PEN-delegation denied entry to Belarus

PEN-delegation denied entry to Belarus

A delegation with members from Norwegian and Danish PEN was denied visa at the Minsk airport and had to return home.

At the Minsk airport in Belarus last Monday morning (December 5th around 2 am local time), a delegation with members from Norwegian PEN (boardmember William Nygaard, publisher Trygve Åslund and secretary general Carl Morten Iversen) and Danish PEN (board member and journalist Niels-Ivar Larsen) was denied visa and, consequently, entry to Belarus. Over the next two days, they were supposed to meet with representatives from PEN Belarus, the Belarusian Writers Union, BAJ – the Belarusian Association of Journalists and local writers and publishers. The trip had been planned for months.

Upon arrival at the Minsk airport early Monday morning (01.00 a.m.) they wanted to obtain visitors visa for a two days stay in Minsk. The group travelled as tourists as this is the only way to get into the country. Invited by a local travel agency, the visa applications, as well as air transport and hotel booking, was handled by a local Norwegian travel agent specializing in Eastern-Europe. All the paperwork was correctly presented to the visa-officer at the airport visa office at the Minsk 2 International Airport.

«The officers initial reaction upon presentation of my application and passport, was that he wanted to talk to the person who was going to pick us up and drive us to Minsk», says Iversen who had organized the trip. «I called him and they talked. Obviously, this was not enough and the officer then wanted to talk to representatives from the travel agency that invited us. I called an emergency number without results. I also called the Norwegian travel agent who tried to help, but with no result. I told the officer that no body picked up as it was the middle of the night – 3 am local time. His response was that we should have arrived with an earlier flight».

The atmosphere at the visa-office counter was building as two ladies arriving from Macedonia got into a heather argument with the officer. After they left, the officer seemingly started processing our visa applications. At one point he asked for the visa fee and received a total of 360 Euros for four visas. After about 20 minutes, a lady in uniform arrived, got our passports from the officer, told us to stay and wait and then disappeared. After a little while we were escorted down to luggage reception to get our luggage as the airport was closing. We were then escorted back to the visa office. An airport or boarder police official then escorted us to a transit area were we were told to wait, guarded by a female officer. Very little information was given, but we understood that we had to wait until the morning flights departed. We would then be sent back to Norway and Denmark. We would get our passports upon boarding of the return flights.

No further explanation was given. At one point, a female customs officers who spoke decent English arrived and explained that this was the decision of the Consul and the decision could not be tried. She also said that it was the rights of the Belarusian authorities to deny entry, while still claiming the visa fee.

We were kept in a place with no access to food or water. At one point, one of the members of the delegation who had a heart condition, said he needed water to take his medicine. The female guard did not understand and thought he wanted a doctor. After a while, a female doctor arrived and wanted to examine him, something he denied – he only wanted water. The incident lead to a heathed discussion between the doctor and our guard. Around 6 in the morning local time, two seats were available on the morning flight to Frankfurt, and two of the delegation members left. They received their passports back at the gate. The two remaining delegation members left on a return flight our of Minsk at 3.30 in the afternoon.

Said delegation member Nygaard to the Norwegian daily Aftenposten´s web-edition: «It is important for us to show the world what kind of regime that rules in Belarus – this is among the issues PEN is focusing on. Belarus is a UN-member and it is important that we react when they behave like this.»

Oslo, December 5th 2011

Stop harassment and arrests of peaceful demonstrators

President Alexander Lukashenko
Office of the President of the Republic of Belarus
Email:  contact@president.gov.by
Fax:  +375 17 226 06 10
13 July 2011

 

We, 38 undersigned organizations from 16 countries, condemn the continuing repressions against civil society in Belarus and the recent arrests of peaceful demonstrators. We call upon the Belarusian authorities immediately to stop harassment of those who exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression, release the demonstrators from prisons and stop preventive detentions of journalists, human rights defenders and civic and political activists.

In the past two months, civic activists have been organizing silent protests across Belarus. Hundreds of demonstrators have gathered on the streets across the country in order to protest peacefully against the deteriorating political and economic situation in Belarus. Since 15 June 2011, at least 1730 people have been arrested during the peaceful demonstrations in the country.

On 15 June 2011, at least 240 demonstrators, including several journalists, were detained by the Belarusian police, as several thousand individuals took part in a peaceful demonstration across Belarus. Police reportedly used violence against the demonstrators.

On 22 June 2011, over 460 people were arrested during another silent protest in Belarus. Minsk police detained 220 protesters, including several journalists, foreign nationals and David Emtestam, the first secretary of Swedish embassy in Belarus, who was later released. Many detainees were charged with disorderly conduct (Article 17.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Republic of Belarus).

On 29 June 2011, the Belarusian riot police violently dispersed peaceful silent protests and arrested 250 demonstrators across the country.  Minsk protesters were detained by plain-clothes men, who did not present any police badges or other insignia. People were seized in the streets and dragged to prepared buses without number plates.   Following trials, most of the detainees were fined. Several demonstrators were sentenced to administrative detention from 9 to 15 days. Similar trials were held in the regions of Homel, Brest, Zhodzina and Salihorsk.

According to some of the defendants, the arrests and the trials were accompanied by multiple human rights violations by the police, including violence against peaceful protesters, lack of information on charges during the arrest and the absence of identification by police during protests.

Shortly after the demonstrations of 29 June, five activists and journalists reportedly received threats of arrest from unidentified individuals for possible participation in another peaceful silent protest in Minsk on 3 July 2011, on the Independence Day of Belarus. A civil activist received the same threats in Brest. Despite the threats, hundreds of people gathered in the streets of Minsk and several other cities. At least 310 peaceful protesters, including journalists, minors and a pregnant woman, were detained in different parts of Belarus, including Minsk (over 160 detained), Baranavichy, Homel, Hrodna, Mahiliou, Smaliavichy, Vitsebsk and Zhlobin. Police used teargas and pepper spray during the arrests, and used violence against peaceful demonstrators. More than 50 arrested protesters were brought to trial on administrative charges for disorderly conduct. Some were fined or sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative detention, while others are awaiting trial.

On 6 July 2011, more than 400 participants of silent protests, including at least 28 journalists, were arrested across the country, including in Minsk and in the regions of Brest, Homel, Hrodna, Mahiliou, and Vitsebsk. In several places the protesters were detained by plain-clothes individuals who did not identify themselves to the detainees. At least 150 detainees were brought to trial on administrative charges before 9 July 2011, most of them sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative detention.

Among the demonstrators given administrative detention over the last week were at least five human rights defenders: on 29 June 2011 Aliaksei Lapitski from Zhodzina was detained and sentenced to 5 days in prison; on 3 July 2011 Valery Shchukin from Minsk, Barys Bukhel from Mahiliou and Anatoli Paplauny from Homel were detained and sentenced to 5-, 7 days and 15 days of imprisonment respectively.

Harsh treatment of peaceful protesters and dispersal of demonstrations are clear violations of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These rights are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Articles 19 and 21 respectively, to which Belarus is a party. We point out that under international legal standards, no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are also established in the Belarusian Constitution, in Articles 33 and 35.

We, therefore, call upon the Belarusian authorities to:

• Immediately release all detained peaceful protesters, exercising their lawful right to freedom of expression and of assembly;
• Immediately discontinue the use of administrative charges against or illegitimate pretrial detention of peaceful demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists;
• Ensure and respect the right to freedom of expression and of assembly to all  Belarusian citizens, including human rights defenders, civic activists and the political  opposition;
• Ensure that journalists are able fully to exercise their professional duties, including during  peaceful demonstrations;
• Ensure compliance with the recently adopted UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Belarus of 15 June 2011, which calls on the Belarusian government to stop harassment of civil society and ensure the right to freedom of assembly.

Undersigning organizations:
All-Ukrainian Youth NGO «Foundation of Regional Initiatives» (Ukraine)
Armenian Helsinki Association (Armenia)
Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius, (Lithuania)
Belarusian Tribunal (Netherlands)
Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine)
Civic Belarus (Czech Republic)
Civil Rights Defenders (Sweden)
CODAP Youth Resource Centre on Human Rights (Switzerland)
European Exchange (Germany)
Federation for Social Defence – BSV (Germany)
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland)
Human Rights Center «Postup»(Ukraine)

Human Rights House Baku (Azerbaijan) on behalf of the following NGOs):
– Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan (AHRC)
– Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS)
– Legal Education Society
– Media Rights Institute

Human Rights House Oslo (Norway) (on behalf of the following NGOs):
– Health and Human Rights Info
– Human Rights House Foundation
– Norwegian Helsinki Committee
– Norwegian PEN

Human Rights House Tbilisi (Georgia) (on behalf of the following NGOs):
– The Human Rights Centre (HRIDC)
– Article 42 of the Constitution

Human Rights House Zagreb (Croatia) (on behalf of the following NGOs):
– APEO/UPIM – Association for Promotion of Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities
– B.a.B.e.
– CMS – Centre for Peace Studies
– Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past
– GOLJP – Civic Committee for Human Rights
– Svitanje  – Association for Protection and Promotion of Mental Health

International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) (Germany)
International Youth Human Rights Movement, (Russian Federation)
Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights (Germany)
Netherlands Helsinki Committee (Netherlands)

Open Word House (United Kingdom) (on behalf of the following NGOs):
– Article 19
– Index on Censorship

People in Need (Czech Republic)
Promo-LEX Association (Republic of Moldova)

Russian Research Center for Human Rights (Russian Federation) (on behalf of the following NGOs):
– Moscow Helsinki Group

The Rafto Foundation for Human Rights (Norway)
Swiss German PEN Centre (Switzerland)
Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (Ukraine )
Young European Federalists (Belgium)

Copies sent to:
• The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE ODIHR), Warsaw
• The Directorate General of Human Rights and Legal Affairs of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg
• Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg
• UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Geneva
• UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Geneva
• UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Geneva

Løslat politiske fanger i Hviterussland

Norsk PEN demonstrerer til støtte for menneskerettighetsforkjempere og løslatelse av politiske fanger i Hviterussland 16.01. kl 16.00, sammen med Den norske Helsingforskomité, Amnesty International Norge, Human Rights House Foundation og Landsforeningen for Barne og Ungdomsorganisasjoner (LNU).

Tid og sted: søndag 16. januar 2011 kl. 16.00 foran Stortinget.

Etter presidentvalget den 19.desember 2010 arresterte hviterussiske myndigheter mer enn 600 personer som protesterte mot utfallet av valget.  Blant dem var en av opposisjonens presidentkandidater, tidligere leder for Hviterussisk PEN, Vladimir Neklaev.  Fortsatt sitter 25 personer fengslet anklaget for å ha organisert opptøyer. De risikerer fra 5-15 års fengsel. Samtidig fortsetter myndighetene å forfølge og avhøre menneskerettighetsforkjempere, journalister og opposisjonspolitikere over hele landet.

Vi krever at norske myndigheter legger ytterligere press på hviterussiske myndigheter for å sikre at

• alle politiske fanger løslates
• alle fengslede får tilgang på juridisk og medisinsk hjelp
• rettssikkerheten ivaretas for dem som stilles for retten
• angrepene og forfølgelsen av menneskerettighetsforkjempere, advokater, journalister, studenter og opposisjonspolitikere opphører

Slagord og bannere vil være:
Løslat politiske fanger
Solidarity16
Free Belarus

Bakgrunn for aksjonen
Lysaksjonen i Hviterussland startet 16. oktober 2005 og dagen ble kalt Day of Solidarity with Belarus. Datoene for lysaksjonen er ikke tilfeldig valgt: 16. september 1999 forsvant tidligere vise-speaker i det hviterussiske parlamentet Viktar Gonchar og hans venn Anatoly Krasovsky. I alt har fire opposisjonelle forsvunnet i Hviterussland siden 1999, og mye tyder på at myndigheter på høyt nivå har vært involvert. Forsvinningene har blitt et tydelig symbol for det undertrykkende regimet i Hviterussland.

Protesterer mot overgrep i Minsk

En av opposisjonens presidentkandidater, den kjente hviterussiske poeten Vladimir Neklyaev – tidligere leder for Hviterussisk PEN og den hviterussiske forfatterforeningen, er et av offrene for myndighetenes overgrep.  I en egen appell til president Lukashenko, sier Polsk PEN blant annet:

We are appealing to the Belarus authorities for the immediate release of the poet and for securing that he receives the necessary medical care. We are appealing for a stop to the brutal repressions against opposition activists and supporters as well as journalists and for guaranteeing adherence to civil liberties, in accordance with the ideals expressed in the International PEN Card which says: «P.E.N. stands for principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and among all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppresion of freedom of expression in their country or their community. P.E.N. declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world toward a more highly organized political and economic order renders free criticism of goverments, administrations and institutions imperative».

Les hele brevet fra organisasjonene på denne lenken.

Hviterussland, november 2007

Freedom of Expression in Belarus. Report from a joint mission: International Publishers Association, Norwegian Union of Journalists, Norwegian PEN

Contents

Introduction                                               p 3
Executive Summary                                   p 3
Political situation                                       p 4
Legal issues                                               p 5
Freedom of Expression                              p 6
Registration                                            p 6
Distribution                                             p 6
Language                                                p 7
Press freedom                                        p 8
Freedom to publish                                 p 9
Conclusion                                                   p 10
Recommendations                                      p 11
Appendixes                                                 p 12
1: Official data                                       p 12
2: The case of Andrei Klimov                p 12
3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers    p 12
4: Concrete examples of implementation
of Article 10 of the Media Law                  p 13

Introduction

For years, international NGOs and press freedom organizations have been monitoring the situation of human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular in Belarus. Norwegian PEN sent a mission to Belarus (Minsk region) in February 2005. At that point, the different Nordic PEN-centres had already been engaged in Belarus since the mid-nineties. A report in Norwegian from this mission is available upon request.

Norwegian PEN applied for and received funding for a follow-up mission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The delegation, which visited Minsk and Hrodna in November 2007, represented Norwegian PEN, the Norwegian Union of Journalists and the International Publishers Association (IPA – Geneva).  This report was written by PEN and IPA and represents the views of the entire delegation.

Executive summary
Belarus has been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe». Not all people we talked to during this mission condone this analysis. One interviewee said that «what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it».

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different administrative initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets across to the majority of the people. Still the opposition, although ideologically split, fights back.

The Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation. The main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are:

a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across;

b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko and their chilling effect on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information would also tend to prove that the authorities are preparing for control of the Internet.

The authorities stifle press freedom and freedom to publish through control of registration and distribution. Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. Such registration may be denied or recalled at any time. The authorities also control all book- and newspaper-distribution through State bookstores and kiosks, as well as a national subscription system.

In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include fines for critical journalism, lack of state advertisements and restrictions on access to information. It is a strain on journalists to work for independent papers who are generally in a tight financial situation. With little or no training possibilities, independent media is not allowed to develop.

Freedom to publish books is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country and only 5 – 6 private publishers. Of these only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long. Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

Finally, President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. There seems to be a wide State project seeking to restrict it. Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. If the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, one cannot be optimistic about the future of the Belarusian language.

Political situation

Belarus has often been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe» by international political observers and analysts. Not all people we talked to in Belarus condone this analysis, including representatives of the opposition. Said one high profiled journalist representative: «I would not say that we live in a dictatorship. An autocratic regime, yes, but not a dictatorship». The President of PEN Belarus said he did not know whether to call Belarus a dictatorship or an autocratic regime, but “what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it”.

This last observation was repeated by many people we interviewed during the mission: Many people do not care, they are indifferent, they actually believe in Lukashenko. In a way, this is understandable, considering that Belarus is not in a state of chaos and most aspects of everyday life seem to function well. If society seems to function and nobody is starving, then why not let Lukashenko stay on?

Most people also believe elections are free and open. This situation would be close to unbelievable in any other country if the sitting President received 98% of the votes. Or if election results were obviously rigged, which was the case during the last elections for Parliament, where the results were available two weeks prior to the actual elections. Once the elections took place, President Lukashenko had already «appointed» all the new members of Parliament.

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets properly across to the majority of the people. 70% of the population still believes elections are open and transparent. Only about 25 – 30% supports the opposition, but as much as 30% of the population does not believe in political changes.

Still, the opposition fights back. Even though it has tried for years, even though the 10 opposition parties working together are split ideologically, they try to work together. When in Minsk, the delegation was informed about an ongoing conference in Vilnius where 60 regional leaders of the various Belarusian opposition parties were discussing common strategies prior to next year’s Parliamentary elections. The exact date for these elections has not yet been announced, but opposition parties will hardly accept another rigged election. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the opposition – standing together and nominating their candidates on one, joint list – have a better position vis-à-vis the electoral committee . Another is the increased use of the Internet, in particular by the younger generation which is growing increasingly tired of State propaganda.

Still, one important, uncertain factor may be essential: The Belarusian economy. When the delegation visited Belarus, the news about the U.S. freezing of Belarusian funds «broke». That is, people we talked to knew about this, but there was no official statement from the authorities and no news in the newspapers, not even in the State media.

The freezing of foreign investment is yet another nail in the «Belarusian financial coffin». Due to the complex relationship with Russia and the ongoing conflict with regards to oil- and gas prices, which has previously allowed for imports at very reasonable prices, Russian financial support is now drying up. This is dramatic because the Belarusian economy, according to opposition politician and former presidential candidate Alaksandar Milinkievic, is not in a good position as far as trade competition is concerned. The people’s dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s financial regime is increasing. According to opposition figures we met with, the authorities recently scrapped all social benefits in order to balance the budget. Milinkievic says the primary challenge for the opposition is to make people understand that they can win through «peaceful street fights».  However, other opposition politicians we talked to would not use the term «peaceful», the bottom line being the fact that opposition candidates are unable to promote themselves in the media and change would therefore have to be brought about through more revolutionary methods.

Yet the Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation and too many simply do not care. The younger generation’s willingness to put up a real, political fight remains to be seen. At this point, therefore, the main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are: a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across, b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legal issues

Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko.

Articles 367 and 368 of the Belarusian Penal Code (BPC) were introduced in January 2001, in preparation for the 2001 presidential elections. Article 367 BPC criminalises defaming the President, while Article 368 BPC criminalises insulting the President. Defamation of the President can result in up to five years in prison. Other criminal defamation articles of the Penal Code include: Article 188 (spreading false information discrediting another person), Article 189 (deliberate degradation of the honour and dignity of an individual), and Article 369 (insult of a public official). Defamation and insult of ordinary citizens (Articles 188 & 189) can lead to imprisonment for up to two years .

The law “on entering amendments and changes to certain legislative acts of the Republic of Belarus on strengthening responsibility for the actions directed against human being and public safety” came into force on 2 January 2006 . It includes a series of amendments to the criminal code that further undermine freedom of expression. In particular, Article 369(1) now criminalises defamation of the Belarusian State.

Even more so than in a country like Turkey where similar provisions exist and are used to stifle freedom of expression, the chilling effect of these criminal defamation provisions on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. These provisions, including those which came into force on 2. January 2006, violate international freedom of expression standards, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Belarus is a party to.

Use of civil defamation suits to silence non-State media is much more common . Article 5 of the civil code prohibits the publication of information damaging the honour or dignity of the President, as well as high-ranking officials, and can lead to the closure of a media outlet following the accumulation of two or more warnings.

Part of Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. For some years, the authorities have been using this article to silence independent and opposition media by blocking their registration. For concrete examples of the implementation of Article 10, please see Appendix 4 on pp. 13-18. Clearly, some of the decisions are politically-motivated.

The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information, which proposes creating a system for registering all media, including online publications, is one of the disturbing legal developments of this year. Because of the lack of freedom of expression in the country, there is no real debate around this proposed piece of legislation. In August 2007, the Ministry of Information created a working group to look at the “Internet’s legal regulation” . It is not clear yet whether registration will be recommended or obligatory.

People we talked to had different views about the proposed new law. The bottom line probably is, like some young journalist from Hrodna put it, that «the State is preparing for control of the Internet». That may very well be, but as it turned out, even the editor of the most selling State newspaper «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» was very critical of the work preceding the new law. Said editor Pavel Yakubovich: «I think websites should be registered and all censorship abolished, but I fear the new law will be politically-biased». He was clearly not satisfied with the lawmaking process, claiming the lawmakers were unprofessional and not real legal experts. The result remains to be seen – so far there is not even a draft for a new law, so it is too early to discuss. Both Yakubovich and editor Anatol Lemyashonak of the State-controlled daily «Respublika» were interested in the new law and said they would actively debate it in their respective newspapers. Still, Belarus may soon be the only European country to join ranks with countries like China, Tunisia and Cuba where government control of the Internet is more or less total.  Until then, the Internet remains one of the few means to reach young people and to have open discussions about politics in Belarus.

Freedom of expression

Various forms of censorship in Belarus

There is no pre-publication censorship in Belarus. Yet everything published, aired or broadcast must be in line with “State ideology”. Belarus is one of the last countries in Europe with a State press. Vis-à-vis non-State press, censorship is indirect. Administrative and economic measures are used to stifle freedom of expression, as well as defamation cases. The authorities use more or less sophisticated administrative methods to control the press and stifle the opposition, the main two elements being registration and distribution.

Registration

All business-, NGO- and media-activity in Belarus must be okayed by the authorities through registration of such activity. As seen above, Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. The outcome of this process is entirely up to the authorities. Registration may be denied or recalled at any time. Even though an appeal to the courts is an option, the outcome is seldom in favour of the plaintiff. Consequently, the authorities control the existence of all Belarusian NGOs, including the non-state journalist organization Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). They may revoke the registration at any point, rendering the organization illegal or, in the worst case, obsolete. Authorities may also seize all assets, including buildings, office spaces and all goods in stock, as they did with the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, the oldest artist organization in the country. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree, allowing for the confiscation of the unions office building in Minsk – including a 500 seat theatre for meetings and cultural events as well as all their printed material, values totalling more than 1.2 million Euros. Finally, in 2006, the Union was thrown out of its remaining offices. For more, see Appendix 3 on page 12.

One reason for being denied registration is the lack of a legal address. Since the authorities are in control of most of the office buildings in Minsk, an address may be very hard to obtain, unless one has a good relationship with these same authorities.

Without registration, it is not possible to operate. Lack of registration is therefore the main obstacle for the media, including book publishing. Without registration, you are not allowed to distribute books and newspapers and the authorities control the distribution.

Distribution

Books
There is a de facto State monopoly on the distribution of books through Belkniga. Belkniga is a State-owned Company, which operates bookshops and libraries throughout the country. The Director of Belkniga is appointed by the Ministry of Information. It is not uncommon for State bookshop directors to refuse to sell a book by one of the independent publishers (for e.g.: a book with the Belarusian flag on the cover).
There are also a few independent bookshops and a huge book market in Minsk, but it is very difficult to operate an independent bookshop successfully. Higher distribution costs than for official bookshops are one of the reasons why it is so difficult. In addition, Belarusians are used to cheap books since the Soviet era. As a result, it is nearly impossible for independent publishers and booksellers to increase book prices in order to make a profit. State publishers and official bookshops do not face a similar problem as they are subsidized by the government.

State bookshops are accused of favouring books in Russian, and as a consequence, books from Russia. This fact helps explain why the print runs of Belarusian publishers publishing in Belarusian are so small (maximum of 2’000 copies). For more on language, please see the “Language” section hereunder.

As a consequence of the de facto monopoly on distribution, the easiest way to reach the readers of independent books is not through bookshops. Writers and private publishers strive to organize private sales in order to be able to meet the readers. However, organizing such meetings is getting increasingly difficult as there are less and less spaces available. In Minsk, such meetings, where writers meet their readers, used to take place at the House of Literature where the Union of Writers was headquartered. Now such meetings are banned there. It is also getting increasingly difficult to access the Universities. Most premises belong to State Institutions. Under these circumstances, less convenient locations have to be found. Other alternative distribution channels include: several unofficial selling points throughout Minsk, some Internet websites etc.

Newspapers
The situation for newspaper distribution is much the same. The State controls the newspaper «kiosks» and vendors are reluctant to stock independent newspapers, though some may be found if you ask for them specifically. The State distribution system also controls how many copies you are allowed to sell, regardless of the actual demand. Consequently, some newspapers, like those owned by the Baranavichy Publishing House «Intex-press», have established their own distributions system. This also makes it possible for them to distribute their papers in small villages. But the system is costly and time-consuming.

In addition to retail, the State controls a subscription system through which newspapers are distributed by mail. The State can remove any newspaper from the subscription list at its own discretion.

Language

The two official languages of Belarus are Russian and Belarusian. That said, Russian is by far the dominating language in Belarus. The Belarusian language is not forbidden, but as with press freedom, the authorities, rather than encourage the use of Belarusian, stifle it in all possible areas of society, including in schools and universities.

Belarusian is no longer spoken in public schools. President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. The opposition is deprived of the possibility to explain to the people that they have the right to be Belarusian and to protect their language and culture. The State newspaper editors say that journalists can write in Belarusian, but this is hardly the case.

Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. Speaking, writing or publishing in Belarusian de facto places the person using this means of expression, or responsible for this means of expression, in the opposition camp. The Belarusian language, despite being one of the two official languages, is clearly repressed to the benefit of the Russian language. According to those who we met with, official data shows that a majority of books published in Belarus are in Belarusian. But they assert the contrary. According to the Belarusian PEN centre, the vast majority of books available in Belarus are in Russian. Imports from Russia would make up a big chunk of the local book market.

Only a few actors, like the PEN centre, are able and actually edit books in Belarusian in cooperation with a handful of private publishers, which publish more books in Belarusian than State publishers do, albeit with much smaller circulations (up to 2000 copies vs. sometimes more than 10’000 in the case of State publishers). Generally speaking, the Belarusian PEN centre is one of very few places in Minsk where events in Belarusian may be arranged.

According to some interviewees, there is a wide State project seeking to restrict Belarusian culture and language, as embodied in the shutting down of the Marc Chagall institute, or the moving to Lithuania of the European Humanities University. The names of the nationally-conscious Belarusian writers were deleted from the curriculum to the benefit of a new concept entitled: “Russian literature in Belarus”.

According to President Lukashenko, there is no reason to study Belarusian anymore because in the end the world will speak only two languages: English and Chinese. President Lukashenko would have also declared that “no-one wants to read in Belarusian”. Underground poetry books , with a circulation of up to 2000-3000, would tend to prove him wrong. That said, if the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, then the future of the Belarusian language is bleak and may be compared to that of other minority languages.

Press freedom

In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include:

·    Fines for critical journalism;
·    No state advertisements – stifling of economy;
·    Restrictions on access to information;
·    Generally tight financial situation;
·    Strain on journalists to work for independent papers;
·    Little or no training – independent media not allowed to develop.

It is a heavy strain on journalists to work for opposition papers and, consequently, to be labelled an «enemy» of the State», one independent newspaper publisher told the delegation. As stated in this report’s chapter on Legal Issues, the Belarusian authorities have introduced a number of laws, rules and regulation which stifle press freedom and freedom to publish. Journalists or newspaper editors may be fined for a number of reasons, including defaming the President.

Although they may be politically «neutral», journalists working for independent media know very well that they are being associated with the opposition, as is almost all citizens working for independent publishers, non-registered NGOs, or even if their only «crime» is active use of the Belarusian language. Once one has been associated with the independent, «free» press, getting work for the State press is no longer an option.

In addition, there are regulations, which limit journalistic work, the most limiting being the restrictions on access to information.

State information is only distributed to the State press, which has a «contractual agreement» with the office of the President stipulating «rights and obligations of both parties». The State press is under obligation to publish information from the State and the Supreme Court. Still, the editors of the two State newspapers we spoke to assured us that they made the final decisions with regards to what to print, adding that they might even be critical of state information, «but not every day». Both editors claimed that they had been warned when they were «out of line». The authorities would have even tried to get rid of one of them on several occasions.

Journalists working for the independent press have no access to this type of information, with the only exception of information accessible on the Internet, which is only a small fraction of the total amount of State information. State officials are not allowed to even talk to, or inform independent media and their journalists who do not get accredited to press conferences and other important events.

In terms of economic conditions, the independent press is banned from State advertising. Revenues from non-State companies are close to non-existent, even though some independent papers manage to get some. Other hurdles include: Costly distribution, the added cost for some papers of printing in Russia, the extremely high prices on newsprint compared to the State press and heavy fines if the independent press does not write in accordance with the «rules» of the authorities. Overall, it is quite clear that the independent newspapers in Belarus fight an ongoing battle to stay alive.

Narodnaya Volya, one of the most important independent newspapers in Belarus, is facing huge problems. Their chief editor Losif Seredich said economic support from abroad is a life and death question for the newspaper. The most pressing issue for the newspaper right now is to pay a fine of 15.000 US dollars. The newspaper was expecting to be sentenced to pay such a fine for violating the law. This was confirmed upon the return to Norway of the Norwegian members of the delegation. This is one of many fines the newspaper has had to pay in recent years for its investigative and critical journalism. So far it has managed to pay the fines, but it is now in urgent need of money.

This situation allows for little if any development of the independent press in Belarus. Training is scarce and costly. Newspaper editors are not allowed to bring trainers in from abroad. As a result, most training has to take place domestically and over the week-end, or in other countries when it is possible financially. The Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius has been used for such trainings. This sad situation was confirmed even by State editors who told us that the level of journalism is higher in the West because Belarus has not paid enough attention to the development of journalism in the last 30 years.

The State press also has other types of financial security arrangements. For instance, «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» has 70.000 mandatory State subscribers. Editor in chief Yakubovich was clearly not satisfied with this arrangement. He claimed «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» did not need these subscribers, and actually went as far as to state that the arrangement with State subscribers was bad for the image of his newspaper. Both editors of the State newspapers we talked to defended editorial freedom and claimed that they were allowed to write, publish and edit their respective paper the way they wanted, even though they had previously been warned off by State officials for not publishing State information in a satisfactory manner. They gave vague answers regarding press freedom issues, but admitted that the situation for press freedom and human rights was not good, while giving credit to BAJ for its work.

Mr. Yakubovich was also very engaged, almost curiously so, in the amount of returns from the State kiosks. We were presented with figures showing a return percentage of up to and exceeding 30% for some newspapers in some areas. This trend was also confirmed by Viachaslau Khadasouski of the independent weekly «Belorusy i Rynok». The question we asked in return was: «If the return rate keeps increasing, why don’t you print fewer newspapers?». The response was yet another example of the lack of openness in Belarus.  According to editor Yakubovich, the authorities «keep silent about these figures because the advertisers would be chocked» if they learned about them.

”What are the reasons for these huge returns?” we also asked. We received no clear answers. Any questions from us suggesting that the return rates might have to do with the actual content of the newspapers, that the buyers were obviously fed up with State media and State propaganda, were left unanswered or, at best, with comments such as «this is not possible to know.»

Freedom to publish

Introduction
The situation for publishers in Belarus, in an environment with virtually no freedom of expression, is very difficult.

As seen above, the legal environment (e.g.: Art 358 of the Penal Code, «insulting the President») is not satisfactory. Clearly, it does not promote good freedom of expression and freedom to publish conditions in the country.

As far as publishing is concerned, freedom to publish is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country. Besides the State publishers, several hundred entities hold a publishing license. Among them, there are State entities such as universities, and 5 or 6 real independent and private publishers. These few private publishers tried to create a publishers’ association some 10 years ago. But this attempt failed for various reasons. Out of this group of 5 to 6 publishers, only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long.

Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

An arbitrary book publishing license system
To be able to operate as a publisher, a license is needed. To get this license, the applicant needs to take an oral exam at the Ministry of Information. Whether he/she fails or passes the exam is entirely at the discretion of the Ministry, which usually refuses to give, should an applicant fail, the reasons why she or he failed. The exam can be taken once every six months.

It is apparently getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get the publishing license. Those who are black-listed simply cannot get the license. Overall, the license is (not) delivered on an arbitrary basis.

To complicate things further, there are several publishing licenses for each type of literature. There is a license for fiction, a license for school books, a license for scientific materials etc. Again, in practice, the Ministry seems to be giving them at its own will. For instance, there seems to be a non-written rule whereupon the license for fiction is no longer given, or rarely so.

The publishing license is renewable every five years through an oral exam. Renewal of the license seems to be even more difficult than getting it for the first time.

The Ministry of Information issues warnings to publishers. In the first warning issued by the Ministry, the recipient is informed that the second warning would give the authorities the right to withdraw his/her publishing license(s). The warning system, as well as the need to renew one’s license, helps explain the sometimes short life expectancy of independent/private publishers in Belarus. As a publisher put it: “It is extremely difficult to be on the constant threat of having one’s license removed”. Books in Russian are less likely to get warnings than books in Belarusian.

Once a first warning is issued, the publisher concerned is under the threat of a second warning, which would mean the termination of his/her right to operate as a book publisher. The warnings do not refer to the content of books directly. They deal with technical issues such as the width of margins etc.

In reality, what is behind the issuing of these “technical warnings”?

1.    Publishing books which generally do not match the official line (Any alternative/original thought may anger the authorities);
2.    Publishing in the Belarusian language.

Plummeting sales
When independence was declared, there was a real hunger for books in Belarus. Print runs were rather high. With the turn of repression in the mid-1990s, sales and print runs started plummeting, making it difficult for private publishers to develop their business. Print runs have become so small over the years that the few existing private publishers depend on the support of private foundations.

Conclusion

This mission’s participants urge international NGOs, freedom of expression organizations and European political institutions to keep monitoring the situation for human rights in general and freedom of expression and to publish in particular over the next years. Such monitoring is particularly important with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2008 and future presidential elections. In the period preceding these elections, we urge Belarusian and European authorities to consider the following recommendations.

Recommendations
To the Belarusian authorities

·    Repeal all criminal defamation laws, in particular Articles 367, 368 & 369 of the Belarusian Penal Code;
·    Stop imposing prison sentences and disproportionate fines in defamation cases;
·    Degrade Articles 188 and 189 from the Penal Code to the Civil Code so as to ease the chilling effect on freedom of expression;
·    Repeal Article 10 of the Media Law, in particular the section requiring news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located;
·    Open spaces for public debates before pushing through legislative changes having a chilling effect on freedom of expression (e.g.: Proposed Law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information);
·    In general bring Belarusian media laws in line with international standards;
·    Lift the obligation to take an oral exam to get a book publishing license;
·    Lift the book publishing license system;
·    Free the book distribution system;
·    Stop using the distribution system as a way to hamper the distribution of independent newspapers (retail & subscription);
·    In general refrain from discriminatory policies towards independent media;
·    Stop repressing all forms of expression in the Belarusian language;
·    If the proposed law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information goes through, do not make the registration of online publications compulsory.

To the EU

·    Do not engage in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) process until the above points have been enforced locally

Appendixes

Appendix 1: Official data:
According to the Ministry of Information of Belarus, it had issued 584 book publishing licenses as of 1 August 2006.

While 22 publishing houses, including 2 State-owned publishers, issued 100-300 titles in 2005, 120 registered enterprises issued from 10 to 100 titles. Overall, Belarusian publishers issued 10’784 titles (of books and brochures) in 2005, according to data from the Ministry of Information. Educational publishing accounted for 40 % of that amount.

Currently, the Ministry of Information comprises 5 State-owned publishers. Each of them has its own specialisation

Officially, a Belarusian Association of Book Publishers and Book Distributors was created in 1994. According the Ministry, “it is an independent NGO uniting publishers, printers and book distributors”.

Appendix 2: The case of Andrei Klimov
Writer and political activist Andrei Klimov was arrested on 3 April 2007 following the posting of a publication of his on the web site of the United Civil Party and that criticized the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

On 1 August 2007, Minsk’s Central District Court sentenced Andrei Klimov to two years in a high-security prison for making public calls to overthrow the government or to change the constitutional order violently using the media (Art. 361 BPC). At the end of a closed-door trial, Klimov was sentenced to two years in a high-security prison.

Appendix 3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers
The union of Belarusian writers is the oldest creative organization in Belarus. During the wave of national revival following independence, the union of Belarusian writers became an influential NGO supporting democracy and national identity. The authorities did not approve of this. From 1995, the authorities have been pressuring the union of writers both as a legal entity, and in terms of individual harassment.

The Union of Belarusian Writers used to enjoy a large building of several thousand square meters in a nice location which it owned. This location included a 500-seat hall to organize cultural events. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree taking away the building from the Union of Belarusian Writers. In 2006, the Union of Belarusian Writers was thrown out of the few remaining rooms it was occupying in the building. Last year, the Ministry of Justice applied to the Supreme Court for the liquidation of the Union of Belarusian Writers. Belarusian writers managed to defend their union so that it is still operating legally today.

That said, the Union of Belarusian Writers was expelled from its premises. In addition to this, the State seized all of the Union’s publications, including the weekly newspaper, and the literature magazines. A State holding was established on the basis of these publications. Not a single member of the Union of Belarusian Writers can publish in these publications. There is a black list. The Union members have grown to be dissidents.

The Government decided to create its own “pocket governmental union” in lieu of the Union of Writers. The official name of the governmental union is the Union of Writers of Belarus, i.e. the name the non-governmental union used to have until 1996 when it changed its name to the Union of Belarusian writers (NGOs were not allowed to use the country’s name in their official names).

The new governmental union has premises on State budget.

That said, the most renowned writers remain in the non-governmental union. It has 574 members, while the official union has around 300 members, most of these are not even writers. 30 of the non-official union write in Russian, while most of the writers of the official union write in Russian.

Appendix 4: Concrete examples of implementation of Article 10 of the Media Law

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Pinsk City Executive Committee

21, Dniaprouskaj Flatylii Str.,
Pinsk, 225710, Brest region
Phones: 35-33-19, 35-33-27;
Fax: 35-36-91

28-09-1999  No. 1019/ 2

TO: Sytsin F.F.,
Tsentralanaya Str.,
56-13, Pinsk

TO: Tsishuk P.N.,
17, Darozhnaya Str.,
Pinsk

TO: Yarashuk V.T.
Piershamayskaya Str.,
109-15, Pinsk

Your application of 17-09-1999 about foundation and the necessity of adjustment of placement of  “Pravintsyja” periodical edition in the city of Pinsk was considered at a regular sitting of Pinsk City Executive Committee on 28-09-1999.

Presently, 7 periodical editions with the total circulation of 48.3 thousand copies are published in the city of Pinsk.

Hence, Pinsk City Executive Committee considers the presence of such a number of manifold periodical editions to be sufficient for informing the city dwellers and presenting the events taking place in it.

Chairman of Pinsk City Executive Committee    [SIGNATURE]

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Hrodna City Executive Committee

DECISION No. 671

Hrodna, August 13, 2002

About placement of a media outlet

Having considered an application, submitted by Hrodna City Council of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna, with a request to get an approval for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper, founded by this NGO, Hrodna City Executive Committee took into account the “Viedamasci” newspaper had been planned as a social and political weekly. Publication of a periodical edition with the stated thematic does not correspond to the Statutory Notes of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna NGO.

Hence, Hrodna City Executive Committee RESOLVED

to abstain from giving a permit for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper in 11 K. Marx Str., Hrodna.

First Deputy Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee             [SIGNATURE]            A.S. Kunash

Acting Administration Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee            [SIGNATURE]            V.Y. Shaptsila

[OFFICIAL STAMP]

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region

5, Lenin Str., Smarhon, 231000
Phone: (+375 1592) 3-16-16
Fax: (+375 1592) 3-13-53

09-12-2004    No. 91/01-09

To: Ulan R.V.,
8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region does not approve the placement of “Novaya gazeta Smarhoni” media outlet in 8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon.

Chairman            [SIGNATURE]        M.B. Goj

Freedom of Expression in Belarus

Freedom of Expression in Belarus

Report from a joint mission
International Publishers Association
Norwegian Union of Journalists
Norwegian PEN

 

Contents
Introduction                                               p 3
Executive Summary                                   p 3
Political situation                                       p 4
Legal issues                                              p 5
Freedom of Expression                               p 6
Registration                                           p 6
Distribution                                            p 6
Language                                               p 7
Press freedom                                        p 8
Freedom to publish                                 p 9
Conclusion                                                p 10
Recommendations                                     p 11
Appendixes                                               p 12
1: Official data                                       p 12
2: The case of Andrei Klimov                   p 12
3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers    p 12
4: Concrete examples of implementation
of Article 10 of the Media Law                     p 13

Introduction
For years, international NGOs and press freedom organizations have been monitoring the situation of human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular in Belarus. Norwegian PEN sent a mission to Belarus (Minsk region) in February 2005. At that point, the different Nordic PEN-centres had already been engaged in Belarus since the mid-nineties. A report in Norwegian from this mission is available upon request.

Norwegian PEN applied for and received funding for a follow-up mission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The delegation, which visited Minsk and Hrodna in November 2007, represented Norwegian PEN, the Norwegian Union of Journalists and the International Publishers Association (IPA – Geneva).  This report was written by PEN and IPA and represents the views of the entire delegation.

Executive summary
Belarus has been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe». Not all people we talked to during this mission condone this analysis. One interviewee said that «what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it».

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different administrative initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets across to the majority of the people. Still the opposition, although ideologically split, fights back.

The Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation. The main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are:

a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across;

b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko and their chilling effect on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information would also tend to prove that the authorities are preparing for control of the Internet.

The authorities stifle press freedom and freedom to publish through control of registration and distribution. Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. Such registration may be denied or recalled at any time. The authorities also control all book- and newspaper-distribution through State bookstores and kiosks, as well as a national subscription system.

In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include fines for critical journalism, lack of state advertisements and restrictions on access to information. It is a strain on journalists to work for independent papers who are generally in a tight financial situation. With little or no training possibilities, independent media is not allowed to develop.

Freedom to publish books is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country and only 5 – 6 private publishers. Of these only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long. Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

Finally, President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. There seems to be a wide State project seeking to restrict it. Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. If the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, one cannot be optimistic about the future of the Belarusian language.

Political situation
Belarus has often been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe» by international political observers and analysts. Not all people we talked to in Belarus condone this analysis, including representatives of the opposition. Said one high profiled journalist representative: «I would not say that we live in a dictatorship. An autocratic regime, yes, but not a dictatorship». The President of PEN Belarus said he did not know whether to call Belarus a dictatorship or an autocratic regime, but “what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it”.

This last observation was repeated by many people we interviewed during the mission: Many people do not care, they are indifferent, they actually believe in Lukashenko. In a way, this is understandable, considering that Belarus is not in a state of chaos and most aspects of everyday life seem to function well. If society seems to function and nobody is starving, then why not let Lukashenko stay on?

Most people also believe elections are free and open. This situation would be close to unbelievable in any other country if the sitting President received 98% of the votes. Or if election results were obviously rigged, which was the case during the last elections for Parliament, where the results were available two weeks prior to the actual elections. Once the elections took place, President Lukashenko had already «appointed» all the new members of Parliament.

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets properly across to the majority of the people. 70% of the population still believes elections are open and transparent. Only about 25 – 30% supports the opposition, but as much as 30% of the population does not believe in political changes.

Still, the opposition fights back. Even though it has tried for years, even though the 10 opposition parties working together are split ideologically, they try to work together. When in Minsk, the delegation was informed about an ongoing conference in Vilnius where 60 regional leaders of the various Belarusian opposition parties were discussing common strategies prior to next year’s Parliamentary elections. The exact date for these elections has not yet been announced, but opposition parties will hardly accept another rigged election. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the opposition – standing together and nominating their candidates on one, joint list – have a better position vis-à-vis the electoral committee . Another is the increased use of the Internet, in particular by the younger generation which is growing increasingly tired of State propaganda.

Still, one important, uncertain factor may be essential: The Belarusian economy. When the delegation visited Belarus, the news about the U.S. freezing of Belarusian funds «broke». That is, people we talked to knew about this, but there was no official statement from the authorities and no news in the newspapers, not even in the State media.

The freezing of foreign investment is yet another nail in the «Belarusian financial coffin». Due to the complex relationship with Russia and the ongoing conflict with regards to oil- and gas prices, which has previously allowed for imports at very reasonable prices, Russian financial support is now drying up. This is dramatic because the Belarusian economy, according to opposition politician and former presidential candidate Alaksandar Milinkievic, is not in a good position as far as trade competition is concerned. The people’s dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s financial regime is increasing. According to opposition figures we met with, the authorities recently scrapped all social benefits in order to balance the budget. Milinkievic says the primary challenge for the opposition is to make people understand that they can win through «peaceful street fights».  However, other opposition politicians we talked to would not use the term «peaceful», the bottom line being the fact that opposition candidates are unable to promote themselves in the media and change would therefore have to be brought about through more revolutionary methods.

Yet the Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation and too many simply do not care. The younger generation’s willingness to put up a real, political fight remains to be seen. At this point, therefore, the main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are: a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across, b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legal issues
Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko.

Articles 367 and 368 of the Belarusian Penal Code (BPC) were introduced in January 2001, in preparation for the 2001 presidential elections. Article 367 BPC criminalises defaming the President, while Article 368 BPC criminalises insulting the President. Defamation of the President can result in up to five years in prison. Other criminal defamation articles of the Penal Code include: Article 188 (spreading false information discrediting another person), Article 189 (deliberate degradation of the honour and dignity of an individual), and Article 369 (insult of a public official). Defamation and insult of ordinary citizens (Articles 188 & 189) can lead to imprisonment for up to two years .

The law “on entering amendments and changes to certain legislative acts of the Republic of Belarus on strengthening responsibility for the actions directed against human being and public safety” came into force on 2 January 2006 . It includes a series of amendments to the criminal code that further undermine freedom of expression. In particular, Article 369(1) now criminalises defamation of the Belarusian State.

Even more so than in a country like Turkey where similar provisions exist and are used to stifle freedom of expression, the chilling effect of these criminal defamation provisions on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. These provisions, including those which came into force on 2. January 2006, violate international freedom of expression standards, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Belarus is a party to.

Use of civil defamation suits to silence non-State media is much more common . Article 5 of the civil code prohibits the publication of information damaging the honour or dignity of the President, as well as high-ranking officials, and can lead to the closure of a media outlet following the accumulation of two or more warnings.

Part of Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. For some years, the authorities have been using this article to silence independent and opposition media by blocking their registration. For concrete examples of the implementation of Article 10, please see Appendix 4 on pp. 13-18. Clearly, some of the decisions are politically-motivated.

The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information, which proposes creating a system for registering all media, including online publications, is one of the disturbing legal developments of this year. Because of the lack of freedom of expression in the country, there is no real debate around this proposed piece of legislation. In August 2007, the Ministry of Information created a working group to look at the “Internet’s legal regulation” . It is not clear yet whether registration will be recommended or obligatory.

People we talked to had different views about the proposed new law. The bottom line probably is, like some young journalist from Hrodna put it, that «the State is preparing for control of the Internet». That may very well be, but as it turned out, even the editor of the most selling State newspaper «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» was very critical of the work preceding the new law. Said editor Pavel Yakubovich: «I think websites should be registered and all censorship abolished, but I fear the new law will be politically-biased». He was clearly not satisfied with the lawmaking process, claiming the lawmakers were unprofessional and not real legal experts. The result remains to be seen – so far there is not even a draft for a new law, so it is too early to discuss. Both Yakubovich and editor Anatol Lemyashonak of the State-controlled daily «Respublika» were interested in the new law and said they would actively debate it in their respective newspapers. Still, Belarus may soon be the only European country to join ranks with countries like China, Tunisia and Cuba where government control of the Internet is more or less total.  Until then, the Internet remains one of the few means to reach young people and to have open discussions about politics in Belarus.

Freedom of expression

Various forms of censorship in Belarus
There is no pre-publication censorship in Belarus. Yet everything published, aired or broadcast must be in line with “State ideology”. Belarus is one of the last countries in Europe with a State press. Vis-à-vis non-State press, censorship is indirect. Administrative and economic measures are used to stifle freedom of expression, as well as defamation cases. The authorities use more or less sophisticated administrative methods to control the press and stifle the opposition, the main two elements being registration and distribution.

Registration
All business-, NGO- and media-activity in Belarus must be okayed by the authorities through registration of such activity. As seen above, Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. The outcome of this process is entirely up to the authorities. Registration may be denied or recalled at any time. Even though an appeal to the courts is an option, the outcome is seldom in favour of the plaintiff. Consequently, the authorities control the existence of all Belarusian NGOs, including the non-state journalist organization Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). They may revoke the registration at any point, rendering the organization illegal or, in the worst case, obsolete. Authorities may also seize all assets, including buildings, office spaces and all goods in stock, as they did with the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, the oldest artist organization in the country. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree, allowing for the confiscation of the unions office building in Minsk – including a 500 seat theatre for meetings and cultural events as well as all their printed material, values totalling more than 1.2 million Euros. Finally, in 2006, the Union was thrown out of its remaining offices. For more, see Appendix 3 on page 12.

One reason for being denied registration is the lack of a legal address. Since the authorities are in control of most of the office buildings in Minsk, an address may be very hard to obtain, unless one has a good relationship with these same authorities.

Without registration, it is not possible to operate. Lack of registration is therefore the main obstacle for the media, including book publishing. Without registration, you are not allowed to distribute books and newspapers and the authorities control the distribution.

Distribution

Books
There is a de facto State monopoly on the distribution of books through Belkniga. Belkniga is a State-owned Company, which operates bookshops and libraries throughout the country. The Director of Belkniga is appointed by the Ministry of Information. It is not uncommon for State bookshop directors to refuse to sell a book by one of the independent publishers (for e.g.: a book with the Belarusian flag on the cover).

There are also a few independent bookshops and a huge book market in Minsk, but it is very difficult to operate an independent bookshop successfully. Higher distribution costs than for official bookshops are one of the reasons why it is so difficult. In addition, Belarusians are used to cheap books since the Soviet era. As a result, it is nearly impossible for independent publishers and booksellers to increase book prices in order to make a profit. State publishers and official bookshops do not face a similar problem as they are subsidized by the government.

State bookshops are accused of favouring books in Russian, and as a consequence, books from Russia. This fact helps explain why the print runs of Belarusian publishers publishing in Belarusian are so small (maximum of 2’000 copies). For more on language, please see the “Language” section hereunder.

As a consequence of the de facto monopoly on distribution, the easiest way to reach the readers of independent books is not through bookshops. Writers and private publishers strive to organize private sales in order to be able to meet the readers. However, organizing such meetings is getting increasingly difficult as there are less and less spaces available. In Minsk, such meetings, where writers meet their readers, used to take place at the House of Literature where the Union of Writers was headquartered. Now such meetings are banned there. It is also getting increasingly difficult to access the Universities. Most premises belong to State Institutions. Under these circumstances, less convenient locations have to be found. Other alternative distribution channels include: several unofficial selling points throughout Minsk, some Internet websites etc.

Newspapers
The situation for newspaper distribution is much the same. The State controls the newspaper «kiosks» and vendors are reluctant to stock independent newspapers, though some may be found if you ask for them specifically. The State distribution system also controls how many copies you are allowed to sell, regardless of the actual demand. Consequently, some newspapers, like those owned by the Baranavichy Publishing House «Intex-press», have established their own distributions system. This also makes it possible for them to distribute their papers in small villages. But the system is costly and time-consuming.

In addition to retail, the State controls a subscription system through which newspapers are distributed by mail. The State can remove any newspaper from the subscription list at its own discretion.

Language
The two official languages of Belarus are Russian and Belarusian. That said, Russian is by far the dominating language in Belarus. The Belarusian language is not forbidden, but as with press freedom, the authorities, rather than encourage the use of Belarusian, stifle it in all possible areas of society, including in schools and universities.

Belarusian is no longer spoken in public schools. President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. The opposition is deprived of the possibility to explain to the people that they have the right to be Belarusian and to protect their language and culture. The State newspaper editors say that journalists can write in Belarusian, but this is hardly the case.

Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. Speaking, writing or publishing in Belarusian de facto places the person using this means of expression, or responsible for this means of expression, in the opposition camp. The Belarusian language, despite being one of the two official languages, is clearly repressed to the benefit of the Russian language. According to those who we met with, official data shows that a majority of books published in Belarus are in Belarusian. But they assert the contrary. According to the Belarusian PEN centre, the vast majority of books available in Belarus are in Russian. Imports from Russia would make up a big chunk of the local book market.

Only a few actors, like the PEN centre, are able and actually edit books in Belarusian in cooperation with a handful of private publishers, which publish more books in Belarusian than State publishers do, albeit with much smaller circulations (up to 2000 copies vs. sometimes more than 10’000 in the case of State publishers). Generally speaking, the Belarusian PEN centre is one of very few places in Minsk where events in Belarusian may be arranged.

According to some interviewees, there is a wide State project seeking to restrict Belarusian culture and language, as embodied in the shutting down of the Marc Chagall institute, or the moving to Lithuania of the European Humanities University. The names of the nationally-conscious Belarusian writers were deleted from the curriculum to the benefit of a new concept entitled: “Russian literature in Belarus”.

According to President Lukashenko, there is no reason to study Belarusian anymore because in the end the world will speak only two languages: English and Chinese. President Lukashenko would have also declared that “no-one wants to read in Belarusian”. Underground poetry books , with a circulation of up to 2000-3000,  would tend to prove him wrong. That said, if the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, then the future of the Belarusian language is bleak and may be compared to that of other minority languages.

Press freedom
In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include:

·    Fines for critical journalism;
·    No state advertisements – stifling of economy;
·    Restrictions on access to information;
·    Generally tight financial situation;
·    Strain on journalists to work for independent papers;
·    Little or no training – independent media not allowed to develop.

It is a heavy strain on journalists to work for opposition papers and, consequently, to be labelled an «enemy» of the State», one independent newspaper publisher told the delegation. As stated in this report’s chapter on Legal Issues, the Belarusian authorities have introduced a number of laws, rules and regulation which stifle press freedom and freedom to publish. Journalists or newspaper editors may be fined for a number of reasons, including defaming the President.

Although they may be politically «neutral», journalists working for independent media know very well that they are being associated with the opposition, as is almost all citizens working for independent publishers, non-registered NGOs, or even if their only «crime» is active use of the Belarusian language. Once one has been associated with the independent, «free» press, getting work for the State press is no longer an option.

In addition, there are regulations, which limit journalistic work, the most limiting being the restrictions on access to information.

State information is only distributed to the State press, which has a «contractual agreement» with the office of the President stipulating «rights and obligations of both parties». The State press is under obligation to publish information from the State and the Supreme Court. Still, the editors of the two State newspapers we spoke to assured us that they made the final decisions with regards to what to print, adding that they might even be critical of state information, «but not every day». Both editors claimed that they had been warned when they were «out of line». The authorities would have even tried to get rid of one of them on several occasions.

Journalists working for the independent press have no access to this type of information, with the only exception of information accessible on the Internet, which is only a small fraction of the total amount of State information. State officials are not allowed to even talk to, or inform independent media and their journalists who do not get accredited to press conferences and other important events.

In terms of economic conditions, the independent press is banned from State advertising. Revenues from non-State companies are close to non-existent, even though some independent papers manage to get some. Other hurdles include: Costly distribution, the added cost for some papers of printing in Russia, the extremely high prices on newsprint compared to the State press and heavy fines if the independent press does not write in accordance with the «rules» of the authorities. Overall, it is quite clear that the independent newspapers in Belarus fight an ongoing battle to stay alive.

Narodnaya Volya, one of the most important independent newspapers in Belarus, is facing huge problems. Their chief editor Losif Seredich said economic support from abroad is a life and death question for the newspaper. The most pressing issue for the newspaper right now is to pay a fine of 15.000 US dollars. The newspaper was expecting to be sentenced to pay such a fine for violating the law. This was confirmed upon the return to Norway of the Norwegian members of the delegation. This is one of many fines the newspaper has had to pay in recent years for its investigative and critical journalism. So far it has managed to pay the fines, but it is now in urgent need of money.

This situation allows for little if any development of the independent press in Belarus. Training is scarce and costly. Newspaper editors are not allowed to bring trainers in from abroad. As a result, most training has to take place domestically and over the week-end, or in other countries when it is possible financially. The Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius has been used for such trainings. This sad situation was confirmed even by State editors who told us that the level of journalism is higher in the West because Belarus has not paid enough attention to the development of journalism in the last 30 years.

The State press also has other types of financial security arrangements. For instance, «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» has 70.000 mandatory State subscribers. Editor in chief Yakubovich was clearly not satisfied with this arrangement. He claimed «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» did not need these subscribers, and actually went as far as to state that the arrangement with State subscribers was bad for the image of his newspaper. Both editors of the State newspapers we talked to defended editorial freedom and claimed that they were allowed to write, publish and edit their respective paper the way they wanted, even though they had previously been warned off by State officials for not publishing State information in a satisfactory manner. They gave vague answers regarding press freedom issues, but admitted that the situation for press freedom and human rights was not good, while giving credit to BAJ for its work.

Mr. Yakubovich was also very engaged, almost curiously so, in the amount of returns from the State kiosks. We were presented with figures showing a return percentage of up to and exceeding 30% for some newspapers in some areas. This trend was also confirmed by Viachaslau Khadasouski of the independent weekly «Belorusy i Rynok». The question we asked in return was: «If the return rate keeps increasing, why don’t you print fewer newspapers?». The response was yet another example of the lack of openness in Belarus.  According to editor Yakubovich, the authorities «keep silent about these figures because the advertisers would be chocked» if they learned about them.

”What are the reasons for these huge returns?” we also asked. We received no clear answers. Any questions from us suggesting that the return rates might have to do with the actual content of the newspapers, that the buyers were obviously fed up with State media and State propaganda, were left unanswered or, at best, with comments such as «this is not possible to know.»

Freedom to publish

Introduction
The situation for publishers in Belarus, in an environment with virtually no freedom of expression, is very difficult.

As seen above, the legal environment (e.g.: Art 358 of the Penal Code, «insulting the President») is not satisfactory. Clearly, it does not promote good freedom of expression and freedom to publish conditions in the country.

As far as publishing is concerned, freedom to publish is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country. Besides the State publishers, several hundred entities hold a publishing license. Among them, there are State entities such as universities, and 5 or 6 real independent and private publishers. These few private publishers tried to create a publishers’ association some 10 years ago. But this attempt failed for various reasons. Out of this group of 5 to 6 publishers, only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long.

Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

An arbitrary book publishing license system
To be able to operate as a publisher, a license is needed. To get this license, the applicant needs to take an oral exam at the Ministry of Information. Whether he/she fails or passes the exam is entirely at the discretion of the Ministry, which usually refuses to give, should an applicant fail, the reasons why she or he failed. The exam can be taken once every six months.

It is apparently getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get the publishing license. Those who are black-listed simply cannot get the license. Overall, the license is (not) delivered on an arbitrary basis.

To complicate things further, there are several publishing licenses for each type of literature. There is a license for fiction, a license for school books, a license for scientific materials etc. Again, in practice, the Ministry seems to be giving them at its own will. For instance, there seems to be a non-written rule whereupon the license for fiction is no longer given, or rarely so.

The publishing license is renewable every five years through an oral exam. Renewal of the license seems to be even more difficult than getting it for the first time.

The Ministry of Information issues warnings to publishers. In the first warning issued by the Ministry, the recipient is informed that the second warning would give the authorities the right to withdraw his/her publishing license(s). The warning system, as well as the need to renew one’s license, helps explain the sometimes short life expectancy of independent/private publishers in Belarus. As a publisher put it: “It is extremely difficult to be on the constant threat of having one’s license removed”. Books in Russian are less likely to get warnings than books in Belarusian.

Once a first warning is issued, the publisher concerned is under the threat of a second warning, which would mean the termination of his/her right to operate as a book publisher. The warnings do not refer to the content of books directly. They deal with technical issues such as the width of margins etc.

In reality, what is behind the issuing of these “technical warnings”?

1.    Publishing books which generally do not match the official line (Any alternative/original thought may anger the authorities);
2.    Publishing in the Belarusian language.

Plummeting sales
When independence was declared, there was a real hunger for books in Belarus. Print runs were rather high. With the turn of repression in the mid-1990s, sales and print runs started plummeting, making it difficult for private publishers to develop their business. Print runs have become so small over the years that the few existing private publishers depend on the support of private foundations.

Conclusion
This mission’s participants urge international NGOs, freedom of expression organizations and European political institutions to keep monitoring the situation for human rights in general and freedom of expression and to publish in particular over the next years. Such monitoring is particularly important with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2008 and future presidential elections. In the period preceding these elections, we urge Belarusian and European authorities to consider the following recommendations.

Recommendations to the Belarusian authorities

·    Repeal all criminal defamation laws, in particular Articles 367, 368 & 369 of the Belarusian Penal Code;
·    Stop imposing prison sentences and disproportionate fines in defamation cases;
·    Degrade Articles 188 and 189 from the Penal Code to the Civil Code so as to ease the chilling effect on freedom of expression;
·    Repeal Article 10 of the Media Law, in particular the section requiring news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located;
·    Open spaces for public debates before pushing through legislative changes having a chilling effect on freedom of expression (e.g.: Proposed Law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information);
·    In general bring Belarusian media laws in line with international standards;
·    Lift the obligation to take an oral exam to get a book publishing license;
·    Lift the book publishing license system;
·    Free the book distribution system;
·    Stop using the distribution system as a way to hamper the distribution of independent newspapers (retail & subscription);
·    In general refrain from discriminatory policies towards independent media;
·    Stop repressing all forms of expression in the Belarusian language;
·    If the proposed law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information goes through, do not make the registration of online publications compulsory.

To the EU

·    Do not engage in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) process until the above points have been enforced locally

 

Appendixes

Appendix 1: Official data:
According to the Ministry of Information of Belarus, it had issued 584 book publishing licenses as of 1 August 2006.

While 22 publishing houses, including 2 State-owned publishers, issued 100-300 titles in 2005, 120 registered enterprises issued from 10 to 100 titles. Overall, Belarusian publishers issued 10’784 titles (of books and brochures) in 2005, according to data from the Ministry of Information. Educational publishing accounted for 40 % of that amount.

Currently, the Ministry of Information comprises 5 State-owned publishers. Each of them has its own specialisation

Officially, a Belarusian Association of Book Publishers and Book Distributors was created in 1994. According the Ministry, “it is an independent NGO uniting publishers, printers and book distributors”.

Appendix 2: The case of Andrei Klimov
Writer and political activist Andrei Klimov was arrested on 3 April 2007 following the posting of a publication of his on the web site of the United Civil Party and that criticized the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

On 1 August 2007, Minsk’s Central District Court sentenced Andrei Klimov to two years in a high-security prison for making public calls to overthrow the government or to change the constitutional order violently using the media (Art. 361 BPC). At the end of a closed-door trial, Klimov was sentenced to two years in a high-security prison.

Appendix 3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers
The union of Belarusian writers is the oldest creative organization in Belarus. During the wave of national revival following independence, the union of Belarusian writers became an influential NGO supporting democracy and national identity. The authorities did not approve of this. From 1995, the authorities have been pressuring the union of writers both as a legal entity, and in terms of individual harassment.

The Union of Belarusian Writers used to enjoy a large building of several thousand square meters in a nice location which it owned. This location included a 500-seat hall to organize cultural events. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree taking away the building from the Union of Belarusian Writers. In 2006, the Union of Belarusian Writers was thrown out of the few remaining rooms it was occupying in the building. Last year, the Ministry of Justice applied to the Supreme Court for the liquidation of the Union of Belarusian Writers. Belarusian writers managed to defend their union so that it is still operating legally today.

That said, the Union of Belarusian Writers was expelled from its premises. In addition to this, the State seized all of the Union’s publications, including the weekly newspaper, and the literature magazines. A State holding was established on the basis of these publications. Not a single member of the Union of Belarusian Writers can publish in these publications. There is a black list. The Union members have grown to be dissidents.

The Government decided to create its own “pocket governmental union” in lieu of the Union of Writers. The official name of the governmental union is the Union of Writers of Belarus, i.e. the name the non-governmental union used to have until 1996 when it changed its name to the Union of Belarusian writers (NGOs were not allowed to use the country’s name in their official names).

The new governmental union has premises on State budget.

That said, the most renowned writers remain in the non-governmental union. It has 574 members, while the official union has around 300 members, most of these are not even writers. 30 of the non-official union write in Russian, while most of the writers of the official union write in Russian.

Appendix 4: Concrete examples of implementation of Article 10 of the Media Law

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Pinsk City Executive Committee

21, Dniaprouskaj Flatylii Str.,
Pinsk, 225710, Brest region
Phones: 35-33-19, 35-33-27;
Fax: 35-36-91

28-09-1999  No. 1019/ 2

TO: Sytsin F.F.,
Tsentralanaya Str.,
56-13, Pinsk

TO: Tsishuk P.N.,
17, Darozhnaya Str.,
Pinsk

TO: Yarashuk V.T.
Piershamayskaya Str.,
109-15, Pinsk

Your application of 17-09-1999 about foundation and the necessity of adjustment of placement of  “Pravintsyja” periodical edition in the city of Pinsk was considered at a regular sitting of Pinsk City Executive Committee on 28-09-1999.

Presently, 7 periodical editions with the total circulation of 48.3 thousand copies are published in the city of Pinsk.

Hence, Pinsk City Executive Committee considers the presence of such a number of manifold periodical editions to be sufficient for informing the city dwellers and presenting the events taking place in it.

Chairman of Pinsk City Executive Committee    [SIGNATURE]

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Hrodna City Executive Committee

DECISION No. 671

Hrodna, August 13, 2002

About placement of a media outlet

Having considered an application, submitted by Hrodna City Council of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna, with a request to get an approval for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper, founded by this NGO, Hrodna City Executive Committee took into account the “Viedamasci” newspaper had been planned as a social and political weekly. Publication of a periodical edition with the stated thematic does not correspond to the Statutory Notes of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna NGO.

Hence, Hrodna City Executive Committee RESOLVED

to abstain from giving a permit for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper in 11 K. Marx Str., Hrodna.

First Deputy Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee             [SIGNATURE]            A.S. Kunash

Acting Administration Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee            [SIGNATURE]            V.Y. Shaptsila

[OFFICIAL STAMP]

 

 

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region

5, Lenin Str., Smarhon, 231000
Phone: (+375 1592) 3-16-16 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (+375 1592) 3-16-16      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Fax: (+375 1592) 3-13-53

09-12-2004    No. 91/01-09

To: Ulan R.V.,
8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon

 

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region does not approve the placement of “Novaya gazeta Smarhoni” media outlet in 8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon.

 

Chairman            [SIGNATURE]        M.B. Goj

Fersk rapport fra Hviterussland

Freedom of Expression in Belarus
Report from a joint mission
International Publishers Association
Norwegian Union of Journalists
Norwegian PEN

Contents
Introduction                                              p 3
Executive Summary                                  p 3
Political situation                                      p 4
Legal issues                                             p 5
Freedom of Expression                              p 6
Registration                                          p 6
Distribution                                           p 6
Language                                             p 7
Press freedom                                      p 8
Freedom to publish                               p 9
Conclusion                                               p 10
Recommendations                                    p 11
Appendixes                                              p 12
1: Official data                                      p 12
2: The case of Andrei Klimov                  p 12
3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers    p 12
4: Concrete examples of implementation
of Article 10 of the Media Law                    p 13

Introduction
For years, international NGOs and press freedom organizations have been monitoring the situation of human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular in Belarus. Norwegian PEN sent a mission to Belarus (Minsk region) in February 2005. At that point, the different Nordic PEN-centres had already been engaged in Belarus since the mid-nineties. A report in Norwegian from this mission is available upon request.

Norwegian PEN applied for and received funding for a follow-up mission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The delegation, which visited Minsk and Hrodna in November 2007, represented Norwegian PEN, the Norwegian Union of Journalists and the International Publishers Association (IPA – Geneva).  This report was written by PEN and IPA and represents the views of the entire delegation.

Executive summary
Belarus has been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe». Not all people we talked to during this mission condone this analysis. One interviewee said that «what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it».

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different administrative initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets across to the majority of the people. Still the opposition, although ideologically split, fights back.

The Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation. The main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are:

a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across;

b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko and their chilling effect on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information would also tend to prove that the authorities are preparing for control of the Internet.

The authorities stifle press freedom and freedom to publish through control of registration and distribution. Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. Such registration may be denied or recalled at any time. The authorities also control all book- and newspaper-distribution through State bookstores and kiosks, as well as a national subscription system.

In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include fines for critical journalism, lack of state advertisements and restrictions on access to information. It is a strain on journalists to work for independent papers who are generally in a tight financial situation. With little or no training possibilities, independent media is not allowed to develop.

Freedom to publish books is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country and only 5 – 6 private publishers. Of these only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long. Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

Finally, President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. There seems to be a wide State project seeking to restrict it. Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. If the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, one cannot be optimistic about the future of the Belarusian language.

Political situation
Belarus has often been labelled «the last dictatorship in Europe» by international political observers and analysts. Not all people we talked to in Belarus condone this analysis, including representatives of the opposition. Said one high profiled journalist representative: «I would not say that we live in a dictatorship. An autocratic regime, yes, but not a dictatorship». The President of PEN Belarus said he did not know whether to call Belarus a dictatorship or an autocratic regime, but “what is happening here is a national disaster, and most people seem to accept it”.

This last observation was repeated by many people we interviewed during the mission: Many people do not care, they are indifferent, they actually believe in Lukashenko. In a way, this is understandable, considering that Belarus is not in a state of chaos and most aspects of everyday life seem to function well. If society seems to function and nobody is starving, then why not let Lukashenko stay on?

Most people also believe elections are free and open. This situation would be close to unbelievable in any other country if the sitting President received 98% of the votes. Or if election results were obviously rigged, which was the case during the last elections for Parliament, where the results were available two weeks prior to the actual elections. Once the elections took place, President Lukashenko had already «appointed» all the new members of Parliament.

The main issue is President Lukashenko’s control of the media. Through a number of different initiatives, he makes certain that the view of the opposition never gets properly across to the majority of the people. 70% of the population still believes elections are open and transparent. Only about 25 – 30% supports the opposition, but as much as 30% of the population does not believe in political changes.

Still, the opposition fights back. Even though it has tried for years, even though the 10 opposition parties working together are split ideologically, they try to work together. When in Minsk, the delegation was informed about an ongoing conference in Vilnius where 60 regional leaders of the various Belarusian opposition parties were discussing common strategies prior to next year’s Parliamentary elections. The exact date for these elections has not yet been announced, but opposition parties will hardly accept another rigged election. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the opposition – standing together and nominating their candidates on one, joint list – have a better position vis-à-vis the electoral committee . Another is the increased use of the Internet, in particular by the younger generation which is growing increasingly tired of State propaganda.

Still, one important, uncertain factor may be essential: The Belarusian economy. When the delegation visited Belarus, the news about the U.S. freezing of Belarusian funds «broke». That is, people we talked to knew about this, but there was no official statement from the authorities and no news in the newspapers, not even in the State media.

The freezing of foreign investment is yet another nail in the «Belarusian financial coffin». Due to the complex relationship with Russia and the ongoing conflict with regards to oil- and gas prices, which has previously allowed for imports at very reasonable prices, Russian financial support is now drying up. This is dramatic because the Belarusian economy, according to opposition politician and former presidential candidate Alaksandar Milinkievic, is not in a good position as far as trade competition is concerned. The people’s dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s financial regime is increasing. According to opposition figures we met with, the authorities recently scrapped all social benefits in order to balance the budget. Milinkievic says the primary challenge for the opposition is to make people understand that they can win through «peaceful street fights».  However, other opposition politicians we talked to would not use the term «peaceful», the bottom line being the fact that opposition candidates are unable to promote themselves in the media and change would therefore have to be brought about through more revolutionary methods.

Yet the Belarusian people are extremely tolerant and patient regarding the current political situation and too many simply do not care. The younger generation’s willingness to put up a real, political fight remains to be seen. At this point, therefore, the main two factors that may tip the situation in any direction are: a. The possibilities for the opposition to actually cut through all State restrictions and get its political message across, b. The great uncertainty regarding Belarusian economic development, and its effect on everyday life in Belarus.

Legal issues
Legislative changes, adopted without debate, are unfortunately not uncommon under the regime of President Lukashenko.

Articles 367 and 368 of the Belarusian Penal Code (BPC) were introduced in January 2001, in preparation for the 2001 presidential elections. Article 367 BPC criminalises defaming the President, while Article 368 BPC criminalises insulting the President. Defamation of the President can result in up to five years in prison. Other criminal defamation articles of the Penal Code include: Article 188 (spreading false information discrediting another person), Article 189 (deliberate degradation of the honour and dignity of an individual), and Article 369 (insult of a public official). Defamation and insult of ordinary citizens (Articles 188 & 189) can lead to imprisonment for up to two years .

The law “on entering amendments and changes to certain legislative acts of the Republic of Belarus on strengthening responsibility for the actions directed against human being and public safety” came into force on 2 January 2006 . It includes a series of amendments to the criminal code that further undermine freedom of expression. In particular, Article 369(1) now criminalises defamation of the Belarusian State.

Even more so than in a country like Turkey where similar provisions exist and are used to stifle freedom of expression, the chilling effect of these criminal defamation provisions on freedom of expression in Belarus is evident. These provisions, including those which came into force on 2. January 2006, violate international freedom of expression standards, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Belarus is a party to.

Use of civil defamation suits to silence non-State media is much more common . Article 5 of the civil code prohibits the publication of information damaging the honour or dignity of the President, as well as high-ranking officials, and can lead to the closure of a media outlet following the accumulation of two or more warnings.

Part of Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. For some years, the authorities have been using this article to silence independent and opposition media by blocking their registration. For concrete examples of the implementation of Article 10, please see Appendix 4 on pp. 13-18. Clearly, some of the decisions are politically-motivated.

The proposed law on Information Technology and the Protection of Information, which proposes creating a system for registering all media, including online publications, is one of the disturbing legal developments of this year. Because of the lack of freedom of expression in the country, there is no real debate around this proposed piece of legislation. In August 2007, the Ministry of Information created a working group to look at the “Internet’s legal regulation” . It is not clear yet whether registration will be recommended or obligatory.

People we talked to had different views about the proposed new law. The bottom line probably is, like some young journalist from Hrodna put it, that «the State is preparing for control of the Internet». That may very well be, but as it turned out, even the editor of the most selling State newspaper «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» was very critical of the work preceding the new law. Said editor Pavel Yakubovich: «I think websites should be registered and all censorship abolished, but I fear the new law will be politically-biased». He was clearly not satisfied with the lawmaking process, claiming the lawmakers were unprofessional and not real legal experts. The result remains to be seen – so far there is not even a draft for a new law, so it is too early to discuss. Both Yakubovich and editor Anatol Lemyashonak of the State-controlled daily «Respublika» were interested in the new law and said they would actively debate it in their respective newspapers. Still, Belarus may soon be the only European country to join ranks with countries like China, Tunisia and Cuba where government control of the Internet is more or less total.  Until then, the Internet remains one of the few means to reach young people and to have open discussions about politics in Belarus.

Freedom of expression

Various forms of censorship in Belarus
There is no pre-publication censorship in Belarus. Yet everything published, aired or broadcast must be in line with “State ideology”. Belarus is one of the last countries in Europe with a State press. Vis-à-vis non-State press, censorship is indirect. Administrative and economic measures are used to stifle freedom of expression, as well as defamation cases. The authorities use more or less sophisticated administrative methods to control the press and stifle the opposition, the main two elements being registration and distribution.

Registration
All business-, NGO- and media-activity in Belarus must be okayed by the authorities through registration of such activity. As seen above, Article 10 of the media law requires news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located. The outcome of this process is entirely up to the authorities. Registration may be denied or recalled at any time. Even though an appeal to the courts is an option, the outcome is seldom in favour of the plaintiff. Consequently, the authorities control the existence of all Belarusian NGOs, including the non-state journalist organization Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). They may revoke the registration at any point, rendering the organization illegal or, in the worst case, obsolete. Authorities may also seize all assets, including buildings, office spaces and all goods in stock, as they did with the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, the oldest artist organization in the country. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree, allowing for the confiscation of the unions office building in Minsk – including a 500 seat theatre for meetings and cultural events as well as all their printed material, values totalling more than 1.2 million Euros. Finally, in 2006, the Union was thrown out of its remaining offices. For more, see Appendix 3 on page 12.

One reason for being denied registration is the lack of a legal address. Since the authorities are in control of most of the office buildings in Minsk, an address may be very hard to obtain, unless one has a good relationship with these same authorities.

Without registration, it is not possible to operate. Lack of registration is therefore the main obstacle for the media, including book publishing. Without registration, you are not allowed to distribute books and newspapers and the authorities control the distribution.

Distribution

Books
There is a de facto State monopoly on the distribution of books through Belkniga. Belkniga is a State-owned Company, which operates bookshops and libraries throughout the country. The Director of Belkniga is appointed by the Ministry of Information. It is not uncommon for State bookshop directors to refuse to sell a book by one of the independent publishers (for e.g.: a book with the Belarusian flag on the cover).

There are also a few independent bookshops and a huge book market in Minsk, but it is very difficult to operate an independent bookshop successfully. Higher distribution costs than for official bookshops are one of the reasons why it is so difficult. In addition, Belarusians are used to cheap books since the Soviet era. As a result, it is nearly impossible for independent publishers and booksellers to increase book prices in order to make a profit. State publishers and official bookshops do not face a similar problem as they are subsidized by the government.

State bookshops are accused of favouring books in Russian, and as a consequence, books from Russia. This fact helps explain why the print runs of Belarusian publishers publishing in Belarusian are so small (maximum of 2’000 copies). For more on language, please see the “Language” section hereunder.

As a consequence of the de facto monopoly on distribution, the easiest way to reach the readers of independent books is not through bookshops. Writers and private publishers strive to organize private sales in order to be able to meet the readers. However, organizing such meetings is getting increasingly difficult as there are less and less spaces available. In Minsk, such meetings, where writers meet their readers, used to take place at the House of Literature where the Union of Writers was headquartered. Now such meetings are banned there. It is also getting increasingly difficult to access the Universities. Most premises belong to State Institutions. Under these circumstances, less convenient locations have to be found. Other alternative distribution channels include: several unofficial selling points throughout Minsk, some Internet websites etc.

Newspapers
The situation for newspaper distribution is much the same. The State controls the newspaper «kiosks» and vendors are reluctant to stock independent newspapers, though some may be found if you ask for them specifically. The State distribution system also controls how many copies you are allowed to sell, regardless of the actual demand. Consequently, some newspapers, like those owned by the Baranavichy Publishing House «Intex-press», have established their own distributions system. This also makes it possible for them to distribute their papers in small villages. But the system is costly and time-consuming.

In addition to retail, the State controls a subscription system through which newspapers are distributed by mail. The State can remove any newspaper from the subscription list at its own discretion.

Language
The two official languages of Belarus are Russian and Belarusian. That said, Russian is by far the dominating language in Belarus. The Belarusian language is not forbidden, but as with press freedom, the authorities, rather than encourage the use of Belarusian, stifle it in all possible areas of society, including in schools and universities.

Belarusian is no longer spoken in public schools. President Lukashenko is against Belarusian culture and language. The opposition is deprived of the possibility to explain to the people that they have the right to be Belarusian and to protect their language and culture. The State newspaper editors say that journalists can write in Belarusian, but this is hardly the case.

Belarusian is also perceived by the authorities as the language of the opposition. Speaking, writing or publishing in Belarusian de facto places the person using this means of expression, or responsible for this means of expression, in the opposition camp. The Belarusian language, despite being one of the two official languages, is clearly repressed to the benefit of the Russian language. According to those who we met with, official data shows that a majority of books published in Belarus are in Belarusian. But they assert the contrary. According to the Belarusian PEN centre, the vast majority of books available in Belarus are in Russian. Imports from Russia would make up a big chunk of the local book market.

Only a few actors, like the PEN centre, are able and actually edit books in Belarusian in cooperation with a handful of private publishers, which publish more books in Belarusian than State publishers do, albeit with much smaller circulations (up to 2000 copies vs. sometimes more than 10’000 in the case of State publishers). Generally speaking, the Belarusian PEN centre is one of very few places in Minsk where events in Belarusian may be arranged.

According to some interviewees, there is a wide State project seeking to restrict Belarusian culture and language, as embodied in the shutting down of the Marc Chagall institute, or the moving to Lithuania of the European Humanities University. The names of the nationally-conscious Belarusian writers were deleted from the curriculum to the benefit of a new concept entitled: “Russian literature in Belarus”.

According to President Lukashenko, there is no reason to study Belarusian anymore because in the end the world will speak only two languages: English and Chinese. President Lukashenko would have also declared that “no-one wants to read in Belarusian”. Underground poetry books , with a circulation of up to 2000-3000, would tend to prove him wrong. That said, if the current policy vis-à-vis Belarusian continues to prevail, then the future of the Belarusian language is bleak and may be compared to that of other minority languages.

Press freedom
In addition to registration and distribution problems, the independent press in Belarus faces numerous challenges. These include:

·    Fines for critical journalism;
·    No state advertisements – stifling of economy;
·    Restrictions on access to information;
·    Generally tight financial situation;
·    Strain on journalists to work for independent papers;
·    Little or no training – independent media not allowed to develop.

It is a heavy strain on journalists to work for opposition papers and, consequently, to be labelled an «enemy» of the State», one independent newspaper publisher told the delegation. As stated in this report’s chapter on Legal Issues, the Belarusian authorities have introduced a number of laws, rules and regulation which stifle press freedom and freedom to publish. Journalists or newspaper editors may be fined for a number of reasons, including defaming the President.

Although they may be politically «neutral», journalists working for independent media know very well that they are being associated with the opposition, as is almost all citizens working for independent publishers, non-registered NGOs, or even if their only «crime» is active use of the Belarusian language. Once one has been associated with the independent, «free» press, getting work for the State press is no longer an option.

In addition, there are regulations, which limit journalistic work, the most limiting being the restrictions on access to information.

State information is only distributed to the State press, which has a «contractual agreement» with the office of the President stipulating «rights and obligations of both parties». The State press is under obligation to publish information from the State and the Supreme Court. Still, the editors of the two State newspapers we spoke to assured us that they made the final decisions with regards to what to print, adding that they might even be critical of state information, «but not every day». Both editors claimed that they had been warned when they were «out of line». The authorities would have even tried to get rid of one of them on several occasions.

Journalists working for the independent press have no access to this type of information, with the only exception of information accessible on the Internet, which is only a small fraction of the total amount of State information. State officials are not allowed to even talk to, or inform independent media and their journalists who do not get accredited to press conferences and other important events.

In terms of economic conditions, the independent press is banned from State advertising. Revenues from non-State companies are close to non-existent, even though some independent papers manage to get some. Other hurdles include: Costly distribution, the added cost for some papers of printing in Russia, the extremely high prices on newsprint compared to the State press and heavy fines if the independent press does not write in accordance with the «rules» of the authorities. Overall, it is quite clear that the independent newspapers in Belarus fight an ongoing battle to stay alive.

Narodnaya Volya, one of the most important independent newspapers in Belarus, is facing huge problems. Their chief editor Losif Seredich said economic support from abroad is a life and death question for the newspaper. The most pressing issue for the newspaper right now is to pay a fine of 15.000 US dollars. The newspaper was expecting to be sentenced to pay such a fine for violating the law. This was confirmed upon the return to Norway of the Norwegian members of the delegation. This is one of many fines the newspaper has had to pay in recent years for its investigative and critical journalism. So far it has managed to pay the fines, but it is now in urgent need of money.

This situation allows for little if any development of the independent press in Belarus. Training is scarce and costly. Newspaper editors are not allowed to bring trainers in from abroad. As a result, most training has to take place domestically and over the week-end, or in other countries when it is possible financially. The Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius has been used for such trainings. This sad situation was confirmed even by State editors who told us that the level of journalism is higher in the West because Belarus has not paid enough attention to the development of journalism in the last 30 years.

The State press also has other types of financial security arrangements. For instance, «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» has 70.000 mandatory State subscribers. Editor in chief Yakubovich was clearly not satisfied with this arrangement. He claimed «Sovietskaya Belorussiya» did not need these subscribers, and actually went as far as to state that the arrangement with State subscribers was bad for the image of his newspaper. Both editors of the State newspapers we talked to defended editorial freedom and claimed that they were allowed to write, publish and edit their respective paper the way they wanted, even though they had previously been warned off by State officials for not publishing State information in a satisfactory manner. They gave vague answers regarding press freedom issues, but admitted that the situation for press freedom and human rights was not good, while giving credit to BAJ for its work.

Mr. Yakubovich was also very engaged, almost curiously so, in the amount of returns from the State kiosks. We were presented with figures showing a return percentage of up to and exceeding 30% for some newspapers in some areas. This trend was also confirmed by Viachaslau Khadasouski of the independent weekly «Belorusy i Rynok». The question we asked in return was: «If the return rate keeps increasing, why don’t you print fewer newspapers?». The response was yet another example of the lack of openness in Belarus.  According to editor Yakubovich, the authorities «keep silent about these figures because the advertisers would be chocked» if they learned about them.

”What are the reasons for these huge returns?” we also asked. We received no clear answers. Any questions from us suggesting that the return rates might have to do with the actual content of the newspapers, that the buyers were obviously fed up with State media and State propaganda, were left unanswered or, at best, with comments such as «this is not possible to know.»

Freedom to publish

Introduction
The situation for publishers in Belarus, in an environment with virtually no freedom of expression, is very difficult.

As seen above, the legal environment (e.g.: Art 358 of the Penal Code, «insulting the President») is not satisfactory. Clearly, it does not promote good freedom of expression and freedom to publish conditions in the country.

As far as publishing is concerned, freedom to publish is hardly possible in Belarus. There are ten to twelve State Publishers in the country. Besides the State publishers, several hundred entities hold a publishing license. Among them, there are State entities such as universities, and 5 or 6 real independent and private publishers. These few private publishers tried to create a publishers’ association some 10 years ago. But this attempt failed for various reasons. Out of this group of 5 to 6 publishers, only two have survived since 1997. The life expectancy of private Belarusian publishers is not very long.

Under the current regime, with an arbitrary book publishing license system, the only solution available to publish a real oppositional book is to use a fake publisher’s identity.

An arbitrary book publishing license system
To be able to operate as a publisher, a license is needed. To get this license, the applicant needs to take an oral exam at the Ministry of Information. Whether he/she fails or passes the exam is entirely at the discretion of the Ministry, which usually refuses to give, should an applicant fail, the reasons why she or he failed. The exam can be taken once every six months.

It is apparently getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to get the publishing license. Those who are black-listed simply cannot get the license. Overall, the license is (not) delivered on an arbitrary basis.

To complicate things further, there are several publishing licenses for each type of literature. There is a license for fiction, a license for school books, a license for scientific materials etc. Again, in practice, the Ministry seems to be giving them at its own will. For instance, there seems to be a non-written rule whereupon the license for fiction is no longer given, or rarely so.

The publishing license is renewable every five years through an oral exam. Renewal of the license seems to be even more difficult than getting it for the first time.

The Ministry of Information issues warnings to publishers. In the first warning issued by the Ministry, the recipient is informed that the second warning would give the authorities the right to withdraw his/her publishing license(s). The warning system, as well as the need to renew one’s license, helps explain the sometimes short life expectancy of independent/private publishers in Belarus. As a publisher put it: “It is extremely difficult to be on the constant threat of having one’s license removed”. Books in Russian are less likely to get warnings than books in Belarusian.

Once a first warning is issued, the publisher concerned is under the threat of a second warning, which would mean the termination of his/her right to operate as a book publisher. The warnings do not refer to the content of books directly. They deal with technical issues such as the width of margins etc.

In reality, what is behind the issuing of these “technical warnings”?

1.    Publishing books which generally do not match the official line (Any alternative/original thought may anger the authorities);
2.    Publishing in the Belarusian language.

Plummeting sales
When independence was declared, there was a real hunger for books in Belarus. Print runs were rather high. With the turn of repression in the mid-1990s, sales and print runs started plummeting, making it difficult for private publishers to develop their business. Print runs have become so small over the years that the few existing private publishers depend on the support of private foundations.

Conclusion
This mission’s participants urge international NGOs, freedom of expression organizations and European political institutions to keep monitoring the situation for human rights in general and freedom of expression and to publish in particular over the next years. Such monitoring is particularly important with regards to the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2008 and future presidential elections. In the period preceding these elections, we urge Belarusian and European authorities to consider the following recommendations.

Recommendations

To the Belarusian authorities
·    Repeal all criminal defamation laws, in particular Articles 367, 368 & 369 of the Belarusian Penal Code;
·    Stop imposing prison sentences and disproportionate fines in defamation cases;
·    Degrade Articles 188 and 189 from the Penal Code to the Civil Code so as to ease the chilling effect on freedom of expression;
·    Repeal Article 10 of the Media Law, in particular the section requiring news media to register with the local authorities where their premises are located;
·    Open spaces for public debates before pushing through legislative changes having a chilling effect on freedom of expression (e.g.: Proposed Law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information);
·    In general bring Belarusian media laws in line with international standards;
·    Lift the obligation to take an oral exam to get a book publishing license;
·    Lift the book publishing license system;
·    Free the book distribution system;
·    Stop using the distribution system as a way to hamper the distribution of independent newspapers (retail & subscription);
·    In general refrain from discriminatory policies towards independent media;
·    Stop repressing all forms of expression in the Belarusian language;
·    If the proposed law on Information, Informatization, and the Protection of Information goes through, do not make the registration of online publications compulsory.

To the EU
·    Do not engage in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) process until the above points have been enforced locally

Appendixes

Appendix 1: Official data:
According to the Ministry of Information of Belarus, it had issued 584 book publishing licenses as of 1 August 2006.

While 22 publishing houses, including 2 State-owned publishers, issued 100-300 titles in 2005, 120 registered enterprises issued from 10 to 100 titles. Overall, Belarusian publishers issued 10’784 titles (of books and brochures) in 2005, according to data from the Ministry of Information. Educational publishing accounted for 40 % of that amount.

Currently, the Ministry of Information comprises 5 State-owned publishers. Each of them has its own specialisation

Officially, a Belarusian Association of Book Publishers and Book Distributors was created in 1994. According the Ministry, “it is an independent NGO uniting publishers, printers and book distributors”.

Appendix 2: The case of Andrei Klimov
Writer and political activist Andrei Klimov was arrested on 3 April 2007 following the posting of a publication of his on the web site of the United Civil Party and that criticized the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

On 1 August 2007, Minsk’s Central District Court sentenced Andrei Klimov to two years in a high-security prison for making public calls to overthrow the government or to change the constitutional order violently using the media (Art. 361 BPC). At the end of a closed-door trial, Klimov was sentenced to two years in a high-security prison.

Appendix 3: The Regime creates its own Union of Writers
The union of Belarusian writers is the oldest creative organization in Belarus. During the wave of national revival following independence, the union of Belarusian writers became an influential NGO supporting democracy and national identity. The authorities did not approve of this. From 1995, the authorities have been pressuring the union of writers both as a legal entity, and in terms of individual harassment.

The Union of Belarusian Writers used to enjoy a large building of several thousand square meters in a nice location which it owned. This location included a 500-seat hall to organize cultural events. In 1997, President Lukashenko issued a decree taking away the building from the Union of Belarusian Writers. In 2006, the Union of Belarusian Writers was thrown out of the few remaining rooms it was occupying in the building. Last year, the Ministry of Justice applied to the Supreme Court for the liquidation of the Union of Belarusian Writers. Belarusian writers managed to defend their union so that it is still operating legally today.

That said, the Union of Belarusian Writers was expelled from its premises. In addition to this, the State seized all of the Union’s publications, including the weekly newspaper, and the literature magazines. A State holding was established on the basis of these publications. Not a single member of the Union of Belarusian Writers can publish in these publications. There is a black list. The Union members have grown to be dissidents.

The Government decided to create its own “pocket governmental union” in lieu of the Union of Writers. The official name of the governmental union is the Union of Writers of Belarus, i.e. the name the non-governmental union used to have until 1996 when it changed its name to the Union of Belarusian writers (NGOs were not allowed to use the country’s name in their official names).

The new governmental union has premises on State budget.

That said, the most renowned writers remain in the non-governmental union. It has 574 members, while the official union has around 300 members, most of these are not even writers. 30 of the non-official union write in Russian, while most of the writers of the official union write in Russian.

Appendix 4: Concrete examples of implementation of Article 10 of the Media Law

Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Pinsk City Executive Committee

21, Dniaprouskaj Flatylii Str.,
Pinsk, 225710, Brest region
Phones: 35-33-19, 35-33-27;
Fax: 35-36-91

28-09-1999  No. 1019/ 2

TO: Sytsin F.F.,
Tsentralanaya Str.,
56-13, Pinsk

TO: Tsishuk P.N.,
17, Darozhnaya Str.,
Pinsk

TO: Yarashuk V.T.
Piershamayskaya Str.,
109-15, Pinsk

Your application of 17-09-1999 about foundation and the necessity of adjustment of placement of  “Pravintsyja” periodical edition in the city of Pinsk was considered at a regular sitting of Pinsk City Executive Committee on 28-09-1999.

Presently, 7 periodical editions with the total circulation of 48.3 thousand copies are published in the city of Pinsk.

Hence, Pinsk City Executive Committee considers the presence of such a number of manifold periodical editions to be sufficient for informing the city dwellers and presenting the events taking place in it.

Chairman of Pinsk City Executive Committee    [SIGNATURE]

Verified translation from Belarusian into English
Hrodna City Executive Committee

DECISION No. 671

Hrodna, August 13, 2002

About placement of a media outlet

Having considered an application, submitted by Hrodna City Council of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna, with a request to get an approval for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper, founded by this NGO, Hrodna City Executive Committee took into account the “Viedamasci” newspaper had been planned as a social and political weekly. Publication of a periodical edition with the stated thematic does not correspond to the Statutory Notes of Belarusian Language Society named after F. Skaryna NGO.

Hence, Hrodna City Executive Committee RESOLVED

to abstain from giving a permit for the placement of “Viedamasci” newspaper in 11 K. Marx Str., Hrodna.

First Deputy Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee             [SIGNATURE]            A.S. Kunash

Acting Administration Head of Hrodna
City Executive Committee            [SIGNATURE]            V.Y. Shaptsila

[OFFICIAL STAMP]
Verified translation from Belarusian into English

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region

5, Lenin Str., Smarhon, 231000
Phone: (+375 1592) 3-16-16 Fax: (+375 1592) 3-13-53

09-12-2004    No. 91/01-09

To: Ulan R.V.,
8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon

Smarhon District Executive Committee of Hrodna Region does not approve the placement of “Novaya gazeta Smarhoni” media outlet in 8, Tankistau Str., Smarhon.

Appell til Hviterusslands president

Oslo, August 24, 2005

President Alexander Lukashenko
The office of the President of Belarus
Fax: + 375 17 2260610

Dear President Lukashenko

Norwegian non governmental organisations, the Norwegian Union of Journalists (NJ), the Human Rights House Foundation (HRH) and Norwegian PEN, express grave concern over recent crackdown on free expression in general, and the harassment of Polish-speaking journalists in particular, in Belarus.

We are alarmed at the increased harassment of journalists and media outlets in Belarus, in particular those working for the Polish minority press and we strongly condemn this latest crackdown on local and foreign journalists working in your country. We urge the authorities to ensure everyone’s right «to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers» as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.»

According to information from the International Press Institute (IPI), several Polish and Belarusian journalists of Polish descent were recently harassed and detained in the Belarusian cities of Schuchin and Grodno. The Norwegian Journalists Association, the Human Rights House Foundation (HRH) and Norwegian PEN are particularly concerned about the following incidents:

On 1 August, Belarusian police arrested Andrzej Pisalnik, editor-in-chief of Glos znad Niemna, a Polish minority newspaper based in Belarus and a

contributor to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita in Schuchin.

* On 6 July, Pisalnik and several of his colleagues from Glos znad Niemna, as well as Andrzej Poczobut, editor-in-chief of Magazyn Polski, and Ivan Roman, a reporter for the Solidarnost newspaper, were arrested by police in Grodno, while they were protesting in the city centre against the harassment of their newspapers.

* On 27 July, special police officers and plainclothes policemen entered the SPB headquarters and detained many of the journalists present in the offices at the time. Among them were Pisalnik, Inesa Todryk, a reporter for Glosznad Niemna, Waclaw Radziwinowicz and Robert Kowalewski, journalists for Gazeta Wyborcza, Pavel Mazheika, the head of the Grodno office of the BAJ, and Siarhey Hryts, a photographer for the Associated Press (AP).

* On 27 July, Schuchin police detained Agnieszka Romaszewska, a Polish journalist for the television channel TVP1, near the «Polish House» in Schuchin, where a conference of the outgoing members of the SPB was beingheld at the time. Reportedly, she did not have the necessary accreditation from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

* On 27. July 2005, Andrei Pochobut, editor-in-chief of the Polish-language magazine «Magazyn Polski», was given a 15-day prison sentence for «taking part in an illegal demonstration» in the western town of Shchuchin on 3 July and for «civil disobedience» in protesting the government’s taking control of the Union of Poles in Belarus.

* On 6. August 2005 The expulsion of Adam Tuchlinksi, 25, of the weekly news magazine Przekroj. Tuchlinksi is a Polish photojournalist who was expelled from Belarus and banned from the country for five years.

* On 11. August 2005 beating of Pawel Reszka, Moscow correspondent for the Polish daily «Rzeczpospolita».

* On 16. August 2005 raids were carried out by the Belarusian secret police (KGB) in Minsk and the western city of Grodno. The KGB raided the apartments of three young members of the Third Way opposition movement who reportedly create satirical, animated cartoons for Internet distribution. The KGB confiscated at least 12 computers and other equipment used to produce the cartoons and interrogated three Third Way members.

The Norwegian Union of Journalists (NJ), the Human Rights House Foundation and Norwegian PEN condemn the authorities´ attempts to worsen the relationship between the Belarusian and the Polish people. We appeal to the Committee for Religious and National Questions to respect the freedom of association and ensure that the Association of Belarusian Poles is free to operate without restrictions.
We urge the Belarusian authorities to:

– give Polish diplomats permission to enter Belarus

– recognise the election of the new leader of the Association of Belarusian Poles

Angelika Borys, who was elected chairwoman of the Polish Association in March 2005

– respect freedom of expression and stop hounding and arresting journalists from Belarus´s Polish minority as part of  your present conflict with neighbouring Poland.

.
Sincerely
Maria Dahle          Ann-Magrit Austenå             Carl Morten Iversen
director, HRH        president, NJ                       secretarygeneral, Norwegian PEN

Cc:
The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Belarusian Ministry of Justice
The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Constitutional Court in Belarus
The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kiev
Association of  Belarusian Poles
Association of Polish Journalists
Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ)
Law Initiative, Pravova Initiativa
PEN Belarus
Polish Society Assosiation in Belarus
OSCE

Arbeidsforhold for journalister i Russland og Hviterussland

«Mastering the Press» – arbeidsforhold for journalister i Russland og Hviterussland

 

«Mastering the Press» – arbeidsforhold for journalister i Russland og Hviterussland, var tittelen på en konferanse i København arrangert av Den Danske Helsingforskomiteen, Dansk PEN og Dansk Journalistforbund 10. mai i år.  «I Russland og Hviterussland er den frihet som ble vunnet ved Sovjetunionens fall, blant annet for pressen, i ferd med å bli beslaglagt av makthaverne», het det i introduksjonen til konferansen som blant annet forklarte noe av forskjellen på situasjonen for media generelt og for journalister spesielt, i de to landene.

«Jeltsin var mer tolerant overfor pressen når det gjaldt kritikk, men han ble også valgt av en majoritet av befolkningen.  Putin måtte sloss for makten og han har også en klarere forståelse for medias rolle og vet godt hva media kan gjøre med ham», sier journalisten Sergei Strokan, som er politisk analytiker i avisen «Kommersant».  Han hevdet også at sensurmetodene er mye mer sofistikerte i Russland enn i Hviterussland der sensuren i praksis er gjeninnført gjennom restriktiv lovgivning, som tillater myndighetene å nedlegge regjeringsuavhengige medier og sende journalister i arbeidsleir hvis de «fornærmer» president Lukasjenko.  Putin, på den annen side, ønsker fortsatt å framstå som en sann demokrat.

I Russland fikk en redaktør sparken etter å ha publisert bilder fra Beslan-katastrofen, angivelig fordi «når folk får se slike bilder får de inntrykk av at noe er galt.»  Men myndighetene i Russland har angivelig ingen ting å gjøre med avskjedigelsen.  Selv om redaktøren klart var et irritasjonsmoment i Kreml, kan reaksjoner som dette ikke spores tilbake til myndighetene, i følge Strokan.  Avisen fikk sin lille hevn når de ble pålagt å trykke et bilde av redaktøren med president Putin og en skriftlig beklagelse på forsiden og valgte å trykke beklagelsen opp ned.  Resten av avisen var blank, noe Strokan betegner som en «politisk modig handling.»

Forholdene i Russland bekreftes av Politikens journalist Vibeke Sperling som er en av de mange journalistene som er nektet adgang til Russland.  Sperling sier at de fleste «access denied»-sakene i Russland handler om Tsjetsjenia, et tema hun også har skrevet om.  På et tidspunkt fikk hun danske myndigheter til å ta opp saken sin med den russiske ambassaden i København, men russerne svarer kategorisk at de «ser ingen grunn til å revurdere hennes visum-søknad» og viser til «security reasons» som eneste begrunnelse.  Hvem sin sikkerhet det gjelder sier avslaget ingen ting om.

I Hviterussland er metodene mer direkte i følge Alexandr Antsipenka fra BAJ, det Hviterussiske Journalistforbundet.  Myndighetene investerer enorme beløp i statskontrollerte medier som stort sett presenterer propaganda og underholdning, det siste særlig i russiske, elektroniske medier.  Det hviterussiske språket er ikkeeksisterende i statsmediene som hele 60% av befolkningen, oppløftende nok, sier at de ikke stoler på.  Det lille som finnes av uavhengig presse har store problemer fordi myndighetene blokkerer både distribusjon og trykking.  Antsipenka mener at det er behov for en koordinert innsats fra internasjonale organisasjoner for å oppnå en endring i landet.

Dette synet støttes langt på vei av tilstedeværende danske politkere og presse.  Men først: polske Karol Jakubowicz er leder for Europarådets styringsgruppe for massemedia og han advarer mot direkte innblanding fra andre land eller internasjonale organisasjoner. «Europarådet, EU eller enkeltland bør ikke forsøke å framtvinge en revolusjon i Hviterussland», sa Jakubowicz og la til at det er en del frustrasjon i Europarådet fordi man ikke oppnår særlig mye, spesielt i forhold til Hviterussland som ikke er medlem.  Dette medfører blant annet at Europarådets sekretariat er forhindret fra å ha løpende kontakt med hviterussiske myndigheter.

Politikerne på sin side maner til tålmodighet.  «Det som skjedde i Ukraina kan også komme til å skje i Hviterussland», sa Hanne Severinsen, Folketingsmedlem for det danske liberale parti og involvert i en av Europarådets parlamentarikergrupper.  «Europarådet har etablert en overvåkningsgruppe og medlemsland, også Russland, blir overvåket mht. pressefrihet og det liker de veldig dårlig», sa Severinsen og la til at hun trodde at summen av alt det arbeidet Europarådet gjør vil gi positive resultater i det lange løp.  Sosialdemokraten Jesper Kofoed som også er nestleder i Folketingets utenrikskomite, legger til at spørsmålet om de frie mediers stilling i Russland bør tas opp i all dialog med russiske myndigheter.

Avslutningsvis støtter lederen i Dansk Journalistforbund, Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard, oppfordringen fra Antsipenka.  De danske journalistene har hatt et samarbeid med BAJ i årevis.  Prosjektet har hatt hovedfokus på internasjonal oppmerksomhet på situasjonen i Hviterussland, støtte til uavhengige medier i landet og kompetansebygging innad i BAJ for blant annet å styrke deres regional arbeid, samt distribusjon av uavhengige medier.  Bjerregaard avsluttet konferansen med å oppfordre til mer og bedre organisert samarbeid mellom organisasjoner som arbeider for å hjelpe Hviterussland gjennom aktivt samarbeid med organisasjoner der.

Carl Morten Iversen
generalsekretær, Norsk PEN

Hviterussland, februar 2005

Rapport. Norsk PENs delegasjonsreise til Hviterussland 15-20 feb 2005.

Deltakere:
Alf B Glad, Anne Oterholm, Ann-Magrit Austenå, Rune Ottosen, Anders Heger. Janne Kjellberg fra NRK fulgte delegasjonen som observatør.

Bakgrunn:

Situasjonen i Hviterussland har lenge stått i internasjonale menneskerettighetsorganisasjoners søkelys. Kontrollen over media og det sivile samfunn er blitt gradvis skjerpet siden Aleksandr Lukashenkos maktovertakelse i 1994. I utgangspunktet valgt med solid flertall under en grunnleggende demokratisk forfatning, har presidenten gjennom stadige folkeavstemninger og grunnlovsendringer, manipulering av media og etter hvert åpenbart valgfusk samlet mer og mer makt i egne hender, inntil han i dag fremstår som en autokrat med tilnærmet ubegrenset makt.

Innsjerpingen av medielovene i 1999 som ble fulgt av represalier mot pressen og stengningen av flere uavhengige medier, samt fire høyt profilerte opposisjonelles ’forsvinning’ samme år og året etter, representerer viktige steg på veien mot etableringen av Hviterussland som et totalkontrollert samfunn. I dag forberedes en ny og strengere medielov, samtidig som Lukashenko bereder grunnen for ytterligere en presidentperiode fra 2006 – i praksis et skritt mot livslangt presidentskap.

Norsk PEN har hatt høy oppmerksomhet mot landet siden 1996, da det ble opprettet permanente forbindelseslinjer mellom de skandinaviske PEN-klubber og hviterussisk PEN[1]. Årets reise var gjennomført i samarbeid med Det norske menneskerettighetshuset, som sto som medarrangør av konferansen The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Belarusian Experience: Problems and Perspectives 18-19 februar. Delegasjonen deltok på konferansen. (For et referat fra denne, se Recommendations to increase human rights standards in Belarus, www.humanrightshouse.org/dllvis5.asp?id=2980)

Møter med enkeltaktører og institusjoner:

Møteplanen er satt opp med hjelp av Hviterussisk PEN og journalistorganisasjonen BAJ

BAJ – det (ikke-statlige) hviterussiske journalistforbundet.
Møtet ledet av forkvinne Zhanna Litvina. Forøvrig deltok en serie tillitsvalgte og øvrig tilknyttede, heriblant styremedlem Aliaksandar Starykievich (redaktør for “SALIDARNASC”), Mikhail Pastuhou (leder for ”BAJ Law Center for Media Protection”) og viseformann Andrei Bastunets.

Møtet ble holdt i BAJs lokaler.

BAJ gir inntrykk av å være det viktigste ressurs- og koordineringssenter i medie- og ytringsfrihetsspørsmål. I det alt vesentlige er medlemmene hentet fra uavhengige media (5-10% av medlemmene er fra statsmedier), de oppgir å ha medlemmer fra til sammen 160 forskjellige medieinstitusjoner.

Organisasjonen er ikke bare en interesseforening, men et kompetansesenter (blant annet med en betydelig juridisk avdeling og et utdanningsprogram for journalister), et nettverk og en overvåker av situasjonen for de uavhengige medier. De presenterer seg selv slik: «Belarusian Association of Journalists» (BAJ) was set up in 1995.  BAJ is a non-governmental non-profit organisation, aiming to ensure freedom of speech and rights of receiving and distributing information and promoting professional standards of journalism.[2]

Alle etermedier er statskontrollerte. Kun omtrent 10% av befolkningen  har internettilgang. Opposisjonelle røster må altså i hovedsak støtte seg til aviser og magasiner. Disse er underlagt en serie mer og mindre subtile kontrollmekanismer, og en medielov som setter klare begrensninger for muligheten til frie, politisk meningsytringer (se under).

Den statlige kontroll over opposisjonen har blitt jevnt strammere fra  Lukashenkos maktovertakelse i 1994. Årstallene 1999 (innføring av ny medielov – se under) og 2001 (siste presidentvalg) representerer sentrale skritt på veien mot en total pressesensur. Flere av våre informanter ga utrykk for at vi nå står foran en tredje fase, der grepet vil bli ytterligere strammet.

Kvantitativt får man et bilde av situasjonen ved å se på antallet utgivelser. Ved siste presidentvalg (2001) hadde Hviterussland 1492 periodiske publikasjoner (magasiner, blader og aviser). I dag er tallet 262. Imidlertid er det kun 20 av disse som er uavhengige utgivelser med en mer eller mindre tydelig politisk profil, altså hva man kan kalle alternative røster.  Så sent som i 2003 var tallet 50. (Proporsjonene kommer til uttrykk ikke bare i antall medier, også i opplagstall. Den største statskontrollerte avisen Sovietskaya Byelorussia har et opplag på en halv million daglig. Til sammenlikning har den største uavhengige 30 000)

Både OSSE, Europarådet og en lang rekke andre internasjonale institusjoner har oppfordret regimet til å demokratisere sin medielovgivning, men det motsatte er i ferd med å skje. For øyeblikket forberedes en ny og strengere medielov. BAJ frykter at denne, forfatningsstridig, vil bli drevet gjennom uten offentlig høring. Det er grunn til å tro at den også vil omfatte kontroll over internettsider, hvilket vil sette Hviterusland i en særstilling i medieovervåking. BAJ har via sitt juridiske kontor lenge arbeidet for en ny og mer demokratisk medielovgivning, i tråd med europeiske standarder[3].

I dagens lovgivning er det blant annet straffelovgivningens paragrafer 367, 368 og 369 som har vært benyttet mot pressen. Disse paragrafene forbyr krenkelse og fornærmelse av Presidenten eller myndighetspersoner, med en strafferamme tilsvarende væpnet ran eller voldtekt[4].

Disse paragrafene ble først tatt i bruk mot journalister som skrev kritiserende artikler om  Lukashenko s kandidatur ved gjenvalget i 2001: Mikola Markevich og Paval Mazheika fra Pahonya og Viktar Ivashkevich fra Rabochy. Loven har også vært brukt til å stenge enkeltaviser, som Nasha Svaboda. I tillegg kastes redaksjonene ut i ørkesløse rettsprosesser som sluker alle deres ressurser. I forbindelse med lokalvalgene i 2003 fikk for eksempel ukeavisene Vecherny Stolin og Provintsyyalka i Brest midlertidig trukket tilbake sin bevilling, og var i praksis bundet opp i rettssystemet i et helt år [5].

Den statlige kontroll over de selvstendige medier utøves likevel i det vesentligste via økonomiske og administrative grep:

* All virksomhet i Hviterusland må være registrert og ha offentlig godkjenning for driften. Denne kan trekkes tilbake, midlertidig eller permanent. Fra 2001 har dette rammet de fleste frie medier i landet.
* Staten kontrollerer distribusjonsleddet, dvs kiosker og andre utsalgssteder. Dette er kan hende den viktigste kontrollmekanisme over de medier som fremdeles klarer å drive, og den vesentligste hindring i å nå ut til større grupper. I den senere tid har dette nådd absurde proporsjoner, enhver som driver et utsalgssted der trykte medier omsettes, må levere en oversikt over vareutvalget til den lokale ”ideologiske komité”, som godkjenner sammensetningen av publikasjoner.
* De uavhengige medier er underlagt helt andre økonomiske vilkår enn statsmediene, både hva angår trykkpriser, husleie og distribusjonsavgifter.
* Den offentlige godkjenning for kommersiell (privat) drift gjeller all virksomhet. Herunder også utleie. Den som leier ut til en medieredaksjon er mao også avhengig av slik godkjenning, og myndighetene har således en ny måte å ramme mediedrift på. De kan f.eks. tvinge utleier til å øke leien, og – om virksomheten har mistet sin bevilling midlertidig – kan de sørge for at de står uten lokaler ved oppstart igjen.
* I tillegg til den reelle kontrollen dette gir myndighetene over mediene, fører det selvfølgelig til en ekstremt høy grad av selvsensur – for i det hele tatt å ha muligheten til å komme ut, sørger avisene for å skrive på riktig side av loven.

Myndighetenes medieovervåking har også, i tillegg til bruk av juridiske, administrative og økonomiske virkemidler, blitt mer åpenbart ideologisk motivert. I 2003 ble  Lukashenko s statsideologi formalisert og publisert (delt ut til alle offentlig ansatte). Denne ideologien bygger på tre elementer: Sterk presidentmakt, sterk statlig økonomisk kontroll over næringsvirksomhet og sosial sikkerhet for borgerne. Med en slik definert ideologisk plattform for staten, har presidenten tatt samfunnet et vesentlig skritt nærmere den historiske sovjetsosialismen (selv om det finnes vesentlige forskjeller, blant annet tilstedeværelsen av en privat sektor, og fremdeles et visst – om en lite – spillerom for opposisjon).

I tråd med dette har han ved flere anledninger gitt uttrykk for at media bør «stanse de som ønsker å manipulere den offentlige mening og med hensikt ønsker å villede befolkningen,» og at han er «dypt overbevist om at journalistikk er en statsorientert profesjon.»[6] I en tale til de statlige TV-journalister (Hviterusland har 4 offentlige TV-kanaler) oppfordret han dem til å legge vekten ”ikke bare på informasjon, men mer på oppdragelse” (altså i klartekst: Propaganda).
Under møtet fremmet Zhanna Litvina, på vegne av BAJ, ønske om støtte fra Norsk PEN og Menneskerettighetshuset til en hviterussisk journalistpris til årets ’most prominent’ journalist fra den uavhengige pressen.

Det hviterussiske kollegium.
Uavhengig undervisningsinstitusjon på ”høyskolenivå”.

Møte med leder (”rektor”) Ales Ancipienka.

Møtet ble holdt på PEN-senteret.

Kollegiet er et slags fritt universitet. De kan ikke tilby offisiell utdannelse, men gir kurs på universitetsnivå innen humaniora, for øyeblikket konsentrert om tre fagområder: Journalistikk, moderne historie og filosofi/litteratur.

Etablert i 1997, har gitt undervisning fra 1998. Målsetningen er å være dels en undervisningsinstitusjon, dels  ”a forum for public lectures and discussions, a place for intellectual, cultural and artistic dialogue, contact and cooperation with colleagues from East, Central and West European countries.”[7] I tråd med dette holdes kurs som kvalifiserer til “Supplementary Bachelor/Master’s degree training”, åpne (men ikke offentlige) diskusjonsmøter og foredrag, samt utvikling av analyser, artikler og akademiske utredninger. Institusjonen har til enhver tid rundt 30 elever fordelt på 3 klassetrinn.

I og med at de driver uten offentlig registrering kan de ikke legges ned av myndighetene (som aldri har anerkjent at de er opprettet). Men det legger også begrensninger på hvor langt de kan gå i sine aktiviteter.

Kollegiet beskriver ambisjonen som å legge grunnlaget til rette for en demokratisk utviklingen når omslaget kommer, ved å skolere ungdommen til demokratisk tenkning og å bygge opp en hviterussisk identitet.

Til det siste kommer et fokus på hviterussisk historie, og ikke minst: Språk.

Den hviterussiske språksituasjonen er høyst politisert. Den overveldende majoritet av befolkningen (anslagsvis 80%) betrakter hviterussisk som sitt morsmål. Til tross for dette er det kun 36% som bruker det som dagligspråk. Offisielt er de to språkene likestilt, etter referendum i 1995. Etter  Lukashenko s overtakelse har administrasjonen og presidenten selv åpenlyst favorisert russisk, i praksis er hviterussisk et undertrykket språk. For ti år siden hadde 50% av skoleelevene hviterussisk som undervisningsspråk. I dag er det offisielle tallet 30%, reelt ligger det mye lavere.

Noe av grunnen til at språkspørsmålet er blitt så sentralt, ligger i  Lukashenko s politiske strategi: Å bygge en nasjonal identitet rundt sitt eget parti (og seg selv), og en utenrikspolitisk allianse med Russland, bygget på restene av den gamle USSSR-tankegangen. Ancipienka (og formodentlig flere med ham) betrakter Hviterusland som Vestens yttergrense mot øst, ikke omvendt. I det aspekt blir forskjellen på de to språk vesentlig.

I dag er situasjonen at rundt halvparten av befolkningen (stort sett den eldre garde) ønsker seg tilbake til en eller annen form for allianse eller tett samarbeid med Russland. Den andre halvparten ønsker en tettere tilknytning til Europa, dvs EU.

Uansett er nasjonsbygging og utvikling av en sterk nasjonalidentitet sentrale elementer i mye opposisjonell aktivitet.

Det hviterussiske humanistiske lyceum.
Uavhengig undervisningsinstitusjon på grunnskolenivå.

Møte med leder Uladzimir Kolas

Møtet ble holdt i en av flere private leiligheter brukt til undervisning.

Som kollegiet er det humanistiske lyseum en utdanningsinstitusjon som i utgangspunktet tilbyr ’vanlig’ opplæring innenfor tradisjonelle demokratiske rammer, men setter sin virksomhet direkte inn i en politisk sammenheng, ved at deres alternativ til det statsstyrte undervisningsapparat bedre forbereder sine elever på den post- Lukashenkoæra alle vet vil komme. Rektoren anslår i dag at rundt halvparten av all høyere undervisning i de offisielle undervisningsinstitusjoner er ’ideologi’.

Etablert i 1989, som et tilbud til foreldre som ville la sine poder få undervisning på hviterussisk språk, og med målsetning om å kunne gi en prestisjetung hviterussisk-basert utdannelse på grunnskolenivå. (Ellers er hviterussisk som hovedspråk i undervisningen stort sett å finne i rurale områder.) Under perestrojkaen hadde de sin glansperiode, med 7 filialer over hele landet, produksjon av egne lærebøker og et jevnt tilsig av nye elever. Ved  Lukashenko s maktovertakelse blir skolebøker produsert etter -91 ikke tillat i undervisningen, og det legges en lang rekke hindringer i veien for det private skolevesen.

I 2003 blir skolen forsøkt nedlagt, under henvisning til at de er ’nasjonalister’, og de mister først retten til å gi offentlig godkjente eksamenspapirer, deretter bevilling til drift.

I dag har de rundt 100 elever i alderen 13 til 17 år, og underviser i 18 forskjellige fag. Elevene må gå opp i det offisielle systemet som privatister. De finansieres av skolepenger, og det som noe uklart kalles ’private kilder’. Undervisningen foregår i en rekke lokaler spredt over hele byen, og i og med at de driver uten offentlig godkjenning kan det legges vanskeligheter i veien for utleiere som stiller leiligheter til disposisjon. Skolen har vurdert å flytte til Litauen, og drive derfra som kostskole.

Viasna
Menneskerettighetssenter, fratatt offisiell godkjenning.

Møte med leder Ales Bialacki samt andre representanter for senteret.

Møtet ble holdt i senterets lokaler, en for anledningen ombygget privat leilighet. I og med at senteret for tiden mangler registrering, er dette ikke en offisiell adresse.

Slik BAJ fremstår som den viktigste og mest ressurssterke potensielle samarbeidspartner i medie- og ytringsfrihetsspørsmål, er Viasna tvilløst den viktigste aktøren i spørsmål vedrørende organisasjonsfrihet og sivile rettigheter.

Senteret ble etablert i 1996, opprinnelig som en støtteorganisasjon for arresterte deltakere i den demokratiske opposisjonens demonstrasjoner og deres familier. (Av denne grunn er det opprinelige navnet Viasna-96, ”Vår-96”). I 1999 ble organisasjonen registrert som menneskerettighetssenter, og etablerte seg som et nettverk med 200 medlemmer over hele landet og regionale kontorer i alle større byer, men i 2003 mistet de sin offentlige registrering, angivelig som følge av sitt engasjement i valgovervåkning i forbindelse med presidentvalget samme år. De driver nå uregistrert, hvilket gjør arbeidet vanskelig. De frykter også for å miste sine lokaler.

Omtrent 300 mennesker oppsøker Viasna årlig, primært for juridisk hjelp og rådgivning, samt bistand i spørsmål knyttet til borgernes politiske rettigheter og NGO-arbeid. Senteret driver også opplysningsarbeid og produserer en betydelig mengde dokumentasjon rundt menneskerettighetsspørsmål, organisasjonsfrihet, overgrep og trusler mot individuelle sivile rettigheter og relaterte emner. Mye av dokumentasjonen rundt manipulering av valgresultatet i 2001 ble frembrakt som et resultat av Viasnas observatører. Senteret er samarbeidspartner for det norske menneskerettshuset og den norske Helsinforskomitéen i tillegg til en lang rekke europeiske og internasjonale menneskerettighetsorganisasjoner.

«The main goal of Viasna is to contribute to development of the civic society in Belarus, based on respect to human rights, described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus[8].»

Under samtalen med Bialacki ble det klart at situasjonen i NGO-feltet har mange fellestrekk med tilstanden i pressen, myndighetene har siden 2001 fått lagt ned eller drevet til illegalitet de fleste (og de største) organisasjonene. Viasna ble lukket etter en serie anklager som gikk på formalia og byråkratiske bestemmelser. Dette føyer seg inn i bildet av en stat som driver sitt kontrollapparat gjennom administrative, formelle og økonomiske grep.

Som eksempel ble nevnt demonstrasjonsbestemmelsene; offentlige demonstrasjoner og markeringer er ikke forbudt, men det er et stort byråkratisk apparat å få tillatelse, og de blir – med forskjellige påskudd – plassert i en park langt unna offentlighetens søkelys.

Den statlige kontroll med offentlig opposisjon er i høyere grad indirekte enn direkte; av 30 eksempler på nedsettende tale om myndighetspersoner i fjor, havnet bare 4 i retten. Paragrafene er viktige først og fremst som en trussel. Frykten for represalier og selvsensuren i den hviterussiske befolkningen er blitt et av myndighetenes viktigste styringsredskaper.

Av samme grunn er situasjonen i landet ikke sammenliknbar med den prerevolusjonære fase i det tilstøtende Ukraina (altså oransjerevolusjonen). De to landene har historisk utviklet seg svært likt, båndene mellom de to folkene er tette, og befolkningen i Hviterussland ser naturlig til Ukrania. Men  Lukashenko s grep om sitt folk er ulike mye sterkere enn de ukrainske myndighetenes var. «Uansett er det ukrainske valget en viktig hendelse i nyere hviterussisk historie,» sier Bialacki. Og svært mye vil avhenge av den videre utvikling i nabolandet. Forskjellene ligger i samfunnets gjennomsiktighet, opposisjonen har få og begrensede muligheter for å få tilgang på informasjon, og enda større vanskeligheter med å få den spredt. Og frykt og tilbakeholdenhet gjør massemobilisering vanskelig eller umulig. Det er ikke uvanlig å bli utsatt for fjorten dagers svært ubehagelig varetekt for deltakelse i ulovlige demonstrasjoner.

Her som ellers møtte vi en fast overbevisning om at  Lukashenko  har mistet den folkelige støtte som i utgangspunktet var en viktig del av hans maktbase, Denne støtten var dels tuftet på høy sosial sikkerhet, rimelig energi og forholdsvis stabil vekst i levestandard, dels i hans image som samlende, nasjonal kraft i tiden etter Sovjetunionens oppløsning. Det som finnes av offentlig statistikk og valgresultater er alt sammen forfalsket og manipulert, men et rimelig anslag er etter Viasnas mening at han nå (etter 2002) har støtte fra rundt 25%. I tillegg er Putin-administrasjonen svært tilbakeholdne med å støtte  Lukashenko regimet, og presidentens tidligere så stabile støttelinjer mot øst er i ferd med å smuldre opp[9].

Trass dette, er det ingen som vil si at et omslag er nær forestående. De fleste synes likevel enige om at det vil være umulig uten en folkelig mobilisering.

Det hviterussiske PEN-senter.

Møte med formann Liavon Barshcheuski, viseformann Siarzhuk Smatrychenka, samt medlemmer og aktivister, Uladzimir Siuchykau, Mikhas Tychyna m.fl.

Det hviterussiske PEN-senteret, som både er offentlig registrert og besitter et av de beste kontorkompleksene tilgjengelig for eksisterende NGO’s, er dypt integrert i den øvrige menneskerettighetsbevegelsen. En stor del av medlemsmassen er journalister fra selvstendige medier, og organisasjonen driver et tett samarbeid, av og til med forskjellige former for personalunion og opptreden av Tordenskjolds soldater, med både Viasna, BAJ og de uavhengige undervisningsinstitusjonene.

Som selvstendig PEN-senter er det forholdsvis ungt, de første etableringsforsøk ble gjort under perestrojkaen, og i 88-89 ble det permanent etablert. I hele den innledende historie var det tungt støttet av Soros-fondene, inntil disse ble kastet ut av landet i -96(?). I dag har PEN overtatt kontorene etter Soros-fondene, og disse lånes for en stor del ut til andre opposisjonelle organisasjoner. Det er et tiltagende problem at opposisjonelle organisasjoner (registrerte og uregistrerte), mister sine kontorer. I og med at PEN faktisk eier sitt eget husvære, er de på dette punkt i en noe tryggere posisjon.

Også PEN-senteret fokuserer på den gradvise forverring av vilkårene for trykke- og ytringsfrihet som har foregått fra 1996, med særlig vekt på den innstramning som foregår i disse dager. Medielovgivningen og dens praktisering er kommentert over. I tillegg trekker PEN naturlig nok frem situasjonen for uavhengige forfattere og forleggere. Problemet er også her allehånde former for administrative, økonomiske og formelle hindringer som legges i veien for ikkestatlig virksomhet. Flere mindre, selvstendige forleggere opplever for eksempel at deres registrering (som altså er en forutsetning for all kommersiell og offentlig virksomhet, trekkes tilbake i kortere tid (3-6 mnd) i tiden like før lansering. I tillegg lever de, i motsetning til statsforleggeriet, med strenge opplagsrestriksjoner.

I prinsippet kan man publisere fritt opp til 300 kopier. Høyere opplag enn dette krever lisens som forlag. (Av denne grunn er flere av de mindre publikasjoner og oversikter som NGO’er produserer utstyrt med påskriften «printed in 299 copies»). Men det betyr likevel ikke fritt fram for et mikroforleggeri, salg av bøkene er å regne som kommersiell virksomhet, som må registreres. Av denne grunn velger mange forfattere – både innen skjønn- og faktalitteratur – å få sine bøker trykket i Vilnius, Smolensk eller St. Petersburg, og omsette dem via private nettverk. Dette kan selvfølgelig aldri utgjøre et levedyktig alternativ til en levende nasjonallitteratur.

Alle forlag må fornye sine lisenser hvert tredje år, og mens dette tidligere var en ren formalitet, legges det i dag stadig nye hindringer i veien for slik re-registrering. Som eksempel ble nevnt et fagbokforlag som i en leksikografisk bok kalt ‘alle verdens land’, hadde gitt en fremstilling av nyere hviterussisk historie som ikke falt i smak hos enkelte krigsveteraner. De sendte en klage på verket til informasjonsdepartementet, hvilket var nok til at forlagslisensen ble trukket tilbake, boka inndratt og videre publikasjoner stanset. Denne type praksis er ikke bare eksempler på de – ofte lett absurde og Kafka-aktige – trakasseringer all hviterussisk ikkestatlig aktivitet må leve med. Det er de facto en måte å holde kontroll over fremstillingen av virkeligheten, både historisk og i nåtid, i praksis og under dekke av handelsreguleringer, å opprettholde et sannhetsministerium. PEN mener (i likhet med BAJ) å registrere at systemet er blitt mer rigid, og kontrollen over hvilke typer ytringer som tolereres mer bevisst, etter at prinsippene for statsstyrelsen og den offisielle ideologi (se over) ble offentliggjort i 2003.

Også på boksiden oppleves statens faste grep om distribusjonsleddet som en av de viktigste hindringene for utvikling av en fri publisistvirksomhet. Til en viss grad har man – i alle fall fram til nå – kunnet få bøker trykket, men så lenge alt salg enten må gå gjennom statseide kanaler, eller må godkjennes av de lokale ideologiske komiteer, er det vanskelig å få alternative tanker spredt.

Den mengde praktiske problemer, mer og mindre alvorlige trakasseringer, karrierehindringer og reell fare for rettsforfølgelse som åpen opposisjon innebærer, har ifølge PEN ført til at også akademia og kunstmiljøet langt på vei lider av den samme selvsensur og tilbakeholdenhet som man kan finne i deler av presse, offentlig virksomhet, undervisningsvesen og blant vanlige mennesker.

Regionale, uavhengige publikasjoner.
Møte med koordinator Taisa Bandarenka

På PEN-senteret.

Mens det bare finnes 6 uavhengige nasjonale aviser med klar alternativ profil, eksisterer det fremdeles et levende lokalavisnett, selv om det er blitt kraftig desimert. For øyeblikket opererer de med 22 slike publikasjoner, noen få daglige, de fleste ukentlige, noen knyttet til fagforeninger. Opplagene varierer fra 500 til 20 000.

Av disse karakteriserer Bandarenka 10 til 12 som gode, profesjonelle aviser. (Det formaliserte nettverket omfatter 16 publikasjoner) I en region er den uavhengige lokalavisen større enn den tilsvarende statsregulerte. Bare én baserer seg i hovedsak på abonnement (et system som åpenbart ikke er særlig utbredt), alle de øvrige sliter med det samme problemet med statskontroll over distribusjonsleddet, vanskelig tilgang i kiosker og supermarkeder, og ideologisk gjennomgang av vareutvalget på trykte medier.

En vanlig lokalavisredaksjon består av 12 – 15 ansatte, herav rundt 5 journalister. Lønnsnivået i de selvstendige avisene er lavere, tildels betydelig lavere enn i statsmediene. Det forutsettes altså en betydelig grad av idealisme eller et bevisst politisk valg å ta arbeid i et fritt medium. De journalistiske produkter er, så vidt det er mulig å fastslå, ikke primært opposisjonelle propagandamedier, men alminnelige lokalmedier med lokalnyheter, sport, og annet man venter å finne i en lokalavis. Det er målet om vanlig, objektiv journalistikk, og mangelen på servil regimetro gjenfortelling av den offentlige sannhet som skiller dem fra de offisielle aviser. Man vil dessuten kunne finne kritiske kommentarer mot myndighetenes politikk, her og de forholder seg ikke til dogmet om å beskytte myndighetspersoner. Som eksempel på en nyhet fra de uavhengige medier som ikke ville ha sluppet gjennom i regimekontrollerte aviser, ble det pekt på omtale av en utro tjenestemann. På de statskontrollerte journalistutdanningsinstitusjonene, undervises det fremdeles etter samme modell som i sovjettiden.

De regionale uavhengige avisene er svært viktige i den alternative mediebevegelsen. Mange lesere forholder seg kun til disse ved siden av de statskontrollerte fjernsyns- og radiokanalene. De sliter imidlertid med akkurat de samme problemene som den øvrige alternativbevegelsen; høy grad av selvsensur, vanskeligheter med distribusjon, ulike konkurransevilkår og stadig snevrere rammer. Av slike grunner har antallet frie aviser vært fallende siden 2001.

Den stadig strammere kontrollen over informasjonsstrømmen møter avisene på to nivåer; dels som hindringer i deres egen distribusjon og arbeidsvilkår, dels som vanskeligheter med å framskaffe informasjon.

Nasha Niva
Uavhengig avis. Møte med redaktør Andrej Dynko.

På PEN-senteret.

Dynko, som er en kjent menneskerettighetsaktivist og viseredaktør i Arche, fremsto langt på vei som den av de vi fikk anledning til å møte som kunne presenter den mest gjennomtenkte og reflekterte analysen av Hviterusslands situasjon, både med henblikk på pressefrihet og demokratiutvikling.

Han la vekt på myndighetenes dyktige spill med den selvstendige pressen:

– På den ene side tillates tilstedeværelsen av en uavhengig presse. Denne holdes riktignok liten. Og på grunn av forskjellige hindringer i produksjons- og distribusjonsleddet sørger man for at den er vanskeligere tilgjengelig, dyrere og mer forsinket nyhetsmessig enn de store statsavisene.

– På den annen side holdes etermediene, radio og tv-kanaler både nasjonalt og lokalt, under absolutt kontroll.

Dette er uttrykk for hva Dynko kaller et ‘moderne og sofistikert diktatur[10]’, der kontrollen over media er ikke er styrt ut fra ønsket om total meningskontroll, men hva som er nødvendig for å beholde makten. Den jevne mann og kvinne forholder seg primært til radio og tv som informasjonskilder. På dette punkt sammenlikner Dynko  Lukashenko  med Berlusconi: Han har skaffet seg, og han sørger for å beholde, ‘control over peoples mind by the use of electronic media’. Tilstedeværelsen av en liten svære med forholdsvis fri uavhengig presse truer ikke denne kontrollen. Om en avis skulle begynne å utgjøre en reell trussel, har myndighetene nok av muligheter til å stenge eller legge den ned.

Det er maksimalt 20% av hviterussere som i det hele tatt forholder seg til de uavhengige mediene, resten leser dem aldri. Også på lesersiden finnes et kontrollerende element: Faste kjøpere av uavhengige aviser må regne med å være registrert hos KGB (Hviterusslands hemmelige politi, som typisk nok har beholdt sitt gamle navn.) Det er ikke på noen måte forbudt, og det er ikke sikkert at en slik registrering vil få følger. Men frykten for at så kan skje, eller muligheten for at det vil kunne virke f eks karrierehindrende, er nok til at det bremser utbredelsen av uavhengige publikasjoner. (Dynko nevner som eksempel at en registrert leser av opposisjonsmedier nok vil kunne bli lærer. Men han vil ha vanskeligheter med å bli rektor.)

Med andre ord: Hviterussland i dag er ikke et totalitært regime. Opposisjon er tillat – så lenge den ikke utfordrer makten. Slik sett virker de uavhengige avisene på ett vis legitimerende for et regime som ellers sliter med legitimitet i Europa.

Opposisjonens rolle i dag er (og her er Dynko helt på linje med de fleste andre vi snakket med) ikke først å fremst å utløse en fløyelsrevolusjon, men å forberede befolkningen på det demokrati som vil komme også til Hviterussland, selv om det kommer forsinket. Når denne endringen kommer vil den bli fredelig. Og etableringen av et reelt demokrati vil gå forholdsvis raskt.

En av grunnene til at de aller fleste er relativt optimistiske på akkurat dette punktet, er at den nåværende tilstanden i så høy grad er knyttet til  Lukashenko s person. Strukturen er hva Dynko kaller ‘sultanistisk’. Og han har ingen etterfølgere. På den annen side er  Lukashenko  relativt ung (i alle fall til diktator å være).

Selv om Hviterussland og Ukraina langt på vei har fulgt hverandre som skygger opp gjennom historien, har de to statene i dag såpass forskjellige forutsetninger at det er liten grunn til å håpe på at oransjerevolusjonen i Kiev vil kunne utløse noe tilsvarende i Hviterussland. Forskjellene er flere:

– Mens opposisjonen i Ukraina var både strategisk og økonomisk interessant for den lokale overklassen, har motkreftene i Hviterussland måttet støtte seg på utenlandsk støtte (med Soros fond som viktigste enkeltaktør). Dette gir dem mindre troverdighet i befolkningen.

– Det er umulig å utløse en revolusjon uten en samlet, nasjonal identitet, og en mer eller mindre felles nasjonal ambisjon i folket. Og folk har en – etter Europeisk standard – svært svak nasjonal identitet. (Her spiller selvfølgelig også språkspørsmålet inn – se over.) Den vanlige hviterusser vil primært betrakte seg selv som ‘Minsker’, ‘eks-sovjeter’, e.l.  Lukashenko  har til en viss grad bygget opp en nasjonal identitet rundt seg selv og sitt regime, knyttet til forestillinger om ‘det siste sovjet’, ‘den eneste stat som ikke selger seg til Vesten’, og liknende. Dette har – i forbausende høy grad – virket, særlig i den eldre og rurale del av befolkningen.

– Økonomisk sett har utviklingen for den jevne hviterusser under  Lukashenko  blitt opplevd som jevnt forbedret. Dette henger sammen med stabile økonomiske vilkår, fordelaktige handelsavtaler, og subsidiert energi fra Russland. Vanlige mennesker har opplevd lagordet ‘det går fremover!’ som sant, hvilket ikke gir grunnlag for massemobilisering mot de ansvarlige maktinstitusjoner.

– Mangelen på en samlende karismatisk opposisjonsleder. Selv om Dynko tørt bemerker at ‘dette er noe som særlig etterlyses i Vesten’, er det selvfølgelig en av hindringene for at opposisjonen klarer å mobilisere en reell, maktutfordrende stemningsbølge som kan legge grunnlaget for et regimeskifte. Forklaringen er enkel: Kandidatene til en slik posisjon blir fjernet lenge før de vil kunne utgjøre en reell trussel.

Salidarnasc

Uavhengig fagforeningsavis. Møte med sjefsredaktør Aliaksandar Starykievich. I redaksjonslokalene. (Resten av redaksjonen var også til stede, men deltok ikke i diskusjonen.)
Salidarnasc er drevet siden 1991, men har vært stengt av myndighetene i perioder. Opprinnelig er det, som navnet antyder, avis sprunget ut av fagforeningene. Avisen er nå uavhengig, men den har fremdeles en klar orientering mot arbeiderklassen, ikke eliten, hvilket gjør den til et særsyn innen floraen av uavhengige aviser. Ganske nøyaktig halve avisen er politiske nyheter og kommentarer, resten er Rampelys: sport, kjendisstoff, tipping, pene damer, etc. Den er tospråklig, inneholder stoff både på russisk og hviterussisk.

Avisen har  – for øyeblikket – tilgang på ‘statsavisenes’ distribusjonsnett. På dette punkt ligger de bedre an enn de fleste andre uavhengige medier. Redaksjonen består av fem stykker som til sammen produserer et imponerende profesjonelt avisprodukt.

I 2003 ble en søsteravis stengt av myndighetene. Salidarnasc stilte da sine spalter til disposisjon for avisa, og trykket en hel utgave med innhold fra denne. Med umiddelbar virkning ble trykkeriavtalene de hadde kansellert, avisen fikk en ‘skatteinspeksjon’, og av ble ilagt en betydelig bot for ikke å ha trykket sideantallet i avisens kollofonspalte (en bestemmelse ingen hadde hørt om, og som heller ikke de statseide avisene følger.) Eksempelet er svært typisk for kombinasjonen av juridiske, administratrative og økonomiske grep som brukes mot den uavhengige pressen.

Avisen trykkes nå, som en følge av dette, i Smolensk. Det gjør at dem noe mindre utsatt for overvåking og kontroll, men det fører også til at de er dømt til å være akterutseilt nyhetsmessig.

Redaktør Starykievich var den eneste vi traff som åpent ga uttrykk for at han regnet med at situasjonen for uavhengige medier ville forverre seg, og at han forberedte en periode med illegal undergrunnsdrift. (På dette punktet skilte han seg ganske klart ut fra andre, som varierte over en skala fra relativ optimisme, til resignert tålmodighet.) Ordningen med trykking i Russland var en del av dette, neste skritt ville være å sikre seg et helt ut uavhengig distribusjonsapparat, for eksempel bygget rundt avisbud.

Salidarnasc var også arbeidsplassen til Vieranika Charkasava, hvis mystiske død er et av de sentrale enkeltspørsmål i hviterussisk ytringsfrihetsdebatt, selv om omstendighetene er uklare og opposisjonen langt fra står samlet i oppfatningen om at historien er knyttet til Charkasavas rolle som uavhengig journalist.

20. oktober 2004 ble Charkasava (44) funnet stukket i hjel i sitt hjem. Hun var en kjent og respektert journalist, men ikke av landets mest omstridte. Hennes områder var primært sosial- og kulturfeltet, men hun hadde også arbeidet med kontroversielle emner. Fire måneder før drapet hadde hun for eksempel publisert en artikkelserie om KGB-aktiviteter, og umiddelbart ble det utløst en teori om at mordet hadde forbindelse med dette. En annen spekulasjon gikk ut på at det var knyttet til en serie med undersøkende artikler hun hadde hatt om smugling og omsetningsmønstre av narkotika i Hviterussland.

I Salidarnasc, og blant en del andre opposisjonelle, finner man det overveiende sannsynlig at mordet har sammenheng med det sk. «Iraksporet», hvilket går ut på at Charkasava skal ha arbeidet med en sak om Hviterusslands mulige våpensalg til Irak, en sak som – om den lot seg bevise – ville ha utgjort en alvorlig trussel mot regimets utenrikspolitiske legitimitet. Til grunn for disse spekulasjonene ligger blant annet utskrifter av Charkasavas telefonlister.

Andre, deriblant Taisa Bandarenka fra de regionale uavhengige publikasjonene, som var en personlig venn av Charkasava, avviser dette som lite sannsynlig, og anfører blant annet at det i så fall ville være et stoffområde som ligger svært langt fra hennes vanlige interessefelter. Selv blant uttrykte opposisjonelle er det få som mener mordet er politisk motivert, hevder Bandarenka. Dette er et inntrykk vi fikk bekreftet etter å ha snakket med et tyvetalls representanter for uavhengige bevegelser. Kun i Salidarnasc fant vi en fast overbevisning om av Charkasava ble myrdet som en direkte følge av sin journalistikk.

International PEN Writers in prison comitee har flere ganger presisert behovet for full granskning, og gjort diverse henvendelser til de hviterussiske myndigheter om saken[11].

Selv om de færreste finner å kunne trekke bastante konklusjoner, synes likevel de fleste å samle seg om at påtalemaktens teori for øyeblikket, der offerets svigerfar og 15 år gamle sønn utpekes som de skyldige, åpenbart er lite sannsynlig. Og enten mordet er direkte politisk motivert eller ikke, peker flere på at det brukes politisk. Den uro det har ført med seg i det journalistiske og opposisjonelle miljø skremmer opp aktørene og øker nivået av frykt og usikkerhet – elementer  Lukashenko regimet tradisjonelt har visst å kunne spille på.

Der Charkasavas redaktør entydig trekker linjen mellom mordet og hennes journalistiske virksomhet, nøyer Bandarenka seg med å slå fast: ”Hva enten myndighetene står bak eller ikke er det et nyttig mord for dem.”

Belorusski Rynok
ukentlig businessavis.
Møte med sjefsredaktør Vjacheslav Khodosovskiy I avisens redaksjonslokaler.

Belorusski Rynok er Hviterusslands eldste uavhengige avis, stiftet i 1990. Den skiller seg på flere måter fra den øvrige avisflora, Redaksjonen oppgir å ha som ambisjon å bli ’Hviterusslands svar på Financial Times’. Det er altså en avis med fokus på business og politikk, trykket på russisk. På spørsmål om språkvalg svarer redaktør Khodosovskiy at det er ’utelukkende av markedshensyn’ de ikke bruker hviterussisk i spaltene. Det segment Belorusski Rynok henvender seg til er mest fortrolig med russisk som forretnings- og dagligspråk.

I avisen merket man tydelig den lengsel mot EU som hersker i stort sett hele det opposisjonelle hviterussiske miljø – her også økonomisk motivert. Avisen hadde lenge forsøkt å starte et europeisk innrettet magasin, så langt uten hell. Redaktøren bemerket hviterusslands økonomiske og politiske isolasjon, landet er uten interesse for resten av Europa, og bemerkes bare i internasjonale nyheter når  Lukashenko  sier eller gjør noe dumt.

Avisen har 75% av sine inntekter fra annonser, hvilket må sies å være imponerende i en økonomi der den private svære utgjør 10% av totaløkonomien, og mange av de private virksomhetene som tross alt finnes er engstelige for å bli knyttet for nært til de uavhengige medier. I tillegg kan statsmediene enkelt dumpe annonseprisene.

Belorusski Rynok gir inntrykk av å være den mest ambisiøse av de aviser vi besøkte. Den møter mange av de samme vanskeligheter som den øvrige uavhengige presse; vanskelig tilgang til distribusjon (de er nylig nektet salg i supermarkedene), urettferdig prising og vanskeligheter med det statseide trykkeri de er avhengig av. Avisen har for eksempel lenge ønsket å kunne trykke i farger, hvilket trykkeriet nekter. Gjennom kontroll av produksjonsleddet, kan altså staten effektivt regulere vilkårene for den frie presse, ikke via administrative eller politiske, men rene tekniske grep. I tillegg har de blitt truet med utkastelse og måttet etterbetale husleie som har truet avisens økonomi.

I og med at deres stoffområder er så klart avgrenset, blir likevel en del av problemstillingene annerledes enn for de øvrige uavhengige media. Avisen forsøker å gjøre sin jobb innenfor de gitte rammer, ”istedenfor å si at  Lukashenko  lyver, viser vi at det han sier må være løgn”. Men ”problemet er ikke først og fremst hva vi kan skrive, men tilgangen på informasjon” påpeker Khodosovskiy. ”Av alle løgner i Hviterussland er løgnen om de økonomiske forholdene den største.” Ingen økonomiske statistikker er til å stole på, og alternativ informasjon er svært vanskelig å skaffe til veie. ”Det Hviterussiske økonomiske under”  er et mye brukt uttrykk i  Lukashenko -propagandaen, og på overflaten har det tilsynelatende vært en realitet. BNP, gjennomsnittlig levestandard og tilgjengelig vareutvalg har vært økende.

Khodosovskiy mener likevel det er en kunstig situasjon, opprettholdt via politisk motiverte avtaler med Russland og at Hviterussland i realiteten sakker bakut i forhold til sine konkurrenter. Ikke overraskende har man i Belorusski Rynok en noe annen innfallsvinkel til den fremtidige utvikling enn i de øvrige opposisjonelle miljøer. I og med at ”ecconomy is the base of everything”, og den hviterussiske økonomi i virkeligheten er en koloss på leirføtter, vil et skifte tvinge seg fram, om ikke annet som en konsekvens av de økonomiske realiteter om den nåværende statsdirigerte modell forlenges. Interessant – og logisk – nok ser Khodosovskiy for seg at et skifte kan komme innen nomenklaturen, altså at den hviterussiske kursendring vil kunne arte seg som en demokratisk palassrevolusjon.

Tidsskriftet ”ARCHE”.
Samtale med sjefredaktør Valerka Bulhakau.

”Arche” er det eneste kulturtidsskriftet på hviterussisk. Det utgis 6 nummer pr. år i et opplag på 1.100 eks. Det startet i 1998. Distribusjonen av bladet er vanskelig, for de statlige kioskene vil ikke selge det. Men særlig etter nr.4/04 (med Munchs Skrik på forsiden!), med mye kritisk stoff om Lukasjenko, fikk bladet 5 ganger så mange abbonenter. Etter at dette nummeret utkom, var det inspeksjon i redaksjonen.

Bladet er billig å utgi, det har ingen permanent redaksjon. De utgis med hjelp av vestlig støtte (konfidensielt av hvem). Lukasjenko forsøker å stoppe hviterussisk kultur, derfor må de søke støtte utenfra.

Det er ingen førsensur av bladet.

Det er blitt vanskeligere i den siste tiden å få registrert aviser og tidsskrifter. De må ha tillatelse (fra departementet for ideologi). De må ha en offentlig adresse, ikke bare privatadresse.

Hviterussisk er et minoritetsspråk. Det er begrenset med hviterussiske sendinger på TV – ca 30 %. Et av Lukasjenkos valgløfter var å stoppe utbredelsen av hviterussisk. Hvis man snakker hviterussisk, blir man ansett som anti-Lukasjov. (0,5-1 mill. av 10 mill. snakker hviterussisk)

Tidsskriftet ”DZIEJASLAU”
Samtale med redaktør B. Piatrovich viseformann i Forfatterforeningen

”Dziejaslau” er Forfatterforeningens tidsskrift. Den gamle statlige forfatterforeningen disponerte hele huset og utga 4 tidsskrifter. Flertallet av forfatterne valgte for noen år siden å gå ut av denne foreningen. De grunnla en ny forening, som nå leier noen rom i det samme huset. De startet et nytt tidsskrift i 2002 ”Dziejaslau” (Verb), fra 2003 utkommer det med 6 nummer i året. Det trykker hviterussisk skjønnlitteratur og essayistikk og to utenlandske tekster i oversettelse (en prosa- og en poesitekst) i hvert nummer. Tidsskriftet trykker også romaner, som strekker seg over flere nummer. I hvert nummer presenteres en debutant. Dessuten er det bilder av hviterussiske kunstnere. Bare 10 % av skjønnlitteraturen som utgis, er skrevet på hviterussisk.

Tidsskriftet trykkes i 1000 eks. Det er 442 abbonenter. De kunne ha solgt mange flere på det åpne marked, men de har problemer med distribusjonen. Bokhandlerkjeden ”Belkniga” nekter å selge bladet fra i år, etter sigende fordi noen krigsveteraner klaget på grove ord i en tekst. Men hovedgrunnen er nok at de trykker Vasil Bykau i bladet.

(Bykau er Hviterusslands største forfatter, var i sterk opposisjon til regimet)

De har nok stoff til å kunne utgi et nummer hver måned, men distribusjonsproblemene gjør det vanskelig å øke antallet. Tidsskriftet selges stort sett privat, ved sammenkomster i organisasjoner, møter med studenter ved universiteter og høyskoler og ved forfatterlesninger. Det er vanskelig å arrangere møter med forfattere.

Forfatterne i Dz. kan skrive hva de vil. ”God litteratur er alltid i opposisjon til myndighetene”. I statsbladene kan de ikke skrive hva de vil. Det er 536 medlemmer i den nye Forf.foreningen. I de andre tidligere sovjetiske republikkene er forfatterforeningen splittet i flere organisasjoner. Myndighetene prøver å skape statstro organisasjoner.

”Everyday brings surprises”. ”Vi har ikke midler til å drive en forening. Hvis man ikke har noen adresse, må foreningen nedlegges. Vi frykter fremtiden. Hvis det ikke skjer noen omveltning, vil myndighetene oppnå sitt mål”.

Hva med Ukraina?

”Vi støttet Ukraina fra første stund. Håper det vil bli slik her også. Vi har god kontakt med ukrainernes forening.”

I sammenligning med sovjettiden er situasjonen dystrere. ”Brezjnev-tiden var stor for hviterussisk litteratur”.

Hvorfor er Lukasjov så imot hviterussisk kultur og språk?

”Vi vet ikke hvorfor. Det er en sykdom”.

[1] I forlengelse av konferansen «Politisk makt og ytringsfrihet», avholdt i Minsk i nov 96.

[2] http://baj.ru/indexe.htm

[3] se bl.a Bastunets, Pastukhov og Toporashev: LAW ON MASS MEDIA, Minsk 2002.

[4] Bastunets og  Toporashev: Belarus: Journalists tried on criminal charges. Minsk 2003

[5] http://www.cpj.org/attacks03/europe03/belarus.html samt vedlegg 1

[6] ibid

[7] http://baj.ru/belkalehium/index_eng.htm

[8] www.spring96.org

[9] Hviterusslands ledende engelskspråklige uavhengige avis, Belarus today, sier om bestrebelsene på å reetablere en russisk/hviterussisk union: «Mr. Putin is unlikely to be interested in becoming the president of a state that is partially blockaded by the West and targeted for the next velvet revolution. That could leave Russia as the next target of the ‘revolutionaries'»

[10] Bruken av termen ‘diktatur’ på  Lukashenko regimet er ellers omdiskutert. Dynko er klar på dette punktet, andre bruker termer som autokrati eller repressivt regime. Uenigheten har nettopp med tilstedeværelsen av en slags opposisjon å gjøre.

[11] Se WIPC caselist, pp 51-52