Access to information
Restrictions on access to information
Belarusian legislation and law enforcement practice fail to acknowledge the journalists’ right to obtain information when they investigate matters of public interest. The Law on Mass Media does not guarantee protection of journalists’ right to receive information for their professional tasks. The Law does not single out journalists as a specific category of watchdogs who act for the benefit of the society.
The Law on Mass Media lists types of information of limited access, namely:
- data constituting state secrets, commercial, personal or any other secrecy protected by the law;
- data about organizational system, about sources, about methods, about ways, plans and results of operative and search activities;
- materials of inquiry, preliminary investigation and court proceeding prior to the termination of criminal case proceedings;
- other information envisaged by the legislation of the Republic of Belarus.
Article 16 of the Law on State Secrets splits classified information into two categories, depending on the gravity of consequences of its disclosure: state secrets and official confidential information. The state secret is information whose disclosure might lead to difficult consequences for the national security of the Republic of Belarus; disclosure of official confidential information might cause serious damage to the national security of Belarus.
According to the “List of state bodies and other organizations entitled to classify information as state secrets” (enforced by the President’s Decree dated 25.02.2011, № 68 On Some Issues in the Sphere of State Secrets), there are around 60 organizations that can restrict access to information as a state secret. Amon them are the Representative on the Issues of Religions and Nationalities, the Belarusian State Concern of Food Industry, the Belarusian State Concern on Production and Sales of Consumer Goods, State Inspection of Protection of Flora and Fauna, the National State TV and Radio Company.
Thus, the state organizations enjoy the freedom to impose restrictions on whole segments of information on their own initiative.
The list of types of limited information is open-ended, with respect to “other legislative acts”.
For example, in 2013 the Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information was amended among all with a new category – “official (service) confidential information”. The definition means data pertaining to activities of a state body or a legal entity, the distribution and (or) provision of which might inflict damage to the national security of Belarus, public order, morale, rights, freedoms and lawful interests of physical persons, including to their honor, dignity, personal and family life, and to rights and lawful interests of legal entities and not pertaining to state secrets (article 18/1).
Protection of information of state bodies
Relations between journalists and official representatives is one more issue – in fact, they are not allowed to communicate directly. Article 22/1 of the Law on Public Service envisages that these are heads of the state organizations to decide when and how their subordinates will communicate with the public. The presidential decree No65 dated February 6, 2009 sets up press services for every state bodies; press services are responsible for communication with the media. All press releases are to be approved by the press service which directly responds to the head of the organization.
Sometimes, the functions of press services are laid on ideological departments.
Accreditation as a permit for profession
Article 35 of the Law on Mass Media envisages journalists’ right to get accreditation, but in fact the procedure of obtaining accreditation is one more restriction on journalists’ work.
The Law contains only the definition of “mass medium’s journalist”, and the very term of accreditation interprets it as “the confirmation of the right of a mass medium’s journalist to cover actions organized by state bodies, political parties, other public associations, other legal persons as well as other events taking place in the territory of and outside the Republic of Belarus” (art. 1).
Besides, art. 35 envisages a mandatory accreditation for a foreign journalist who must be on-staff journalist of a mass medium. It is impossible to appeal against the denial of accreditation. For example, journalist Victor Parfionenka seven times tried to get accreditation as a journalist of the Belarusian Radio Racyja (based in Poland). Belarusian Radio Racyja as well as the satellite channel Belsat are two Poland-based outlets that consistently receive refusals of accreditation from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Besides, if people work on freelance basis without any contract with mass media, they are not legally acknowledged as journalists. They not only fail to enjoy preferences which mass medium’s journalists have (access to events, special facilities etc.), they are subject to prosecution of prosecutors and the police who use the accreditation requirement as a pretext to prevent freelancers from gathering information.
The last but not least is abuse of power by executive bodies and personnel who deny access to official events, to courtrooms, or deny public information, without the right to do so.