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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 26, 2000

26 December 2000, Volume 2, Number 48

Introductory Remarks

When Alyaksandr Lukashenka became Belarusian president in July 1994, Belarus was a peculiar place in Europe in many respects. By that time, other post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe had undergone sweeping political and economic change and adopted more or less market-oriented policies. Many of them managed to hold democratic legislative and presidential elections, and people in those countries were gradually getting used to the democratic procedures of changing rulers. As for Belarus, it was ruled until mid-1994 by the government appointed in the Soviet era. That government undertook no reforms to deal with the rapidly worsening economic situation.

The new Belarusian Constitution, adopted in March 1994, introduced the post of president with broad powers. Both the Communist nomenklatura and the democratic opposition supported a strong presidency in Belarus: the former wanted to remain in power by installing then Premier Vyacheslau Kebich as president, while the latter thought that strong executive authority was necessary for Belarus during its transition from totalitarianism to democracy. However, Vyacheslau Kebich as well as two democratic contenders for the post of president Zyanon Paznyak and Stanislau Shushkevich lost the ballot to ambitious lawmaker Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who until then had combined his lawmaking activity in the Supreme Soviet with that of a collective farm director.

Lukashenka was catapulted from provincial obscurity to nationwide fame literally on one day, 14 December 1993, when, in his capacity as the chairman of a temporary legislative anti-corruption commission, he delivered his famous report on corruption in the government. That legislative session was broadcast live on national television and radio. Thus, the population was able to hear Lukashenka's emotional speech, in which he pointed to the allegedly illegal commercial activities of state officials and blamed what he called widespread corruption in the country on the transition to a market economy.

Lukashenka's report on corruption included no substantial evidence of official misdemeanors, therefore no criminal proceedings were instigated against anyone. However, to appease the public's appetite for blood in the aftermath of Lukashenka's speech, the communist nomenklatura in the Supreme Soviet found a scapegoat in Stanislau Shushkevich, the democratically minded speaker, and voted him out of office for the laughable offense of not accounting for some $100 during the construction of his dacha. The anti-corruption report made Lukashenka a popular hero in Belarus, and the pro-Kebich nomenklatura proved incapable of neutralizing Lukashenka's popularity within the six months remaining until the presidential elections.

It would have been impossible for Lukashenka to have found himself in the public spotlight without media assistance. The government's control over the media in Belarus in the early 1990s significantly weakened in comparison with the Soviet era: media censorship was abolished and several independent publishing initiatives appeared. Legislative sessions began to be broadcast live on radio and television. Lukashenka took full advantage of these new developments to advertise himself in the runup to the presidential ballot. As a fierce critic of the communist nomenklatura, he was readily promoted even by opposition-minded and independent journalists. In other words, even before becoming the president of Belarus, Lukashenka realized that the media were a powerful weapon in pursuing political goals. Therefore, over the entire span of his presidency, he spared no effort to reinforce his grip over the state-owned media and to suppress or even eliminate the non-state ones.

Legislative Premises

Beginning from today, we are going to influence the media and interfere in their work in a very active manner. I have arrived for a minimum of 10 years, and journalists need to be prepared for this.

Lukashenka in December 1994

During the first months of his presidency, Lukashenka took decisive measures to put the state media under his control. In August 1994, he issued decrees subordinating the Belarusian Press House which enjoyed a monopoly on the press publishing market in Belarus to the Presidential Administrative Department and the Belarusian Broadcasting Company to the president. Lukashenka also created the Main Department of Public Political Information a body responsible for shaping the information policy of the state media.

The first major assault on the freedom of expression by the Lukashenka administration was the official ban on the publication of a report on corruption in the presidential entourage, which was delivered by lawmaker Syarhey Antonchyk in December 1994. As a result of the ban, several newspapers appeared with blank spaces on those pages on which Antonchyk's report was to have been published.

A group of lawmakers appealed to the Constitutional Court to examine whether Lukashenka's decrees on the Belarusian Press House and the Belarusian Broadcasting Company did not contravene Belarus's constitution and legislation. The court found that they did and recommended that the president abolish the executive power's monopoly on the press printing market as well as in national radio and television, but Lukashenka ignored those recommendations.

By virtue of presidential decrees, Lukashenka dismissed the chief editors of the influential newspapers "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" (December 1994) and "Narodnaya hazeta" (March 1995), and appointed people loyal to the president. In January 1996, Lukashenka issued a directive stipulating that the chief editors of all state-owned newspapers should be appointed by the executive branch: the government and the presidential administration oversaw the appointment of editors-in-chief of central newspapers, while oblast and raion executive authorities were responsible for such appointments vis-a-vis regional newspapers. It is noteworthy that "Narodnaya hazeta" was founded by the Supreme Soviet and was believed to reflect the parliament's point of view on state affairs. In June 1996, Lukashenka "reorganized" this newspaper by making it a presidential publication. Both the newspaper's editorial team and the parliament put up only weak resistance to that move.

In the meantime, the regime did away with the independent electronic media: citing various technical pretexts, the authorities closed the independent Eighth Channel TV (Minsk), Radio 101.2 (Minsk), and Radio NBK (Hrodna).

In November 1996, following the controversial constitutional referendum, Lukashenka dissolved the Supreme Soviet. Since then, no state body has opposed or even protested the suppression of the independent media in Belarus by the presidential administration. On the contrary, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in Belarus have joined forces to make the life of the remaining independent media in Belarus as difficult as possible.

In 1997, the State Press Committee prepared amendments to the Law on the Press and Other Media, which was adopted in the pre-Lukashenka period and regulated the media sphere in Belarus. Lukashenka repeatedly violated this law by his decrees, but the State Press Committee concluded that the executive had too little leverage over the media and proposed more restrictive provisions. The Chamber of Representatives and the Council of the Republic, the two chambers of the legislature created as a result of the 1996 constitutional referendum, were only too glad to approve them.

In accordance with those amendments, the State Press Committee became the body responsible for implementing the state information policy in the media sphere. The committee, which until then had dealt with the registration of new media outlets in Belarus, obtained the right to suspend the activity of media outlets without court authorization.

The new version of the media law expanded the circle of state officials who can be protected against "reports that defame their honor and dignity": that circle ranges from the president of the Republic of Belarus to all the state officials "whose status is established by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus." In practical terms, this provision means that a large group of top state officials is now beyond media criticism since the State Press Committee can interpret any criticism as "defaming the honor and dignity" of the official or officials targeted.

The law also bans the shipment into and out of the territory of Belarus and the dissemination of press, audio, and visual materials that do not conform with the above-mentioned provision, that is, materials that can be interpreted as "defaming the honor and dignity" of top state officials. The authorities often use this stipulation against Russian correspondents based in Belarus, preventing them from sending to Russia materials viewed as unfavorable to the Lukashenka regime.

The amended media law confirmed the earlier principle that a media outlet in Belarus can operate only after it has been registered by the State Press Committee. At the same time, the amended media law introduced a number of new restrictions. One such restriction, which has proved to be an extremely efficient barrier to the registration of new media outlets, is that the approval of local executive authorities must be obtained for the installation of a new media outlet's office on their territory.

Leaning on this restrictive law in their tireless bid to suppress and stifle dissent and protest in the media, the Belarusian authorities have committed an uncountable amount of hostile acts against the independent media in their country. It would be impossible to list all violations of the freedom of expression under the Lukashenka regime. In 1998, the Fund for the Protection of Publicity in Moscow, in cooperation with Belarusian independent journalists, published "The Power and the Press in Belarus: A Chronicle of Confrontation, 1994-1997". The book has more than 550 pages, and all are devoted to documenting facts of suppression of the independent media in Belarus. Three years have passed since the period covered by the book, and the number of new violations of the freedom of expression in Belarus has increased in proportion to the number of years that have elapsed. Following are examples of the Lukashenka regime's treatment of the media in Belarus.

Examples of Oppression

1. The case of "Svaboda."

"Svaboda" was launched in 1990 as a publication intended to support the democratic opposition in the elections to the Supreme Soviet. Since then, the publication has developed into an opposition newspaper. At the peak of its popularity in the mid-1990s, its circulation reached 100,000. "Svaboda" was initially published only in Belarusian but later became bilingual some articles were published in Belarusian and others in Russian.

In November 1997, "Svaboda" was closed following a court resolution. In 1996 and 1997, the newspaper received six warnings from the State Press Committee and other state bodies most of them related to Article 5 of the Law on the Press and Other Media, that is, on the defamation of "the honor and dignity" of state officials. To make their court plea more persuasive, the authorities issued two other warnings to the newspaper on the eve of the trial.

Early in 1998, the editorial team registered and launched a new newspaper, "Naviny," which managed to survive until September 1999, when a Minsk court ordered it to pay more than $50,000 in damages to Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman. The newspaper, whose monthly profit was below $3,000, was unable to pay such a fine and closed. However, the editorial team was prepared for this eventuality and immediately launched a new newspaper under the name of "Nasha Svaboda," which has managed to survive until now.

2. The case of Radio 101.2.

In September 1996, the Ministry of Communications prohibited the independent station Radio 101.2 from broadcasting in Minsk under the pretext that the station was jamming other broadcasters on VHF. There had been no complaints about jamming by Radio 101.2. The station was not given another frequency on which to continue broadcasting.

It later transpired that Radio 101.2 had been closed for purely political reasons. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka commented that he would not allow either Radio 101.2 or any other broadcaster "to conduct anti-state activities on frequencies that belong to the state." Radio 101.2 provided air time to Lukashenka's political opponent, Supreme Soviet Chairman Syamyon Sharetski, in the heat of the confrontation between Lukashenka and the Supreme Soviet before the November 1996 constitutional referendum.

However, the Radio 101.2 journalists proved a consolidated and defiant team. They managed to obtain a grant from two NGOs in the United States, received a frequency on short-wave in Poland, and in November 1999 began broadcasting in Belarus from Warsaw as Radio Racja.

3. The case of "Nasha Niva."

"Nasha Niva" is an independent weekly published entirely in Belarusian. It was established in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991. The weekly's circulation is some 5,000. "Nasha Niva" uses the traditional Belarusian orthography, which was changed by decree in 1933 under Joseph Stalin's regime. Belarus's law on press and other media explicitly prohibits the press from "distorting the generally accepted norms of the language" in which it publishes. The State Press Committee took advantage of this provision to warn the weekly in 1998 that it "distorts" such norms. Since two warnings are sufficient for the committee to seek a suspension of and subsequently a ban on the offending publication, "Nasha Niva" filed a lawsuit against the committee, demanding the warning to be revoked as "groundless."

The case, surprisingly, was heard before the Higher Economic Court in Minsk, which asked linguistic experts to provide an assessment whether the newspaper distorted the linguistic norms of the Belarusian language. The experts concluded that there is no such term in linguistics as "the generally accepted norms of the language." They also noted that the pre-1933 spelling rules used by "Nasha Niva" are a consistent orthographic system, so they cannot be called a distortion. The court ruled in favor of "Nasha Niva" and ordered the committee to revoke its warning. The "Nasha Niva" case was one of the very few trials won by independent media outlets against the State Press Committee. The trial, which focused on Belarusian linguistic matters, was noteworthy also owing to the fact that a judge who spoke no Belarusian presided over it.

4. The case of Pavel Sheremet and Dzmitry Zavadski.

In July 1997, Pavel Sheremet, head of the Minsk office of Russian Public Television (ORT), and his cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski were arrested at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, where they were shooting a feature about cross-border smuggling. ORT sought to demonstrate that Belarus's western borders being also the western borders of the Russia-Belarus Union were not guarded as reliably as Lukashenka used to boast. Sheremet and Zavadski paid a high price for that attempt. They were accused of illegally crossing the state border and received suspended prison terms Sheremet two years and Zavadski 1.5 years despite the fact that the border was not marked at the place where they were filming and that there was no clear evidence that they had illegally crossed it. The case was doubtless politically motivated: the court paid not attention to the fact that illegally crossing the border is an administrative offense according to Belarusian legislation and tried Sheremet and Zavadski as criminals.

This year Zavadski disappeared under unknown circumstances at Minsk airport, when he went there to meet Sheremet arriving from Moscow. Sheremet accused President Lukashenka of complicity in organizing the disappearance of his colleague.

5. No Government Information for Independent Media.

It became known in April 1998 that the Belarusian government had issued an order, intended for official use only, prohibiting state bodies from passing decrees, resolutions, directives, laws, and the like to the non-state media and warned officials against making comments on official documents in the non-state media. In addition, the order forbade official advertising in a number of independent newspapers, including "Naviny," "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," and "Narodnaya volya."

When asked to comment on that order, Lukashenka said it should have been issued orally instead of in writing. "The manner in which it was done was gross," the president commented, adding, "Correct in content, but gross in form."

The disclosure of the unusual order provoked strong protests from both domestic independent journalists and international journalists' organizations. Following those protests, Belarus's Justice Ministry began to issue licenses to independent media outlets allowing them to disseminate official information. In theory, any citizen or legal entity is eligible to obtain the license, but this step requires voluminous supporting documentation.

6. No Politician Other Than Lukashenka "Panarama" in August 2000.

"Panarama" is Belarusian Television's main newscast. The program is notorious for being the main propaganda mouthpiece of the Lukashenka regime on public television and for using highly abusive language vis-a-vis the regime's opponents.

Two Belarusian NGOs the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Center for the Freedom of Expression and Support to Democracy monitored "Panarama" in August to determine the proportion of air time the program devoted to the government and the opposition.

It turned out that 56 percent of the program was devoted to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, while the remaining 44 percent was distributed among 108 politicians. But of those politicians, 94 percent were government ones and 6 percent opposition ones. Among the government politicians, only Lukashenka was presented in a positive light. All the oppositionists were given exclusively negative coverage.

(This paper was presented at the international journalist course -- Social Costs of Transformation" which was organized by the Center for European Security Studies (Groningen, The Netherlands) in collaboration with the Institute for Social and Political Studies (Sofia, Bulgaria) in Sofia on 29-30 September 2000.)