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Newspaper under imminent threat of closure as appeals court upholds defamation verdict, high damages

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a 5 March 2008 CPJ letter to Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko:

In Belarus, libel laws are being used to cripple independent newspapers

His Excellency Aleksandr Lukashenko
President of Belarus
38, Karl Marx St
Minsk, 220016
Belarus
Via facsimile: + 375 (17) 222 0610 or +375 (17) 226 0610

Your Excellency,

As an independent, nonpartisan organization defending press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists would like to draw to your attention your government's selective use of politically motivated civil libel lawsuits against critics. Intolerant officials punish what remains of Belarus' independent media with lawsuits that result in exorbitant fines, further debilitating the outlets. Since 1999, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented such targeted attacks against at least five independent and opposition newspapers.

One such closure is imminent. A city court slammed the independent weekly Novy Chas in Minsk in December with a heavy fine for allegedly defaming a senator in an article. Because it is unable to pay the fine, the paper is about to shut down.

Senator Nikolai Cherginets filed a defamation lawsuit against Novy Chas' publisher, Vremya Novostei, and its reporter Aleksandr Tamkovich. The suit stemmed from Tamkovich's critical profile of Cherginets published in the September 24, 2007, issue of Novy Chas, the paper's editor in chief, Aleksei Korol, told CPJ.

The profile, titled "General-Senator Nikolai Cherginets," criticized the politician's literary credentials (Cherginets is also a writer) as well as his record of Soviet military service in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s and his rise in Belarusian politics.

According to the filed claim, obtained by CPJ, Cherginets felt that Tamkovich's article damaged his "honor, dignity, and business reputation as a writer, politician, and general-senator." In compensation for the alleged moral damage, Cherginets demanded 500 million Belarusian rubles (US$231,000) from Vremya Novostei and 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$46,000) from Tamkovich. Cherginets also called for seizure of the property and financial assets of both the paper and the author - in the amount of the sought compensation - as a guarantee that the damages would be covered.

At a preliminary court hearing on December 5, Novy Chas offered Cherginets its space to publish his own opinion on the issues discussed in Tamkovich's article - the senator's representative rejected the offer, news agency BelaPAN reported at the time.

Concerned by the case, CPJ called on Cherginets on December 17 to drop charges against the newspaper and its reporter. Two days later, the senator's representative announced in court that Cherginets had lowered the damages amount. On December 20, Pervomaiski Court in Minsk ruled that Vremya Novostei should pay 50 million Belarusian rubles and Tamkovich 1 million rubles. The same court rejected Vremya Novostei's request to have Tamkovich's article analyzed to determine whether it actually contained defamatory language.

An appeals court upheld the verdict on February 11. If the paper fails to pay the damages by March 7, the Minsk City Court ruled, Novy Chas's bank account and all assets would be seized, which will result in the paper's forced closure.

The predicament of Novy Chas is not an isolated case. In 1999, the newspaper Naviny was closed down after State Secretary of the Council of Security Viktor Sheiman won a defamation suit against the staff; the paper had to pay about 10 billion Belarusian rubles (US$50,000 at the time) to the plaintiff - an exorbitant amount by Belarusian standards.

The independent newspaper Nasha Svaboda was forced to close down in August 2002 when it was convicted of libeling Anatol Tozik, the chairman of the Belarusian State Control Committee, and fined 100 million Belarusian rubles (US$55,000), which it was unable to pay. In 2005 alone, a Minsk court handed down verdicts of guilty to the oppositions daily Narodnaya Volya in three separate civil defamation trials on the claims of three different government officials. The paper was ordered to pay a total of 115 million Belarusian rubles (US$53,500) in damages - a sum that almost bankrupt it.

In 2006, the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorusii was obliged to pay Aleksandr Shpilevsky, chairman of the State Customs Committee, 60 million Belarusian rubles (US$27,000). While the paper did not fold, it was severely hampered.

With the national monthly average salary equaling 735,000 Belarusian rubles (US$350), according to Belarusian official data, all these sums are heavily restrictive to the work of the independent press in Belarus; and in some cases resulting in the final closure of publications.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is extremely concerned about the discriminatory use of civil libel laws by government officials to target and destroy the handful of independent publications remaining in Belarus. We urge you to address this matter with Senator Cherginets and press him to scrap his suit against Novy Chas and its publisher, Vremya Novostei. We urge you to allow the Belarusian press corps to do its job as a watchdog of power without fear of reprisal.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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