Belarus authorities drop libel charge against journalist
IPI welcomes closure of investigation targeting Andrzej Poczobut
By: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser
VIENNA, March 19, 2013 – The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), today welcomed news that journalist Andrzej Poczobut will not face charges for allegedly libelling Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported that the Investigative Committee in Grodno on Friday closed a pending investigation against the Polish-Belarusian journalist after determining that statements he reportedly posted online in 2012 were not defamatory.
Poczobut, a correspondent with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, faced up to five years in prison for an alleged repeat violation of a law criminalising libel of the president. He was convicted under the same law in 2011 and sentenced to three years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and he was released after spending 91 days behind bars.
The journalist was arrested for the current alleged offence in June 2012 and detained for nine days before being released on the condition that he not leave Grodno while the investigation remained ongoing. That restriction has now reportedly been lifted.
IPI Executive Board Member Piotr Stasinski, deputy editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, commented: “Dropping the criminal libel case against Andrzej Poczobut is favourable news. It allows him to move more freely within Belarus; our Belarus correspondent has been deprived of that freedom of movement for the last nine months.
“However, he still faces the risk of his three-year suspended jail sentence being enforced – leaving him at the mercy of the regime's president and his political police. Poczobut was sentenced for articles in Gazeta Wyborcza which, allegedly, offended Alexander Lukashenko. Now, any of his present and future articles may become a pretext to imprison him again.”
IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said: “The case against Mr. Poczobut clearly illustrates the chilling effect that criminal defamation laws have on journalists and how these laws affect their ability to scrutinize the actions of their state representatives. IPI calls on Belarus to initiate a process to repeal criminal defamation provisions and, until that process is completed, to refrain from using these laws, which heavily interfere with the right to press freedom. Civil defamation laws provide sufficient remedy for the publication of information that is incorrect and deemed offensive.”