Italy’s continued investment in Belarus masks the freedom of expression abuses that plague the country’s media. Cecilia Anesi reports
Two stories went largely unreported recently. The first is Silvio Berlusconi’s commitment to investing further Italian resources into Belarus. The second is the repression suffered by photo-reporter, Julia Doroshkevich. They seem unconnected, but Doroshkevich took pictures of the Italian prime minister’s visit to the eastern European country on 30 November 2009.
Berlusconi is the only western leader to have visited Belarus since Bill Clinton in 1994. President Alexander Lukashenka’s leadership is considered the last European dictatorship, where repression of political opponents and journalists is a daily practice — something Berlusconi is trying his best to impose in Italy. In Belarus journalists are not killed, as happens in Russia. Instead, rather cleverly, they are put under physiological pressure and occasionally, discreetly, abused violently. Berlusconi cannot impose such a regime in Italy, but he does not hide his appreciation for Lukashenka’s efforts.
“Your people love you, as shown by the election results”, Berlusconi told Lukashenka after the completion of negotiations in November. They agreed on further cooperation between the two countries in the future and signed a deal for the Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica SpA to support transport, energy, space, safety and security systems in Belarus. “A gesture of support to Belarus in the international arena”, said Lukashenka. “A new stage of partnership, the foundation of which is mutually respectful, sincere and interested in dialogue.”
In exchange, Berlusconi will be able to build a new city in the Free Economical Zone (FEZ) of Brest — dubbed “Silviograd” by his paper Libero – where Italian industries will be able to operate without any ecological restrictions. This agreement was made during a meeting of 70 Italian businessmen, Italy’s Deputy Minister of Economic Development Adolfo Urso, Belarus’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Valery Voronetsky and the Governor of Brest Konstantin Sumar on 22 February. In light of this, the story of the 29-year-old reporter Julia Doroshkevich becomes more important.
Doroshkevich, a photo reporter for the independent newspaper Nasha Niva and a member of the Belarus Association of Journalists, was detained by the police for more than three hours on 16 February. She was covering a street protest at the Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk when an unknown person in plain clothes tried to prevent her from filming the action, before two police officers pushed her into a bus and detained her for allegedly hitting an agent.
Julia was previously arrested at the end of October 2009 for taking pictures of opposition flags that appeared on one of the capital Minsk’s main streets. The newspaper Pahonia, which Julia worked for between 1997 and 2001, was also shut down because of an article that supposedly insulted President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Her boss and another journalist were arrested and sent to prison. Julia and other journalists from the paper were later detained and fined for participating in an ‘illegal demonstration’ that demanded the release of their colleagues.
Yahor Doroshkevich, Julia’s brother, explains why being a journalist in Belarus is risky: “Every arrest – and there have been a few in her career — has been associated with riot policemen that violently push the journalist on to a bus, then bring her to a police station.
“Often this operation includes harsher physical abuse such as pushes and kicks,” he added. “The ‘art’ of police brutality in Belarus has been very well mastered, to the point where violence is elegantly hidden.”
Julia was last arrested on 16 February using this exact technique. “It is worth mentioning that her arrest was not properly recorded at the time,” said Yahor. “No paperwork was filed to justify her arrest. During her detention, no information was given to friends nor relatives, colleagues or a lawyer. Moreover, her personal belongings were taken.”
Julia’s arrest and the follow-up court proceedings have been accompanied by verbal threats, Julia’s brother claimed. “Things like: ‘we will make you ineligible to leave the borders of Belarus’”, he said.
Julia was required to go to court on 24 March on the charges of refusing to disperse on demand and the assault of a police officer. However, she was then informed that her trial had been postponed to an unidentified date. She suspects the court needs more time to collect coherent evidence against her, as the current charges are riddled with contradictions that do not support the initial accusations.
“Because of the conditions I grew up in, the same very conditions in which my sister works, I became sort of immune to the news of people being arrested or tried in Belarus. At some point it stops seeming that brutal,” continued Yahor. “What happens with freedom of speech in Belarus is absolutely unacceptable. The fact that in Belarus journalists do not disappear and are not killed, as it happens in other countries, distorts the attention of western media away from Belarus. I think the assumption is “it’s not that bad there”.
“But Belarus is geographically in Europe, and shares borders with three European Union member states. The fact that journalists are not killed only means that our government has learnt how to cover up oppression. Thus our attention should always be focused on the work of those reporters who do risk their mental and physical health to tell about the most controversial aspect of social, political and economic circumstances in Belarus.”
Julia is not the only target. She herself has reported abuses against other colleagues. On 16 March, she took pictures of attacks against Index on Censorship Award nominees Charter 97, who had computers and other equipment confiscated by police.
We can assume that in a country where journalists are not even free to report a street demonstration, they would surely be prevented with any possible means from investigating serious crimes such as fraud, bribery, corruption; crimes that in the Free Economic Zone of Brest could easily take place. Yahor comments:
“There is definitely no transparency on projects like FEZ,” believes Yahor. “Similar things are happening concerning a project for a nuclear power plant. Belarus received 75 per cent of nuclear fallout after the accident in Chernobyl in 1986 and thus the population is concerned about the nuclear plant, but the voices of people and independent analysts are simply not heard.”
“Moreover there is definitely a need for transparency about projects like Berlusconi’s in Brest,” adds Yahor. “Any country seeks direct foreign investment, but as citizens we need to know how things are conducted and whether our society as a whole will receive benefits or whether it will be few high officials making money. What is most harmful to our society and to freedom of expression, and thus to journalists like Julia, is that in the eyes of Belarusian people Berlusconi did contribute to the legitimisation of the Belarusian regime. His visit, even though quick, was publicised in Belarus as a victory for Lukashenka’s diplomacy and leadership.”