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Belarusian Paper Under Pressure For Muhammad Cartoons

Alyaksandr Kazulin, the leader of the Hramada Social Democratic Party (file photo) (epa) 23 February 2006 -- Belarus' Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich has threatened tough measures against a Belarusian newspaper that reprinted the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The private weekly "Zhoda" reprinted the cartoons on 17 February to illustrate an article about the deadly impact of the protests they sparked across the Muslim world.

The Foreign Ministry lashed out at "Zhoda" on 22 February over the publication and prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation, accusing the newspaper of inciting religious hatred.

The state security service, still known as the KGB, questioned "Zhoda" editors on 22 February and searched the newspaper's office, reportedly seizing four computers.

Editor Alyaksandr Sdvizhkov said the case was politically motivated. He believes the Belarusian authorities are using the issue as a pretext to close down the newspaper.

"Zhoda" is seen as close to the Hramada Social Democratic Party led by Alyaksandr Kazulin, a candidate in presidential elections to be held on 19 March.

(Belapan, Interfax-West)

Politics, Religion, And The Press

Politics, Religion, And The Press
RFE/RL's Russian Service interviewed Volgograd Deputy Mayor KONSTANTN KALACHYOV and Union of Journalists General Secretary IGOR YAKOVENKO about the scandal around the closure of the Volgograd newspaper "Gorodskiye vesti."

A Volgograd resident reads the controversial issue of "Gorodskiye vesti" (TASS)

On 17 February, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova spoke with Volgograd Deputy Mayor KONSTANTIN KALACHYOV, who confirmed that he will resign over the city's decision to close down "Gorodskiye vesti."

RFE/RL: Can you describe why "Gorodskiye vesti" is being shut down and how?

Konstantin Kalachyov: The decision [to close down "Gorodskiye vesti"] was made by acting Mayor Andrei Doronin. It can be explained like this: since the newspaper is the official organ of the city administration, it should publish statements by the city administration and the very format of the newspaper should emphasize respectability. However, recently the newspaper has acquired a scandalous reputation. [Doronin] didn't see any other way of ending the scandal around "Gorodskiye vesti" and settling the problem of its reputation except for liquidating it. A decision was made, according to which the municipal enterprise "Gorodskiye vesti" must be liquidated. During that time, a new municipal newspaper will be created that will be politically correct and will not create excitement.

RFE/RL: Was the cartoon really just an excuse to close the newspaper?

Kalachyov: The acting mayor has declined to give his opinion of the caricature itself. He is proceeding from the overall situation around the publication. The acting mayor has decided to dismiss the editor in chief.

RFE/RL: Earlier you said that you would resign if the editor was fired.

Kalachyov: I will. I will not change my mind.

RFE/RL: Does your resignation change your view of the situation?

Kalachyov: Speaking as someone who does not represent the city administration, I can say that, from my point of view, there is nothing offensive in the cartoon. In fact, it was clearly motivated by noble aims. A depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in a secular newspaper by a non-Muslim artist cannot be forbidden by anyone. In the final analysis, we must respect the rights of representatives of all confessions and atheists as well. And journalists too -- we must respect the freedom of the press. All of this is an artificially inflated scandal that, unfortunately, shows how far we are from tolerance and acceptance.

RFE/RL: What will become of the journalists who work for "Gorodskiye vesti"?

Kalachyov: Up until now, I had been saying that I would do everything I could to see that the journalists did not suffer and that all of them were taken into the staff of the new newspaper. Now I can't say anything concrete. My position is very simple -- the crime does not correspond with the scale of the punishment. I am against any repressions directed against the newspaper's staff.

RFE/RL: Has the newspaper had problems with the city administration before?

Kalachyov: I personally hired the editor in chief and asked her to make the newspaper popular in the city. The paper's circulation -- 10,000 -- was, I thought, inadequate. Until recently, the newspaper was rather dull and very official.

On 17 February, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova spoke with IGOR YAKOVENKO, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. Yakovenko said that the decision to close "Gorodskiye vesti" had nothing to do with the global furor over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

RFE/RL: What is behind the decision to close "Gorodskiye vesti"?

Igor Yakovenko: You see, there was unprecedented pressure from the federal authorities. There was the completely scandalous statement by several leaders of the Russian parliament who claimed the religious sensibilities of believers -- including their own religious sensibilities -- were offended by what had been published in the Volgograd newspaper. But not one believer -- not one Muslim, not one person in Volgograd Oblast said their sensibilities had been offended. However, the prosecutor-general was terribly offended. [First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov] Sliska was offended. [Mediasoyuz Vice President and Public Chamber member Yelena] Zelinskaya was very offended. That is, we have some very sensitive believers with very sensitive and easily wounded feelings -- in the Prosecutor-General's Office and in the State Duma. Religious people looked at the situation with sympathy, with understanding, said there was nothing wrong with the cartoon. What is happening now shames Russia. It is a universal shame for Russia, since not a single European government has reacted as shamefully as the Russian authorities have. Not a single European government has taken any repressive measures against the press because they perfectly well understand that there is no direct connection between the hysteria we've seen in many countries around the world and cartoons or the Volgograd caricature. [Acting Chechen Prime Minister] Ramzan Kadyrov doesn't read Danish newspapers and he hasn't seen this cartoon. There is no connection, no believers' feelings have been hurt. This is entirely on the political level.

RFE/RL: Are you going to do anything in defense of "Gorodskyie vesti"?

Yakovenko: Of course. It is very difficult to do anything because it is a state newspaper. The city administration, which came under pressure from the presidential administration and the Prosecutor-General's Office, simply liquidated a newspaper that it owned. We, of course, will do everything we can to get the editor in chief reinstated. If we have to, we'll find work for the editor and for that artist who drew the cartoon. But, unfortunately, we are talking about the state press and the state has dealt with it in the way it considered necessary. It is a completely obscene story. We are trying to do what we can to defend the journalists. And, of course, we will do everything to block any stupid laws restricting freedom of speech because -- in reality -- there are two constitutional principles at stake here: the secular nature of our state and freedom of the press. No one is inflaming anything. It is just that some politicians consider it important to restrict the press, while others think it is important to collect some political capital for themselves out of this whole story.

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