The docmentary Journalists, by Belarusian film director Aleh Dashkevich, is screening twice on the programme of the Auckland Human Rights Film Festival.
Journalists tells about how freedom of expression was destroyed in Belarus over the 15 years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule. Lukashenka came to power in the 1994 election promising to allow freedom of the press. Unfortunately, like most politicians, he was lying at the time.
In most western nations journalists can operate within reasonable boundaries of freedom. It’s rare for a TV camerawo/man to be kidnapped and murdered; journalists don’t often get beaten up, arrested or threatened when covering protests. Not so in Belarus – nor, incidently, in many parts of the former Soviet Union, including Russia.
Late last year Lukashenka’s regime signed into law further restrictions on media freedom. Among other provisions, the law equates the Internet with regular media, making sites subject to the same restrictions; bans local media from accepting foreign donations; allows local and state authorities to shutter independent publications for minor violations; and requires accreditation for all foreign journalists working in the country. [Committee to Protect Journalists]
Journalists is showing on Friday (15 May) and Tuesday (19 May) at 6pm at the Rialto cinema in Newmarket. I will be making a few brief comments after the screening and leading a question and answer session. After that I’ll be available for a quite drink if you’re interested.
Belarus journalist Maxim Ivashyn has written a disturbing account of the murders of two prominent Belarusian journalists since 2001. One tragic story is that of Dmitri Zavadsky, cameraman of Russian ORT channel, who was kidnapped and very likely killed in 2001.
At the Zavadsky murder trial, Belarus officials pointed to a “Chechen trace” as the crime motive and identified five suspects. It was stated in court that Zavadsky, while filming a documentary in Chechnya, came face-to-face with certain mercenaries of Belarusian origin and training. Reluctant to be exposed as supporters of Chechen rebels, these soldiers of fortune kidnapped Zavadsky on the road to the capital’s airport. Two former members of a special police force unit were later found guilty of abducting Zavadsky and sentenced to life in prison. However, Zavadsky’s family and legal team maintain that Belarusian government authorities had a hand in the kidnapping. The case was reopened by prosecutors in December 2003 to investigate this allegation but was abruptly suspended four months later without a specific explanation. Zavadsky was declared officially dead in November 2003, though his body still has not been found.
On October 20, 2004, Veronika Cherkasova, an accomplished and experienced journalist, was brutally murdered in her apartment in Minsk. Although she had been cooperating with both the Russian-based Solidarnost independent newspaper as well as Novoe Vremja (New Time) magazine, her coverage focused on social issues, not politics. According to Maxim’s report, investigators tried to pass off the murder as domestic violence and treated Cherkasova’s 15-year-old son as the prime suspect.
It turned out that Cherkasova was closely following and occasionally covering Belarusian-Iraqi relations with a special emphasis on bank transactions and, possibly, the arms trade. Currently, the investigation has not gone any further, and the case remains open. Anton fled Belarus in early February to live with his father in Russia shortly after investigators tried to force him into a psychiatric facility. However, in mid-April of this year, investigators officially cleared Cherkasova’s son and stepfather as suspects in her murder. [Global Journalist]
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the federal state of Belarus regained its independence. The cautious democratisation process was nipped in the bud when in 1994 Alexander Lukashenko won the presidential elections and went on to reign with an iron fist. Nevertheless, journalists try to do their job, which can easily take on the character of political activism, because the freedom of expression is systematically undermined under Lukashenko. Journalists is the portrait of a few Belarusian reporters in their brave attempts to practise their trade. A critical comment can easily be stamped an insult of the head of state,”that is treason.” For example, Tatiana was arrested when she reported on the irregularities during the 2006 elections. Svetlana, chief editor of an underground daily, explains that every serious newspaper is subversive. A journalist making some extra money with dog breeding refuses to behave like a lap dog. A cameraman who has disappeared into thin air is only seen on archive footage. A mother reassures her child that mommy should not be considered a criminal if people put her behind bars. A poet who ostentatiously sewed together his lips went into exile in Norway after being arrested for “a rebellious poem”. There, he found out that Belarus remains inseparable from him.