Persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus
12 March 2004
Political Affairs Committee
Rapporteur : Mr Christos Pourgourides, Cyprus, Group of the European Peoples Party
The temporary suspension of several independent newspapers in Belarus in May 2003 by administrative orders from the Minister for Information caused widespread international criticism and drew attention to the situation of the media in Belarus. The motion for a resolution of 9 July 2003 on the persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus (Doc. 9859) makes reference to these incidents. It also recalls that the application by the National Assembly of Belarus for the restoration of the special guest status with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe requires an analysis of these incidents and the media situation in general by the latter.
Freedom of expression and freedom of the media constitutes one of the essential foundations of any democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every human being, as the European Court of Human Rights has consistently stated. Where information is withheld from the people through state censorship and state propaganda reigns, true democracy cannot exist. Freedom of expression and freedom of the media is therefore one of the fundamental freedoms protected by the Council of Europe.
The present situation concerning the media in Belarus is unacceptable and highly disturbing. The title of this report truly describes the present situation in Belarus. The persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus is unfortunately a daily phenomenon. The international community of democratic nations cannot tolerate this any longer and must take appropriate action for the sake of the people of Belarus.
I. Draft resolution [Link to the adopted text]
1. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recalls that membership of the Council of Europe requires the commitment of a state to strive for greater European unity based on the common values shared by the family of democratic nations in Europe and enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the other Conventions and Recommendations of the Council of Europe. Therefore, the authorities of each applicant state must show their willingness and capability of adhering to these values and standards. One of the fundamental democratic rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights is the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
2. The Assembly welcomes the wish expressed by the Parliament of Belarus to resume the special guest status with the Parliamentary Assembly as well as the desire of Belarus to accede to the Council of Europe. It is with regret, however, that the Assembly must note that neither the Parliament nor the other state authorities of Belarus have made any progress towards democratic development since the suspension of the special guest status of the Parliament of Belarus in January 1997 due to the dissolution of the Parliament by President Lukashenkos referendum and the subsequent non-democratic constitution of a new Parliament. The Bureau of the Assembly consequently rejected the application for re-granting the special guest status to the Belarus Parliament in January 2004.
3. The Assembly recalls that freedom of expression and freedom of the media constitutes one of the essential foundations of any democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every human being, as the European Court of Human Rights has consistently held. Where information is withheld from the people through state censorship and state propaganda reigns, true democracy can never exist.
4. The Assembly remains appalled by the fact that the disappearance of the journalist Mr Dmitri Zavadski more than three years ago and his alleged extra-judicial execution has not been properly and truly investigated. The conviction of four men for the abduction of Mr Zavadski cannot be regarded as a proper investigation for various reasons. Reference is made only to a few of them: firstly, the body of Mr Zavadski has not been traced and it has not been established that he has been murdered. Secondly, the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus is in charge of all criminal investigations. The present holder of the post of Prosecutor General is Mr Victor Sheyman who is regarded by many people in Belarus as the mastermind behind this abduction and other forced disappearances.
5. The Assembly deplores the systematic harassment and intimidations carried out by state officials, in particular the Ministry of Information, against journalists, editors and media outlets which are critical of the President of the Republic or the Government of Belarus. The legal basis for such action is very often the requirement of print media to receive a state licence by the Ministry of Information. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights does not permit such licensing of print media.
6. The Assembly is deeply concerned by the level of state control over the electronic media, in particular the public television and radio company of Belarus which works under a Presidential Decree, but also the private joint-stock companies where the state typically holds major shares and interests. The same concern is also caused by the fact that the printing companies and the companies distributing print media are largely state controlled. In a genuine democracy, state media must not function as a voice of the president and the executive branch of power, but should rather provide an impartial service for the public at large by disseminating news and commentary in an open, unbiased and truthful way.
7. The Assembly expresses grave doubts as to whether the current controlled media landscape provides for the freedom of information through the media necessary for the preparation and conduct of democratic parliamentary elections in autumn 2004. All political candidates, political parties and political civil society organisations must have equal access to the media without a restrictive control by the state. Otherwise, voters in Belarus will not be able to receive the information necessary to form their own opinions about the situation in their own country.
8. The Assembly therefore regrets that legislative reform of the Law on the Press and other Mass Media and other relevant laws, long announced and awaited, has not been finalised in time before the coming parliamentary elections by the President of the Republic, the Ministers in charge and the Parliament. The Assembly resolves to continue monitoring the situation concerning the media in the Republic of Belarus until the new Law on the Press and other Mass Media is enacted.
9. The Assembly notes with regret that the Belarus Parliament refused to co-operate with the OSCE in the organisation of a seminar on the media in Belarus on 27 February 2004. Furthermore, the Assembly regrets that the Vice-Chairman of its Chamber of Representatives, Mr Vladimir Konoplev, refused to receive a joint delegation from the Council of Europes Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the European Parliament from 22 to 24 January 2004, which would have allowed the members of the Parliament of Belarus to hold a dialogue with European parliamentarians on issues including freedom of the media.
10. The Assembly calls on all member and observer states of the Council of Europe not to tolerate any longer the existing state of affairs in Belarus. Fundamental rights and freedoms are systematically violated in Belarus with the sole aim of keeping a non-democratic regime in power. The regime of President Lukashenko bases its existence on repression, intimidation and fear. The measures of repression and intimidation are directed not only towards the media but also towards all other democratic institutions, human rights activists and the people at large. Belarus remains in the year 2004 a police state with conditions similar to those prevailing in the country during the Soviet Union era. It is imperative to do everything possible in order to bring democracy to Belarus. Millions of Belarusians were killed during the Second World War fighting bravely against the forces of Hitler. But freedom has not yet come to their land. All member and observer states of the Council of Europe have a duty to ensure that Belarus ceases to be the last dictatorial state in Europe.
11. The Assembly calls on the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to:
i. constantly bear in mind the people of Belarus and step up targeted action in favour of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Belarus;
ii. allocate, in co-operation with the Committee of Ministers, sufficient resources for projects on strengthening democracy and freedom of the media in Belarus in preparation of the parliamentary elections in autumn 2004.
12. The Assembly calls on the President of the Republic of Belarus, the Government of Belarus and the National Assembly of Belarus to:
i. launch a truly independent investigation into the disappearance and alleged extra-judicial execution of the journalist Mr Dmitri Zavadski which occurred more than three years ago and make the final results of this investigation public; a prior requirement to such an investigation is the removal from office of Mr Victor Sheyman;
ii. consider revising the penal laws and Article 5 of the Law on the Press and other Mass Media in order to allow political criticism of the President of the Republic and the members of the National Assembly; the honour and dignity of the President of the Republic and the heads of state bodies must not be protected unconditionally;
iii. take due account of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations as well as Articles 3 and 4 of the Law on the Press and other Mass Media; thus the courts of Belarus should not impose disproportionate penal sanctions against media and journalists criticising the President of the Republic;
iv. revise Article 9 of the Law on the Press and other Mass Media in order to abolish the licensing requirement for print media, because this is contrary to the right to freedom of the press as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
v. abolish administrative sanctions and oral reprimands against media by the Ministry of Information because they violate the fundamental principle of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary and are contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the Law on the Press and other Mass Media should be revised accordingly;
vi. initiate legislation which fully implements Article 33, third sentence, of the Constitution of Belarus and which would prohibit any monopoly over the mass media by the state; for this purpose, the high concentration of state interests in joint-stock media, printing companies and distributing companies should be reduced and the national broadcasting company should become a public service broadcaster independent of direct control by the President of the Republic or other state organs;
vii. ensure that printers and distributors of print media neither discriminate against private media independent of state support, nor against foreign press;
viii. ensure that the Central Electoral Committee and the national broadcasting company provide for free, equal and fair access to airtime for political parties as well as independent candidates before elections in Belarus; the authorities may be guided by Recommendation No. R(99)15 of the Committee of Ministers on measures concerning media coverage of election campaigns; this is particularly important in preparation of the coming parliamentary elections in autumn 2004;
ix. revise all Presidential Decrees which excessively restrict the right to receive and disseminate information about the state under Article 34 of the Constitution of Belarus;
x. ensure that the National Assembly can take up its role as legislator and become the initiator of legislation and legislative amendments in the media field; in this regard, the National Assembly should seek to include in the Constitution of Belarus a provision on freedom of the media and the inadmissibility of censorship similar to Articles 3 and 4 of the Law on the Press and other Mass Media;
xi. refrain from restricting the right to freedom of association of journalists and editors, as guaranteed by Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations and by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the state authorities of Belarus must not hinder the work of the Belarusian Association of Journalists by intimidating and harassing its staff and members.
13. The Assembly calls on the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission not to tolerate any longer the systematic violation by Belarus authorities of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights and Articles 11 (freedom of expression) and 12 (freedom of association) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and to take appropriate action in their relations with Belarus.
14. The Assembly calls on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media not to tolerate any longer the systematic violation by Belarus authorities of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Articles 19 (freedom of expression) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations in relation to the obligations of Belarus under the Helsinki Final Act and paragraph 22 of the Istanbul Summit Declaration of the OSCE and to take appropriate action against Belarus.
15. The Assembly calls on the United Nations and, in particular, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, never to tolerate the systematic violation by Belarus authorities of Articles 19 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations and to take appropriate action against Belarus.
II. Draft recommendation [Link to the adopted text]
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe refers to its Resolution . (2004) on the persecution of the press in Belarus and recommends that the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe:
i. take into account this Resolution when deciding on action concerning Belarus;
ii. forward this Resolution to the governments of member states and observer states and request them to support in their bilateral relations with Belarus the fulfilment of the catalogue of requirements contained in this Resolution with regard to freedom of the media.
III. Explanatory memorandum by the Rapporteur
1. The temporary suspension of several independent newspapers in Belarus in May 2003 by administrative orders from the Minister for Information caused widespread international criticism and drew attention to the situation of the media in Belarus. The Motion for a Resolution of 9 July 2003 on the persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus (Doc. 9859) makes reference to these incidents. It also recalls that the application of the National Assembly of Belarus for the restoration of the Special Guest status with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe requires an analysis of these incidents and the media situation in general by the latter.
2. Freedom of expression and freedom of the media constitutes one of the essential foundations of any democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every human being, as the European Court of Human Rights has consistently stated. Where information is withheld from the people through state censorship and state propaganda reigns, true democracy cannot exist. Freedom of expression and freedom of the media is therefore one of the fundamental freedoms protected by the Council of Europe.
3. I was appointed rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee at its meeting on 30 September 2003 and visited Minsk from 30 November to 3 December 2003 together with the rapporteur for opinion of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education, Mr Mihai Baciu. This visit was co-organised by Mr Vladimir Konoplev, Vice-Chairman of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus, and the secretariat of the National Assembly, and I should like to thank all those involved in the organisation. The programme of my visit is attached hereto (Appendix I).
4. My preliminary draft report has been sent to the National Assembly of Belarus for their comments. The comments we received from Mr V. Konoplev are appended (Appendix II). It is with regret that I must note little interest on the side of the National Assembly in advancing the legislation of Belarus in order to reduce the room for arbitral action by the Ministry of Information and other state organs against media which are critical of the President of the Republic or of his government.
5. Belarus has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations, which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media under its Article 19. Under the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, these freedoms are referred to in two provisions:
Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thoughts and beliefs and their free expression. No one shall be forced to express one's beliefs or to deny them. No monopolization of the mass media by the State, public associations or individual citizens and no censorship shall be permitted. (Article 33)
Citizens of the Republic of Belarus shall be guaranteed the right to receive, store and disseminate complete, reliable and timely information of the activities of state bodies and public associations, on political, economic, cultural and international life, and on the state of the environment. State bodies, public associations and officials shall afford citizens of the Republic of Belarus an opportunity to familiarize themselves with material that affects their rights and legitimate interests. The use of information may be restricted by legislation with the purpose to safeguard the honour, dignity, personal and family life of the citizens and the full implementation of their rights. (Article 34)
6. In addition, the Law on the Press and other Mass Media of Belarus of 13 January 1995 regulates matters concerning the media. The Government and the Presidential Administration have been working on a revision of this Law for some two years without having been able to present a draft to the National Assembly for debate or to the public for a public discussion. Several drafts have been circulating informally, and the association Article 19 produced an analysis of a draft of September 2003 at the request of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. During a hearing on the media situation in Belarus organised by the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on 24 January 2002, the then Minister for Information agreed to send a draft of the amendments to the Law to the Council of Europe for advice. So far, no action has followed from this initiative by the Ministry.
7. In its Resolution 2003/14 on the situation of human rights in Belarus (17 April 2003), the United Nations Commission on Human Rights expressed deep concern: (a) at reports from credible sources, including statements of former investigators and senior law enforcement officials of the Government of Belarus, implicating senior government officials of the Government of Belarus in the forced disappearance and/or summary execution of three political opponents of the incumbent authorities and of a journalist, (b) about reports of arbitrary arrest and detention, (c) about persistent reports of harassment of non-governmental organisations, opposition political parties and individuals engaged in opposition activities and independent media.
8. The issue of the forced disappearance of the political opponents and the journalist Mr Dmitri Zavadski is the object of a separate report which I am preparing for the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Assembly. I therefore do not analyse this issue here, but would like to stress that the disappearance and alleged extrajudicial execution of the journalist, Mr Zavadski, by senior state officials must be regarded as the strongest form of persecution of the media.
9. In paragraph 22 of the Istanbul Summit Declaration of 1999, the OSCE participating states declared: We strongly support the work of the Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, which has worked closely with the Belarusian authorities as well as with opposition parties and leaders and NGOs in promoting democratic institutions and compliance with OSCE commitments, thus facilitating a resolution of the constitutional controversy in Belarus. We emphasize that only a real political dialogue in Belarus can pave the way for free and democratic elections through which the foundations for real democracy can be developed. We would welcome early progress in this political dialogue with the OSCE participation, in close co-operation with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. We stress the necessity of removing all remaining obstacles to this dialogue by respecting the principles of the rule of law and the freedom of the media. Although participating in the OSCE, Belarus has not made any progress in this respect.
10. The current Law on the Press and other Mass Media requires the registration and licensing of all media with the Ministry of Information (Article 9). The Ministry of Information, together with the State Control Committee, thus occupies a leading role in state control over the media and journalists. The Minister for Information explained to me that his Ministry would call in editors of media in order to present them with an oral complaint. Frequent reasons for such complaints had been technical requirements of the registration act and the publication of unverified facts or insulting statements about the President of the Republic or other senior state officials. As a second step, a written warning could be issued by the Ministry and, subsequently, the licence could be suspended.
11. Finally, the Ministry of Information could bring a case to the competent prosecutor for legal action against the editor, the journalist and the media company. In several cases, heavy fines were imposed on media for a critical report about the President of the Republic. In addition, journalists have been condemned by criminal courts to restrictive freedom, which is a form of detention combined with the prohibition to work as a journalist. The Belarusian Association of Journalists provided me with a chronology of measures which is attached hereto (Appendix III).
12. According to information provided to me during my visit, there are approximately 1500 media registered with the Ministry of Information. The media landscape in Belarus is characterised by state owned media, both print media and electronic media, as well as by private media which are typically joint-stock companies with a major state interest. In addition, few private print media exist which are independent from the state and its structure. Journalists have indicated that the number of independent print media is roughly 20. The Members of the House of Representatives informed me that some 19 out of the approximately 1500 registered media have received warnings or been suspended by the Ministry of Information or have been prosecuted by law enforcement authorities.
13. The current Law on the Press and other Mass Media contains three additional provisions relevant to this report:
Article 3 (Freedom of the Press and Other Mass Media)
Citizens of the Republic of Belarus are guaranteed the freedom of the press and other mass media.
Citizens of the Republic of Belarus shall have the right to establish mass media, to own, use and command them.
Citizens of the Republic of Belarus shall have the right to freely search, receive, use and disseminate information with the help of the press and other mass media, to utilize them freely for expressing their ideas, views and convictions.
The state is viewing the system of mass media as the basis for realization of the constitutional right of citizens of the Republic of Belarus for the freedom of speech and information, as an important component of national culture, and is determining measures directed at ensuring economic support of mass media.
Article 4 (Inadmissibility of Censorship of Popular Information)
Censorship of popular information that means a demand by governmental bodies, organizations, institutions, social action organisations, their officials from an editorial board to agree in advance reports and materials, as well as a demand to withdraw from the press (air) this or that material or report, shall not be allowed.
It shall not be allowed to establish and provide financing of organizations, institutions, bodies or positions whose tasks or functions include execution of censorship over popular information.
Article 5 (Inadmissibility of Abuse of Freedom of Popular Information)
It shall not be allowed to use mass media for the following purposes:
commitment of actions punishable in the criminal form;
disclosure of data comprising state or any other secrets specifically guarded by the law;
appeals to seizure of power, forced change of constitutional order, breaking of the territorial integrity of the Republic;
stirring up national, social, racial, religious enmity or discord;
propaganda of war and aggression;
dissemination of pornographic products;
infringement of morality, honour and dignity of citizens;
dissemination of information defaming honour and dignity of the President of the Republic of Belarus, heads of state bodies whose status is established by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus;
dissemination of information on behalf of political parties, trade unions or other social action organizations which failed to pass state registration (re-registration) in the established order.
Any unfinished materials of interrogation shall not be subject to publication or promulgation, as well as preliminary investigation and court cases without a written permit of the person who is fulfilling the interrogation, of the investigator or the judge, respectively, as well as materials obtained as the result of operating and searching activities.
14. I was informed by the Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of the Republic that his office maintains working relations with the Ministry of Information, because the President of the Republic is strongly interested in the media, but the Administration never issued any instructions to this Ministry.
15. The printing and distribution of print media is organised by the state as well as a few private companies. Since the printing and distribution of print media is vital for their existence, the current situation of printers and distributors in Belarus allows for an additional layer of control over the private press which is independent or even critical of the government. During my visit, I was informed about discriminatory practices by printers and distributors, which charged higher prices for non-state press or even refused to print and distribute individual media. Foreign print media are virtually non-existent in press kiosks with the exception of a few Russian papers.
16. Licences for terrestrial broadcasting frequencies are allocated by the state. Formerly, the national broadcasting company held the only licence for a nation-wide television channel. Two private channels have been founded recently, which are joint-stock companies with a major interest by the state. The national broadcasting company operates under a Presidential Decree and the control of the Ministry of Information.
17. Leaders of opposition parties have complained that they hardly have the chance of having interviews with them or information by them broadcast on the national channel. Before elections, the national broadcasting company disseminates political advertisements by the individual candidates in accordance with the instructions given by the Central Electoral Committee. Due to the large number of candidates for parliamentary elections some 10 candidates for each of the 110 election districts in the last elections, such advertisements have typically been broadcast one after another. This caused disinterest by the electorate in such advertising and reduced the chances of those candidates who otherwise have no access to national broadcasting.
18. Journalists working with independent media are typically members of, or affiliated with, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which has provided legal and political support for media against pressure exercised by the Ministry of Information, law enforcement authorities and the courts. Besides the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian Union of Journalists exists. This Union was founded during the existence of the USSR some 45 years ago and still maintains its old objectives, e.g. to train and guide journalists so that they do not portray a bad picture of Belarus, but rather have a better view of the country and the President of the Republic, as the President of the Union expressed it during my meeting with him.
19. Decrees of the President of the Republic allow for the classification of information held by public authorities and thus significantly restrict Article 34 of the Constitution, which otherwise guarantees the citizens of Belarus the right to receive and disseminate information about the activities of state bodies. Therefore, Article 34 has in practice become an empty norm. This example shows that even constitutional provisions have been restricted by decrees passed by the President. Presidential decrees are a typical means of ruling a state in an autocratic and absolutist way, and severely limit democratic rights and freedoms by negating parliamentary powers.
20. The National Assembly should have been involved in, and even been the motor for, a revision of the current Law on the Press and other Mass Media. Parliamentarians not only reflect the political opinions, at least in a democratic country, they also know best about the importance of free media independent of state control. It seems unacceptable that the National Assembly has not yet been provided with an official draft of the amendments to the Law and otherwise remained inactive.
21. The present situation concerning the media in Belarus is unacceptable and highly disturbing. The title of this report truly describes the present situation in Belarus. The persecution of the press in the Republic of Belarus is unfortunately a daily phenomenon. The international community of democratic nations cannot tolerate this any longer and must take appropriate action for the sake of the people of Belarus.
Programme of the visit to Minsk
30 November 3 December 2003
30 November 2003
Working dinner with
Ambassador Eberhard Heyken, Head of the OSCE Office in Minsk,
Mrs Zhanna Litvina, President of the Belarusian Association of Journalists,
Mr Ilya Kouznetsoff, secretariat member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
1 December 2003
Meeting at the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly with
Mr Vladimir Konoplev, Vice-Chairman of the Chamber of Representatives,
Mr Anatoly Malofeev, Chairman of the Committee on International and CIS Relations,
Mr Aleksei Vaganov, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance and Banking,
Mr Valery Lipkin, Chairman of the Committee on Human Rights, Ethnic Relations and Mass Media,
Mr Ivan Mychko, Vice-Chairman, Standing Committee on Finance and Banking,
Mr Anatoly Solovyov, Vice-Chairman, Committee on Legislation and the Judiciary.
Meeting at the Ministry of Information with
Mr Vladimir Rusakevich, Minister for Information.
Meeting at the OSCE Office in Minsk with
Ambassador Eberhard Heyken, Head of the OSCE Office,
Mr Gennady Barbarich, Belorusski Rynok,
Mr Andrey Bastunets, Centre for Legal Defence of Media, Belarusian Association of Journalists,
Mr Vyacheslav Khodosovski, Editor, Belorusski Rynok,
Mr Andrei Dynko, Editor, Nasha Niva,
Mrs Svetlana Kalinkina, Editor, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta,
Mrs Irina Khalip, Deputy Editor, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta,
Mr Alexander Koktysh, Printing House Molpress,
Mr Ales Lipay, Director General, News Agency BelaPAN,
Mr Nikolai Markevich, Editor, Den,
Mr Eduard Melnikov, Deputy Head, Belarusian Association of Journalists,
Mr Iosif Seredich, Editor, Narodnaya Volya,
Mr Alexander Starikevich, Editor, Salidarnast,
Mrs Alina Surovets, Editor, Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni.
Mr Vladimir Yanukevich, Editor, Intex-Press,
Mr Vasily Zdanyuk, Editor, Svobodnye Novosti+.
2 December 2003
Breakfast meeting with Mr Valery Frolov, Member of the Chamber of Representatives
Meeting in the Administration of the President of the Republic with Mr Oleg Proleskovsky, Deputy Head of the Administration.
Meeting at the State Broadcasting Company with
the First Deputy Chairman,
the Head of the International Department,
the Head of the Legal Department.
Meeting with the President of the Belarusian Union of Journalists
Response by Mr V. Konoplev, Vice-Chairman of the Chamber of Representatives
of the National Assembly of Belarus
to the questions raised in the preliminary draft report
Monitoring of the media situation in Belarus
Information provided by the Belarusian Association of Journalists
April 16 Minsk Economic Court partially allowed the appeal of Mestnoye Vremya Press, publisher of Mestnoye Vremya newspaper, against Minsk Executive Committee, overruling the committees decision to annul registration of the Mestnoye Vremya Press company. Now the Ministry of Information will have to resume registration certificate of the newspaper. Despite the court denied the newspapers request to compensate material losses, Mestnoye Vremya founders consider the trial results their absolute victory.
April 18 Belarus Minister of Information Mihail Padhainy issued an order to suspend publication of a regional independent newspaper Pravintsyalka for three months for serious violations of legislation. In particular, the newspaper was charged with changing the legal address and topics covered in the newspaper without coordinating it with the ministry of information and local authorities. BAJ lawyer Andrey Bastunets calls the ministers resolution ungrounded. It is the second independent newspaper founded by Alyaxander Ignatsiuk that has been closed by the authorities within the last two months February 26, 2003 minister Padhainy also ordered to close his previous newspaper Vyacherny Stolin. Mr. Ignatsiuk is not giving up, promising to publish another newspaper instead soon.
April 23 the news desk of the only independent TV station in Mogilev TV-2 stopped operating after the State Control Committee issued an order to confiscate the stations 28 units of office equipment and to send it to Minsk. The equipment was confiscated back in March at the decision of economic court due to lack of hygienic registration of equipment. Since then it had continued producing news and received an agreement to buy back from the state the confiscated cameras and editing suits. However, on April 23 the State Control Committee informed Mogilev-2 channel that following an order from Minsk the equipment had to be taken to the capital. TV2 resumed broadcasting news April 25 following consultations with the local governor. They are now planning to purchase the equipment back from the state.
Trade union newspaper Salidarnasc resumed publishing April 24 after a seven months long break. The newspaper is printed on 16 A3 pages with the circulation of 10 thousand copies. It has articles both in Russian and Belarusian languages. Chief editor of Salidarnasc Aliaxander Starikevich, former chief editor of Belarusky Chas trade union newspaper, who was sacked by the new union leader Kozik, loyal to the president.
April 24 Alexander Lukashenka signed a Decree ? 174, according to which State TV and Radio Company "is a state institution reporting to the President and fulfilling certain state management functions. The decree frees State TV and Radio Company from the function of "state regulation in transmission and distribution of information".
April 25 a regional court in Smarhon (Grodno region) fined Mr. Slizh, the publisher of Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni newspaper, 20 minimum salaries (about 130 Usd) and ruled to confiscate all profits from newspaper sales for violations in registration procedure. Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni has been published since 1996. On February 3, 2003 the founder of the newspaper Raman Ulan was banned from business activities following three state inspections fire inspection, tax inspection and labor control inspection, and so he arranged that a head of a local farm Mr. Slizh became the official publisher. Mr. Slizh has added publishing activity into the statutes of his company but has failed to register the changes with state bodies. This became the official pretext of the fine, although Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni began to have problems with local authorities after it surpassed local state-owned newspaper by circulation by over two times and after its founder decided to register two new independent newspapers.
Finally, April 29 journalist of the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya Marina Koktysh was summoned to Belarus Prosecutors Office for conversation. Prosecutor Stanislau Novikau charged the journalist with violating several articles of the Law on press by publishing in her article extracts from the speech in court of the former director of Minsk Tractor Works Mihail Lyavonau. In the end of the hour-long conversation the prosecutor promised the journalist that he would see her again.
April 30 Mogilev regional economic court waived the appeal of Siarhei Niarouny, the editor of Krychau independent newspaper Volny Horad against the regional executive committee. The authorities deny approving the legal address of the newspaper, thus making it impossible to raise circulation over 300 copies.
May 13 Procuracy of Stolin region has started criminal procedures against Aliaxander Ignatsiuk, the founder and the editor of two local newspapers Vecherny Stolin and Provintsialka for offending honor and dignity of a state official. If Ignatsiuk is found guilty, he might be fined or sentenced to up to three years of jail.
May 13 Deputy Chief Editor of Narodnaya Volya newspaper was summoned to the Prosecutors office for a conversation following his April 1st article Tonight Saddam Hussein landed in Minsk airport. Belarus granted him political asylum. May 15 Mr. Silich has received an official warning from deputy prosecutor general for an attempt to publish disinformation in the form of an April Fools Days joke. May 22 the Ministry of Information issued an official warning to Narodnaya Volya for violating Article 5 of the Law on Press for disclosing materials of an ongoing trial.
May 19 in Hamburg Belarusian journalists from the Belorussky Rynok newspaper have received a German Zeit foundation award. Mikola Markevich, editor of Pahonia newspaper closed down by the authorities, have received a special prize for courage.
June 6 Navinki independent paper has been suspended from circulation for three months. The order was issued by the Minister for Information Mihail Padhajny on May 22. The order to suspend Navinki was issued for two consecutive warnings in two days. On May 21 and 22 the Ministry for Information admonished Navinki for allegedly breaching Article 5 of the Law on Press. The first admonition for imparting information that defames the President of the Republic of Belarus concerned two snapshots of Aleksander Lukashenka. On May 20 a district court found Mr. Kanavalchyk guilty of violating the Law on the Press and Other Media (Article 172-1, part 10 of the Administrative Code) for printing the pictures and fined him approximately $700. On June 4 a bailiff visited the place of his official residence, Mr. Kanavalchyk said to BAJ press-service, in order to find out about the possibilities of getting fine money. The second admonition was issued for contributions to Navinki No.11, published under the heading Opium for the People and for a title in the analyses section of Navinki No. 8, which the Ministry for Information found jeopardising public morals. The current legislation allows initiating liquidation of a periodical if it has been admonished for failing to comply with Article 5 of the Law on the Press twice within a year. Mr. Pauluk Kanavalchyk intends to appeal to a higher court to reconsider the admonitions and the court ruling.
May 22 the State Control Committee confiscated 28 units of office equipment from Mogilev-2 TV-station passed by the Irex ProMedia program. The equipment was confiscated at the decision of economic court due to lack of hygienic registration of equipment. Since then the station had continued producing news and received an agreement to buy back from the state the confiscated cameras and editing suits. However, May 22 the State Control Committee informed Mogilev-2 channel that following an order from Minsk the equipment had to be taken to the capital.
May 28 Mihail Padhajny, the Minister for Information of Belarus issued decrees Nos. 96 and 97 to suspend Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta and BDG. Dla Sluzhebnogo Polzovaniya from circulation for three months. At the same time Krasnaya Zvezda printing house and the National Distribution Enterprise received the Minister's spoken order to stop printing and delivering the current issue of BDG, said Mr. Piotr Marcau, the managing director of Marat publisher in a press conference on May 29.
The decision followed a series of articles published by BDG and BDG. Dla Sluzhebnogo Polzovaniya, which allegedly failed to comply with Articles 5, 32 and 40 of the Law on the Press. It had taken the Ministry for Information only three days - May 20 to May 22, to issue several admonitions to BDG and BDG. Dla Sluzhebnogo Polzovaniya editorial board for publishing the articles.
It is evident for me that the decision is politically motivated and has nothing to do with legal issues, said Mr. Marcau commenting on the suspension of the papers. It is not just the officials' resolution, it was all decided in the highest office. In Mr. Marcau's opinion, there are no grounds for admonishing the papers, to say nothing of suspending them.
The law has a provision that a periodical can appeal within a month with a view to having an admonition annulled and the editorial board has already applied to the Supreme Economic Court, the papers' managers stressed. Yet, the Ministry for Information suspended the periodicals without waiting for a verdict. Ms. Sviatlana Kalinkina, BDG editor-in-chief, called it 'extrajudicial revenge'.
In Ms. Kalinkina's opinion, the onslaught on the paper may be connected with a rather serious material on the upper echelons of government, which was in preparation.
Still, the papers' managers promise to restart publishing and circulating BDG and BDG. Dla Sluzhebnogo Polzovaniya in the nearest future. They make no comments on how they are going to do that.
May 30 the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Freimut Duve, has asked Belarusian Foreign Minister, Sergei Martynov, for urgent clarification regarding the suspension of publication of the independent newspapers Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG) and BDG-For Internal Use Only for three months beginning 29 May 2003.
The Ministry of Information of Belarus suspended the publications after giving them three official warnings that they were violating the country's media legislation.
One of the reasons given for this suspension is for publishing an article allegedly defaming President Aleksandr Lukashenka, causing damage to his honour and dignity. Another warning was issued when the newspaper reported on court proceedings without written permission of the judge.
"As OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media I have frequently stated my position that no special protection should be afforded to public officials, including the president," Mr. Duve wrote in his letter to the Minister. "Conversely, public officials should learn to exercise a greater level of tolerance to criticism, including from the media, than ordinary citizens."
"What compounds my concern is the fact that other independent newspapers, including Narodnaya Volya, Navinki and Vecherny Stolin, have also received their second or third official warnings from the Ministry of Information and may also be subject to closure or suspension in the near future. It appears that your Government is using the current media law to restrict freedom of the press in the Republic of Belarus."
The letter to the Belarusian Foreign Minister also expressed the OSCE Media Representative's deep concern " about these negative developments regarding freedom of media in your country, a valued member of the OSCE family and signatory to all OSCE agreements on press freedom. I would appreciate urgent clarification on these serious matters."
June 4 Mihail Padhajny, Belarus Minister for Information suspended a new independent weekly Echo from circulation for 3 months. Echo had recently been launched by Marat publisher, run by the editorial board of the previously suspended Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. The same day Echo editorial board received a letter from Uladzimir Celesh, managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda printing house, who informed them that the contract on printing Echo and Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta had been cancelled.
The papers were to have published some of the contributions to BDG. On the same day the Ministry for Information dismissed Mr. Celesh from his post as the managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda. As Minister Padhajny points out in his order, Echo weekly was suspended on allegations of 'serious offences against the Law on the Press.' The weekly had supposedly changed the official address and field of reference, as well as the title without being re-registered. Therefore, Mr. Padhajny claims the editorial board failed to comply with Article 11 of the Law on the Press.
On these grounds the Ministry issued two admonitions, which was enough to suspend Echo. Before it was suspended, Echo had only published one issue. However, Belsajuzdruk refused to distribute it, saying their contract with Marat concerned Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, not Echo.
June 4 Mr. Celesh, the managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda printing house, sent Marat a letter, which said, 'We are sorry to inform you that due to unsatisfactory technical condition of the printing machine, we are unable to fulfill our obligation arising from the contracts on printing Echo and Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta. Please, consider the contracts cancelled.' Hardly had the letter been signed when Minister for Information Mihail Padhajny sacked Mr. Celesh. (His employment contract specified that it was the Ministry for Information that employed him as the managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda.) The Ministry has confirmed the information, but refused to explain on what grounds Mr. Celesh was dismissed.
WAN congress, held in Dublin June 8 through 11, awarded the Belarusian Association of Journalists with its Golden Pen Award in recognition of its courageous resistance to the repression of the media by President Aleksander Lukashenka
Navinki independent paper has been suspended from circulation for three months. The order was issued by Minister for Information Michail Padhajny on May 22. Yet, it was only on June 3 that Navinki editorial board got to know about it from Belsajuzdruk staff, who refused to sell the paper, referring to the Minister's order. 'The paper's abrupt suspension has caused $300 worth of immediate losses (this does not include the taxes, employees' salaries, etc.)' says Mr. Pauluk Kanavalcyk, Navinki editor-in-chief.
The order to suspend Navinki was issued the same day as it received the second warning in a row. On May 21 and 22 the Ministry for Information admonished Navinki for allegedly breaching Article 5 of the Law on the Press. The first admonition for 'imparting information that defames the President of the Republic of Belarus' concerned two snapshots of Alaksandar Lukashenka, printed and commented upon in the 7th issue of Navinki. On May 20 Maskouski District Court found Mr. Kanavalchyk guilty of 'violating the Law on the Press and Other Media' (Article 172-1, part 10 of the Administrative Code) for printing the pictures and imposed on him a fine of 1.4 m roubles (approximately $700). On June 4 a bailiff visited the place of his official residence, Mr. Kanavalchyk said to BAJ press-service, in order to find out about the possibilities of getting fine money.
The second admonition was issued for contributions to Navinki No.11, published under the heading «Opium for the People» and for a title in the Analyses section of Navinki No.8, which the Ministry for Information found 'jeopardising public morals'
The current legislation allows to initiate liquidation of a periodical if it has been admonished for failing to comply with Article 5 of the Law on the Press twice within a year.
Mr. Pauluk Kanavalchyk intends to appeal to a higher court to reconsider the admonitions and the Maskouski District Court ruling.
On June 3 Editor-in-chief of Rabochy newspaper Viktar Ivashkevich, sentenced for two months for dishonouring President Lukahenka, was informed that his prison termed was cut by half due to amnesty.
On June 4 Mr. Michail Padhajny, Belarusian Minister for Information, suspended a new independent weekly Echo from circulation for 3 months. Echo had recently been launched by Marat publisher, run by the editorial board of the previously suspended Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. The same day Echo editorial board received a letter from Mr. Uladzimir Celesh, managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda printing house, who informed them that the contract on printing Echo and Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta had been cancelled. The papers were to have published some of the contributions to BDG.
On June 4, i.e. the same day the Ministry for Information dismissed Mr. Celesh from his post as the managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda.
As Minister Padhajny points out in his order, Echo weekly was suspended on allegations of 'serious offences against the Law on the Press.' The weekly had supposedly changed the official address and field of reference, as well as the title without being re-registered. So Mr. Padhajny claims the editorial board failed to comply with Article 11 of the Law on the Press. On these grounds the Ministry issued two admonitions, which was enough to suspend Echo.
Before it was suspended, Echo had published one single issue. However, Belsajuzdruk refused to deliver it, saying their contract with Marat concerned Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, not Echo. So readers were only able to get it via the network of individual deliverymen and through Marat subscription list.
On June 4 Mr. Celesh, the managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda printing house, sent Marat a letter, which said, 'We are sorry to inform you that due to unsatisfactory technical condition of the printing machine, we are unable to fulfil our obligation arising from the contracts on printing Echo and Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta. Please, consider the contracts cancelled.'
Hardly had the letter been signed when Minister for Information Michail Padhajny sacked Mr. Celesh. (His employment contract specified that it was the Ministry for Information that employed him as the managing director of Krasnaya Zvezda.) The Ministry has confirmed the information, but refused to explain on what grounds Mr. Celesh was dismissed.
WAN congress, held in Dublin June 8 through 11, awarded the Belarusian Association of Journalists with its Golden Pen Award in recognition of its courageous resistance to the repression of the media by President Aleksander Lukashenka
June 11 seven plain-clothed policemen confiscated about 1,600 copies of Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta newspaper, which published the materials of Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta newspaper, recently suspended by the authorities. The policemen didnt have any warrants. Later on the same day 3,500 more copies of the newspaper were confiscated in a post-office by criminal investigation officers. In the night from June 10 to June 11, 15,000 copies of Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta were also confiscated in Smolensk.
June 17 Belarus Minister of Information Mikhail Padhainy said he was not going to pass a draft Media Law to the Council of Europes expertise, because it wasnt in his competence. He stressed it was the Parliament or the foreign ministry that could do it.
June 18/19 International Conference: Diversifying Television Broadcasting in Belarus was held jointly by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, ARTICLE 19, and the Council of Europe. Participants of the conference express serious concern that:
- TV broadcasting in Belarus is monopolised by the state;
- Political reasons have been used to dismiss numerous staff from the State broadcaster in the last year and a half;
- News coverage provided by the Belarusian TV does not fulfil professional standards of impartiality, balance or objectivity;
- The programming of the State TV and radio does not reflect the diversity of society in Belarus.
They stated an urgent need:
- To carry out a nation-wide information and educational campaign on the concept of public service broadcasting to prepare the ground for transformation of the State TV and radio into a truly independent public service broadcasting organisation;
- To develop and propose a broadcasting law following public consultation and in line with international standards.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists commited to establish an expert working group by the end of July 2003 to draft a regulatory framework, which should be accomplished before the upcoming parliamentary elections in autumn 2004.
The conference participants appealed to the European Union, the Council of Europe, OSCE, and other international players to give political support to these aims, and facilitate the process by any possible means.
June 19 first deputy minister of information has signed the second warning to Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta newspaper and a decree to suspend its publication for three months. The warning was issued for publishing the article Legalized Outrage in the June 9-16 issue of the newspaper. The article criticized firing of the printing house director, who allowed printing Salidarnasc, Echo and Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta, which published materials of the disgraced BDG newspaper. By closing Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta the authorities deprived BDG of its last chance to publish its materials in other media.
June 24 EU urged the Belarusian authorities to immediately allow publishing "Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta" and the publication "BDG-for internal use only". The EU follows with great concern the worsening media situation in Belarus and expresses its preoccupation at the suspension of the independent newspaper "Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta" and the publication "BDG-for internal use only" on 28 May 2003. The EU is also concerned about certain provisions in the draft media law and the continued harassment of the independent and opposition newspapers and journalists, the statement issued by the EU says.
24 June. Concern over the closure of the Russia's only nation-wide private TV channel TVS, and indignation at the suspension of two leading independent newspapers in Belarus, were the first reactions of the newly-appointed General Rapporteur on the Media of the Parliamentary Assembly, Irish Senator Paschal Mooney.
June 24 Belarus Ministry of information ordered all FM radio stations to submit the printouts of all its news programs and play lists to the ministrys analytical department every day. The ministrys employees motivate their requirements by the necessity to implement the Presidents Decree No. 516 dated September 24, 2001, and to control violations of mass media legislation. Until now, the Ministry of information has also monitored broadcasts of FM stations, but had no possibilities for permanent control, the head of the ministrys analytical department Dzmitry Konanau said. Many things happen in mass media and sometimes you have to have proof in your hands, he added.
June 24 journalist of an independent newspaper Nasha Niva Arkadz Shanski was detained in Minsk during a street action arranged in protest against pressure on the Belarusian Non-State Humanitarian Lyceum. Police dispersed the protest participants and arrested the journalist, despite he had a journalist ID. Policemen tried to break the tape recorder and deleted the recording on the tape. After spending half an hour in a police department the journalist and two action participants were released. No protocols were prepared.
June 25 policemen forced Alina Suravets, journalist of a regional independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta Sorgoni and head of local office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists to leave the conference hall where a regional council held its open session. The head of the regional council said Alina Suravets didnt have a written invitation, although the journalist insists that the session was open and an official warning to heads of all regional companies was published in a local newspaper on the eve of the session.
From June 23 to June 30 three Belarusian TV chanels screened a documentary program called Cobweb slamming independent press for living on the money of foreign sponsors. The program strongly criticized the activities of IREX ProMedia program in Belarus and used the cold-war terminology like Danger for Belarus information field, USA desire to dominate in all fields, information support of various extremist and criminal groups, opposition leaflets, etc.
June 27. The U.S. Embassy in Belarus issued a statement denouncing allegations of the state TV channels. The statement says: Belarusian Government officials and state-owned enterprises have recently made various allegations regarding the United States Embassy and U.S. NGOs active in Belarus. In particular, the Belarusian State Television show entitled Cobweb implied that the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) is carrying out activities that are in some fashion illegal or improper. The statements and insinuations are patently false and absurd. The United States Embassy rejected any charges that it carried out activities that violated Belarusian law or that IREX had a hidden agenda in Belarus.
The United States deplored the ongoing campaign of the Belarusian Government to deprive Belarusian citizens of their right to receive information and views through independent as well as State media channels. It called upon the Belarusian authorities to cease this campaign in its entirety and to comply with its obligations under agreements in force concerning all U.S. entities carrying out assistance to Belarusian society, including IREX.
If the writers of the "Cobweb" program have noticed peoples discontent with the countrys leadership, they should look to their own government's policies and practices, not foreign assistance programs, for an explanation, authors of the statement conclude.
June 29 Pavel Selin, Belarus correspondent for the Russian television network NTV, was expelled from Belarus because of an allegedly tendentious report on the funeral of Vasil Bykau, a writer opposed to President Alexander Lukashenka. The Belarusian foreign ministry withdrew Selins accreditation and banned him from entering the country for five years. Besides, the ministry addressed the Council of Minister with a suggestion to close NTVs Minsk bureau until the station screens an apology for Selins June 25 report.
Belarus Interior ministry believes that the journalists material is aimed at destabilization of the situation in the country and provokes confrontation between the citizens adhering to different political views, the Interior Ministrys Spokesman Dmitry Patron stresses. He added Selin was deported in voluntary order as a person whose activities contradicted to the interests of the state security and ensuring civil order.
The foreign ministry on 27 June asked Selin to explain a report two days before on the funeral of writer Vasil Bykau, in which he said the police deliberately obstructed the 20,000-strong procession and that Bykaus widow had been stripped of her permission to reside in Minsk. The report also stressed the presence of the red and white flag that was used when Belarus won independence but has since been banned and is now a symbol of opposition to the Lukashenka regime.
Selin said the authorities were especially annoyed that he included an interview with Stanislau Shushkevich, Belarus first leader after independence, in which he said Lukashenka was afraid to come to the funeral.
State Secretary of Belarus Security Council Genadz Nyavyglas called Selins report blatant lies
The investigation carried out by competent authorities found that the information broadcast in the report do not correspond to the reality and have a tendentious and provocative character aimed at destabilization of the situation in the country and undermining the authority of the government structure, Spokesman for the foreign ministry Andrey Savinych said.
Selin had come under pressure from the authorities in the past about his reporting in Belarus. The foreign ministry announced on 25 April 2002 that it had warned him about a series of reports on repression of the Belarusian opposition. Selin had been summoned to the ministry the day before and asked to deny the truth of the reports and to apologise for their biased and groundless content.
NTV General Director Nikolay Senkevich was quoted by Echo Moskvy as saying that The correspondent (Selin) performed his work correctly like any journalist should work.
June 29 Russian Foreign Ministry expressed regret about deportation of the Russian journalist and said it was expecting explanations of such a radical move from the official Minsk.
Until July 1 all FM radiostations have passed reregistration. In the process of reregistration the Information Minstry issued a regulation to increase the proportion of Belarusian content in the overall music played on the radio to 50% from July 1. FM radio stations have been having difficulties finding quality soundtracks to comply with the ministry's requirement.
Valery Drozdov, Alfa Radio program director, said that the station was trying to select Belarusian soundtracks beforehand, but found almost no quality records. "Even well-known artists' tracks are of such a poor quality that it is impossible to listen to them in stereo."
He pointed out, however, that the station will seek to promote Belarusian music in its day-time programs to encourage Belarusian musicians to improve their quality).
Besides, according to the deputy Information Minister Siarhey Bulatsky, the Ministry of information asked the heads of FM stations to use information concerning Presidents activities from official sources (state information agencies and press-services) All Belarusian F?-stations except Radio Roks, which exists on private funding, have some state money in their capital.
July 12 a new FM radiostation Radius FM started to broadcast in Belarus. The station, structurally part of Belarusian State TV and Radio Company, will broadcast 20 hours per day on the frequency of Radio Stalitsa. Radio Stalitsa, which was the only Belarusian-language FM station, will broadcast on UHF and HF insead. Radius FM will be the largest radio network in Belarus supposed to cover 80% of Belarus territory and aiming mainly at 18-37 years old audience.
July 2 Belarusian Association of Journalists has submitted to the Constitutional Court an appeal urging to review the constitutional character of Articles 367 (Slander against the President of Belarus), 368 (Insult of the President of Belarus) and 369 (Insult of the public official) of Belarus Criminal Code.
About seven thousand signatures are attached to the appeal, gathered by BAJ during a nation-wide action involving political parties, trade unions, entrepreneurs and youth organizations. The three articles were repeatedly used to convict Belarusian journalists.
Belarus Criminal Code contains Articles 188 and 189 envisaging responsibility for slander and offense, and this stipulation fully concerns Belarus President and public officials. Including specific Articles 367-369 means introducing additional protection of citizens depending on their position, which contradicts to Belarus Constitution, the appeal says, stressing that criminal repressions are no longer used in European and International practice as a punishment for free expression of ideas and opinions.
July 7 the founder of Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni newspaper Ramuald Ulan appealed to the regional procuracy against the head of the head of the local council Mikalay Shysh. On June 25 Mr. Shysh ordered Alina Suravets, journalist Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni, to leave the venue of the local council session. The session was open, Mr. Ulan insists.
July 7, on the third anniversary of disappearance of ORT cameraman Dzmitry Zavadsky, BAJ and Reporteurs Sans Frontiers issued a statement urging Belarusian authorities to resume investigation of the journalists disappearance.
July 7 Belarus' Council of Ministers issued a decree ordering to shut down the Minsk office of NTV, one of Russia's major TV channels. The move followed deportation of Pavel Selin, NTV correspondent, from Belarus for five years on June 28 for biased coverage of funeral of dissident writer Vasil Bykau.
Russian authorities consider this move an act of "pressure on a Russian mass media". Russian Foreign Ministry expresses regret and hopes that NTV will soon reopen its office in Minsk. Belarusian Foreign ministry demands official apology from NTV
On June 28, the interior ministry expelled NTV correspondent Pavel Selin after a foreign ministry commission had found his report, which accused the authorities of obstructing the world-famous writer's funeral, "tendentious and provocative" and "aimed at creating a negative impression of the social and political situation in the Republic of Belarus, destabilizing the situation in the state, and undermining the reputation of governmental agencies."
According to the foreign ministry's spokesman, Mr. Selin had received two warnings for "distorting real facts" before his accreditation was annulled.
Representatives of most the factions in Russia's State Duma decried the Belarusian government's decision to shut down the Minsk bureau of Russia's NTV television network, Russian news agencies reported.
The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 7 notified the Minsk office of the Washington-based International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) of its decision to deny an extension of the office's accreditation, which expires on August 7, the office says in its July 8 statement.
The ministry cited irregularities revealed by the State Control Committee during its inspection of the office's activities as the official grounds. The other reason was that the Council of Ministers had struck IREX Promedia off the list of US assistance programs approved by the Belarusian government, the ministry noted.
The cabinet had deleted IREX Promedia from the list without giving any explanations, according to the IREX office. However, it adds, the removal from the list could not be sufficient grounds for closing down the office, as being on the list makes programs eligible for certain privileges but is not an essential condition for an organization's operation in Belarus.
The IREX office notes that it has always abided by Belarus' regulations since it was registered in 1997 and has never received warnings from the foreign ministry. The State Control Committee's findings are "wrong in their facts and wrong as a matter of law," the organization stresses.
IREX describes the ministry's decision as politically motivated and notes that it should be regarded as a continuation of the government's policy aimed at restricting access to independent and unbiased information in the country.
The organization plans to contest the foreign ministry's decision in the Supreme Economic Court.
In another development, Belarusian authorities refused to renew the accreditation of the representative office of Internews, an international organisation that trains independent broadcast journalists. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinikh said Internews had been excluded at an April meeting of the Cabinet from a list of programmes getting US funding which are allowed to operate in Belarus. Internews' registration expired on June 12. Alexander Parfentsov, head of Internews in Belarus, called the move a consequence of the "nervous situation" in the country, and said electronic media would no longer be able to get qualified consulting and help in Belarus.
July 7 General Prosecutor Viktar Sheiman submitted a report to Lukashenka on the results of inspection in the Ministry of Information, revealing serious violations of legislation, presidential press-service reports. Numerous violations were revealed at 24 structural units subordinate to the Ministry of information, including misapropriation of budgetary funds, other illegal expenditures and losses for the total amount over 101 million Belarusian roubles. 82 criminal cases were institutes as on these violations. Lukashenka ordered procuracy to react most harshly to establish order in the system of the Ministry of Information.
Belarus' Supreme Economic Court on July 9 upheld the information ministry's decision to suspend the publication of BDG. Dlya Sluzhebnogo Polzovaniya.
A print run of the "Belarus Special Edition," published by Russia's "Novaya gazeta" and carrying stories by journalists from the suspended "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," has been brought to Minsk, "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Svyatlana Kalinkina told Belapan on 15 July. The idea of sending Belarusian stories to the Moscow-based "Novaya gazeta" for printing originated with Russia's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, Kalinkina said. "If 'Novaya gazeta' encounters problems in Belarus, there are many other Russian publications, including those printed in Belarus, that have already offered help," she added. Two recent attempts by "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" journalists to publish under rivals' mastheads in Belarus have failed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June and 15 July 2003). Belarusian authorities suspended the publication of "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" for three months for allegedly defaming the president.
August 6 Lukashenka appointed Uladzimer Ruskievich a Minister of Information, relieving him from the position of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus in the People's Republic of China. At the same time, the presidents order relieves Mikhail Padhainy of the ministers position due to his transfer to another job. While appointing the new minister, the head of state expressed hope that Uladzimir Rusakevich will be able to increase the efficiency of this most important ideological ministry, take under control all processes related to polygraphy, publishing and distribution of information.
In the recent months the operations of the Ministry of information was under Lukashenkas close attention. In particular, Lukashenka criticized minister Padgainy for decreasing audience of state media and growing number of non-state media. Besides, numerous cases of inexpedient use of budgetary funds had been discovered at 24 organizations subordinate to the Ministry of information.
Since August almost all newscasts at Belarusian TV are broadcast in Russian. According to the BT representatives this is an experiment carried out at the requests of workers. There is only one evening program Panarama broadcast in Belarusian on working days. The secretary of the deputy president of the Belteleradio Alexandra Martynenko gave more details on the essence of these language changes at BT: We have decided to present news in Russian as an experiment. We got many letters from our dear Belarusian citizens who unfortunately dont want to listen to the news in Belarusian because they dont understand everything. So, we took it into account and decided to try to present news in Russian. At the same time, according to 1999 poll, about 74 percent of respondents called Belarusian language their mother tongue.
August 5 US Ambassador to OSCE Stephan M. Minikes made a statement on media situation in Belarus to the OSCE Permanent Council.
August 4, August 13 & August 20 three special issues of Russian Novaya Gazeta were published, in which Belarusian readers could find the articles of Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta suspended from May 29, 2003).
The circulation of the special issues was 10.000 copies. The newspaper was distributed among the BDG subscribers and through the network of civil distributors. According to the director general assistant of Marat publishing house Liubow Vashkievich, until now there were no problems with the delivery of newspapers to Belarus. First of all, because there is a Belarusian-Russian treaty which allows Russian editions to be distributed on the territory of Belarus and vice versa. Secondly, the registration certificate of Novaya Gazeta states that the edition has a right to distribute newspapers in all CIS countries.
7 August the representative office of the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) stopped its operations in Belarus. IREX representatives are still hoping to appeal the decision of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stripping the organization of accreditation.
25 July IREX lawyers have brought the action against MFA into the Supreme Economic Court. However, the court dismissed the action, referring to the lack of decision from the part of the MFA on stopping the activity of IREX. The court didnt consider the official letter which the representative office received from the MFA on 7 July as a decision.
6 August IREX addressed the vice-chairmen of the Supreme Economic Court with an appeal concerning the actions of the judges.
Two months ago representative office of IREX received an official letter from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs containing the denial to extend the accreditation term of the representation and the prescription to stop the activity of IREX in Belarus by August 7, when the term of IREXs registration in the MFA expires. Two reasons were quoted: violation of Belarusian legislation uncovered by the Committee of State Control, as well as exclusion of IREX-ProMedia program from the list of US assistance programmes approved by Belarus government.
The letter from the MFA followed a premiere on all three Belarusian television channels of the documentary Spider web, alleging that the activity of IREX was aimed at undermining of national security of the Republic of Belarus.
Belarus has become the first and the only country which has rejected the programs of IREX directed at the widening of academic and professional contacts, providing free internet access and support of mass media.
August 13 the head of the Main Department for Control Over Consumers Market and Services V. Kalenik fined the editors of Salihorsk regional non-governmental newspaper Salidarnasc more than 4 million rubles (about 2 thousand USD) . The newspaper was charged with violation of state standards. Salidarnasc was accused of not mentioning the year, month and date of its foundation as well as the editions volume, thus violating paragraphs 6.3.3 and 6.3.7 of the All-Union State Standard 7.4 95). Mr. Kalenik referred to presidents decree ?268 On Increasing the Competitiveness of Domestically Produced Products (Works and Services) and Strengthening of Producers, Suppliers and Sellers Responsibility for the Quality of Products (Works, Services), dated May 20, 1998.
The editors believe the sanctions are groundless and contradicting the legislature, and so they intend to appeal it. In Belarus one can hardly find a newspaper which would fulfill these requirements, states the editor-in-chief Aliaxander Starykevich. 6-13 July the Committee of State Control together with the Ministry of Information carried out the check-up of financial and economic activity in Salihorsk editorial office of Salidarnasc. The inspection started three days after Salidarnasc published the materials of the closed Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta.
August 13 in her interview to the state news agency BelTA Deputy Minister of Information L. Ananich noted that the main task of state media is to "explain the state policy" and to "resist opposition forces which provide pseudo information to our citizens". (http://www.belta.minsk.by/a2003ru.nsf/ArchSearch?SearchView&Query =(FIELD%20Date=13.08.2003)&SearchOrder=4)
August 18 the editors of Svetlahorsk regional non-governmental newspaper Region-Vesti received a letter from a Rechytsa publishing house Tytul, in which the publishers informed their clients of a forthcoming termination of the contract with them. The publishers refer to the pressure of work caused by seasonal issue of calendars. The agreement to issue Region-Vesti will be annulled 14 September, states the letter of the publishers director Sviatlana Drahun.
The editor-in-chief of the edition Mikalay Pasedzka says his edition is being stencil printed on the same press that also prints other newspapers of Homel region, while the calendars are produced on another printing presses. The true reason for the letter, the editor-in-chief believes, is the fact that his newspaper has been recently paying special attention to the work of local authorities. Mr. Pasedzka said that about 10 days ago the issue of his newspaper had been suspended for 2 hours, since the director of the publishing house had to consult the officials of the Rechytsa City Executive Committee on few publications in the issue.
26 August OSCEs media representative Freimut Duve had to cancel his visit to Belarus planned for 1 and 2 September because the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has refused him and his senior adviser visas. Mr. Duve, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, who leaves the post at the end of this year, was invited two months ago by the Head of the OSCE Office in Minsk, Ambassador Eberhard Heyken, to hold a farewell meeting in Minsk with journalists and media NGOs facing new problems and a worsening media situation.
The OSCE Office in Minsk had arranged a two-day program for the Representative at the Mission headquarters which included a reception for journalists, a presentation on OSCE commitments on freedom of the media and a press conference. Mr. Duve had also agreed to call on the newly-appointed Minister of Information. "I greatly regret that I will not be allowed to come to Belarus on 1 September to say farewell to the many courageous Belarusian journalists whom I have had the honor to frequently and publicly support in my capacity as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media", he said today. Mr. Duve last visited Minsk in 1999 as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. He had planned to visit again in March 2001 but was asked by the then Foreign Minister of Belarus, Mikhail Khvastou, to postpone to the end of April for scheduling reasons. That visit never took place because the Government of Belarus denied a visa to the senior adviser who was to accompany him, an act which Mr. Duve described at the time as a "severe interference in the independence of his OSCE institution by a participating State."
August 29 the term of suspending publication of "Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta" and "BDG. For Service Use" has expired. The Ministry of information is not supposed to issue any documents announcing the end of term of punishment of the newspaper. Private conversations with employees of state distribution companies and printing houses show that they will not dare to resume their cooperation with the newspaper without a special instruction, especially after director of the printing house "Krasnaya Zvezda" Uladzimer Tselesh and director of Nesvizh printer Alexander Ladziata were sacked for publishing newspapers with BDG materials.
However, August 30 the newspaper started to prepare its new issue. If it fails to print it in Belarus, BDG is going to use the services of Russian printers.
September 19 Belarusian Association of Journalists held a Day of Closed Newspapers action of solidarity with journalists and media outlets which have suffered for their professional activities.
In the framework of the event a round table Media situation in Belarus and international solidarity of journalists was held with participation of representatives of Article XIX, Institute of Mass Information (Ukraine), Center of Extreme Journalism (Russia), editors of independent mass media and BAJ.
During the event representatives of the Russian ORT channel nominated the award named after Dmitry Zavadsky Belarusian cameraman for the ORT channel, who disappeared three years ago. The nominees were AP photo correspondent Siarhey Grits, Reuters photo correspondent Vasil Fiadosenka and Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta newspaper.
The participants attended a photo exposition prepared by the editions of closed newspapers and listen to musicians.
The aim of our action is to demonstrate solidarity and to support colleagues in difficult situation, said BAJ Chair Zhanna Litvina.
In the last two years about 20 independent political newspapers have disappeared in Belarus either because of direct interference of the authorities or due to discriminatory economic policies of the state
September 23 Minsk Regional Economic Court ruled to liquidate LLC Mestnoye Vremya Press, thus satisfying the appeal of Minsk Region Executive Committee against the decision of Minsk Municipal Economic Court. It had happened twice already Minsk Municipal Economic Court had overruled the Committees decision to liquidate the company.
The appeal of Minsk Region Executive Committee was based on the decision of the Minsk region inspection of the Ministry for taxes and levies dated July 21 claiming that LLC Mestnoye Vremya Press was late in providing the information about changing its legal address.
The judge also reprimanded Minsk Municipal Executive Committee and Ministry of information for violating legislation during registration of LLC Mestnoye Vremya Press and Mestnoye Vremya newspaper.
Deputy Editor-in-chief of Mestnoye Vremya Aliaxander Koktysh believes that applying the scheme used for liquidation of Mestnoye Vremya Press the authorities can very quickly eliminate any disagreeable media outlet.
The liquidation decision will come into force in 10 days. Until then Mestnoye Vremya Press has a right to submit a cassation appeal to Minsk Regional Economic Court.
Mestnoye Vremya newspaper can not publish since November 21, 2002, after Minsk Municipal Executive Committee recalled registration of LLC Mestnoye Vremya Press, after which the Ministry of information closed the newspaper.
The ministry of the information issued a warning to a Baranovichy independent newspaper "Mestnaya Gazeta Shag", charging it with infringement of publishing standards (not highlighting one of the three words in the newspaper title) and absence of registration information in the issue where the materials of "BDG" newspaper have been published (when BDG was suspended by the authorities).
The warning was signed by the Minister of information Uladzimir Rusakevich and dated September 16. However, according to the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Anatol Vaitsehousky, the newspaper has received it only in the end of last week - on September 26.
According to the head of the department of registration of the Ministry of the information Victor Guretsky, in case of another infringement of requirements of the ministry the newspaper can be suspended.
September 26 Minsk Lenin district court fined the newspaper "Narodnaya Volya" 10 million Belarus roubles (about 5,000 Usd), in satisfaction of the suit for protection of honour, dignity and business reputation of the chairman of Belarusian TV and Radio Company Yahor Rybakou. "Narodnaya Volya" journalist Maryna Koktysh and former Belarusian TV employee Eleanora Yazerskaya will have to compensate moral losses to Mr. Rybakou in the amount of 1 million roubles (500 Usd) each.
Mr. Rybakou's suit against "Narodnaya Volya" was based on the article "Eleanora Yazerskaya: I guarantee five poods of love" which appeared in the newspaper in October 2001. The publication represented a monologue of Mrs. Yazerskaya, where she said: "My program is not broadcast because of three persons, who have managed to ruin Belarusian TV. Their names, in my opinion, are known to the whole country - Rybakou, Khrustaleu and Damaratsky. These people, they say, are to blame for the deaths of not only young and talented Julia Kasmachova, but also of ex-chairman Belarusian TV and Radio Company, most descent respectable person Valery Skvartsou"
In the beginning the claimant demanded, that "Narodnaya Volya" printed a refutation of the publication, and journalist and Mrs. Yazerskaya apologized. However, on September 26, in the court building the legal representative of Mr. Rybakou expanded claim requirements: the head of BT demanded from the newspaper 200 million roubles (~100 thousand dollars), and from Maryna Koktysh and Eleanora Yazerskaya on 20 million roubles (~10 thousand dollars) each.
The respondents submitted a petition to postpone the hearings until later, but the judge Syarhey Hrypach has rejected the petition. In the end, having reduced the penalty by 10 times, the court has satisfied the claim of BT chairman.
In his interview to Radio Liberty Yahor Rybakou said that he didnt agree with the reduction of the amount of indemnification. He also emphasized that the recently created legal department of BT was preparing still more claims against non-state newspapers, including "Narodnaya Volya", "BDG" and "Belorusskaya Gazeta".
Lawyers of the Center for legal protection of mass-media of the Belarusian Association of Journalists stress that the judge has not given respondents the opportunity to take advantage of assistance of professional lawyers after the claimant has declared additional claims. Besides, the judge did not consider the business trip of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper a sufficient reason to postpone the hearings, while in judiciary practice such petitions are usually satisfied. BAJ lawyers believe that these circumstances provide the basis for appealing the verdict.
Reporting Committee: Political Affairs Committee.
Reference to Committee: Doc. 9859, Reference 2879 of 29 September 2003.
Draft Resolution and draft Recommendation unanimously adopted by the Committee on 8 March 2004.
Members of the Committee : Jakic (Chairman), Rogozin (Vice-Chairman), Spindelegger (Vice-Chairman), Ates (Vice-Chairman), Aguiar, Akhvlediani, de Aristegi, Arzilli, Atkinson, Azzolini, Baná, Berceanu, Bianco (alternate: de Zulueta), Blankenborg, Van den Brande (alternate: Goris), Cekuolis, Davern, Dreyfus-Schmidt, Druviete, Duivesteijn, Durrieu, Elo, Glesener, Goulet, Gross (alternate: Reimann), Hedrich, Henry, Hörster, Iwinski, Judd, Karpov, Klich, Koçi, Kostenko, Lindblad, van der Linden (alternate: Dees), Lloyd, Loutfi, Magnusson, Margelov, Martinez-Casan, Marty, Matuic, Medeiros Ferreira, Mercan, Micunovic, Mignon, Mihkelson, Muratovic, Nemcova, Nemeth, Oliynyk, Ouzky, Pangalos, Petrova-Mitevska (alternate : Zernovski), Petursdottir, Pintat Rossell, Popov (alternate: Petrov), Pourgourides, Prentice, Prica, Prijmireanu, Prisacaru, de Puig, Pullicino Orlando, Ranieri, Roth, Severin, Severinsen, Seyidov, Tabajdi, Tekelioglu, Torosyan, Toshev, Tritz, Vakilov (alternate: Mollazade), Voulgarakis, Wielowieyski, Wohlwend, Wurm, Zacchera (alternate : Malgieri), Ziuganov
Ex-officio: Davis, Eörsi, Einarsson, Russell-Johnston
N.B. : The names of the members who took part in the meeting are printed in italics
Secretariat of the Committee : Mr Perin, Mrs Ruotanen, Mr Chevtchenko, Mr Dossow