Mapping Media Freedom correspondent Volha Siakhovich spoke to Andrei Bastunets, chairpersion of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, about the state of press freedom in Belarus.
Belarusian authorities were busy in 2015: the government introduced new laws aimed at restricting media outlets and distributors; freelance journalists contributing to foreign media outlets found themselves facing prosecution; and websites publishing material that “may harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus” were extrajudicially blocked.
President Aleksandr Lukashenko may have won his fifth consecutive election on 11 October, but this also raised concerns. Observers noted the electoral process failed to meet certain international standards, including equal media access for candidates, highlighting the pressure media workers find themselves under to comply with tightening government control.
Andrei Bastunets, chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, spoke to Mapping Media Freedom Volha Siakhovich about the country’s freedom of expression climate.
Volha Siakhovich: How would you describe the situation with media freedom in Belarus in 2015?
Andrei Bastunets: Press freedom has never been easy in Belarus. The country has been ranked 157th out in 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders for some years, which is the worst position among all European countries. We can also see the deterioration of the situation with press freedom and freedom of expression as a whole at the systemic level, with the further tightening of the legal framework for activities of the media set forth by new amendments to the Law on Mass Media came into force from the beginning of 2015. They had been adopted by the Belarusian parliament unexpectedly in December 2014 without any public discussion.
Why were the amendments made?
Andrei Bastunets: The Belarusian authorities are always in keeping with the trend of stifling freedom of speech through legal restrictions. The current authorities’ actions against the media are related to the 2015 presidential election campaign and economic crises in Belarus. These circumstances have provoked the tightening of state control over the media field. It affected traditional media, the web and the distribution of print outlets. Before the election, all media had been subjected to more strict limitations.
What problems are associated with state control over the distribution of media?
Andrei Bastunets: In accordance with new legal provisions all media outlets distributors (except for editorial boards) have been obliged to submit to the ministry of information the required information for their incorporation into the State Register until 1 July 2015. Any non-registered distributors’ activity is considered illegal. The ministry of information has various penalty tools that can be applied in relation to media distributors, including the banning of their activity. The distributors are now in fact forced to monitor the content of the distributed media under threat of sanctions. That may lead to the hidden censorship.
Several independent outlets that used to sell the major part of their print-runs through different trade companies and entrepreneurs have faced a reduction in sales since a significant part of press distributors have not agreed to apply to the ministry of information of Belarus for a special permit. At the same time, the “Belposhta” and “Sayuzdruk — state-owned monopolist press distributors — continue to discriminate against Belarusian independent media refusing to co-operate with them.
What negative consequences have followed the changes to the legal regulation regarding the web?
Andrei Bastunets: There is an active interference by the ministry of information of Belarus into the web, which has remained the freest segment in the Belarusian media space. According to the adopted amendments to the Law on Mass Media and provisions of presidential decree No.6 of 28 December 2014 On Urgent Actions to Counteract Illegal Drug Trafficking, which came into force at the beginning of 2015, the ministry of information was authorised to block access to websites extrajudicially for publishing information prohibited by law. It particularly includes the information, which ‘may harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus’. Now owners of websites are obliged to monitor their web contents including comments of users.
Any state agency can contribute to the formation of a “black list” of websites. It is enough to inform the ministry of information that, in its opinion, a website violates the law. It is important to note that the process has been completely removed from the judicial sphere and has been assigned to the state agencies and the ministry of information. A procedure for judicial review of such decisions is not provided.
Not only are websites to be blocked, but blogs as well. It is a mechanism of a manifestly repressive character and it does not agree with the principles of freedom of expression. In addition, this mechanism is in the hands of the authorities who do not respect these basic principles. Now it is clear that there are no possibilities to appeal against their decisions in fact besides applications to the authorities themselves.
On 18 June 2015, the ministry of information used its power and blocked access to the website KYKY.org. As it was stated in the ministerial report, some KYKY online publications “contained derogatory statements concerning the Belarusian Victory Day public holiday, as well as the citizens of the country who celebrated it, thus… calling in question the significance of this event for the state and distorting the historical truth about the Great Patriotic War”. The editorial staff had to remove all publications that the ministerial officers disliked in order to get back online.
What were the main restrictions to media freedom facing Belarusian journalists last year?
Andrei Bastunets: We witnessed intensified persecution of freelance journalists contributing for foreign media, detentions of journalists by police, interference of the ministry of information in the work of media and the blocking of access to information for journalists. The situation remained highly unfavorable, and the intensification of pressure on journalists and media was recorded during in the course of the presidential election in Belarus in October 2015.
Although no new criminal cases were brought against journalist in 2015, Belarusian journalist Aliaksandr Alesin remains a suspect in an espionage case which has been going on since 25 November 2014, when he was first detained. Alesin is a military expert and a columnist of the weekly Belarusians and Market. At first, the journalist was charged with treason and co-operation with foreign secret services or intelligence agencies. The charge of treason was withdrawn and he was freed, but he still stands accused of co-operation with foreign intelligence services.
The reduction in the detention of journalists is a welcome trend. In 2014, 29 journalists were detained and 10 legal cases were brought under the Code of Administrative Offences. In 2015, the number of detentions dropped to 13, while 28 cases were brought under the code.
In your opinion, why do the Belarusian authorities chase freelancers co-operating with foreign media?
Andrei Bastunets: Prosecution of freelance journalists cooperating with foreign media started in 2014 was continuing in 2015. During 2015, Belarusian freelance journalists have been fined 28 times under Art. 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offences for “illegal making and distributing mass media productions”. As before, the authorities repressed the independent media workers for the mere fact of publication of their pieces in foreign media. I believe, this is explained by the desire of the Belarusian authorities to restrict the influence of foreign media as the important independent sources of information in the conditions of the lack of independent audiovisual media in Belarus. All the fined freelance journalists worked for foreign radios or TV channels broadcasting for Belarus in Belarusian of Russian languages. As the Belarusian authorities are not able to control these media, they aim to control Belarusian citizens contributing to them.
The prosecution of freelance journalists dramatically intensified at the beginning of summer 2015. At the beginning of August 2015, after the president’s promise to look into the problem during his interview to journalists of independent media, initiating such cases was stopped. However, there were no legal guarantees that the situation would not repeat after the presidential election. And in December policemen in the Gomel region drew up three reports for cooperation with foreign media. Now we are expecting that the reports will be sent to the court.
What are the current main challenges with the Belarusian Association of Journalists?
Andrei Bastunets: As always, the challenges of Belarusian Association of Journalists are the protection of journalistic freedom and free speech values through interaction with state bodies, legal assistance and international advocacy.