Reporters Without Borders condemns a state TV attempt to smear the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a Reporters Without Borders partner organization and International Federation of Journalists affiliate that is the country’s only autonomous association of media workers.
The protection and support that BAJ provides to independent journalists and its constant defence of the freedom to report news and information have never been so valuable as in the past year, when the government has cracked down in an unprecedented manner on Belarusian civil society.
“This cannot be taken lightly,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We are very disturbed. A few months ago, a similar smear campaign ‘prepared’ public opinion for a judicial offensive against the human rights NGO Vyasna. Its president, Ales Bialiatski, a vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), was sentenced to four and a half years in prison after a travesty of a trial based on similar accusations. Now this sickening smear of BAJ is targeting the very core of independent journalism in Belarus.”
On 5 February, the state TV broadcaster BT’s first channel broadcast what it described as an “investigative report” about BAJ, accusing it of fraud, embezzlement and illegally receiving foreign funding. It described BAJ co-founder and president Zhanna Litvina as a narcissistic person driven by “disgust, contempt and anger” and inclined to “hide the truth.”
The report was based above all on an anonymous letter purportedly written by a former BAJ member accusing its leadership of being motivated solely by the “lure of gain” and referring to “secret British embassy documents,” which were shown on screen and which bore neither signatures nor official stamps. The report also showed footage of BAJ members, filmed by a hidden camera.
Litvina told Reporters Without Borders that the letters were forged. “This biased and one-sided KGB-style report (...) was probably designed to humiliate me and to undermine me, to create confusion and to undermine the organization.” BAJ’s lawyers plan to bring a defamation suit against the TV station, she said, adding: “New attacks are possible, Belarus is an unpredictable country.”
Founded in 1995, BAJ organizes training for journalists, provides them with free legal aid when they are prosecuted and promotes ethical reporting. It has more than 1,000 members and has five provincial offices as well as its headquarters in the capital.
Litvina has worked for many media critical of the government including Belarusskaya Maladziozhnaya (a radio station which the authorities closed in 1994), 102.2 (a radio station closed in 1995), Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s local service and Radio Racyja, another independent station.
Harassment of independent journalists and human rights activists has intensified since dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed “reelection” as president in December 2010. With more than 100 journalists arrested and 34 sentenced to imprisonment, 2011 was a black year in Belarus although the independent media resisted.
Largely as result of this harassment, Belarus has fallen in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is now ranked 168th out of 179 countries.