5 August 1998
New clampdown on press spells further repression
**For further background to legislation, see IFEX alerts and press releases
of 12, 10 and 5 June, 27 May 1998, and others**
According to the warning, "Nasha Niva" has breached this provision by using
the traditional Belarusian orthography which was current in the 1920s, but
which was cancelled by the spelling reform of 1933.
"Nasha Niva" has submitted an application to the Supreme Economic Court
contesting the grounds for the warning, and requesting the court to rule it
invalid. The court is due to examine "Nasha Niva"'s application on 12 August
The Chairman of the State Committee on the Press has indicated that if
"Nasha Niva" does not comply with the warning, the Committee has the power
to bring action in the courts. Such measures could, at some stage, result in
the newspaper's closure. Moreover, the State Committee on the Press is the
body which has the power to grant or withhold registration of newspapers and
periodicals, which must be registered in order to be able to publish.
"Nasha Niva", according to its own description, is an independent
socio-political and cultural democratic weekly, and the only independent
newspaper to publish entirely in the Belarusian language. It has a
circulation of around 5,000.
The newspaper was founded in 1906 and flourished during the cultural revival
which took place during the post-revolutionary upheaval of the 1920s. In
1991, at the end of the Soviet period, when Belarus became established as an
independent state, its publication was resumed. It is affiliated with other
cultural bodies, such as a publishing house and an archive of modern
Belarusian history. It promotes Belarusian language and culture and national
sovereignty, and uses the traditional Belarusian spelling ("tarashkevitsa")
which was used in the 1920s.
According to an appeal which "Nasha Niva" issued to the public after
receiving this warning, the traditional form of the language which the
newspaper uses has assumed the same symbolic significance as the national
white-red-white flag and coat of arms of Belarus, whereas the 1933 spelling
is identified with the symbols of the Soviet era.
Under the 1994 Constitution, Belarusian was established as the official
language (with the unrestricted use of Russian as the language of
"interethnic communication"). Under the revised Constitution, adopted in
disputed circumstances following the November 1996 referendum, Belarusian
and Russian have equal status as official languages. During the past four
years the official emblems of the state have also been changed from the
national flag and symbol adopted at independence in 1991, restoring the
symbols which were used by Belarus as a constituent republic of the Soviet
President Lukashenka has strongly promoted measures towards some form of
reunification or closer association with Russia. Such measures are
vigorously opposed by those who regard them as a retrograde step towards
re-establishing the structures of the former Soviet Union, and who believe
the future of Belarus lies in its becoming established as an independent
The provision in Article 6 of the Law on Press does not define what is the
"generally accepted form" of the language which the media must use. However,
the warning by the State Committee on the Press refers to the rules
established by the spelling reform of 1933. This reform was established by a
1933 decree of the Council of People's Commissars of the Belarusian SSR. A
later decree adopted by the Council of Ministers in 1957, "On streamlining
and partially amending the current Belarusian spelling", envisaged the use
of such spelling rules in the educational system, but said nothing about the
mass media. The provision of Article 6 which is the basis of the current
warning to "Nasha Niva" was introduced by an amendment which became
effective in January 1998 and was the first legal provision expressly to
require the press to use an approved form of the language.
As authority for its warning, the State Committee on the Press has referred
to the findings of an academician who made a linguistic analysis of one
edition of the newspaper. The academician's analysis states that the form of
language used by "Nasha Niva" would "promote illiteracy among users of the
Belarusian language." It also refers to "unacceptable moral and ethical"
connotations of this form of the language, alluding to its use by fascist
sympathizers during the German Occupation from 1941 to 1944. The analysis
also makes unfavourable comments about the apparent "political outlook" of
the edition of the newspaper which was examined.
In June 1998 -- after the warning was issued to "Nasha Niva" -- the National
Assembly approved a new law on language which was signed into law by the
President on 17 July. Article 27 of that law makes specific provision for
the language used by the mass media:
"(1) The languages of mass media ... are Belarusian and/or Russian, as well
as the languages of other nations whose people live in the republic.
(2) The media are not allowed to distort the generally approved norms of
With regard to the Law on Press, the amendment to Article 6, requiring the
media to comply with the generally accepted form of the language, was one of
several restrictive amendments which came into effect in January 1998 (for
details, see ARTICLE 19's May 1998 report, "The Noose Tightens"). Among
numerous other amendments were provisions extending the scope of the
notorious Article 5, which sets out a number of restrictions on the content
of the materials which may be published by the press, and establishing more
stringent registration requirements.
The law provides for a newspaper to be closed in the event of "multiple
breaches" of Article 5. Even before the additional restrictions introduced
by the January 1998 amendments, in November 1997, the newspaper "Svaboda"
was closed by the Supreme Economic Court for alleged infringements of
Article 5 (for further information, see ARTICLE 19's May 1998 report, "The
Noose Tightens"). A number of other newspapers have received formal warnings
for alleged breaches of these provisions.
"Nasha Niva" itself received two such warnings from the Prosecutor-General's
office in May 1997, for publishing the following:
an Easter message to the Belarusian people by the Metropolitan of the
Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (a branch of the church which is
not officially recognized), which was alleged to "incite inter-confessional
an article by a historian about the killing of civilians by Soviet
partisans during World War II, which was alleged to "infringe the morality,
honour and dignity of citizens" -- although, according to "Nasha Niva", the
facts as stated in the article were verified by the security services (KGB).
International human rights standards:
The warning issued to "Nasha Niva", or any similar measure which may be
taken by the authorities to impose such a restriction on the freedom of
expression of an independent newspaper, is in clear breach of Belarus'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, which it ratified in 1973.
Article 19(2) of the International Covenant states:
"Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall
include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all
kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in
the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."
A restriction which forbids non-state media or other bodies, or private
individuals, from using the language, and form of language, of their choice,
is a clear breach of this provision. While in a number of countries, for
practical purposes, governments have specified an official form of the
language for use by state or official bodies, any such restriction on
non-state bodies is a clear violation of the internationally protected right
to freedom of expression.
The UN Human Rights Committee, the body established under the Covenant for
monitoring states' compliance with their obligations under that Treaty,
considered the question of freedom of expression and language in 1993, in
the case of a claim of a breach of Article 19 submitted by English-speakers
in a predominantly French-speaking part of Canada. The Committee made the
general observation that
"[a] state may choose one or more official languages, but it may not
exclude, outside the spheres of public life, the freedom to express oneself
in a language of one's choice."
It is clear that the freedom to express oneself in the language of one's
choice also includes the form of that language.
These restrictions, by obstructing "Nasha Niva" and its readers from
communicating in the language -- and the form of language -- of their
choice, are in clear breach of those international obligations.
While Article 19(3) of the International Covenant permits certain
restrictions on freedom of expression, the permissible restrictions are very
tightly defined and must meet a strict three-part test:
First, any restriction must be provided by law. The European Court of
Rights, in commenting on the very similar provision in the European
Convention, has stated that this means a restriction must be "adequately
accessible" and foreseeable, that is, "formulated with sufficient precision
to enable the citizen to regulate his conduct."
Second, the restriction must serve one of the specific purposes stated in
the treaty, that is: respect of the rights and reputations of others; the
protection of national security or of public order (ordre public); or
protection of public health or morals.
Third, any restriction must be necessary (or, in the words of the European
Convention, "necessary in a democratic society"). The European Court has
ruled that this notion of "necessity" requires a demonstrable "pressing
social need"; that the restriction must be proportionate to the legitimate
aim pursued; and that relevant and sufficient reasons must be given to
justify the restriction.
All of these three elements together must apply if any particular
restriction is to meet the test required by international law. Moreover, as
an overriding consideration, the UN Human Rights Committee has stated, in
its General Comment on Article 19 of the Covenant, that
"when a state party imposes certain restrictions on the exercise of freedom
of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself."
The arguments that have been used in an attempt to justify the authorities'
requirement that "Nasha Niva" comply with the official spelling rules do not
in any way meet these criteria.
Send appeals to authorities:
urging them to do the following:
The State Committee on the Press should withdraw the warning which it has
issued to "Nasha Niva" on this matter
The Belarusian authorities should not take any other steps, now or in the
future, with a view to compelling "Nasha Niva" to adopt any particular form
of the language, or to penalize it for using a form of the language which is
not officially approved
The government should revise Article 6 of the Law on Press -- as well as
making essential revisions to numerous other provisions of that law -- to
bring the Law on Press into line with Belarus's international human rights
obligations, which the Belarusian government undertook to do in its
statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights in April 1998
Mr Mikhail Padgainy, Chairman, State Committee on the Press
Pr. Masherova 11, 220617
Minsk, Republic of Belarus
Fax: +375 17 223 34 35
President Alexander Lukashenka
220010 g. Minsk, pl. Nezavisimosti,
Republic of Belarus
Fax: +375 172 23 58 25 / 26 06 10
Fax: +375 172 22 38 72 / 22 32 84
Mr Ivan Antonovich, Minister of Foreign Affairs
220030 g. Minsk, Ul. Lenina, 19,
Republic of Belarus
Fax: +375 17 227 45 21
and to the Belarus embassy or other Belarusian diplomatic representation in
For further information, or for a copy of ARTICLE 19's previous papers on
Belarus, please contact Ilana Cravitz at ARTICLE 19, 33 Islington High
Street, London N1 9LH, tel: +44 171 278 92 92; fax: +44 171 713 13 56;