BELARUS: Victory for Religious Freedom Reporting or Happy Accident?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 20 September 2002

Three journalists sentenced to heavy fines for travelling to the village of Pahranichny near the town of Hrodna in western Belarus to report on the authorities' bulldozing of the newly-built Autocephalous Orthodox church at the beginning of August have had their sentences overturned on appeal. Andrzej Pachobut from the Belarus-based Polish paper Glos znad Niemna reported that both he and his journalistic colleagues - Irina Charniauka (from the paper Bielaruski chas) and Andzej Pisalnik (from Dien and who also contributes to the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita) - had been completely exonerated by the court of Hrodna's Lenin district at a hearing on 30August. "We don't have to pay the fines, but the most important thing is that we have been vindicated," Pachobut told Keston from Hrodna on 20September. However, he said this could hardly be seen as a blow for free reporting of religious liberty violations. "It was more of a happy accident."

Pahranichny, where Father Yan Spasyuk lived and built his church, is located just a few kilometres (miles) from Belarus' western border with Poland. Belarus still maintains a Soviet-style closed border zone on its frontiers with Poland and Lithuania, requiring special permits for those from outside the area to be allowed to visit. Transit visits of up to three hours are permitted with a lower level of permission.

The three journalists were arrested at the church on the evening of 1 August as work to bulldoze it began and were held overnight before being fined by a local police officer (see KNS 7 August 2002). He had accused them of travelling to a border zone without permission, accusations they strenuously denied. "We had letters from our editorial offices declaring that this was awork trip, allowing us to enter the border zone," Pachobut declared. Despite this, they were each fined 100,000 Belarusian roubles (some 55 US dollars,57 euros or 36 pounds sterling) for "having crossed a frontier zone"(Article 184 of the administrative code).

Pachobut had already been fined 50,000 roubles on 26 July for trying to report the authorities' first attempt to demolish the church. He told Keston that this punishment was likewise annulled on 30 August.

"I believe that had we been tried in Berestavitsa district we would not have been vindicated," he declared. "Here at least we were subject to Hrodna judges. The local authorities in Berestavitsa district can't influence them. That's why I can't see this vindication as a symbol for those who write about religious freedom." Other journalists fined for travelling to cover the church destruction and who failed to challenge their fines in court have been required to pay those fines.

Pachobut's belief was shared by the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). "We think this decision was a very happy accident rather than a victory for religious freedom reporting," Ilona Urbanovich-Sauka, spokesperson for the association, told Keston from Minsk on 20 September. She said the BAJ's legal experts believed the acquittals were easier because the journalists had faced administrative rather than criminal charges. "Secondly, the decision taken by a police officer violated the law in a very direct and vivid way." She said the court was solely concerned with whether the journalists had violated the border zone and not with the subject of their articles. She added that the personality of the judge was likely also to have been a factor.

Pachobut told Keston that as he works for the independent, non-government press, he is free to write about religious liberty violations, something that is not possible for those who work for government publications. Urbanovich-Sauka agreed, stressing that independent publications were much freer than those under state control. "Since religious diversity is apolitical issue in Belarus, the practice of self-censorship on this is general in the state-run press."

Urbanovich-Sauka pointed out that Belarusian law bans publications from writing about unregistered religious, political and other organisations (something used against the paper Nasha Niva that published a message from Father Spasyuk) or from publishing material inciting religious intolerance. (END)