21 May 1999


ARTICLE 19 shocked by court decision against newspapers

Incident details

legal action

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - ARTICLE 19 is expressing its shock at learning that the
Supreme Economic Court of Belarus on 13 May 1999 rejected requests for
postponing the hearing of petitions from newspapers seeking to overturn
official warnings issued to them for publishing material considered by the
state to be seditious. The papers had requested the postponement due to lack
of legal representation and because of procedural violations.

**Updates IFEX alerts of 14 May, 13 May, 19 April, 16 March and 18 February

The State Committee on the Press issued warnings in February and March of
this year to six newspapers for publishing information related to the
unofficial presidential elections scheduled for 16 May. The warnings were to
newspapers "Pagonya", "Naviny", "Belorusskaya Delovaya", "Narodnaya Volya",
"Imya" in February and "Zgoda" in March under Article 5 of the Law on Press
and other Mass Media for "calling for the seizure of state authority".

All petitions from the six newspapers were combined into a single case, in
total disregard of the wishes of the plaintiffs. Information about the
decision to combine the cases and the date for the consideration of the
suits came only on 12 May, a day before the actual hearing. Lawyers for
several of the newspapers were out of town or occupied with other
proceedings. The plaintiffs had, therefore, in good time applied to the
Supreme Economic Court to have consideration of the cases postponed from 13
May to a later date and to express their opposition to the idea of hearing
their petitions as a single suit. Moreover, no mention of expert reports
previously requested by both parties was made during the hearing of the
petitions. The decision to uphold the warnings and to dismiss the petitions
was reached in under an hour.

ARTICLE 19 has in the past repeatedly called on the authorities in Belarus
to adhere to the country's obligations under international human rights law,
most specifically its treaty obligations as a state party to the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it
ratified in 1973.

The pattern of official warnings in Belarus and other measures which have
been taken by the authorities in Belarus to impose restrictions on freedom
of expression of independent newspapers and other mass media are in clear
breach of the country's international obligations. ARTICLE 19 is greatly
concerned not only by the pattern of warnings which have led to closures of
independent mass media, but also any attempts to hinder procedures for
addressing any such restrictive measures.

The Court's decision to combine the newspapers' petitions into one single
case against the wishes of the newspapers which had brought them may have
jeopardized the success in these cases and the brevity with which the cases
were dismissed would suggest a high-handed approach on the part of the
Court, which fails to address the utmost seriousness of the matter, given
that a further warning from the State Committee on the Press could force the
newspapers to close.

Recommended Action

Send appeals to the president:

  • expressing concern both at the breach of the right to freedom of
    expression, as well as of the fundamental right to fair trial which is
    protected by Article 14 of the ICCPR
  • noting that it is of particular concern that these measures against the
    media were taken in connection with articles about the unofficial elections
    since free and independent media are especially important during election
    periods and play a crucial role in ensuring the functioning of democracy
  • calling on the authorities in Belarus to withdraw the warnings issued to
    the six newspapers and to refrain from invoking now, or in the future,
    further measures at variance with the country's obligations under
    international human rights law
  • calling on the authorities to revise Article 5 of the Law on the Press
    and Other Mass Media, as well as making essential revisions to numerous
    other provisions of that Law, to bring that Law into line with Belarus's
    international human rights obligations

    Appeals To

    Alexander Lukashenko,
    President of the Republic of Belarus
    Office of the President
    Minsk 220020
    Fax: +375 172 23 58 25

    Please copy appeals to the source if possible.

  • Source

    ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression
    6-8 Amwell Street
    EC1R 1UQ
    United Kingdom
    info (@) article19.org
    Fax:+44 20 7278 7660

    IFEX members working in this country 1

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