Madam President, recently I introduced S. 700, the Belarus Democracy Act, a bipartisan initiative aimed at supporting democratic forces in the Republic of Belarus. As co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I want to report to my colleagues on the pressures faced by independent media in that country. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released their annual report documenting the dangers journalists face around the world, including Belarus.
In May of 2002, CPJ named Belarus one of the 10 worst places in the world to be a journalist due to the worsening repression under Europe’s most authoritarian regime. Throughout the year the situation of the country’s independent media deteriorated as Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenka mounted a comprehensive assault on all independent and opposition press.
While criminal libel laws had been on the books since 1999, they were not used by the Government until 2002. The law stipulates that public insults or libel against the President may be punished by up to 4 years in prison, 2 years in a labor camp, or by large fine. Articles in the criminal code which prohibit slandering and insulting the President or government officials are also used to stifle press freedom. The criminal code provides for a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment for such offenses.
Journalists critical of the fall 2001 presidential elections were targeted. Mikola Markevich and Pavel Mazheyka of Pahonya and Viktar Ivashkevich of of Rabochy were sentenced to corrective labor for “libeling” the President in pre-election articles. On March 4, a district court in Belarus commuted Mikola Markevich’s sentence from time in a corrective labor facility to “corrective labor at home.” On March 21, a district court released Pavel Mazheyka on parole. Under Belarus law, prisoners may be released on parole after serving half term there.
Other charges were leveled later in the year against a woman who distributed anti-Lukashenka flyers, an opposition politician for libeling the President in a published statement, and a Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta reporter for criticizing the Prosecutor General of Belarus. A former lawyer for the mother of disappeared cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky received a one-and-a-half year prison sentence suspended for 2 years for libeling the Prosecutor General.
Last August the independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda was fined 100 million Belarusian rubles for civil libel of the chairman of the State Control Committee. The paper closed when it could not pay the fine. There are other forms of pressure and harassment as well.
The CPJ report notes the financial discrimination faced by non-state media, including pressure from government officials on potential advertisers not to buy space in publications that criticize Lukashenka and his regime. Government officials also regularly encourage companies to pull advertising and threaten them with audits should they fail to do so, according to CPJ.
When the Belasrusian Government increased newspaper delivery rates, only nongovernmental papers had to pay. When the Minsk City Council of Deputies levied 5 percent tax on newspapers, government papers were again exempt. Such tactics caused such independents as the Belaruskaya Maladzyozhnaya, Rabochy, Den and Tydnyovik Mahilyouski to go under.
According to the State Department’s recently released County Reports on Human Rights Practices “the regime continued to use its near-monopolies on newsprint production, newspaper printing and distribution, and national television and radio broadcasts to restrict dissemination of opposition viewpoints.”
Madam President, I urge my colleagues to support S. 700, the Belarus Democracy Act, in support of those brave individuals in Belarus, including representatives of independent media, who speak out in defense of human rights and democracy in a nation which enjoys neither.