April 18, 2013 - Updated on January 20, 2016

"Belarus Press Photo 2011" ruled "extremist": Triumph of censorship... and absurdity

The district court of Oshmyany in the Hrodna region of western Belarus has ordered the destruction of copies of a book ruled “extremist” – a collection of photos submitted to a prestigious 2011 competition for independent photojournalists. Reporters Without Borders, which showed its support for the “Belarus Press Photo” competition by republishing a dozen of the images on the organization’s WeFightCensorship site, expressed outrage and astonishment. “To describe the photos collected in ‘Belarus Press Photo 2011’ as “extremist” is both scandalous and deeply ridiculous,” the organization said. “This decision demonstrates the determination of Belarussian authorities on trying to impose absolute control on all means of expression and information.” The photo collection was apparently unacceptable to the Belarussian KGB intelligence service and court system because the images depicted multiple facets of Belarussian reality, the press freedom organization said. “In declaring itself shocked by the images, the KGB and the court are only making clear the disconnect between the regime and society,” the organization said. “We ask the regional court of Hrodna to reverse this shameful verdict on appeal,” Reporters Without Borders said. “That would be the only way for the court system to emerge unsullied from the ridiculous situation in which it became entangled.” Citing a Belarussian law on combating “extremism,” the district court reportedly ordered that the 41 copies of the collection in its possession be destroyed. Belarussian customs officers had seized those copies from photographers Yulia Darashkevich (Юлия Дарашкевич) and Vadim Zamirouski (Вадим Замировский), organizers of the photo competition, and contest winner, Alexander Vasyukevich (Александр Васюкович). The three had been returning by car from an exhibition of the photos in Lithuania. The books were then handed over to the KGB. The intelligence service ordered an analysis of the collection by an "expert commission" headed by the chief of the ideology department of Hrodna, which concluded that the collection had “extremist” characteristics and filed legal charges. Trial of the case began on 17 April. All defence arguments were rejected the first day. One day later, the court rendered its decision. The “Belarus Press Photo” contest is a remarkable project in a country that ranks 157th of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Since 2009, it has set itself the task of “supporting and developing photojournalism in Belarus and contributing to the freedom to exchange professional information and experiences.” Every year, dozens of photographers submit their work. A jury of Belarussian and foreign professionals (including Stanley Greene and Yuri Kozyrev this year) select the best photos, which are then published and displayed in Belarus and abroad. Some of the censored “Belarus Press Photo” work is accessible at WeFightCensorship: "Looking at reality head-on? 'Extremist', the KGB says". Photo: Obligatory watching of the evening news under the eye of the president Alexander Lukashenka. Photo by Siarhei Hudzilin (detail). Barysau, August 2010. (Grand-Prix of the Belarus Press Photo 2011)