January 8, 2015

Belarusian publisher on trial for publishing images of police brutality


President Lukashenko, pictured with a buddy. Image via Wikipedia.

President Lukashenko, pictured with a buddy. Image via Wikipedia.

While police brutality was unquestionably one of the most talked-about issues of 2014 in the United States, it continues to be a controversial topic of discussion abroad as well, especially in countries with stringent free speech laws.

The Guardian recently reported on the ongoing trial of Ihar Lohvinau, a Belarusian publisher and bookstore owner currently being sued by the Information Ministry for selling books without a registration.

[Lohvinau] faces a heavy fine and the closure of a store described by the International Publishers Association as “a vital hub for the country’s fragile literary community”. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the bookshop filed an application for state registration eight times, “but all applications were declined under obviously empty pretexts”.

And if you’re wondering; yes, Lohvinau has appropriately referred to this bureaucratic pushback as “kafkaesque”.

The current trial comes in addition to a previous trial in 2013, mounted after Lohvinau’s publishing license was revoked “for gross violations of the licensing legislation.” The Index on Censorship reported that the “violations” centered on a single book Lohvinau published in 2011, a collection of the year’s award-winning photojournalism which included photographs of bleeding protestors taken during a police crackdown on 2011’s peaceful demonstrations against the current president Alexander Lukashenko. It was these images that led to the book in question being seized and pulped, despite the fact that the licensing regulations did not apply when the book was published.

“The Ministry of Information interprets the licensing law too broadly; the licensing regulations in Belarus contain no reference to any ‘extremist materials’. Besides, the photo album in question was published long before it was considered ‘extremist’, it was sold freely in book shops, and the publisher bares no responsibility for the content of it or any later court decisions,” says Andrei Bastunets, a media lawyer and a Vice Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Lohvinau filed suit against the government to have his publishing license reinstated, but lost; he then relocated his legal business to nearby Lithuania, but ran up against Belarusian authorities again after an “unscheduled audit” reported his retail registration status and led to the most recent suit.

The International Publisher’s Association has voiced their support for Lohvinau, awarding him their Freedom to Publish Prize in 2014 and underscoring the importance of his publishing and bookselling work in the context of ongoing government repression.

Belarus is justifiably referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship. The Belarusian language is frequently demonised as the language of dissidents and opponents by President Lukashenka’s regime, and the fact that Lohvinau titles often deal with everyday life in Belarus has been perceived as political criticism and opposition…The withdrawal of Lohvinau Publishing House’s licence is a political attempt to stifle a creative and courageous publisher and to silence the voice of freedom and openmindedness in Belarus. Ihar Lohvinau has vowed to continue to publish important works in Belarusian, as he fights both for his own justice as well as for freedom of expression.

If found guilty, Lohvinau’s bookshop can be shuttered and he is liable for a fine of 1 billion rubles, or about $75K. And writing as a member of an independent publishing house that also operates as a bookstore and has recently published a book all about governmental brutality, not to mention the one about how bureaucracy controls our lives, this hits quite close to home.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.