The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, has voiced his concern over a new criminal investigation involving alleged libel of the President of Belarus in animated Internet cartoons.
The cartoons depicting President Alexander Lukashenko and top government officials in a satirical way were posted on the website of the Belarusian Third Way youth association.
On 17 August the Minsk Prosecutor's Office started an investigation under Article 367 of the Belarusian Criminal Code Libelling the President, which carries prison sentences of up to five years.
The state security service (KGB) raided the apartments in Minsk and Grodno of members of the association who posted the cartoons and confiscated 12 computers. Website administrator Andrei Obuzov and project co-ordinator Pavel Morozov were interrogated as witnesses on 16 August.
"Satires are common and popular methods of expression in all media in democratic societies," Miklos Haraszti said.
"Treating cartoons as acts of criminal libel or insult is completely against the concept of free political debate. Moreover, for the sake of uninhibited scrutiny of governments, senior officials must tolerate harsher forms of criticism than average citizens. This was stated in numerous judgements of the European Court of Human Rights."
Haraszti noted that Belarus is the only OSCE participating State which imprisons people under special provisions on defamation to protect the President. Only last year two people were convicted on similar grounds, one of whom is still in custody.
"The news about this libel case is especially worrying in the light of this month's reports of harassment of journalists related to the elections of new leadership of the Union of the Poles of Belarus," the OSCE Representative added.
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