of independent press

Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern about persistent government hounding of the independent press through the courts.

The country's leading independent newspaper, the Minsk-based Narodnaya Volya, selling 30,000 copies five times weekly, received a warning from the justice ministry on 16 May for "publishing false reports", in violation of Article 32 of the media law.

On the same day, the newspaper learned that workers at the state-owned company Belaruskalii had laid complaints for libel for having printed their names in a 23 April article headlined, "Such is the people's will".

The article listed 300 Belaruskalii workers who had signed a letter backing the foundation of an opposition movement "The People's Will". Five workers denied signing and claimed the equivalent of around 18,200 euros damages from the paper.

One of the workers suing the newspaper, Syarhey Katovich, admitted in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty having come under pressure from the company's management, as had his four colleagues. "You know, I nearly lost my job", he said.

Reporters Without Borders said it was concerned about the latest case and condemned the exploitation of the media law to silence dissident voices. ""A country under the rule of law should ensure a separation of powers. President Alexander Lukashenko is fully justifying his place on our list of press freedom "predators", it added.

Narodnaya Volya received the list of signatories in favour of the creation of "The People's Will" directly from the movement's co-ordinator. After receiving a letter from Belaruskalii's management, the newspaper published a retraction of the list in its 14 May edition, to avoid legal trouble.

The paper's editor, Yosif Syaredzich, told Reporters Without Borders' correspondent that the "information ministry has played the role of examining magistrate, prosecutor and judge. Under the media law, anyone brining a case against a newspaper must first ask for a correction to be published and if necessary, apologies as well. In this case, the information ministry immediately sent a warning without first informing the editor of the basis of the complaints or the date of the decision."

The newspaper had received a previous warning on 13 April, for carrying an appeal from the "Defenders of the homeland", a group that was not registered with the authorities, in its 31 March edition.

Narodnaya Volya is also facing a complaint lodged on 5 April by Syarhey Haidukevich, leader of the Belarus Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who is claiming the equivalent of 73,000 euros damages against the newspaper for having suggested that the LDP cooperated with the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and received financial backing from him.