If you never lived under a communist regime or one of today’s mutations and always wondered how a communist-style smear campaign might look, consider the wonderful investigative work aired this week by Belarusian state television (BT).

After “successful” attacks on human rights activists and opposition figures in the past, this time the target for BT was the well-respected Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), which has bravely worked to defend journalists’ rights in a country ruled by a man regularly rated as one of the world’s worst enemies of the press.

In a program purporting to be investigative journalism, BT broadcast a prime-time show this past Sunday (5 February) suggesting that BAJ officials were corrupt and interested only in personal enrichment (one part is here and the other here). They had also supposedly received funds from foreign donors and failed to property register the money. The program personally went after BAJ chairwoman Zhanna Litvina, including the “expert” opinion of a psychologist that, according to Reporters Without Borders, described her as “a narcissistic person driven by ‘disgust, contempt and anger’ and inclined to ‘hide the truth.’ ” 

Documents were waved about “proving” these allegations, including a letter allegedly from a former BAJ member who could no longer keep silent about the organization’s sins. The letter referred to “classified documents from the British embassy” about a grant for a project to improve media legislation, documents that were also shown on air.

In the worst propaganda style, the report was interrupted by a segment on children in the Belarusian pediatric oncology center, waiting for expensive organ transplants. As one Belarusian told me, “They have shown scenes from the oncology center to make the impression that BAJ is laundering money while children are dying.”

Litvina and her colleagues have spent the last few days defending the organization’s reputation.

“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.”

And from the statement on BAJ’s website:

“From its very foundation, BAJ deals with the protection of journalists’ rights and promoting standards of journalism. Having watched the yesterday’s video on BT, I understand that those people working with the company need to learn the basics of journalism from the start”.

The worry now is that the report will be used a pretext to go after BAJ for financial irregularities, preparing the ground among the greater public for arrests along the lines of what happened to Ales Byalyatski, head of the Vyasna human rights organization. He was sentenced in November to four and a half years in prison for tax evasion.

As Litvina put it,

“We can notice a logical chain here. The political opposition were the first to face the strongest wave of discrediting. Human rights activists were the second to meet this wave. Now it’s the turn for independent journalists and the BAJ.”

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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