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25 Nov

Oleksandra Horchynska (Ukraine)
MediaSapiens, 20.11.2014

Belarusian newspapers may even receive warnings for grammatical errors

 

Press secretary of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Boris Goretsky, tells MediaSapiens about how journalists’ rights are violated in Belarus and how the government pressures the media, also touching on the death penalty and the terrorist attack in Minsk in 2011.

Boris, tell us how the Belarusian Association of Journalists was founded and how it works.

Since the Soviet times, we have had the Union of Journalists. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko became president, and in 1995 the government began to suppress journalists, to beat them. The Union of Journalists was pro-government. Journalists decided that they should create their own organisation. Everything has two sides: pro-government and independent. We had to create something of own here. The newly formed union acts to protect media. Help, looking for lawyers, writing complaints, support in courts...

In our history, there have been several high-profile cases – killings of journalists. For example, there was a criminal case against a group of journalists who filmed a story about an open border with Lithuania. It was a fact that you could just walk to Lithuania. Of course, there was heavy cross-border smuggling. Journalists were arrested for illegally crossing the border. And yet we have criminal offences such as defamation, insulting the president and others. In such cases, the government likes to give our journalists "chimia": restricting their freedom by sending them to perform correctional work in factories. In the 2000s our politicians began to disappear. For example, a man was driving his car, and then we would find a wrecked car, and no man inside. Later there was a confession from prosecutors that it was the work of the government.

Then a journalist disappeared, Dmitry Zavadsky. He was a camera operator on ORT-channel, a citizen of Belarus, who worked in Chechnya. Before he started at ORT, he worked as Lukashenko’s personal camera operator. Once he went to the airport and never returned. His empty car was found at the airport. Some people admitted kidnapping him. But they were silent in court. One of them has now been released; the two others are still in prison. They were accused of murder, although the body was never found.

There were a number of other cases after that. Today, one of our organisation’s main activities to investigate these cases, to find justice, and to protect journalists.

There was a time when journalists from our Association had their own press cards. Now we can’t print them. Although in many European countries when you are a freelancer, you can be certified by a journalists’ union or trade union and that’s enough for your work. We have membership fees, the organisation is funded by this, and there are regional branches. Every three years we have a Congress, where the council and board of our Association are elected.

What problems do journalists have in their work?

Belarusian journalism has its own particular difficulties. They include the difficulty of obtaining information from public persons and from courts, prisons etc. All state agencies have their own Deputy Director of ideological work. And when people from state agencies are giving interviews or commentaries, they do it only with the consent of this Director. Therefore, it’s difficult for journalists to get information. When the state doesn’t want to talk about the official establishment, terrorism, public figures, etc, it can hide information. And the system is organised so well that there are no holes. If a journalist knows that a man has just been detained, then he can send a formal request. It should be considered in up to three days. And the official press release will provide your an answer. Sometimes in such cases you are denied. It is also impossible to get an insight about politicians.

What is the procedure for gaining access to the courts?

Legally, courts are not formally closed to journalists, but no one knows about this. This is not so in practice. In publicised cases, of course, journalists are allowed. But they can’t take photos or film. A journalist can legally use a recorder. But in reality, he can’t. Judges have been never punished for banning journalists from recording on tape. We have asked for this many times.

Journalists have access to court only when there is an administrative case concerning the opposition. But not when it is criminal..The police block the entrance. The oppositionists are usually judged as if on a conveyor belt. And when there is a sentence, you can call and ask about it.

How do journalists write about the death penalty?

Society has struggled with this for years. Activists have staged protests and covered themselves in red paint.  They were arrested. Journalists have serious fears that this won’t change anything. You write about it, but there are new cases, new sentences and new executions. So many are people tired of writing about it. But we have a competition for journalists on the topic of death penalty called "Choose Life". This is a phrase from the Bible. "Life and death I gave to you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life"- says God.

Belarus is the only country in the post-USSR in Europe which still enforces the death penalty. Cancelling it is perhaps the most important requirement in order for us to enter the Council of Europe. Maybe when the Belarusian government has to give something to Europe, for example, in exchange for the removal of sanctions, they will abolish the death penalty. In 1994, on referendum, the question of the death penalty was raised. The crime rate was ten times higher than today, and 80% voted in favour for the death penalty. Today Lukashenko still likes to rely on these results as an argument.

What mistakes do journalists often make in their work?

Journalists make many mistakes using legal, or law terminology. They often call someone guilty when he/she has not formally been convicted. Independent journalists in our country are few and far between. Most of our media are the state media. When the Investigative Committee has said that someone is guilty, they should write this. When told that "the killer has been arrested", the state media will write “killer”, although he’s only been arrested but not convicted.

For example, the explosion in the Minsk underground in 2011. Terrorists were arrested two days after the attack. They were the main topic of all media and channels said that they were killers. Perhaps you could smooth iron into the socket, and it would have shown a story about the attack. No one said that they had only been arrested. They were clearly called killers, terrorists who had performed an act of terrorism. The Investigation Committee arrested them, so there was no doubt they were killers. That case made headlines in all public news.

15 people were victims of the attack. But it was the first time in Belarus when opponents of the death penalty outnumbered supporters, because the public didn’t believe it. And now a significant part still doesn’t believe that it was that people. Maybe because the investigation has not been finalised, maybe the court worked too fast. The court deliberated for five days. They were shot within a few months. Certainly, there is evidence of their guilt, but it was far from clear. The state then was too passionate in advocacy, judged them too fast, but society doesn’t believe it.

Why do people still not believe that the act was committed by Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalev?

There was a lot of doubt about who had done this act. The person who was accused of planting the bomb had no particles of explosive under his fingernails, in his hair, or on his skin. But he was in the area at the time of the explosion. This was recognised the state experts. These facts gave rise to distrust of the investigation.

Kovalev and Konovalov had no official motive. Officially, it was "to destabilize the situation". They were silent in court, and gave an unambiguous impression that they had been pumped with psychotropic drugs. They said nothing for the entire court case. How can people do that when they know that they are accused of killing 15 people and potentially face the death penalty?

There is a version that Konovalov lived his own life as an ascetic, always produced and burned something. It is possible that a self-contained person can organize a big bang, the work of his life.  This is Dostoevsky’s "Crime and Punishment"... Vladislav Kovalev, witnesses said, and Konovalov said that he didn’t know that he was preparing a terrorist attack. He was simply asked to move the bag from one place to another, not saying that there was a bomb inside, the court is affirmed Kovalev. Experts do not say on camera that it seems like it was Kovalev and Konovalov. If the expertise is not a fake, it’s possible they could have come from Vitebsk, carried this bag through all through the underground, and through the place where the police could check them.

Our journalists did an experiment a year after that incident. They took a bag stuffed with iron and just passed it through the underground, to see if it was possible to bring a bomb. Then wrote about it and were charged with disorderly conduct and were arrested for one day.

What responsibilities do journalists have in their work?

Two warnings for a newspaper and it will be closed. In fact, warnings can be issued for anything, for grammatical errors too. For example, according to the rules in the output information there must be the editor’s name, and his complete surname. If it lists only the name and initials or no patronymic, then a warning can be issued. That’s why journalists are very cautious about various kinds of sensitive information. You had better not write it than write something wrong. The government likes to give warnings to articles that criticize statements. The Ministry of Information can easily prove anything.

During the World Hockey Championships, there was an interesting case. The Russian team had no Olympic players in their team, it was made up of completely new people. The bids were official and were printed in state newspapers. Our journalists noticed that was cool, and wrote an article. While the issue was being printed at night, Russia changed the application, and there were Olympic sportsmen. There is a procedure when a country can add or change people. The morning newspaper published an old bid and the information in fact was different. Then the newspaper was immediately issued a warning, and there were charges that newspaper just confuses people, and undermines the credibility of Russia as a friendly state.

What kind of independent newspapers does Belarus have?

The two main independent newspapers are Nasha Niva, which has a circulation of 7,000, and Narodnaya Volya, which has a 30,000 circulation for the whole Belarus. They are the opposition opinion leaders. The authorities have competed with them as they could, but never took the decision to close them. We have a state monopoly on subscription and sale in kiosks. If you want to subscribe to a newspaper, you have to go to "Belposhta". In 2005, these opposition publications were excluded from the catalogue. Newspapers are now just sent from post offices in envelopes, but it is difficult. Some readers come and pick up their copy from the publishers office. When there are thousands of copies, the newspaper economically cannot afford to send them to all recipients. In addition, the leadership of the newspaper cannot afford to increase payments for reporters. There was pressure when newspapers were thrown out of the kiosks, from the subscriptions. Then it ended, circulation grew slightly. But, thank God, they haven’t disappeared completely.

There are also other newspapers. For example, Komsomolskaya Pravda that doesn’t write about politics, it is an entirely Russian product. There is an economically independent newspaper Belorusi i Rynok , they used to write about politics, now they  try not to interfere, because it causes angry reactions from the authorities.

There is a newspaper that used to be called Belaruskaya Hazeta [Belarusian newspaper], now it is called Belhazeta." Some years ago Lukashenko issued a decree that no enterprise could be called “Belarusian”. The same applies to political parties etc.

Why?

Well, our government likes to make this kind of decision. Once, there was the position of “president” at  the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Then Alexander Lukashenko banned it, saying that there could only be one president in Belarus, and the positions were changed to “Head” and so on. The state government likes to force you to subscribe to state newspapers. If you work at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, you have to subscribe to the newspaper Na Strazhe [On guard], if you are a railroad worker – to the newspaper Chygunachnik Belarusi [Railroad Belarus] etc.

For the public, there are many newspapers. Sovetskaya Belorussia, whose founder is the Presidential Administration. Huge quantities, much thicker than Nasha Niva, a glossy front page. The state subsidises it, everything is properly written in it. There are also the newspapers Respublika, Zvezda, Narodnaya Gazeta and many others, for the law or information sector. The state spends money on it with pleasure. The government newspapers should be reduced, says the government, because for the reader they are in fact all the same. There are regional and local newspapers. However, the combined weekly circulation of all independent social and political issues in Belarus comes to less than the daily circulation of one daily state newspaper.

Translated from Ukrainian 

Originally published: http://osvita.mediasapiens.ua/media_law/government/boris_goretskiy_u_bilorusi_gazeti_mozhut_vinesti_poperedzhennya_navit_za_gramatichnu_pomilku/