Abolition of the death penalty. How can journalists help?
Belarus is the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union, which still practices the death penalty. This fact has been repeatedly stressed by the Belarusian media. Over the past 17 years, about 400 executions have been carried out, only one case is known when a death sentence was replaced by imprisonment. Who must fight against the death penalty: human rights defenders, journalists, or the Belarusian society? What role is played by journalists? Palina Stsepanenka, a writer and an activist of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty”, tells about the issue of the death penalty and the “place for the press” in an interview for Radio Racyja.
Palina Stsepanenka: The problem is that in the Belarusian society today has no dialogue on this topic. It is not discussed, there are a lot of people who just do not know that we have the death penalty. This topic should be discussed by both human rights defenders and journalists who should inform the public and initiate this dialogue. There is, of course, a problem that human rights defenders do not have access to the state media. And they have to do it through street protests, which sometimes end in detentions.
RR: Ms. Palina, do you think that may overestimate the role of journalists in this conversation with the community? Sometimes it is also necessary to state the fact that the independent media have small audience coverage, and the state media simply tend to ignore the issue of the death penalty.
Palina Stsepanenka: This topic should be in the media, it started back in the 90s. The first thorough article was in the newspaper Svaboda, when it was edited by Ihar Hermenchuk. And this is one of those topics that people do not like to discuss. It’s uneasy, it terrible, it is unpleasant, but it is necessary to raise the subject because, as experience shows, a man who does not know that we have the death penalty, thinks about it only when it affects him personally. I have a good example. Sviatlana Zhuk, mother of Andrei Zhuk, who was executed in 2011, during the filming of the movie “Cause of Death –“ (because the death certificates of executed people do not specify the cause of death, but only a dash), always tried to remember how she voted in the 1996 referendum.
RR: What did she think about this topic then?
Palina Stsepanenka: She was just sitting with her head in her hands and saying: “I cannot remember how I voted then”. We were silent. But it seemed like that she voted “yes”. The death penalty is a measure of justice. But no one thinks how it is carried out, and what is happening on the death row.
RR: The topic is uneasy for journalists, why? Because nobody wants to take sides, to protect a man who is believed to be a criminal?
Palina Stsepanenka: This aspect also exists, but there is also a problem of getting this information, as it has always been closed. We remember that in the Stalin era these executions were always carried out at night. Because the people executed the death penalties, these professional executioners, realized that they were killers. They realized it better than the supporters of the death penalty who shout that all gays and pedophiles should be executed. People who are actually holding this gun clearly realize what they are doing. And this topic is closed. There is a veil of mystery around it. And Aleh Alkayeu told us, (former head of the Minsk detention center, who, due to his former duties, attended the execution of death sentences, the author of the book “Firing Squad” - Ed.), when we went to him to shoot the film “Departed on Sentence”, which is another phrase that replaces the word “execution”. A standard phrase. That is, even the word “shooting” is not pronounced. And he said that your interests will break against the walls of the prison. This is a closed issue. It is not discussed by the judges who hand down the sentences or the people who execute them, and no one else involved in this topic.
RR: If we are talking about society, then I, as a journalist, may influence public opinion, which prevails today in Belarus. But you, as a human rights activist, with which arguments would advise me to go to the people, what shall I tell them? Why should we be against the death penalty today?
Palina Stsepanenka: All arguments against the death penalty have long been known, as well as the arguments for it. As long as there exists mankind, there is the death penalty, and the main arguments were formulated by Cesare Beccaria back in the 18th century, and remain unchanged until our time. We need to communicate to people things like there are people whom the state gives, in fact, a right to kill. Professional executioners who kill in the name of the state. We need to talk that not only criminals are executed, but there is also punishment for political views. We must not forget about mass repressions. It is also the death penalty. We sometimes separate the death penalty from executions in Kurapaty. We must remember that the death penalty is torture for the relatives of the executed person. The body is not given to relatives for burial, and the time of execution is not reported. And these people constantly live in a state when it can happen every minute. We must remember about a miscarriage of justice, too.
RR: I also wanted to say that we should remember that not everyone can believe the court today, and it seems that Belarus has an example when an innocent man was executed.
Palina Stsepanenka: Rights, this is a classic example when for the murders committed by maniac Mikhasevich 13 people were convicted, and one of them, Tsiarenia was shot. And more, the death penalty is ineffective because it has been proven that in the time of the offense the person does not think about the death penalty, and in our situation he very often does not even know that it exists in our country.
RR: If we continue talking about the Belarusian society, do you think that today it is ready to discuss the topic of the death penalty? Or ready to listen to the arguments, which we have just enumerated?
Palina Stsepanenka: Yes, it’s ready for debate. This is shown by every movie or every project that is associated with the death penalty, causing a lot of comments both “for” and “against”. Society is interested in this topic, but making a decision to abolish the death penalty is not a matter of a referendum, it should be decided by political elites. There is another argument against the death penalty – it prevents Belarus’ movement towards the civilized world, to Europe, where they abandoned the death penalty a long time ago.
RR: You mentioned comments in online forums. Can you describe the atmosphere of these comments? What are they like?
Palina Stsepanenka: Very often, they can be aggressive. When people just throw out their aggression in the forum. And they are, if you keep track of them, impress with their standardization. They keep saying: “impale him”, “pedophile” and “in the central square”. In positive comments, they write that this is murder, that it does not solve anything. Very important is the religious argument: “Thou shalt not kill!”
RR: For the past 17 years in Belarus, there were about 400 executions. What, in your opinion, prevents Belarus from abolishing the death penalty?
Palina Stsepanenka: The question is linked to the general human rights situation in Belarus. Any totalitarian regime retains the death penalty, which, on the one hand, is used to scare people, but on the other hand, shows that the state is strong and can protect every citizen from the offender. This problem should be covered by a variety of means, it is necessary to show it through art, too. You can find many films on the website of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”. Now we are working on the project “Six Arguments against the Death Penalty”.