Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege

Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege

Report of the
IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group on the conditions for participation in the World Summit on the Information Society, to be held in Tunis, November 2005

February 2005

Executive Summary
The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) is a global network of 64 national, regional and international freedom of expression organisations.

This report is based on a fact-finding mission to Tunisia undertaken from 14 to 19 January 2005 by members of the  IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG) together with additional background research and Internet testing.

The mission was composed of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, International Publishers Association, Norwegian PEN, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee.

Other members of IFEX-TMG are:  ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Studies (CEHURDES), Index on Censorship, Journalistes en Danger (JED), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

The principle findings of the mission were:

·    Imprisonment of individuals related to expression of their opinions or media activities.

·    Blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafes.

·    Blocking of the distribution of books and publications.

·    Restrictions on the freedom of association, including the right of organizations to be legally established and to hold meetings.

·    Restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment, intimidation and interception of communications.

·    Lack of pluralism in broadcast ownership, with only one private radio and one private TV broadcaster, both believed to be loyal supporters of President Ben Ali.

·    Press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.

·    Use of torture by the security services with impunity.

The IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) believes that Tunisia must greatly improve its implementation of internationally agreed freedom of expression and other human rights standards if it is to hold the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005.

In particular we urge the Tunisian authorities to:

1.    Release Hamadi Jebali, editor of the weekly Al Fajr and hundreds of prisoners like him held for their religious and political beliefs and who never advocated or used violence.

2.    End arbitrary administrative sanctions compelling journalist Abdellah Zouari to live nearly 500 km away from his wife and children and guarantee his basic right to freedom of movement and expression.

3.    Release the seven cyber dissidents known as the Youth of Zarzis who, following unfair trials, have been sentences to heavy prison terms allegedly for using the Internet to commit terror attacks.  During the trials, no evidence of wrongdoing was offered, according to their lawyers and local and international human rights groups.

4.    End harassment and assaults on human rights and political activists and their relatives and bring to justice those responsible for ordering these attacks and perpetrating them.

5.    Stop blocking websites and putting Internet cafes and Internet users under police surveillance.

6.    Release banned books, end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression.

7.    Take action against interference by government employees in the privacy of human rights and political activists and end the withholding of their mail and email.

8.    Lift the arbitrary travel ban on human rights defenders and political activists, including Mokhtar Yahyaoui and Mohammed Nouri.

9.    Take serious steps toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press.

10.    Promote genuine pluralism in broadcast content and ownership including fair and transparent procedures for the award of radio and TV broadcast licences.

11.    Allow independent investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

12.    Conform to international standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups such as the CNLT, the Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, the League of Free Writers, OLPEC, the International Association to Support Political Prisoners, the Association for the Struggle against Torture, and RAID-ATTAC-Tunisia.

The full report is available at:

English: Tunisia: Freedom of Expression under Siege

RAPPORT fra internasjonalt debattmøte om religionskritikk (Faith and Free Speech), Geneve, 16.10.2010

UN-building, Geneva, September 16th 2010: Faith and free speech: Defamation of religion and freedom of expression.

A panel discussion held in conjunction with the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, September 16, 2010

Preamble: PEN International on faith and free speech:

– New laws are not the answer to emotional reactions. Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas.

• Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas, John Ralston Saul, president International PEN.
• Every one of the prophets and founders of religion has had to stand up against laws of defamation and claims of heresy. All religions were born as forms of freedom of expression, Ariel Dorfman, Chilean novelist and playwright.
• The Indonesian experience with a Defamation of religions Act shows that the Act violates Indonesia’s international treaty obligations by protecting religious ideas instead of the persons who adhere to religious ideas, denies equal protection and freedom of association for people with disfavoured religious beliefs and criminalize peaceful expressions of sincere religious beliefs, Budhy Rahman, The Asia Foundation.
• The question is whether legal proceedings are good responses to emotional reactions. I think not. We must work for awareness in public discussion, information and dialogue. The Muslim world must not only work on western mentality by introducing new law. Muslims must work on our own victim mentality, Tariq Ramadan, Islamic Scholar.
• We see a disproportion of focus on restrictions and not on positive measures to secure the right to speak and the right to be heard, Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19.
• The Muslim world does not see this as a debate between freedom of expression and religion. Western double standards represent misuse of freedom of expression and insults to religions. The question is not of defamation of religions but about victimization of Muslims, Zamir Akram, Pakistani ambassador.
These were some of the main points made during the almost two hour long debate over the question of introducing new international norms which will legally ban defamation of religions.

Minutes of the meeting:
The meeting was chaired by president John Ralston Saul, International PEN.

The panel:
Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19
Budhy Rahman from Asian Foundation in Indonesia
Tariq Ramadan, Islamic scholar based in Oxford.

Taped interviews with:
Nobel prize laureate Wole Soyinka, Nigeria
President  of PEN American center, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ghana
Noelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman, Argentina
Scholar and writer Azar Nafisi, Iran

Introduction by John Ralston Saul:
The whole argument about ban on defamation of religions is filled with confusion and different assumptions. One assumption is that religions have made valuable contributed to positive development. Another assumption is that religion has caused oppression, conflicts and limitations on rights and development. A central point today is that we can’t base legal suggestions on assumption that religions do just one thing.

Should we accept that writers should be limited by Islamic mullahs, Florida pastors or ministers I Ireland?
Law does not work for regulating questions dealing with freedom of expression. Religions are organizations of believers and represent power.  We can’t accept freedom from critique of religions. Human rights belong to individuals – not to states, organizations or ideas. Rights whichcould be used to exercise increased power over citizens.

Budhy Rahman:
I will inform you about an example of ban on religious defamation from Indonesia. The recent debate over religious freedom and freedom of expression in Indonesia roots from the Defamation of religious act and the Public Faiths Supervision Coordinating Body (Bakor Pakem). The religious defamation act was introduced as article 156a in the Indonesian Criminal Code, a legacy from the Dutch Occupation. The article 156 deals with incitement to hatred and insults to different groups and article 157 details the sanctions that apply for public displays of hostility. The new article does not protect minority groups. It protects only the majority or “primary religions” from so-called deviant interpretations. The banning of specific faiths in Indonesia is based on the Defamation of religious Act in the Criminal Code, and not on the amended article 28 of the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom.

The article stems from before the Indonesian constitution was amended in 1965. The amendment included religious freedom. The question is whether the article is an exception to the right to religious freedom. The Indonesian Ulema Council and Bakorpacem believe it is an exception which restricts religious freedom and that Article 156a must be enforced as it is. Radical Muslim groups support this view. Radical groups intimidate other religious groups which they find deviant and misleading.

The concept of misleading is translated from Arabic and understood as defaming religion. The word deviant is not included in any laws in Indonesia. The Ulema uses the phrase “deviant and misleading” in relation to particular minority faiths and sects considered to be deviant based on theological arguments from the Qur’an and hadith. Radical Muslim groups use “religious defamation” and deviant and misleading” interchangeably to intimidate different groups. In the cases of religious defamation in Indonesia, the weight of the final sentence is directly linked to the level of mass pressure from radical groups.

Defenders of religious freedom and freedom of expression believe that article 156a of the criminal Code must be removed and reworked so that it accords with the article 28 of the amended Constitution. Scholars argue that ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires the government to protect all faiths and prevent violence against minority groups.

Conclusion: Ban on defamation of religion in Indonesia represents a violation of Indonesian obligations under international human rights treaties. It is protecting religious ideas instead of protecting persons who adhere to alternative religious ideas. It is excluding groups from their rights to freedom of expression, their right to organize and their right to religious freedom. Learning from the Indonesian experience: The ban on defamation punishes peaceful discussion of ideas. It is abused by government and radical groups to punish groups of so-called deviant religious beliefs and ideas A ban on defamation of religions is therefore not compatible with the rights of the individuals to feely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas and beliefs .

Agnes Callamard:
Two points I want to make:
1. The importance of positive measures.
2. The importance of process and space.
The interplay we now see between religions and freedom of expression showed this spring a reduced support of ban on defamation of religion. But on the other hand we have the Florida pastor and bans on veils in Europe and on minarets in Switzerland and the discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt Pakistan. The question is how do we deal with these questions in a multicultural world?
We see examples of religious intolerance. And we see a push to move the question of incitement to hate against individuals on base of religion. A move could be made to look at these problems in light of the article against incitement to hatred.  We see religious intolerance and we must find ways to handle it. But this is not done by a ban on defamation of religions.

Article 19 has developed a document: The Camden principles. These principles form a foundation for the exercise of all human rights. Protection against harmful practices is best done through positive measures.  The last section of the principles deals with restrictions on hate speech. But we see a disproportion of focus on restrictions and not on positive measures to secure the right to speak and the right to be heard.

There is a powerlessness felt by many groups. Some community leaders justify defamation of religion as hate speech. Extremist views are generally given to much attention.

It is not always the most extreme expressions which hurt the most. It could well be the relentless little infringements of racism and sexism. Another problem is access to media and public opinion. Minorities here in Europe – Romans – all should have access to the media and to public debate.

Process and space: I don’t think the best place to handle these issues is here in the UN Human Rights Council. I would like to highlight a current process: An organizing of regional meetings on article 20 in the International convention on civil and political Rights – ICCPR – through peaceful dialogue. This process highlights different perspectives. I think this is an important process and I hope the regional inputs will feed into the discussion in the ad hock committee on complementary standards in the ICCPR.

Also in Kenya in June we had a very good process before the referendum for a new constitution. People were scared. They feared a repetition of the violence they had experienced in the elections in 2007.  A National commission for cohesion and integration set up a two day meeting dealing with different perspectives on how to prevent incitement to hatred and religious defamation. The debate was fantastic, expressing different view and the experience of building together a nation.  My point is that there are different mechanisms to discuss difficult questions.

Tariq Ramadan:
The collaboration with PEN has been important for me during last years: Especially in the United States, where I have been prevented from entering for six years.

Difficult question: Come to agreements – important to clarify what we are talking about: The question is whether legal proceedings are good responses to emotional reactions. An important starting point is that this is not only Islamic question. These feelings are feelings within religious communities all over the world. They feel that they are not taken seriously and that their faith is under attack. Muslims share the same feeling, and Jews, and Christians.  We are dealing with shared feelings. The question is how to respond without law.

This is an international issue – not a western discussion. All the feelings are shared around the world. Especially religious people in the south see the West as secular societies which are not interested in religions and religious feelings. We have to deal with this experience of fear, mistrust and doubt on both sides.

We experience an ongoing process of controversies: First there were Jesus in movies, then the Mohammad caricatures. Now we have the burning of the Koran and the question of a mosque. Is the only way to stop these controversies by law? Muslims in the UK are saying: Britain have had blasphemy procedures. Why not also for Muslims? How to react against incidents like the pastor in Florida? Legally there is no way to prevent him. The first amendment gives him the right to express freely. But he does not have a license to burn. We are quite weak in this. Alternative measures to deal with such questions are needed. Not more law, but awareness in public discussion, information, dialogue. In Europe we see that people get scared of people coming with different religions, culture and ideas. So they respond by making law against minarets and burkas. These are laws to protect us against the people who are coming.

There is no absolute freedom of expression anywhere. There are different restrictions against hatred and racism. But there should not be restrictions against discussion of religious and ideas. The West does have limitations, but also double standards. What is common is an agreement to protect against hatred. Legally you can publicly laugh of the suffering of Jews – but it is not civil and nobody wants to do it.

We must be consistent and not let some criticism be possible and other not. Denying the holocaust is for me unacceptable. But should we protect history by law? What wants to be heard by people, is not more law but consistency in the way law is implemented in our society. This is a question of minorities and majority – about power. There must be equal right to criticize and being criticized. Should a competition of feelings be resolved by law?

Critical discussion: We need more critical debate. In Pakistan I encourage my fellow Muslims to take a more critical distance and not ask for more laws: We do need positive measures – and not just say no to more laws. We must all have a better understanding of what is at stake.

John Ralston Saul:
Large part of the weight has been put by the panel on not to establish more laws, but to use other measures. The interfaith movement should have been dealing with many of these issues. The question is why they are not carrying the weight? Could we push the interfaith movement to prevent more violence?

Agnes Callamard:
This is a responsibility for every human being – not only the organized religions. The current law is to blunt.  We must bring in a different perspective of the role of states. There are community radios and other ways to get  access to public debate. Public service broadcasting does play a key role in integrating different perspectives. So this is important both for states and for the individuals.

Tariq Ramadan:
What we are facing are exceptions for interfaith circles. Look at what is happening in various interfaith dialogues: They are sharing values and perceive the surrounding as threatening. We need an opening of the closed circles to dialogue with the outside world. Interfaith dialogue should also include agnostics and atheists. This would bring in other perspectives. We are not doing the job without engaging the surrounding societies.

It’s important with presence of religious perspectives in the debate and not just for defending religion . In civil societies religious societies must be recognized for giving contributions to the debate, not only seen as backwards. This applies to committed Muslims and Westerners. Religion must not be seen as preventing you from being a serious European or Canadian.

There exists no right not to be criticized. We must work through dialogue, education and solidarity. Not try only to defend ourselves exclusively by law.

Budhy Rahman:
The interfaith dialogue is often too intellectual. What is the meaning of interfaith dialogue? Democracy and better collaboration between religions and culture must be more developed.  Which means we need a more concrete dialogue. It must deal more with practical problems. There are so much problems with poverty in Asia. Much of the interfaith dialogue is not connected with practical dimensions like poverty, environmental issues and development. What for example is the common platform between Christianity and Islam? Let’s say it is love. What then is the spiritual meaning of love into concrete questions dealing with poverty and environment?

The filmed interviews with Wole Soyinka, Ariel Dorfman, Azar Nafisi and Kwame Anthony Appiah were shown. See video from American PEN here.

John Ralston Saul:
This is a provocative debate. The debate is seen by many as based on western individualism. But provocations exist in every healthy civilization.

Tariq Ramadan:
It is a very difficult but critical debate: During the cartoons I met with Hindus and Muslims. And in Africa people were not used to this kind of provocation. It was seen as a cultural, silly provocation. In Africa they had another tradition. Not neglect. It was not provocation which was perceived – it was arrogance.

It is important not only to see the arrogance and to play the victim role. Muslims must work on their state of victimhood. For Africans it was difficult to perceive the US as victim after 9/11 It seemed strange. But this is basic psychology. Therefore Muslim must not only work on western mentality – but on our own victim mentality.

Agnes Callamard:
There are many people in Africa in prison because of provocations. Provocations are not a western idea. Provocation – depends on who provokes – and who are being provoked. This is a question of power structure.

Budhy Rahman:
The Indonesian perceptive of West: Many ideas come to Indonesia from the West: Gender ideas, democracy, human rights. The problem is: How to relate this with local wisdom and Muslim tradition in Indonesia? Is it possible to receive global ideas and still be an Indonesian Muslim? European Muslims develop their own identity. In Indonesia is the discussion; How western can we go? If we follow the Quran: Can the Quran legitimate the human rights? Fully – or just half of the human rights? Many scholars in Indonesia accept  fully the human rights – without rejection of  Islamic faith.

Questions from the audience:

Egyptian journalist:
1. Asks Tariq Ramadan what he thinks about an Egyptian tv series which portrays the Muslim Brotherhood and Ramadans grandfather.
2. Asks Tariq Ramadan if he thinks it’s right to establish a Muslim center by Ground Zero or if the Center should be more inclusive.

Pakistan ambassador Zamir Akram (also representing the OIC at the UN HR Council):
The meeting needs to hear from me. This is an unnecessary debate by a western organization. The Muslim world does not see this as a debate between freedom of expression and religion. We are opposed to misuse of freedom of expression and insults to religions. Equal tribute is being denied Muslims by Western double standards. Sanctimonious arrogance is showed by the West. There are several western countries with blasphemy laws: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Switzerland, The problem is apparent: West treats Muslims different than how it treats anti-Semitism and denial of Holocaust. Fact speak for itself. Before us we have the issue of minarets in Switzerland. Provocations made to show that Muslims resort to violence. The film Fitna compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Ban on burkas and on mosques and burning of the Quran. Obama spoke out against burning of the Quran. Then he was asked if h was a Muslim. He denied that he is a Muslim – like being a Muslim is a crime. Even when you are a Muslim you are stripped at airports. The question is not of defamation of religions but about victimization of Muslims linked to terrorism. There are examples of terror in all religions. Promoting dialogue is just serving the cause of those who wants to promote greater dehumanization of Muslims

Pakistani woman comments the Pakistani ambassador (while he chooses to leave the room – curtailed by 3 – 4 other diplomats):
I’ve lived in the West for 25 years: Muslims have more freedom in west than in any of the Muslim countries. Freedom of speech: Geert Wilders doesn’t harm me. Western world was the first to condemn the burning of the Quran. I have not the same freedom to say what I say here in my county of birth. Let s get over the victimization of Muslims. Let’s get on to freedom of speech

Tariq Ramadan:
About the tv-film in Egypt: It’s clear that this production has a political take. The government is in on this. I have not watched one of the programs. But from what I have heard are they clearly trying to demonize the Muslim brotherhood. But I would not try to sue the production. Some in my family are trying to do this. It is primarily a political game trying to destroy the image of the brotherhood. I’m not sure it’s working as intended.

About  the Islamic center in New York: I have surprised many Muslims. I think Muslims must struggle for their rights. New American Muslims should learn from African Americans. Ground Zero is a symbolic place – Something hurt the nation. Many people struggle for rights. 20 Mosques now prevented from being built in the states. Symbolic sensitivity of Americans should make Muslims move it and to think about alternatives.  An Abrahamic center: It would be good for Muslims to take the lead and make it more inclusive. Muslims must make a struggle with intelligence.

The Pakistani ambassador has spoken and then left the room: My point is to focus on the solution to this situation. Is that more laws? No. Say no to double standards. About the victimization of Muslims: There are citizens who are both Muslims and fully Europeans. I agree with the ambassador’s assessment of the situation -Not with his solution. I’m a western: Don’t speak about human rights as something western. We must have a balanced approach to this.

John Ralston Saul:
There are tensions around other groups as well. This will be worked out. Look at many companies in Western countries – Muslims everywhere. Being westernized means also that Muslims in the West are changing the West. The ambassador has not looked up PENs organization. PEN is an international organization with 145 centers in 104 countries.

Question from the audience:
We are dealing with a draft to craft a new norm on defamation of religions. People who are not satisfied can come to the committee to express their views. How should we otherwise handle these issues? The questions are: Is the new norm right? Is it a valid draft?

Comment from the US-representative:
There is a great deal of debate about these questions. The US shares the concerns. We have had struggles in our own history against incitement to hatred. These issues concerns both religious and political leaders. Recent weeks have showed that dialogue and open debate is the best way. Religious groups have reached out to the pastors. Many government leaders condemn the burning of the Quran. This is one man’s fear and ignorance. Obama has clearly stated that the idea behind the burning of holy scriptures is contrary to the values of this country.

Comment from Iranian woman:
Tariq Ramadan has not spoken about stoning. Women are tortured in name of Islam. Many Muslim women have the misfortune of being forced to wear the veil. France has now decided on laws against the veil. You must speak of misfortunes and problems in Muslim countries. There are cruel things that happen to women.

Comment from woman in the audience:
West – east – we are all responsible.  I am more proud of my nationality. The religion is private. Why did we have to leave our country? We must make our countries a better place. The Iranian regime is behind torture, rape, execution, crimes and inhumanity in the name of Islam. The Pakistani ambassador is also the spokesperson for the Islamic countries. It is very rude to leave like this.

Comment from professor Alfred de Zayas, Swiss Italian PEN:
What in opinion legitimate limitations on freedom of expressions?  Article 19 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights holds limitations to freedom of expression. In this discussion we must look at all the articles 18, 19 and 20, about freedom of religion, freedom of expression and incitement to hatred.

Tariq Ramadan:
It is the wrong way to ask for more laws. I have said so both to Muslim NGOs and to the IOC; it is a wrong strategy.
USA: I would be cautious about people nurturing conflict. It’s done not only by ignorance. The Pastor in Florida and Geert Wilders and the journalists in Denmark – they are not ignorant people. They know exactly what they want to provoke. Some will win the next election. All are in danger of these people. Radically encountering these people – they know what they want to encounter. Not easy. Iran = not my topic. On my website there are articles about Iran imposing the headscarf. I think it’s wrong.  I can’t enter my country of origin: Egypt or Saudi because of my opinions. Today I struggle against the victim mentality in Muslim communities. Muslims must not just blame the West. Discussion is part of the answer. I share many of the feelings expressed by the Pakistani ambassador. I do not deny it.

Agnes Callamard:
Alternative strategies are needed. What will be legitimate restrictions of freedom of expression? Issuing a new ban on defamation of religions as a new norm is not. This concept is a fraud. We can’t handle the difficult situation we are in now by new laws.

A ban on defamation of religions is a concept showed so defective on many fronts. We must look more in the direction of Human Rights Article 20 on Incitement to hatred, which is by far a better legal framework. But this is not enough. It distorts the picture to only look at legal measures. Again I would like to draw your attentions to the process in Kenya. Kenya has been in forefront in challenging the effects of incitement to hatred. Hate speech regulations today are to blunt. We must strengthen the knowledge of human rights, develop ethical journalism and better intra religious dialogue and guidelines for ethical conduct of members of parliament on these issues.

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.

Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED

Report from Seminar and Book Launch

Seminar on FoE in China and presentation of the book SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship by Øystein Alme and Morten Vågen (ISBN 91-97384445 Amaryllis 2006)

Wednesday 23. August, Human Rights House, Oslo

Panel of speakers:
Øystein Alme, writer, manager of «Voice of Tibet»
Elin Sæther, scholarship holder, University of Oslo
Åshild Kolås, program leader, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Torbjørn Færøvik, journalist, writer and China expert

Chair: Carl Morten Iversen, secretary general, Norwegian PEN
Minutes: Elisabet W. Middelthon, board member, Norwegian PEN

Norwegian PEN president, Kjell Olaf Jensen, welcomed all participants to the seminar.  Carl Morten Iversen introduced the panel and gave the floor to Øystein Alme.

Øystein Alme has been the manager of «Voice of Tibet», a short-wave radio station based in Oslo, for 10 years.  The channel is an important voice in the passing on of information about the situation in China, and is being listened to by, among others, the Security Council at the U.N.  China has pledged to abide by the same international declarations on freedom of the press and freedom of expressions as we do in Norway.  However, the Communist Party has a monopoly on almost all communication and exercise strict control and censorship.

In SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship, Alme gives a summary of his experiences with «Voice of Tibet» for the past 10 years.  The several examples of the scrambling of these broadcasts by Chinese authorities, demonstrate Chinese authorities extreme sensitivity towards uncensored material.

The book lists China´s national and international obligations.  China views any criticism of breaches on human rights as a mingling in internal affairs, and support all countries, e.g. Zimbabwe, with equally strict regulations on free expression and censorship.

New technology is increasingly influencing the daily lives of the Chinese.  Internet, electronic mail and text messages (SMS) are available.  However, the big search engines, like Yahoo and Google, are cooperating with the authorities and have accepted their demands regarding control of all electronic communications.  There are many examples of censorship and subsequent prosecution  of the users of new technology.  Printed media, like the «Tibet Daily», is for the Communist Party, and not for the people.

Journalist writing about corruption risk arrests and jail sentences up to 10 years, a fact that leads to self-censorship.  Still, the limits for what you can write are constantly being pushed.  However, people in China receive more information today than ten years ago, even though the authorities do all they can to prevent it.

The international society holds some power of influence.  With the 2008 Olympic Games as Chinas big exibition to the world, demonstrating their wish to appear as an international super-power, NGOs all over the world will try to influence the authorities.  China will be more attentive now and the Party Congress next fall will send important signals regarding China´s future strategy.  Consequently, this «train» is moving now.

What is China afraid of? Why are they afraid of a small radio station like «Voice of Tibet»?  Evidently, all information that brings alternative news, other that what you hear from state controlled media, makes the Chinese population aware of the fact that they are being deceived.  That is why all critical voices are being censored and punished.

Between 20 and 25 thousand foreign journalists are expected to visit China and Beijing in August 2008.  SILENCED – China’s Great Wall of Censorship has been written in order to demonstrate the importance of free access to information.  As we are approaching the 2008 Olympics, free access for journalists to write about a variety of important topics, the hindring of censorship, reprisals and serious breaches on freedom of expression, will be increasingly important in a country with 1,3 billion people.

Elin Sæther desribed the book as very interesting, demonstrating that «Voice of Tibet» is an important and brave radio channel.

She pointed to the fact that development of the Chinese society had not been at a stand still after Mao.  Chinese economy was previously the main reason that the media were financially dependant on the state, but the authorities have gradually withdrawn subsidies and allowed for more financial independence.  Chinese media are now more in tune with the market economy.  It is no longer possible to print four pages of party propaganda in the newspapers – they have been forced to become more interesting and entertaining.  This is a new trend which has been evolving gradually and the people behind it are writers and journalists who engage themselves in the future of the Chinese society.  The Tian An Men Massacre in 1989 was a set-back for free expressions, but that situation has gradually improved during the 1990ies.

Journalists wish to represent the voice of the people.  They want to write about problems facing the society, not only so called positive, state-edited news.  They want to write about corruption, AIDS, health problems, etc.  There are severe restrictions regarding how these themes may be treated in the media.  Any criticism of party policy is forbidden.  It is therefore important to find ways to present these topics so that they pass through the censors, without too much self-censorship.

It is also important to keep in mind that media coverage varies throughout the world, and that also western media experience censorship and self-censorship.

Åshild Kolås has worked as a Tibet-researcher since 1997.  She first visited China and Tibet in 1988.

She started by saying that it is difficult to generalize about «China» and «the Chinese», even about «Chinese authorities».  Based on personal experiences and extensive field work in Tibet (11 months in Yunnan 2002-3)  she assessed the book as being both engaging and well written.  It is not easy to visualize a topic like freedom of expression and it is not easy to get attention in the media on this topic.

She agreed to the main conclusions in the book: There is a great potential for positive change in the Chinese society.  She also agreed that there are many idealistic, Chinese journalists, but that the federal authorities are also interested in uncovering corruption on a lower, local level.  Local, illegal tax-collection does not benefit the federal authorities.  Consequently, it is the local media that uncover corruption, and this is accepted by the federal authorities.

Chinese authorities have used lots of resources on the development of the internet, also outside the big cities.  In Yunnan, Kolås registererd internet-cafés on «almost every streetcorner», but most internet users were more inclined to play games than engage in serious business or seeking out information.  There was a need for information, and the locals were obviously aware of the fact that this need was not covered through available newspapers and other news media, in particular coverage of «sensitive» topics.

To a certain extent the Chinese are aware of the fact that official media do not give neutral information about what is going on outside China.  This became particularly obvious during the SARS-epidemic, when there was a serious lack of information and, consequently, more or less trustworthy rumors were flourishing.  Information came and went through the grapewine.

When Kolås first arrived in China in 1998, she also witnessed other methods to sustain «law and order».  But harassment always takes place behind closed doors and the location of those closed doors vary from society to society.

Torbjørn Færøvik said the book was both important and practical.  But China has a long way to go, he said.

There is a big difference, also for journalists, between a brief visit in Beijing or Shanghai, and a longer stay where you travel through the country and maybe get a chance to grasp how huge and fantastic this manysided country is.  Walking the streets of Shanghai today is like walking in a big parade.  In the «olden» days, all you could see were people dressed up in Mao uniforms, now it´s all neon-light commercials.

Many things have happened during the past 30 years, both financially and politically.  But changes are hard to measure.  How do you measure – what are the terms of reference?

The degree of freedom of expression is greater today than at any point during the years since the Communist Party seized power in 1949.  There is a new situation for free expression in most fields of society.  Previously, «dangerous» ideas could only be thought, but now you can speak out.  100 million Chinese have access to the internet.  They can read newspapers from all over the world, they can listen to the BBC.  Almost everyone owns a cellphone.  When Mao died there were only one telephone per 800.000 inhabitants. (must be checked).

What happens when 1,3 billion people get access to new technology?  The authorities want to keep control, but technology is always a few steps up front.  This is a loosing battle for the authorities.  Every year millions of people visit China.  They travel throughout the country  and people are influenced by new ideas.  The Chinese people act and think in a long, historic perspective. Only 30 years have passed since Mao died.  We must admit that a positive development has taken place in China.  Six years ago China was selected to arrange the 2008 Olympics.  Let us hope that this will contribute to even more openness in China.

However, during the next two years, the situation will tighten up – we will experience a Gorbatsjov-effect.  The Chinese leaders are between 60 and 65 years old.  From now on, the authorities will be much more attentive and will hit hard on any signs of political opposition.

How should a strategy to influence China in connection with the Olympics be designed?

What should be the angle of international campaigns in order for these to be successful?

25 000 journalists will visit China during the Olympic Games.  The authorities will gradually tighten communication possibilities and working conditions for journalists during the years preceding the Olympics.  Simultaneously, Chinese authorities will have to listen to international signals focusing on (the lack of) human rights and freedom of expression.  If conditions become less strict, it will be because the authorities are pragmatic and see that it pays off.

Torbjørn Færøvik is not very optimistic regarding the 2008 Olympics, human rights and free expression.  Foreign criticism is perceived as unreasonable meddling with domestic affairs.  There is a fundamental insecurity regarding what can happen with such a great number of foreign – and domestic – visitors in Beijing during the Olympics.  Therefore, the authorities need total control.

It is important to try to influence international companies like Yahoo and Google, etc. and to focus critically on their kneeling for the authorities, eagerly trying to achieve full access to the huge, Chinese market.  Critical voices outside China should be activated and supported.

The western world must be aware that the outcome of advocacy may be limited.  Changes in Chinese society will develop as an inner process, not through pressure from the outside world.  For the Chinese, it is important not to «loose face», consequently «noisy» campaigns may often be counterproductive.  These cultural differences must be considered.

«Quiet diplomacy» may work far better than official diplomacy.  Norwegian politicians have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their talks with the authorities in China, and through Norwegian media one gets the impression that Norway is important and may influence China.  The western world should be aware of the fact that economic development is more important than human rights to the Chinese at present.  The Chinese countryside is still in the middle ages, and the contrast to the high-tech cities is incomprehensible.

Conclusions and recommendations

Most people in China are now better off, but there is a wide gap between the extremely poor and the incomprehensibly rich.  A modern Chinese city dweller easily spends NOK 3.000 (500 euro) on a dinner, whereas NOK 212 (about 25 euros) constitutes the yearly income for a poor farmer.

Economic relaxation and development and new technology will be of great importance for future development in China.  The curbing of free expression has already started.  So far, 70 cases of harassment against foreign journalists in Beijing have been registered.  Tibet is far worse off than China, hence the Olympics may be even more important for Tibet than for China.

There is also an internal migration taking place in China.  Over the past 30 years the Chinese have migrated from west to east and 250 million people will follow.  In this case the valves have to be gradually opened to allow for this huge process which will take place over the next 20 – 30 years. Consequently, our expectations regarding what we may be able to accomplish must be realistic.

Some elements that may be influential:

1. The wide gap between the poor and the rich
2. As very few people will benefit from economic growth, there will be more focus on free expression and freedom of organzation in future.
3. People wishing to work for these rights are under strict control and repression at present.  There will be no sudden, total change, but we can observe that several structures are changing.
4. Strangely enough, harassment may be regarded as a positive sign, because it shows that expressions are being taken seriously.
5. The gradual curbing of human rights has already started. It is important to stress that anyone wanting to influence China in connection with the 2008 Olympics should start today.

Translated into English from the Norwegian minutes by Carl Morten Iversen

Ett år til OL i Beijing – og bedre kår for menneskerettighetene i Kina

PRESSEMELDING
FRA NORSK PEN, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL NORGE OG NORSK JOURNALISTLAG

– Norsk Journalistlag, Norsk P.E.N og Amnesty International Norge deler et håp om at OL i Beijing 2008 vil stå igjen i historiebøkene som et positivt eksempel på hvordan et stort, internasjonalt idrettsarrangement kan føre til bedringer i situasjonen for landets befolkning, sier John Peder Egenæs, generalsekretær i Amnesty International Norge på vegne av de tre organisasjonene.

Den internasjonal olympiske komité (IOC) og kinesiske myndigheter ga løfter om å bedre menneskerettighetssituasjon i landet da Kina ble tildelt OL i 2008. Det er nå bare 365 dager igjen til å oppfylle de løftene.

– Vi er bekymret over at situasjonen for menneskerettighetene i Kina er forverret på flere sentrale områder i forkant av OL. Idretten og mediene er sterke aktører som kan bidra til å snu denne negative utviklingen, fortsetter Egenæs.

Rettigheter under press
Grunnleggende rettigheter er under økt press i Kina. Ytringsfriheten er kneblet og sensuren på internett øker. Modige menneskerettighetsforkjempere møtes med økt undertrykkelse. Rettsapparatet er politisk styrt og tortur utbredt. Flere hundre tusen mennesker er lukket inne i såkalte omskoleringsleire uten dom. I mange tilfeller øker disse overgrepene som et resultat av nettopp forberedelsene til OL.

Ny rapport
Dette kommer frem i en ny rapport fra Amnesty International i dag. Rapporten viser enkelte positive tegn til endring, men fortsatt er de menneskerettslige utfordringene enorme innen de fire kjerneområdene som organisasjonen overvåker fram til august 2008: dødsstraff, fengsling uten rettssak og dom, trakassering av menneskerettighets aktivister og pressefrihet.

Utfordrer idrettsutøvere og ledere
– Vi utfordrer den nye idrettspresidenten, Tove Paule, til å gjøre det klart for IOC at idrettsnorge forventer at IOC bruker sin innflytelse overfor kinesiske myndigheter. Vi vil se bedre kår for menneskerettighetene, sier Carl Morten Iversen, generalsekretær i Norsk P.E.N.

Pressens innflytelse
– Internasjonale medier kan påvirke situasjonen i Kina i positiv retning. Norske og andre internasjonale journalister har et spesielt ansvar for å belyse menneskerettighetsspørsmål siden de – og ikke kinesiske journalister! – er gitt økt pressefrihet i forbindelse med OL. Dette gir unike muligheter både før, under og etter de olympiske lekene, sier Kjetil Haanes, nestleder og internasjonalt ansvarlig i Norsk Journalistlag.  Han understreker at de tre organisasjonene vil samarbeide i hele nedtellingsåret for å sette respekt for menneskerettighetene på dagsorden frem mot OL i Beijing.

Tunisia, april 2007

Report of the Tunisia Monitoring Group: Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds

 

April 2007

CONTENTS:

A.    Introduction                                    p. 3

B.    Facts on the ground

1. Prisoners of opinion                        p. 5
2. Internet blocking                            p. 7
3. Censorship of books                       p. 8
4. Independent organisations              p. 10
5. Journalists and dissidents                p. 13
6. Press freedom                                p. 15
7. Torture, police brutality and impunity        p. 16
8. The judiciary                                  p. 16

C.    Conclusions                                    p. 17

D.    Annexes                                         p. 19

A.    INTRODUCTION:

This is the fourth report of the Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) and follows the latest of a series of fact-finding missions to Tunisia by members of the group in the run up to, and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The first mission, of six TMG members, took place from 14-19 January 2005 and led to the first report “Tunisia: Freedom of Expression Under Siege” , published in February 2005. The report described our initial findings and set out a series of recommendations to the Tunisian government.

Subsequent missions took place in May and September 2005 and in April 2006.  For mission reports, see: http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/reports.html

TMG members actively took part in WSIS itself (16-18 November 2005).

During the course of the five missions the TMG has now met with over 300 individuals and over 50 organisations and institutions including members of the government and opposition, public officials, government supported organisations, independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, publishers, librarians, private broadcasters and others.

During the latest mission we met with a representative of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Surprisingly, the Director of the External Communications Agency (ATCE) refused to meet with us this time.

Since WSIS, and since the last TMG report issued in May 2006, we have disappointingly witnessed serious deterioration in the conditions related to freedom of expression in Tunisia, particularly with respect to independent organisations, harassment of journalists and dissidents, independence of the judiciary, blocking of books and websites, and the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou, for voicing his opinion in articles on the Internet. Cumulatively these changes lead us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissent since May 2006.

We urge the Tunisian government to take very seriously the recommendations we are making in this report and to show a real and immediate intent to remove the practices we have identified that violate international human rights laws and standards to which Tunisia is a signatory.

We call on the international community to take responsibility in holding Tunisia to account for its international obligations, to insist on real commitment to change and to ensure that independent voices in Tunisia are treated with the respect and tolerance of a rights-based democracy and not the abuses that we consider more characteristic of a police state.

In the following sections we set out the principal developments that we have observed since our first report.

About the Tunisia Monitoring Group

The Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) is a coalition of 16 organisations set up in 2004 to monitor freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and following the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The 16 organisations are all members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of 71 national, regional and international organisations committed to defending the right to freedom of expression.

The sixth mission of the TMG in Tunisia (27 February – 4 March 2007) was comprised of Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN, Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association(IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely. (Gamal Eid of the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo) was denied an entry visa to join the TMG mission in April 2006.)

Other members of the TMG are: Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), ARTICLE 19, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), International PEN Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), International Press Institute (IPI), Journaliste en Danger (JED), Media Institute of South Africa (MISA), World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

B.    FACTS ON THE GROUND

1. Prisoners of opinion

We strongly reiterate past recommendations to Tunisian authorities:

* To end arbitrary administrative sanctions compelling journalist Abdallah Zouari to live nearly 500km away from his wife and children and guarantee his basic right to freedom of movement and expression.

* To release all prisoners of opinion held for their religious and political beliefs and who never advocated or used violence.

Furthermore we call for the immediate release of human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou.

Mohamed Abbou

On 1 March 2007, men who refused to identify themselves physically prevented the members of the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG) delegation from entering a street in the town of Le Kef; the prison where human rights lawyer and writer Mohamed Abbou is jailed is located on the street to which they were denied access. A second group of men photographed the TMG delegation from a distance, and members of the TMG delegation were prevented from taking their own photographs by the same men. The delegation’s car had previously been stopped on the road to Le Kef for about ten minutes by a group of national guard officers plainclothed men, who also refused to identify themselves (for more, please see ANNEX 3).

The TMG delegation enquired about the possibility of visiting Mohamed Abbou. Members of the delegation were told they needed authorisation to approach the prison gates. Samia Abbou, the wife of Mohammed Abbou, was granted a 15-minute visit.

When pressed about the incident, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights denied harassment.

Arrested on 1 March 2005, Abbou is currently serving a three- and-a-half year prison sentence in connection with articles posted online, in which he criticised Tunisian authorities.

The youth of Zarzis

Since their early release from prison in February 2005, the Zarzis youth have faced a stringent administrative control that prevents them from living a normal life. In fact, the sanction pronounced against them in early 2002 continues, despite their prison terms having ended.

They are obligated to sign a register every day, yet at changing times of the day and/or at changing locations, which represents a serious obstacle for any steady job or professional training. Moreover, pressures are reportedly exerted on current or possible employers to discourage them to keep or recruit the youth. Finally, their being labelled “terrorists” only deepens their exclusion and isolation.

Encountering obstacles and harassment in all aspects of their life over the past two years, the youth feel helpless and deprived of their basic civil rights. Their only request is for an end to the administrative control measures and for the possibility to live normally.

Abdallah Zouari

All of Mr. Zouari’s requests for authorisation to see his wife and children in Tunis for religious holidays were denied. The requests were filed with the appropriate authorities, including the president, Ben Ali.
Mr. Zouari is not allowed to travel outside of the city of Zarsis. (He is not allowed to go to Djerba, for example, 4km from his house.) This administrative control has been in effect since June 2002 and should end in June this year.

Mr. Zouari is forbidden to have an Internet connection as of April 2005 and is refused connection at Internet cafés, the owners of which are reportedly pressured to deny him access.

2. Internet blocking

In past reports of the IFEX-TMG we observed blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafés.

We recommended that the Tunisian government stop the practice of blocking websites and cease putting Internet cafés and Internet users under police surveillance.

At the time of this latest report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendations.

We therefore maintain these recommendations and specifically, we recommend the amendment of Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the printer’s obligation to present copies of any printed book to the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies.

We have discussed Internet blocking with Tunisian government representatives and with government supported civil society organisations. They confirmed to us that systematic Internet blocking takes place. However government representatives asserted that blocking of political and information sites was due to their “terrorist” or “hate speech” content. Government officials were unable to describe any judicial or regulatory process that would enable such assertions to be legitimately challenged in law.
In January 2005 we identified a sample of 20 sites that we assessed to be blocked for their political and information content and which did not appear to carry any information which could be considered illegal or harmful under international law. In September 2005 we undertook further tests of the 20 sample sites. We found that 19 of the sites identified remained blocked in the tests that we conducted. In February 2007 we conducted a similar research on a sample of 21 websites. (Please see ANNEX 5 for the full list of 21 blocked sites as of 28 February 2007.)
The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), a non-approved organisation, listed several forms of harassment, including the confiscation of e-mails. CNLT Internet access, which is usually blocked, was again available starting a few days before the TMG mission to Tunisia.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), an approved association, reported that their Internet Access had been blocked for months since April 2006. Access has been re-established quite recently. However, attachments cannot be downloaded. (This is true for all NGOs.)

In addition, the website of the Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia  (OLPEC) remains blocked.

Access to the website of the Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés  (FDTL), a political party created in 1994 and approved in 2002, remains blocked as well. The website of the Parti démocratique progressiste (PDP) is also blocked.

3. Censorship of books

In past reports of the IFEX-TMG we observed blocking of the distribution of books and publications.

We recommended to the Tunisian government to release banned books, end censorship, and conform to international standards for freedom of expression.

At the time of this latest report we have witnessed no significant change and no progress on our recommendation.

We therefore maintain these recommendations and specifically we recommend to amend Article 8 of the Press Code by lifting the obligation (for the printer) to deposit copies of a printed book with the local prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of the Interior and the chamber of deputies.

The dépôt légal system is still shamelessly used as a hidden form of censorship of books in Tunisia. In a country that prides itself on producing 1,400 titles a year for a population of just over ten million, there are actually only 200-300 new titles produced per year; the rest are mainly reprints and children’s books.

Publishers which dare to publish books the authorities disapprove of not only see these books being blocked at the printer’s (after having been printed), but also have to face other forms of harassment, including forms of fiscal harassment. For more, see the first IFEX-TMG report.

Three books by Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, founder of the Temimi Foundation (FTRSI ), have been printed and then blocked through the legal submission procedure: his book on censorship has been banned since 2000, and his books on President Habib Bourguiba and on the society of knowledge since 2003. The national library of Tunisia provides no reason, nor answer for these bans. In addition, the distribution of the proceedings of four conferences on censorship organised by FTRSI are also blocked through the legal submission procedure. As a consequence, the publication of these proceedings takes place in another country of the region.

In addition, the distribution of the proceedings of four conferences on censorship organised by FTRSI are also blocked through the legal submission procedure. As a consequence, the publication of these proceedings may take place in another country of the region.

According to the League of Free Writers (LEL), the situation for book publishing in the country has worsened since WSIS in 2005. Three examples of recent book blocking were given:

a.    Portrait of a businessman who succeeded by Mr. Hamdouni, Vice-President of LEL. Initially, an authorisation to publish the novel was issued in November 2006. A few days later, a group of plainclothes policemen stormed the printer’s in order to seize the books, which had been printed, and to seize the receipt authorising the publication. According to LEL, this was the first time this had happened.
b.    The Rocking Chair by Amel Mokhtar, a young Tunisian female writer. The second novel by this author is denied publication and distribution through the legal submission procedure. The content of this book is deemed to be too morally controversial. Her first and third novels are freely available.
c.    Justice by Falilah Chebbi, a famous Tunisian poet who has published some 20 books. In Justice, she condemns Arab regimes for spending too much money on armaments, and not enough on social welfare. The book has been blocked at the printer’s since spring 2006.

In addition, three of Jalloul Azzouna’s books are still blocked through the legal submission procedure.

Hafidha Chekir, a member of the Board of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), tried to have her PhD on the role of law in the promotion of women’s rights published by the University Press (a text for which she received the Human Rights Prize of the French Society of International Law), but this was refused. She tried to self-publish later, but the book was blocked through the legal submission procedure. Her guide on the participation of women in political life is also blocked through the legal submission procedure. It is one of the ten blocked books by the Arabic Institute of Human Rights.

The proceedings of ATFD’s November 1993 seminar on violence against women are still blocked through the legal submission procedure.

OLPEC, which issues reports and alerts whenever it finds out a book is being blocked through the legal submission procedure, issued a report on the 2006 Tunis Book Fair. The Tunisian authorities issued a list of banned books in anticipation of the fair. (For more, please see ANNEX 4).

Theatre – Khamsoun

Khamsoun (corps otage), which translates as Fifty, is a play by the famous Tunisian playwright Fadhel Jaibi. The Tunisian authorities first refused to issue a permission to show the play.  However, after successfully being performed abroad, including a performance in Paris, the authorities found no alternative but to allow it to be performed. This came after six months of prohibition by the commission of censorship of the Ministry of the Culture, which had drawn up a list of phrases to be censored. However, those involved in Khamsoun had refused to subject the play to this list.

The play addresses the problems facing Tunisian society after 50 years of independence, including torture in prisons, fundamentalism and lack of civil and political freedoms.  The play itself became the target of such lack of freedoms as a result of heavy censorship. The authorities attended the rehearsals of the play and censored all names of prisons, all dates and many Quranic verses used in the play. After months of negotiations, even though the director refused to comply, the authorities decided to allow the play to run, but only during the week. The play is not allowed to be performed during the weekend, and there were few performances in Tunisia in February 2007.

4. Independent organisations

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed restrictions on freedom of association, including the right of organisations to be legally established and to hold meetings.

We then recommended that the Tunisian government to respect international standards on freedom of association and freedom of assembly and that they grant legal recognition to independent civil society groups.  The second report documented no progress on our recommendations. During the fourth mission we documented a series of new attacks on legally recognised, independent organisations, such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), The Tunisian Association of Magistrates (ATM) and the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women (ATFD).

Severe harassment of these organisations, including smear-campaigns in the media, and other problems facing these legal organisations, has resulted in an almost complete state of inactivity.  The Tunisian authorities have made certain that these organisations are not able to work.  Funds are blocked, Internet and e-mail is blocked or monitored, phone lines are disconnected and cell phones monitored and regular mail service is stopped. In short, they are unable to carry out the work they have previously been legally authorised to do. These attacks represent a serious deterioration in respect for freedom of association.

We therefore strongly reiterate our recommendation that the Tunisian government must allow legal NGOs to work, and must   allow independent organisations to be established without requiring prior political approval.

The National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT)

The surveillance is the same every day. The same team of police monitors all the traffic in and out of the CNLT office, and often is seen in the shops close to the CNLT office. Since 2004, CNLT has not been able to hold its annual congress. CNLT cannot make any collective decisions or make changes to its board. It is impossible for the organisation to hold even small meetings because all meetings, even meetings of the board, are prohibited.

CNLT submitted an appeal to become a legal organisation before an administrative court in March 1999, but there is still no reply.

According to CNLT, some visitors to the CNLT offices, who come to lodge complaints about harassment, are stopped by the police, taken to the police station and forced to sign a document stating they will never return to CNLT again.

In addition, CNLT has seemingly become the target of a new form of harassment, i.e. fiscal harassment. As CNLT is not officially recognised, its offices are located in the apartment of an individual, Mr. Omar Mestiri, who faces fiscal harassment from the tax office for the period during which he was under house arrest and the period during which he has been residing abroad. As a member of the editorial board of Kalima newspaper, this harassment has potentially bad consequences for Kalima, which aims to be an independent voice in the Tunisian print media.  The closure of Kalima would be a terrible blow to pluralism in a country where the print media already suffers from its lack of pluralism.

The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH)

All the local offices of the League are under police surveillance. The situation has worsened since WSIS in late 2005. The board of LTDH can meet, but LTDH is not allowed to arrange congresses and training sessions. Since April 2006, there have been no further meetings. LTDH does not receive regular mail, and since 5 July 2006 e-mail and all Internet access have been blocked. There are daily campaigns against the League in the media and the League’s President, Mokhtar Trifi, has been insulted in Parliament as a “spy” for the USA. There is not one week, according to Mr. Trifi, that the League does not get attacked, including on television.

The authorities do not want to shut down the League. Simply put, their goal is to prevent the League from carrying on its activities, according to Souhayr Belhassen, Vice-President of the League.

On 30 October 2006, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a verbal note to all embassies in Tunisia. The note reminded the representatives of foreign governments in Tunisia that the League could not lead any activities because of the pending trials,  adding that it can only hold a congress. This verbal note followed two aborted visits to the LTDH section of Bizerte by the American authorities. A reminder was sent to all foreign missions on 1 December 2006 as a significant number of diplomats showed solidarity by visiting the League headquarters following the first note of 30 October. Support by some foreign diplomats has had a tendency to wane since WSIS.

On 17 February 2007, in full contradiction of the verbal notes issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the verdict was delivered in the latest of a long series of trials pending against the League. The convocation of the Board, which intended to hold the congress of the League in September 2005 and in May 2006, was cancelled. In other words, LTDH is now forbidden to hold its congress.

It seems to us that the Tunisian authorities have been conveying the following contradictory message: The only activity LTDH is allowed to do is to prepare for its congress, yet it is not allowed to actually hold it. The Tunisian authorities are therefore trying to turn the oldest human rights organisation in the African continent and the Arab world into an empty shell.
The TMG remains deeply concerned about the intense political pressure that is being placed on the independent LTDH by the authorities and by people close to the ruling party.
The Observatory for the Freedom of Press, Publishing and Creation in Tunisia (OLPEC)

The organisation is concerned that the conditions of freedom of expression in Tunisia have worsened since WSIS.  They are concerned that authorities will use the events of December 2006  as a reason to increase pressure on civil society. The fact that the organisation still exists is in itself an achievement. OLPEC submitted an appeal to become a legal organisation before an administrative court in 2001, but there is still no reply. Consequently, OLPEC is still not legal and cannot have offices, or open a bank account. OLPEC is officially non-existent.

Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)

Like LTDH, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) is one the few legally approved and independent NGOs in the country.

ATFD’s new President, Mrs. Khedija Cherif, told TMG mission members that members of the Association are increasingly harassed. A new form of harassment includes the exclusion of Academic members of the Association from academic conferences. The Faculty of Law of Sfax even cancelled a conference once to avoid participation of a member of the Association. In international meetings (ATDF can participate in such meetings unlike CNLT or OLPEC for instance), members of the Association are verbally targeted by the representatives of the official associations.

According to ATFD, post-WSIS repression has deepened, and grown more perverse and more diverse. In addition to the usual forms of harassment against the association that had been used pre-WSIS (police surveillance, exclusion from the media, smear campaigns in the media targeting the Association etc.), a new form of harassment has emerged following WSIS: economic harassment via the blocking of the association’s finances. The third part of the European Union (EU) funding, channelled through the Friedrich Naumann foundation as part of the “equality” project is blocked by the Tunisian authorities as of May 2006. AFTD wrote to the Ministry of the Interior several times to enquire about the blocking (September 2006, November 2006 and January 2007), but so far to no avail. When EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner questioned the Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs about the blocking on 1 February 2007, the latter said he did not know about it.

In June 2006 ATFD was forced to hold its congress at its headquarters. As usual, it was not possible for the association to rent a room in town.

5. Journalists and dissidents

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed restrictions on the freedom of movement of human rights defenders and political dissidents together with police surveillance, harassment, intimidation and interception of communications.  At the time of the second report we had witnessed no progress on our recommendations. As of March 2007 the situation has worsened, in particular with regard to the increased harassment of independent Tunisian journalists. We therefore strongly reiterate our concern about systematic harassment of journalists, activists and dissidents, and urge that immediate steps be taken to remove political surveillance and harassment of individuals engaged in the legitimate defence of human rights and the right to freedom of expression.

At the time of this latest report, we further recommend the EU make broader use of the 2004 guidelines on human rights defenders.
See: http://ue.eu.int/uedocs/cmsUpload/GuidelinesDefenders.pdf

The recent mission of the TMG shed light on the absence of positive progress for journalists and human rights activists in Tunisia.  Both groups are being systematically harassed by the authorities through the withholding of mail and e-mail, through arbitrary travel bans and through interference by government employees in their private lives, including surveillance and harassment which often also extends to their families and friends.

Independent journalists like Lotfi Hajji are not able to work freely as foreign correspondents. The recent publication of articles by journalist Taoufik Ben Brik were the first published in Tunisia by him since 1989, and these appeared in a newly-established private paper. Activists are not allowed to work in Tunisia at all and are dependant on financial support from other sources in order to lead a normal life.

6. Press Freedom

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we observed press censorship and lack of diversity of content in newspapers.  At the time of the second report we witnessed a step in the right direction through the 27 May 2005 announcement to abolish the «dépôt légal» for periodicals, but there was no other progress on our recommendations. At the time of the present report, there is still no press freedom in Tunisia, the main reasons being state censorship, lack of open distribution networks comprising all printed media, and a serious one-sided distribution of financial resources. We therefore reiterate our previous recommendations by asking the Tunisian government to take serious steps toward lifting all restrictions on independent journalism and encouraging diversity of content and ownership of the press. Furthermore, we urge the government to abolish the «dépôt légal» for foreign newspapers.  We also call on the Ministry of the Interior to respect Article 13 of the Tunisian Press Code enabling the establishment of newspapers and periodicals.

Newspapers, both local and international, are still being censored. During the mission, two French dailies (Le Monde and Libération) and one weekly news magazine (Le Nouvel Observateur) were banned in Tunisia for publishing articles written by Mr. Ben Brik that upset the authorities. In the case of Libération, the article was ironically entitled: “En 2009, je ‘vote’ pour Ben Ali” (“In 2009, I ‘vote’ for Ben Ali”). Mr. Ben Brik has been widely published abroad, but de facto banned in his home country.

Distribution is casual and favours newspapers close to the authorities. Readers have to ask for opposition papers in the kiosks, as the vendors are not likely to display them so that people can see them, but instead store them under the counter. These obstacles to distribution are designed to isolate the opposition from the population, and are meant to hinder the accessibility of non-controlled content and information to Tunisian citizens.

One newspaper editor stated to the group during the mission: «You just have to open the pages of a newspaper to see if it is government controlled – the ones controlled by the government have all the advertising.»

Even journalists in the official press are censored. An article entitled «Bayrou le candidat du bon sens» was reportedly censored by the editorial team in the government-controlled French-speaking newspaper La Presse.

7. Torture, brutality and impunity

In the first report of the IFEX-TMG we reported credible accounts of recent use of torture by the security services with impunity.

We recommended the Tunisian government allow independent investigation into cases of torture allegedly perpetrated by security forces.

At the time of the second report we had witnessed some progress on prison conditions, but no real progress on our main recommendation. Despite some progress, prison conditions also remained a source of major concern.

The recent TMG mission witnessed no positive development.  On the contrary, police brutality is becoming an almost daily event in the public spaces and people are becoming increasingly frightened.

On this basis, we therefore restate our previous recommendation and urge the Tunisian government to make every effort to completely eliminate the practice of torture by the security services.

8. The judiciary

The lack of an independent judiciary and an almost total lack of a normal rule of law are considered to be major problems in Tunisian society, a fact that was confirmed by several different sources during the mission.  According to the same sources, the majority of Tunisian lawyers, judges and magistrates are in favour of an independent judiciary, but a small group of people with strong ties to the president is very active and controls the whole system, thus creating a climate of fear in the society.

Some of the elements leading to this situation are arbitrary arrests and lack of information for families of the arrested, but also undemocratic treatment of judges through arbitrary relocation and harassment.

Based on these facts we urge the Tunisian authorities to bring their legal system in accordance with international standards of an independent judiciary and to respect the rule of law as a way to strengthen freedom of expression.

C.    CONCLUSIONS

During the recent mission (27 February to 4 March 2007) and undertaking of the work for this report, it became evident that no significant, positive development had occurred for freedom of expression in Tunisia since the WSIS in November 2005. On the contrary, reports indicate a stalemate in most domains and deterioration in others. Interviewees reported an increased resort to intimidation and violence, and the impossibility of challenging such abusive practices. As stated in the introduction, lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. They have also tried to discredit our work and that of IFEX in general as one-sided and biased, partly because we, as they claim, have refused to meet with Tunisian civil society groups who do not share our views on Tunisia.  This is not true .

It is also worth noting that the TMG, on previous missions, have met with Tunisian authorities at the ministerial level.  The TMG would hereby like to voice its disappointment at the Tunisian authorities’ unwillingness to arrange meetings with ministers during this recent mission.

With this as background material, we take this opportunity to remind all readers of this report that we are merely asking Tunisian authorities to abide by their international human rights obligations, as well as to their commitments as reported in the WSIS final documents.  Basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, movement and association, and the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and to create organisations without government interference, do not exist in Tunisia. These rights are respected in democratic countries where the rule of law prevails.

Sadly, this is not the case in Tunisia either.  The TMG therefore has to conclude that it is still increasingly important that international free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large – with the EU bearing a significant responsibility – still keep monitoring development in Tunisia.

Oslo – Geneva – Paris – Amsterdam – Cairo

Read the whole report with annexes at  http://campaigns.ifex.org/tmg/IFEXTMGreport_April2007.doc

Fjerde Tunisia-rapport: «Beleiringen fortsetter»

PRESS RELEASE

Fourth TMG Report Launched Worldwide − “Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds”

In its fourth report on freedom of expression conditions in Tunisia, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) Tunisian Monitoring Group (TMG) concludes that it is still increasingly important that free expression and human rights groups, as well as the international community at large still keep monitoring developments in Tunisia.

“Freedom of Expression in Tunisia: The Siege Holds” is the fourth TMG report since February 2005 and is based on a recent (28 February – 4 March) mission to Tunisia.  The report will be launched worldwide on 11 April at a press conference in Cairo hosted by the Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), as well as at an event hosted by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) in Washington. The report, available in English, French and Arabic, will also be launched in Geneva and Paris.

Tunisian authorities have rejected all previous recommendations from the TMG. The new report states that “lack of positive change has led us to conclude that the Tunisian government has sought to further stifle dissidents since the previous TMG report of May 2006. As the present report reflects, it is therefore necessary to maintain and strongly reiterate all past recommendations from the TMG to Tunisian authorities.” This includes calling for the liberation of unjustly jailed human rights activist and lawyer Mohamed Abbou.

The TMG is a group of 16 freedom of expression organisations in the IFEX network.  The recent mission was chaired by Carl Morten Iversen of Norwegian PEN. Other members of the delegation were Yousef Ahmed of Index on Censorship, Virginie Jouan of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association (IPA). Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) was prevented from receiving a visa on time by the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, which treated him rudely.

For further information about the report, contact:

Carl Morten Iversen, Norwegian PEN, at tel: + 47 2247 9220/926 88 023 or e-mail: cmivers@online.noor pen@norskpen.no (English)
Alexis Krikorian, IPA, at tel: + 41 22830 1080/7921 45 530 or e-mail: krikorian@ipa-uie.org (English or French)
Gamal Eid, HRinfo, at tel: +202 524 9544 (Arabic) or e-mail: info@hrinfo.net orgamal4eid@yahoo.com

Members of the IFEX-TMG are:

Arabic Human Rights Information Network (HRinfo), Egypt
ARTICLE 19, UK
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Egypt
Index on Censorship, UK
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), The Netherlands
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
International Publishers’ Association (IPA), Switzerland
Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia
Norwegian PEN, Norway
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA
Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC), UK