Belarus

Defining Reality

In July I mentioned that he lower house of parliament in Belarus has approved a new bill that would change registration procedures for the traditional media and extend them to online media as well, forcing all web pages to be registered. On Tuesday the law was approved (via) by President Lukashenko.

The law stipulates that online content will now be subject to the same restrictions as the print press. The law also places greater power in the hands of the state authorities, who will be able to suspend or close indefinitely media outlets that publish material that does ‘not correspond to reality’, publish inaccurate or defamatory material or threaten the interests of the state or the public. It also gives state authorities the ability to interpret these terms as they deem fit.

More media restrictions in Belarus

Index on Censorship and the Committee to Protect Journalists are reporting that the lower house of parliament in Belarus has approved a new bill that would change registration procedures for the traditional media and extend them to online media as well, forcing all web pages to be registered.

The draft law, which now has just a few steps before being passed to President Lukashenko for approval, also restricts any international funding to media organisations.

Independent newspaper threatened in Belarus

Gazeta Slonimskaya, an independent weekly newspaper based in Hrodna has been threatened with eviction (via) by the state-controlled company, Slonimski from which it rents its premises. No reason has been given for the decision and other agencies are refusing to deal with the paper for fear of reprisals.

The papers editor, Uladzimir Uladashchuk was also summoned to the local army office on 22nd April and was ordered to begin 26 days of military training starting 20th May. He is convinced that the summons was contrived in order to get him out of the way while the newspaper was being evicted.

A few days before receipt of the eviction order, district chief Mechyslaw Kastsyuk threatened to suspend the newspapers licence on the grounds that a woman had sold copies in a place where this is not permitted.

Administrative harassment involving nit-picking application of regulations is officialdoms favourite method of gagging the independent press in Belarus.

Motoon II: Another update

First the good news. Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, the editor in Belarus who was jailed for publishing the Muhammed cartoons back in 2006 has been released.

More than a 1,000 (mainly small and local) Danish websites were hacked by some individual calling himself United Arab Hackers and reportedly from Saudi Arabia. The websites of international companies based in Denmark, such as Lurpak and Carlsberg, were not affected.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is threatening to expel Danish organizations, snub its officials and boycott the countrys products in reaction to the republished cartoons. Denmarks foreign aid minister is considering whether this might have consequences for Danish aid (130.2 million kroner last year) to the African country.

Bahrainis took to the streets and the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe jumped on the bandwagon.

With thanks to Media Watch Watch (twice) and The Comics Reporter.

Updated

The Vatican and the Al-Azhar university in Cairo have issued a joint statement condeming (via) the republication of the cartoon but studiously avoiding any mention of the foiled murder plot against the 72-year-old cartoonist which prompted the republications.

Editor jailed over Muhammad cartoons

Now Belarus is the sort of authoritarian state that you would expect to implement and use laws banning “incitement of religious hatred” and other inconvenient speech. And, sure enough, they have (via).

Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, an editor at the now-shuttered independent weekly Zgoda (Consensus) newspaper, has been sentenced to three years in a high-security prison for reprinting the Muhammed cartoons back in 2006.

Sdvizhkov was arrested on November 18 and his trial began on January 11 in Minsk, according to local news reports. He was tried behind closed doors.

“Clearly this is just a pretext to punish an independent journalist even after shutting down his publication,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release Aleksandr Sdvizhkov.”

Belarusian Islamic leader Ismail Voronovich said he wanted authorities to reprimand the journalist, not jail him. “I thought that this case was closed and the newspaper was back working,” The Associated Press quoted Voronovich as saying today.

Sdvizhkov reprinted the controversial cartoons in Zgoda in February 2006. A month later the paper, hich had also given coverage to an opposition candidate in the 2006 presidential election, was shuttered.

Sued into submission

European Voice reports that a senior politician in Belarus is suing one of the country’s few remaining independent newspapers for damages which could force it to close down.

The suit was brought by the chairman of the foreign relations and national security committee of the upper house of parliament, Mikalay Charhinets, who is a close confidant of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Court documents made available by the weekly Novy Chas show that Charhinets is seeking damages of close to €200,000 for a critical article published by the Minsk-based newspaper in September.

While lawsuits and similar legal challenges to the few remaining independent newspapers are commonplace in Belarus, the damages sought by Charhinets are unprecedented. They represent many times the paper’s annual budget and would force it to cease publication if awarded.

The article in question suggested that Charhinets, who is a retired police general, was involved in an infamous Soviet-era judicial scandal in which several people were wrongfully convicted. It also questioned his credentials as a novelist.

While the articles claims may turn out to be defamatory, the level of damages sought suggests that the plaintiff’s main aim is to close down the newspaper, as was noted in a statement by Alyaksey Karol, the paper’s editor, who described the lawsuit as “politically motivated.”