MONOPOLIZING THE MEDIA AND INFORMATION FLOWS
"Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."
Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.15
"No monopolization of the mass media by the State, public associations or individual citizens and no censorship shall be permitted."
Article 33 (3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.
"Citizens of the Republic of Belarus shall be guaranteed the right to receive, store, and disseminate complete, reliable, and timely information on the activities of state bodies and public associations, on political, economic, and international life, and on the state of the environment."
Article 34 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.
During the second round of the July 1994 presidential election campaign, President Lukashenka promised that if elected, he would end the state monopoly on mass media, ban political censorship and the persecution of journalists and allow the independent distribution of information free of government interference.16 He centered his campaign on a strong anti-corruption platform of which a free media was an integral part. At that time, the Belarus media faced censorship from Prime Minister Kebich's administration which, in an attempt to silence critical voices during the campaign, had taken radio programs off the air and prevented independent newspapers from printing. It was therefore anticipated that should Lukashenka come to power, such government practices would be consigned to the past.
Lukashenka's subsequent tenure however, has brought about a sharp decline in media freedom. The state monopoly on the media continues and has in fact deepened; government decrees now specifically block or vet the independent distribution of information both within Belarus and from across its border; and the independent media have been the target of government censorship, administrative harassment and outright closure. In addition to administrative measures, there is overwhelming evidence of a vigorous and brutal government-sponsored campaign of physical attacks on, and intimidation of, journalists. In the three years of Lukashenka's administration, a series of repressive measures have targeted first the state-owned media, then the independent media, and finally foreign media-most notably Russian television-affecting all forms of information: the print media, radio, television, telecommunications and the internet. As a result of this climate of fear, the media now generally practice "self-censorship" to avoid running afoul of government doctrine. This creeping monopolization has served to deprive the Belarusian people-except for a minority in Minsk-of objective information about their country, providing them instead with a daily diet of pro-government, pro-Lukashenka propaganda.17
Banning Plurality from State-owned Media
Censorship in the state-owned media began in earnest a mere five months after President Lukashenka's election. In December 1994, in keeping with Lukashenka's pre-election promise to fight corruption, parliamentary deputy Sergei Antonchyk carried out an investigation into corruption in parliament. However, the Belarus government banned press coverage of Antonchyk's report, which was said to contain corruption charges against various high-ranking officials. In reaction to this ban the newspapers Sovetskaya Belarussiya, Zvyazda, and Respublika ran huge blank spaces in their December 23, 1994, editions, where the report was to have been printed.18 The same day, printed copies of the daily Narodnaya Gazeta and Gazeta Andreya Klimova, which presumably had already printed the report, were not permitted to leave the state-owned publishing house.19
In a February 1995 address to state television and radio employees, Lukashenka delineated his position on the role of state-owned media and his opinion on media freedom in general:
We have freedom of the press and a journalist has the right to support any opinions. I agree with that... However, there is one "no" here. You work for a state TV and radio company-I stress, a state one, and this obliges you to do everything for the benefit of our state... Journalists should not get involved in the "game of big politics."20
Shortly thereafter, Iosif Syaredzich, editor-in-chief of Narodnaya Gazeta-then the most popular and widely read publication in Belarus, known for its criticism of Lukashenka's policies-became the third editor of a state-owned newspaper, after the editors of Sovetskaya Belarussiya and Respublika, to be dismissed.21 Syaredzich's dismissal was based on the publication of a letter that, according to Lukashenka, contained calls for "violence and civil confrontation."22 According to Uladzimir Zametalin, then chief of the Directorate for Public and Political Information,23 publishing the letter violated article 100 of the presidential constitution, which states that the president is empowered and obliged to take measures aimed at securing political and economic stabilization.24 Syaredzich'ssuccessor at Narodnaya Gazeta, Nikolai Galko, lasted until March 17, 1996; his ouster, officially for "failing to carry out his duties," was widely believed to be in retaliation for articles that criticized the proposed unification of Belarus and Russia.25
The Independent Media
In March 1995, in a portent of things to come, in response to the question what the president would do if an independent newspaper published articles or letters that criticized the president's policies, Uladzimir Zametalin replied:
I think that the President perfectly understands that these are not state-owned media. In such a case he would not violate the law. In my opinion, he would first recommend that the Ministry of Culture and Press annul agreements on disseminating these papers concluded with their editorial boards, and then, of course, he would take steps to prevent these editorial boards from publishing their papers in state-owned publishing houses.26
Zametalin's reply proved to be an accurate and ominous forecast of the initial steps taken by the government to silence the independent printed press.
Marginalization of the Print Media
In Belarus, the government controls the print media through its ownership of all the printing plants in Minsk and of the national distribution service. The fact that there are no longer any daily independent newspapers-all eight daily newspapers are state-owned-is also indicative of state control over the print media. Over the past three years, the government has used this control to reduce the total circulation of the independent printed press to less than the daily circulation of the presidential administration's newspaper, Sovetskaya Belarus (Soviet Belarus).27
The marginalization of the print media began in earnest in late 1995. Following President Lukashenka's allegations in October that the "mass media has not responded to his call for objective coverage of the situation in the republic," concrete and punitive action was taken against three independent newspapers.28 The same day that the newspaper Narodnaya Volya (Peoples' Will) learned that its printing contract with the publishing house (Belorusskiy Dom Pechati), had been terminated, the state-owned printing house in Gomel, Belarus' second largest city, announced that it would no longer print the independent daily Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (Belarus Business Paper) and the weekly Imya (The Name), citing lengthy repairs as the reason.29 Zametalin's subsequent announcement that all printing houses, with his department's consent, would have the right to conclude contracts with independent newspapers, suggests that the "repairs" to the Gomel publishing house were a pretext for preventing publication of independent thought in Belarus. This supposition is strengthened by the concomitant cancellation by Minskaya Pochta, the state postal and distribution service, and Soyuzpechat the state-owned distribution agency, of their distribution contracts with independent newspapers.30 Belarusskaya Gazeta (Belarusian Newspaper) and Imyabegan to publish in neighboring Lithuania and import each edition to Belarus, a step that other independent newspapers were to follow. However, the effect of barring independent newspapers from using state distribution networks was to greatly reduce the number of copies in circulation, limiting the sale of independent newspapers to the streets of major cities. Further, by forcing the printing of independent newspapers outside of the country, Lukashenka placed the import and export of the papers at the mercy of customs officials, and made them vulnerable to punitive decrees (see below, "Restrictions on the Import and Export of Information").
A further blow to the independent media came on January 10, 1996, when it was announced that access to the Belarusian parliamentary session hall was denied to journalists of independent newspapers-only reporters from state-owned, and therefore censored, media were permitted to enter.31
The independent media responded to these restrictions with criticisms and specific recommendations for change. In March 1996, a Belarusian conference of independent press publishers released a statement declaring that in Belarus, "a state monopoly on the mass media, printing facilities and distribution of periodicals still exists." The statement included numerous recommendations intended to counter the state monopoly on the flow of information. Among the recommendations was that parliament limit the right of state structures to found mass media outlets; that the government draw up a state program for the development of mass media that would envisage taxation and other concessions for mass media in the Belarusian language; and that the government annul instructions that clearly violate both the Belarusian constitution and internationally accepted norms. The independent publishers specifically opposed the proposed reregistration of periodicals published in Belarus and of independent television and radio companies envisaged by the Belarusian Security Council, and they also protested the Council's proposal that all foreign correspondents reapply for accreditation.32
Harassment and Intimidation of the Print Media
The government of Belarus has employed a variety of administrative measures in its efforts to paralyze the independent media and related bodies, including tax audits, evictions and outright threats of closure. Tax audits have served as a particularly punitive and effective tool. Toward the end of 1996, all independent newspapers that had already passed a regular audit were re-audited on the instruction of the Lukashenka administration. It seems clear that the purpose of the second audit was to impose fines for non-payment of taxes so punitive as to force the newspaper in question to close. In most cases the grounds for such fines were absurd. One of the leading opposition newspapers, Svaboda (Freedom) faced such an audit last year. Igor Gremenchuk, the editor, explained:
Yes, we had an audit; they were sent out at the end of last year straight away to all independent newspapers. Despite the fact that the regular audit had already been carried out in the fall, before the referendum, our newspapers [the independent press] were sent a new audit and the newspapers were assessed for unbelievably high fines for violations, which in general they had not committed.33
Gremenchuk explained how Svaboda's advertisement revenues enabled the free distribution of several hundred copies per edition:
The purpose of the advertisements was so part of the circulation of the newspapers could be distributed free. We, for example, during the period when we had subscription advertisements, distributed part of our circulation free. This amounted to approximately 300-500 copies per edition.For many months we gave away a large number of newspapers that the authorities said we had to pay tax on as though we had sold them.34
Ignoring the documents that showed that these copies were given away free and that no revenue had been generated directly from this free distribution,35 the state tax service fined the newspaper thirty million rubles (approximately US$3,000) and froze its bank account.36 According to Gremenchuk, the independent newspaper, Svobodnyie Novosti (Free News), which underwent a similar audit at the same time, was fined US$25,000.
Other independent newspapers report that companies that advertise with them face similar audits and tax inspections. Given the difficult financial circumstances of the independent press, revenue from advertisers is vital to a newspaper's survival-and its absence is devastating. Tatyana Melnichuk, editor of the weekly newspaper Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya (Belarusian Youth) told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki:
It is practically impossible to earn income from advertisements: companies that worked with us the past few months have once again received serious warnings that any contact with the independent press, and in particular our newspaper, would threaten them with trouble. That would be either a tax inspection or some kind of incomprehensible investigation. . . in short companies received warnings. . . : "do not cooperate with us." Whomever we turned for help, everyone was confronted by the dilemma of being penalized for helping us. 37
Melnichuk told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki about a company that pulled its advertisement in Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya after a three-week run:
We received a letter of credit from [the company] Verkhnedvinsk, it had placed an advertisement [in our newspaper], but the third week we could not make the payment from its local branch of Belagroprombank. In the beginning the bank checked, then probably leaned a little on the director [of the company], because he called me and said that certain difficulties had arisen.
This is administrative pressure. It is clearly political. To live and work when high ranking officials continually threaten severe reprisals against the independent press is extremely difficult.38
Such political pressure is further illustrated by the warning issued by Uladzimir Zametalin, then chief of the Directorate for Public and Political Information, against Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya for the publication on February 21, 1997 of an article entitled Chto Delat? (What is to be done?) by Evgenniy Lobanovich, Chairman of the Frunzensky Regional Organization of the United Civil Party. The charges read:
In the article by E. Lobanovich, "What is to be done?," there are indications of a violation of article 5 of the Belarus Law on the Press and Other Mass Media in the section where there is a call to overthrow the authorities and to forcibly alter the constitutional structure of the country.39
The article, published on March 6, 1997, concerns various approaches for returning to democracy in Belarus. It argues that President Lukashenka will not reestablish democracy himself, and that free and fair elections that could bring to power another president cannot be expected. The author therefore concludes that the currently fractured opposition has no choice but to unite and stage massive protests that would, as in Serbia and Bulgaria, bring down the authoritarian government. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki views the article as an example of Mr. Lobanovich's right to freedom of expression.
Attempts at eviction
The newspaper Svaboda faced further harassment in the form of an attempted eviction from its premises in 1996. Svaboda's offices were located in a government-owned building that was also home to the ministry of statistics. "Ownership" was then transferred to the presidential administration, and this transfer was then cited as a reason for evicting the newspaper, despite the fact that three years remained on its lease. Gremenchuk explained:
Well, they replaced the owner. . . but the law on rent is intended so that should ownership change, the lease agreement remains legally binding. They then embarked on a different course and raised the rent. Under the law they have the right to do that. So they swiftly raised the rent threefold. Of course that's very dear for us and it isn't worth paying that much, but we were forced to pay because we need premises.40
Combined with government restrictions that forced Svaboda to print temporarily in Lithuania, as well as other restrictions on its circulation (see below, "Restrictions on the Import and Export of Information") the net effect of these measures has been a reduced number of copies at an increased price, and, accordingly, a smaller readership:
The [rent] payment is excessive and it is reflected in the expensive price of the newspaper . . . Readers receive the paper through subscription and it's sold in kiosks. Last year [the government] sometimes prohibited distribution of the paper... the authorities have restricted circulation. In the market, demand for the paper exceeds supply. Other than by the state, there are no alternative means of distribution.41
Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya-one of the few independent newspapers to be printed in Belarus-has experienced similar problems. It faces a glaring imbalance between production costs and revenue generated, one which does not augur well for its future survival:
[T]he economic situation has really deteriorated, printing prices have risen again. Now it costs five million [roubles] to print five thousand copies (we use our own paper, film-in order to pay less we carry out as much of the work of the publishing house we can), that is, each paper, just for the printing process through the printing house, costs a thousand [roubles]. Add to that the cost of paper, plus exorbitant taxes and that makes the cost price of one edition 6,500 [roubles, about forty cents]which no Belarusian can afford. The newspaper sells in the kiosks for 2,500 [about eleven cents]. It's an average price in the newspaper market.42
Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya's financial problems are compounded by the absence of alternative sources of funding. While economic problems of the independent press are not in themselves of direct concern to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, there is strong evidence that this hardship stems from politically motivated and government-induced measures intended to close down or greatly reduce the circulation of the independent printed media in Belarus. That the independent press still exists attests to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the editors, journalists and staff of these papers, who face a constant struggle simply to present an alternative to government information.
The Broadcast Media
Following concerted efforts by the Belarusian government to control the radio waves, there are no longer any domestic radio stations that dare broadcast anything remotely political. Those radio stations-both state-owned and independent-that did, faced censorship and closure (see below). Hence, there are no domestic alternatives to the censored state monopoly on political news and information. Russian television, namely the stations RTR and ORT, can be received by almost all Belarusians, while Russian NTV is received by approximately half the population.43 However, reports suggest that, by order of the president, a second national Belarusian television station will start broadcasting in 1997 on the same frequency as the Russian ORT channel. Given the history of President Lukashenka's criticism of, and allegations of bias against ORT, together with the removal of ORT journalist Pavel Sheremet's accreditation (see below, "Stripping Journalists' Accreditation: the Cases of Aleksandr Stupnikov and Pavel Sheremet"), such appropriation of the ORT frequency would therefore appear to be no coincidence.
The Cases of Radio 2, Radio 101.2, and Cable TV Channel 8
The Belarusian State Television and Radio Company (STRC) is the only national television company and controls the licencing and frequency allocations for all television and radio stations. There are fifteen terrestrial and twenty-seven private local television stations in Belarus that broadcast to small pockets of the population.44 Two of the terrestrial stations and all cable stations belong to a collective broadcasting network known as the Television Broadcasting Network of Belarus (TBN) while the remaining thirteen terrestrial stations have combined to form the Belarusian Association of Independent Television (BAIT). Both groups are known for avoiding material of a political nature. Such self-censorship is explained by the government monopoly on transmitters that, according to Arthur Karapetov, director of TBN, could be shut down at any time.45 The temporary closing in 1995 of Channel 8, the local cable station for Minsk, may have served as a warning to other local stations. The government closed the station in the three months prior to the 1995 parliamentary elections on the pretext of repairs. Channel 8 was permitted to reopen only on the proviso that it no longer carry programs of a political nature.46
Following the April 26, 1996, demonstration commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the ensuing violent clashes with riot police (see below, "Suppressing Freedom of Assembly andExpression"), the STR banned the second national radio station, Radio 2, from reporting live until May 9, 1996. It also ordered the station to limit subsequent coverage of the April 26 demonstration-and related issues concerning anti-government protest-to negative comments only.47
On September 2, 1996, the STR again banned Radio 2 from broadcasting live, this time because in late August it had given air time to the chairman of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet, Syamyon Sharetski, and his first deputy, Vasil Novikov, both of whom were known for their vocal opposition to President Lukashenka.48 The ban clearly intended to prevent any coverage of, or publicity for, the opposition that had not been vetted by the government.
On September 1, 1996, the day on which the draft presidential constitution was published for debate, the government closed Radio 101.2, the sole independent radio station in the Belarusian language. Radio 101.2 was a popular music radio station that also broadcast news. The Ministry of Communications claimed that the station's transmitter was interfering with government communications, but two facts suggest that the government actually sought to eliminate it as an outlet for free expression. First, Radio 101.2 had applied several times to move its aerial to a different location where a new transmitter had been installed, but these applications had been turned down. Second, several months after the station's closure the government announced that it would assign the 101.2 FM frequency for the use of the pro-presidential youth organization, the Belarusian Patriotic Youth Union (BPSM), also called Direct Action. This group, reminiscent of the communist-era Komsomol youth movement, is reportedly the mouthpiece for governmental policy.49 According to a Minsk journalist who declined to be named for fear of possible repercussions, BPSM/Direct Action is nothing more than a vehicle to spread government propaganda. He recalls:
Radio 101.2 was appropriated (it was independent) and the frequency was given to [BPSM]. It was a great, regular radio station: news, music-the youth liked it. Now they have given that wavelength to [BPSM] and there will be propaganda. A young person will hear this: "Our national president. . . is the leader of the Slavic people, the sun of the world. . .", it will be simply funny. Nevertheless, they will be spending money on this and...well, what will follow?50
Despite numerous subsequent protests and demonstrations demanding the return of the 101.2 frequency to Radio 101.2 and the station's reinstatement, as of this writing Radio 101.2 remains off the air.
Assaults on Journalists at Demonstrations and Restrictions on Media Coverage
An abundance of evidence documents the specific targeting of photo- and video-journalists covering opposition demonstrations: On numerous occasions, police have physically assaulted journalists attending such events and have confiscated their film and video footage. In contrast, there is no evidence of similar incidents occurring at pro-government demonstrations. The number of opposition demonstrations and concomitant assaults on media personnel since Lukashenka entered office would require an exhaustive report due to the sheer scale of the alleged incidents (see appendix A). Two demonstrations, a year apart, exemplify police and government policy aimed at preventing independent coverage of public protest.
On May 1, 1996, several thousand people took part in a rally to commemorate May Day. Many of the demonstrators used the occasion to voice their protest against the proposed reintegration of Belarus with the Russian Federation. Journalists covering the demonstration noted the presence of large numbers of OMON (riot police).51 In contrast to a April 26, 1996, rally at which police targeted demonstrators for physical attack, on May 1, the Belarus government evidently shifted strategies and sought instead to prevent news of the demonstration from reaching the public. Aleksandr Stupnikov, correspondent for the Russian NTV television company and Aleksandr Kushner, a reporter for Respublika, were interviewed on Russian TV and described what happened:
During the demonstrators' march, heavily built people in civilian dress grabbed three photo correspondents one after the other as they were filming the column of Belarusian social democrats marching by, and made them expose their film.
They twisted my hands behind my back and threw me in the car. They threw Viktor Okovochko, the Belapan photo correspondent, in along with me. They then drove us out of town. . . and they were continually demanding that we expose our film. . . I was afraid for my own safety and life and I did it-I exposed the film. But I exposed the wrong film and today I can show you this shot, which shows a man from the presidential guard who did not introduce himself and the car in which they took us away. Here you can clearly see how he leads away Mariya Zhilinskaya who later exposed her film under pressure from him.52
Stupnikov explained what happened to the NTV camera crew who had just finished covering the rally:
In the yard, five or seven big men in civilian clothes, who were obviously not workers, jostled the NTV group, which was returning from filming in the very center of the city, and demanded the material which had been filmed. They hit the cameraman, tried to snatch the camera and, forcing his hands open, tore the cassette away from him, then ran away. While they were wrestling with the NTV correspondents in the yard to obtain the video cassettes on which their material had been filmed, the assailants shouted out to passers-by: "They've got weapons! They've got weapons!" Our only weapon is this microphone.53
In addition, RTR correspondent Leonid Sveridov, while driving home from the rally, was followed and harassed by men in plainclothes who forced him to pull over and threatened to smash his car windows:
Well, it was perfectly clear to me that these people in civilian dress wanted to take away the video material we had shot, but we categorically refused to leave the car and they failed to get it. Why this situation, why this awful story with the photo correspondents, first with you [Stupnikov] from NTV, then with us from Russian TV? Well, it is a logical link in the same chain. It is a deliberate action to intimidate journalists working in Belarus, and Russian journalists in particular.54
Despite subsequent claims by the Belarusian KGB55 that they had had nothing to do with these attacks and that the attacks were the work of common criminals,56 the fact that the assailants clearly intended to steal photographic film and video cassettes with footage of the demonstration-particularly in light of the earlier confiscation and exposure of photographers' film-strongly undermines the assertion that the assaults were the work of "common criminals," whose sole interest surely would have been the valuable equipment alone.
As a consequence of such incidents, journalists covering demonstrations in Belarus have had to adopt special techniques in order to prevent the confiscation of their footage and to deter physical attacks by the police.
We have worked out a system of working almost like in a war zone, in case something happens. . . it is understood, that although in Moscow we are divided into [different television stations] RTR, ORT and NTV, here. . . we are allies and comrades-in-arms, especially when such large demonstrations occur.
We always look out for each other, as a rule three cameramen work together, three correspondents stay together, because if some kind of incident occurs, someone can keep hold of the film.57
On April 2, 1997, at a demonstration in Minsk protesting the signing of a watered-down unification treaty between Russia and Belarus, police attacked at least five journalists. Violence at the demonstration broke out when some 2,000 out of an estimated 4,000 demonstrators broke from the march, which had been peaceful, and headed toward the Russian embassy, and demonstrators reportedly threw stones at the police. Nonetheless, targeted violence against clearly identifiable journalists from the broadcast and print media alike strongly suggests an official policy to stifle the independent coverage of demonstrations that oppose government policy. Yelena Lukashevich, the Belarus correspondent for Vesti attended the demonstration:
I know that yesterday [April 2] the following journalists were beaten: Irina Khalib, correspondent for the magazine, Itogi; Tomashevskaya, Kommersant-Daily; Shchukin, deputy of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet and correspondent for the Tovarishch newspaper; Naumenko, correspondent of the Belarusian newspaper Svobodnye Novosti-Plus.
They were beaten mainly on the body, but Shchukin took a beating. . . they beat him on the head-it was a frightening sight.58
Tatyana Melnichuk, editor of Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya, also attended the April 2 demonstration. She explained to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki that due to financial constraints Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya has had to employ many students as free-lance writers. As free-lance writers, however, these students do not have official certification as journalists. Melnichuk explained that she had initially believed that having official certification might afford the students some measure of protection, in the event of police brutality at demonstrations. She changed her mind after an incident involving one of her free-lance colleagues:
Denis Nosov had only just joined us, he is a free-lance correspondent for Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya. After the street protests of April 2, in which he did not take part but on which he reported, with a press pass, he had his head split open. . . [and now he is feeling very poorly] he was taken to hospital in an ambulance. They [OMON] used force against him, not in spite of his press pass, quite the reverse-it was like waving a red flag at a bull.59
The April 2, 1997 demonstration is distinct from the May 1, 1996, action in that far greater restrictions on foreign media have since been initiated.
Controlling the Foreign Broadcast Media
As part of its efforts to censor information broadcast within the country in 1996 and 1997, the government has sought to restrict the foreign broadcast media, especially Russian television, which is viewed by the vast majority of Belarusians. These efforts included intimidating and harassing foreign broadcast journalists, regulating the editorial processes of foreign television companies and confiscating footage and equipment at state borders.
In one of the most egregious cases of intimidation, on June 22, 1996, at 2:00 a.m., two unidentified men broke into the apartment of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondent Yuri Drakokhurst, who happened to be away in Poland. The assailants beat Drakokhurst's wife, Galina, who was alone in the apartment, instructing her to tell her husband what had happened. The beating was so severe that she lost consciousness. When she came to, she found that the attackers had left the apartment untouched, indicating the intimidatory nature of the assault. Five months later, on November 16, Galina surprised two more intruders in the apartment; they too escaped.60 Yury Drakokhurst was noted at the time for his coverage of opposition demonstrations, including the beatings of journalists covering them.
Stripping Journalists' Accreditation: The Cases of Aleksandr Stupnikov and Pavel Sheremet
On March 24, 1997, Interfax reported that Aleksandr Stupnikov, NTV's Belarus correspondent, was to be stripped of his accreditation as a journalist and expelled from the country for his alleged systematic distortion of information about events in Belarus.61 Although Stupnikov held USSR citizenship, he was forced to leave the USSR in 1985, as a result of pressure from the Soviet authorities and, as a Jew, he was able to acquire Israeli citizenship. He later acquired legal residency in Belarus but not Belarusian citizenship. His status as a "foreigner" formed the grounds for his expulsion by the Belarusian government. The Ministry of Internal Affairs released the following statement:
The activities of Israeli citizen Aleksandr Stupnikov as the head of the office of the Russian television company NTV undermine the atmosphere of trust [and] the neighborly and friendly nature of relations between Belarus and Russia. The deliberate distortion of facts in his coverage of internal political life in the republic misleads both citizens of Belarus and citizens of other states.62
The Ministry of Internal Affairs statement claimed that Stupnikov had violated article 3 of the Law on the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens and Persons without Citizenship in the Republic of Belarus. This article provides that "the exercising by foreign citizens and persons without citizenship of their rights and liberties in the Republic of Belarus should not damage the interests of the Republic of Belarus, the rights and legal interests of citizens of theRepublic of Belarus and other persons." Human Rights Watch/Helsinki considers Stupnikov's reports for NTV on recent events such as opposition demonstrations, beatings of demonstrators and journalists and government harassment of the media, events which the government of Belarus clearly sought to cover up, to have been informed and objective and in no way could be construed to be "damaging" to the interests of the country. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki therefore considers the stripping of Stupnikov's accreditation, his expulsion from Belarus and the confiscation of his multiple-entry visa and residence permit politically motivated and in violation of his right to impart information under Article 19 of the ICCPR. Consequently, Stupnikov's expulsion was punitive as it forced separation from his wife and five children, all citizens of Belarus, who remained in Minsk.63
Reflecting on of his imminent deportation, Stupnikov said:
Frankly speaking, I have no idea what the authorities want from us, from the Russian correspondents of all the channels who work here, and from me in particular, because we avoid analytical reporting. We simply report facts. It is not our fault that some facts do not fit into the picture which is obviously being drawn at the office of the Belarusian president.64
In response to a question from Stupnikov regarding which journalists would next be stripped of their accreditation, Belarusian Foreign Minister Ivan Antanovich stated:
I think, Mr. Stupnikov, that the next one [to lose his accreditation] will be someone who has, for just as many years as you, reported fabrications about us which were maliciously inspired and emotionally loaded and which distorted the real state of affairs.65
On July 2, 1997, a little more than three months after the Stupnikov incident, Russian Public Television (ORT) Minsk bureau chief, Pavel Sheremet-a citizen of Belarus-had his special events accreditation annulled. The action was prompted by a report broadcast by Sheremet on ORT about the devastating hurricane that swept through Belarus on June 24 of that year, killing three people, wounding more than forty and destroying 620 homes.66 Sheremet had chided the Belarusian government and President Lukashenka for not canceling "costly" festivities planned for the July 3 Independence Day celebrations and for not using the funds instead to repair the extensive storm damage.67 Sheremet also allegedly referred to the holiday, which had been moved from July 27 to July 3 in the November 1996 referendum, as "a holiday invented by President Lukashenka."68 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes that Sheremet's work, and this report, were part of the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of speech. We view the suspension of his special events accreditation on July 2 as clearly designed to censor news coverage on Belarusian Independence Day, in clear violation of freedom to receive and impart information.
On July 7, 1997, Sheremet was stripped of his general accreditation. According to a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, Sheremet was alleged to have deliberately distorted information about events in Belarus, leading to the disinformation of the public in Belarus and Russia. Revoking his accreditation was therefore deemed to be in accordance with article 42 of the Belarusian Law on the Press and Other Mass Media. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki regards the allegations made against Sheremet to be unfounded and the action taken against him to be politically motivated and designed to silence criticism of President Lukashenka. Further, the removal of his accreditation impedes his exercise of freedom of expression, which is protected under both article 19 of the ICCPR and article 8 of the Charter of the Union of Russia and Belarus. The Charter, signed by Presidents Lukashenka and Yeltsin on May 23, 1997-which resolved outstanding differences that remained following the signing of the April 2, 1997 unification treaty-clearly mandates "...universal respect and implementation of the rights and basic freedoms of the individual, in line with generally accepted norms of international law." Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is also alarmed that the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media does not provide for the appeal of such withdrawal.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes that the stripping of Sheremet's and Stupnikov's accreditation, together with the latter's expulsion, was designed both to encourage self-censorship and to warn other journalists-notably television journalists from Russia-that criticism of President Lukashenka, coverage of demonstrations, opposition rallies, police brutality and/or harassment or intimidation of journalists would be rewarded by similar treatment. That the action taken against Stupnikov was just days before the April 2, 1997, signing of the unification treaty between Belarus and Russia, and, that Sheremet's accreditation was annulled the day before the inaugural independence day celebration lends credence to the notion that President Lukashenka moves to silence dissenting media at critical junctures in the political calendar.
Restrictions on the Import and Export of Information
On November 20, 1996, the Russian television companies ORT and NTV both reported that President Lukashenka had ordered new restrictions on the Russian media in Belarus. NTV quoted a news agency dispatch on the reporting restrictions, which included cutting off Belarusian journalists' E-mail (electronic mail) links with Russia. The same report asserted that Russian channels would be allowed to file reports to Moscow only after Belarusian television transmission station chiefs examined and vetted them. Although this vetting procedure was discontinued toward the end of 1996, it was reinstated in March 1997, presumably to stifle coverage of opposition demonstrations. According to information received by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, this procedure was again discontinued shortly after the April 2 signing of the unification treaty between Russia and Belarus. However, all transfers of video material made from the center are recorded simultaneously by the Belarusian station staff, which further serves to foster the practice of self-censorship.69
On March 18, 1997, the Belarus Council of Ministers passed Decree 218 on Applying Interdictions and Restrictions to any Belarusian Material, which would affect all material believed to threaten "the national security, rights and freedoms of individuals, health and morale of the population, and environmental protection." Decree 218 bans the transfer of equipment for media that could "represent a threat to the country's political and economic interests." It further states that materials "that carry information," meaning audiovisual equipment and printing equipment, may also be banned.70 Decree 218 served to formalize what was, in fact, the already common practice of state control over the import and export of information. In an interview with Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, the editor of Svaboda gave this example:
Last fall  a publisher had prepared a digest of independent Belarus press. He collated the most interesting articles and had around 600,000 copies printed in Lithuania. When he imported half of the copies they were confiscated and then the second half was confiscated as well. The digest was confiscated because it contained information that was against Lukashenka. This was either in the news articles or readers' letters from legally published independent newspapers, gathered together into two pages. This was before the referendum.71
The decree was enforced on the very day of its adoption. On March 18, 1997, at the Belarus/Lithuania border, plainclothes officials intercepted and inspected all copies of the Belarusskaya Gazeta. Having reviewed, and presumably approved, the paper's contents, it was delivered-after some delay-to the distributors.72
On April 3, 1997, Nikolai Kopchenov, deputy director of Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya, went to visit his parents in Vilnius, Lithuania for his birthday. He was carrying back issues of the newspaper. Tatyana Melnichuk, Kopchenov's wife, told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki:
I gathered some different examples of our newspaper [for Nikolai to take with him], those which had been on sale in the kiosks, those which had been sold a week or a month ago. Today there was a call from Vilnius: at the Belarus side of the border copies of Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya were confiscated as well as a few loose photographs of the recent events. . .[Nikolai] took [the photographs] to show his parents what he is doing and what acts he had taken part in. It was all confiscated as though it were illegal to export the materials.73
On March 23, 1997, following violence at an unauthorized demonstration by supporters of the Belarusian Popular Front, Ivan Pashkevich, deputy head of the Belarusian presidential administration telephoned NTV and ORT correspondents in Moscow to inform them that they were now forbidden to transmit from Belarus video material of opposition marches and rallies. At the same time security guards at the Belarusian television studio, from which video footage was ordinarily transmitted, refused journalists access to the building. On March 24, Russian television companies were prevented from transmitting journalists' video reports to their Moscow newsrooms.74 Shortly afterwards, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's press secretary, expressed "deep concern" over what he termed the "media blackout" in Belarus, specifically citing the ban on the transmission of video materials.75 The ban was rescinded some two and a half days later. In an attempt to justify the measure, Lukashenka stated on March 28:
[N]o state will allow disturbances; there is a law that must be observed. . . [there are] neither censorship nor bans [for journalists working in the republic].76
But later that day, Russian television journalists felt the full extent of restrictions on the flow of information when they attempted to transfer their footage to Moscow. The Belarusian government had placed a ban on thetransfer of video footage outside of the country. This ban turned out to be temporary, lasting only two and a half days, yet it demonstrated both the ease with which restrictions can be enforced at the whim of the Belarusian president and the lengths to which foreign journalists have had to go in order to simply file their reports. Yelena Lukashevich of RTR explains how she managed to get her film out of the country:
Our colleagues from NTV tried to take a cassette via Vilnius but it was confiscated at customs. Our colleagues at ORT sent material by [overnight] train and the train wasn't searched, but all the same it was no longer current news, because we broadcast our work on the same day. We succeeded in reaching Smolensk [in Russia] and therefore that evening broadcast our material. This causes great worry in Moscow-because the journey is over 300km. . . We reached Smolensk by car. The border is sufficiently porous, but, first of all I think that the situation worked in our favor, because. . . they didn't expect that we would attempt something after the unsuccessful attempts of the other [TV] channels. Secondly, we left Minsk headed not towards Moscow, but towards Mogilev [in the east] and then turned to go to Moscow. On their [the government's] invitation, we had to play a game of "spies."77
Draft law on the Press78
On June 25, 1997, the lower house of parliament approved the latest draft amendments to the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media. The law, which is not expected to be passed until late in the year, outlines broad new powers for the State Press Committee, including a number of new penalties, and codifies Decree 218 on import and export restrictions. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is greatly concerned that while many provisions of the draft amendments are legitimate, the absence of the rule of law in Belarus would permit an overly broad interpretation of them. This would seriously erode various rights enshrined in domestic Belarusian law and the presidential constitution.
Article 5 of the law, for example, enumerates acts that are punishable by suspension of the right to engage in media activities. Among these is the exposing of information which is considered to be a state or other legally guarded secret, a provision that is especially open to overly broad interpretation.
Periodicals registered abroad, which include most of the independent press that is currently printed in neighboring Lithuania, could be distributed, but only with the prior approval of the State Press Committee. Given the harassment that the independent press has already had to endure, it would seem apparent that should the draft become law-as seems likely-such approval would be used effectively to ban such publications.
The amendments also seek to control publications with even the smallest print run. Under existing law, only those publications that have a print run of more than 500 need register with the State Press Committee. The proposed draft would mandate the registration of all publications with a serial number and title, regardless of the number produced. In effect, even high school bulletins could be targeted and fined for not registering with the committee.
Decree 218, the implications of which are discussed above, would, under the proposed amendments, be codified into law. As article 50 of the law it would ban the import, export and distribution of printed, audiovisual and other matter containing material that could harm the political and economic interests, state security, health, and morality of the republic and its citizens.
The draft also provides for the banning of any publication deemed by the State Press Committee to dishonor, defame or libel the person or reputation of the Belarusian president, state officials mentioned in the constitution, or any other citizen of the republic. It is unclear whether the ban would be enforced prior to the publication of the offending article, thus effectively turning the State Press Committee into a censoring body. Significantly, previous government interpretations of "slander" and "defamation" have included material by internationally respected mass media that was merely critical of, in particular, President Lukashenka's increasingly authoritarian rule.
In cases of repeated violations of the law by the editorial board of a publication, the publication may be suspended from three to twelve months. The founders of previously proscribed publications forfeit the right to found a new publication for two years following the original ban.
Under the draft law, foreign media will need the approval of both the State Press Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to set up a representative office. Similarly, foreign correspondents will need the Committee's approval as well as that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive accreditation. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is concerned that the duplication of the approval process would serve to present obstacles to those media who have run afoul of the government.
Article 25 of the draft law now has a new clause according to which periodicals registered abroad may be distributed within the Republic of Belarus only if approved by the State Press Committee (unless stated otherwise in an international agreement). In sharp contradiction, article 44 guarantees Belarusian citizens unhindered access to reports and material from foreign media.
Transgressing these rules can result in the confiscation of the entire print run, with the distributors liable to administrative prosecution-a fine from ten to fifty times the minimum wage (between US$54 and US$270).
Censoring Telecommunications and the Internet
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki notes with extreme concern a news report stating that the Belarus Ministry of Communications is "conducting renegotiations of contracts for supply of . . . services to users of telephone communications." Under the new proposal for contracts, the ministry could terminate its contract with a subscriber if the latter "use[s] telephone communications for purposes that run counter to state interests and public order."79 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is concerned that, should such clauses be introduced into contracts, they will be used to interrupt or deprive telephone service to individuals connected with the opposition movement and to mass media personnel whose reports deviate from a pro-Lukashenka position. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also notes that such actions would be in clear violation of article 28 of the Belarusian constitution, which states:
Everyone shall be entitled to protection against unlawful interference with his private life, including encroachments on the privacy of his correspondence and telephone and other communications.
Further, such action would also violate article 33 (1) of the Belarusian constitution, which protects freedom of expression and, similarly, article 19 of the ICCPR.
On the internet, unknown attackers crudely vandalized an independent website (http://www.belarus.net/) on November 22, 1996, just two days before the referendum. The website, run by an editorial group headed by Vladimir N. Korvatsky, contains a wide variety of information on Belarus; it also distributes the independent newspaper Vecherniy Minsk, official releases from the president's administration press service, the Supreme Soviet press service, and from the Constitutional Court. The attack, which followed the posting of photographs and articles of a recentopposition demonstration, rendered the website's service temporarily inoperable. In an announcement, Korvatsky reported that the "assailants":
wiped out all the information, changed the configurations, and reprogrammed the system of our server http://www.belarus.net/. . . [T]he hackers did not limit themselves to placing offensive information and pictures, but made an attempt to completely destroy our journal.80
While it has not been proven that government agents were responsible for this act of internet vandalism, the attackers' strategic timing, in tandem with attacks on other media, leads Human Rights Watch/Helsinki to suspect that it was officially sanctioned. In the weeks that followed the attack, however, the website was able to restore most of its functions and has since operated unhindered.15 Belarus ratified the ICCPR in 1973. 16 Belapan news agency (Minsk), cited in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), June 25, 1994. 17 Apart from monopolizing information flows and trying to marginalize the independent media, President Lukashenka uses the state-owned media to discredit the opposition, demonstrators, the non-state sector and the independent media through, among other things, branding them as "enemies of the people." For example, the authorities have repeatedly made the claim that the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) pays children to attend demonstrations, which both the BPF and young demonstrators deny. On April 9, 1997, Belarusian state-owned media reported that President Lukashenka told collective farm officials in western Belarus that the "savagery" they saw on Russian Television after the April 2, 1997, demonstration never happened and had been staged by the Russian television stations. (see Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Newsline, an electronically distributed news digest, part 2, April 10, 1997.) Anatoly Lebedko, a member of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet, gave Human RightsWatch/Helsinki one example of the way President Lukashenka tries to discredit deputies of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet in the eyes of the people:
[Around the time of the November 1996 referendum, the president] ... made a speech on TV and said: "My dear compatriots! Well, I don't know, how can we fight with the Supreme Soviet? You know, they adopted a law: They can retire at the age of thirty-five." And the people think: `How can that be?! I slave in the salt mine ... and retire at sixty, and they just sit there, do nothing and retire at thirty-five!'"
According to Lebedko, deputies can retire after thirty-five years of service in parliament, not at the age of thirty-five. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and Memorial interview, Anatoly Lebedko, April 6, 1997.18 Respublika, (Minsk), cited in World News Connection (WNC), January 6, 1995. 19 Minsk Radio, cited in WNC, December 23, 1994. 20 Belarusian radio, (Minsk), cited in BBC SWB, February 24, 1995. 21 Trud, (Moscow), cited in WNC, March 24, 1995. 22 Ibid. 23 Zametalin later became chairman of the State Press Committee and, on July 15, 1997, was appointed deputy prime minister. 24 Zvyazda (Minsk), cited in BBC SWB, March 21, 1995. 25 Yasha Lange, Media in the CIS (Brussels: The European Commission, May 1997), p. 76. Also at http://www.internews.ras.ru/books/media. 26 Zvyazda, cited in BBC SWB, March 21, 1995. 27 Radio Russia (Moscow), cited in BBC SWB, March 22, 1997. 28 Izvestiya (Moscow), cited in BBC SWB, November 3, 1995. 29 Ibid. 30 Ibid. 31 Belapan news agency, cited in BBC SWB, January 10, 1996. 32 Belarusian radio, cited in BBC SWB, March 17, 1996. 33 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and Memorial interview, Igor Gremenchuk, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 34 Ibid. 35 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was unable to verify this claim, although the free distribution of Svaboda has been well documented. 36 As of July 1997, the average wage in Belarus was below US$100 per month. 37 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and Memorial interview, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 38 Ibid. 39 Notification of legal action against the editor in chief of Belarusskaya Molodezhnaya, March 6, 1997, No. 02-13/101, signed by U.P. Zametalin, Chief of the Directorate for Public and Political Information. 40 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and Memorial interview, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 41 Ibid. 42 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and Memorial interview, Tatyana Melnichuk, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 43 Statistics from Lange, Media in the CIS, p. 80. The abbreviations stand for, respectively, Rossiskaya Teleradio Kompaniya (Russian Television and Radio Company) and Obshchestvennoe Rossiskoe Televideniye (Russian Public Television); NTV is an independent Russian television company. 44 "Terrestrial" as opposed to satellite or cable broadcasting refers to standard television broadcasts by transmitters that necessitate only the use of an antenna to receive pictures. 45 Lange, Media in the CIS, p. 81. 46 Ibid. p. 78. 47 Belapan news agency, cited in BBC SWB, April 30, 1996. 48 Belapan news agency, cited in BBC SWB, September 5, 1996. 49 Belapan news agency, cited in BBC SWB, February 14, 1997. For more on this organization, see below, "Strangling the NGO Community." 50 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Minsk, April 1997. 51 OMON-Otryady Militsii Osobogo Naznacheniya (Special Task Militia Units). 52 NTV, Moscow, cited in BBC SWB, May 5, 1996. 53 NTV, cited in BBC SWB, May 1, 1996. 54 NTV, cited in WNC, May 5, 1996. 55 Kommitet Gosudarstvenniy Besopastnosti (Committee for State Security). 56 Belapan news agency, cited in BBC SWB, May 2, 1996. 57 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Yelena Lukashevich, Belarus correspondent for Vesti, RTR's news program, Minsk, April 3, 1997. 58 Ibid. 59 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Tatyana Melnichuk, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 60 Ekho Moskvy news agency (Moscow), cited in BBC SWB, June 22, 1996. 61 Interfax news agency, quoted in NTV, Moscow report, cited in BBC SWB, March 24, 1997. 62 Belapan news agency, cited in WNC, March 28, 1997. 63 Stupnikov has since been granted Russian citizenship by presidential decree. Under rules regulating visa-free travel in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) for CIS citizens, as a Russian citizen, Stupnikov can no longer be subject to forcible expulsion. However, as of July 1997, Stupnikov has elected to work as bureau chief for NTV in Tel Aviv, Israel. The NTV bureau in Minsk remains open. 64 Ekho Moskvy radio, cited in BBC SWB, March 24, 1997. 65 RTR, cited in BBC SWB, March 25, 1997. 66 RFE/RL Newsline, Vol. 1, No. 60, Part II, June 25, 1997. 67 Komersant Daily (Moscow), cited in Reuters news wire, July 4, 1997. 68 Komersant Daily, cited in Reuters news wire, July 9, 1997. 69 ORT, cited in BBC SWB, November 19, 1996. 70 Reporters sans Frontières, Action Alert, April 1, 1997. 71 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Igor Gremenchuk, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 72 Reporters sans Frontières, Action Alert, April 1, 1997. 73 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Minsk, April 4, 1997. 74 NTV (Moscow), cited in BBC SWB, March 24, 1997. 75 ITAR-TASS news agency, Moscow, cited in BBC SWB, March 25, 1997. 76 As quoted in ITAR-TASS, Moscow, March 28, 1997. 77 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Minsk, April 3, 1997. 78 The following analysis was drawn from commentary written by Natalya Dovnar, a Belarusian media rights lawyer, for the Belarusian Association of Journalists. 79 Belapan news agency, cited in WNC, April 23, 1997. 80 Excerpt from Vladimir N. Korvatsky's letter to Patrick Colebright, administrator of "Magic News," an electronically distributed digest of Belarusian political affairs (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 23, 1996.