Freedom of media and sustainable development — Belarus

06.02.2023 Source: БАЖ

The achievement of sustainable development goals in Belarus is undoubtedly impossible without independent media and journalists allowing the general public access to information of public interest. However, the state of media freedom and the right of access to information in Belarus is deteriorating year by year. The 2020 presidential election period has been a critical milestone that launched a large-scale policy process against independent media, accompanied by official attempts to control all information dissemination, as well as suppress dissent.

In July 2022, Belarus prepared its second Voluntary National Review on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, this review does not address the target on public access to information, despite the fact that global indicator 16.10.2 is at Level I, which demonstrates the priority of reporting on it.  However, officially published data reports the following statistics for national indicators in relation to target 16.10:

  • Number of confirmed cases of killing, abduction, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists and associated media representatives, trade unionists and human rights defenders in the last 12 months - (0).[1]

In the context of this indicator, it should be stressed that the official statistics do not correspond to the actual state of affairs. According to the monitoring data of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (hereinafter - BAJ), 481 cases of arbitrary detention of media representatives were recorded in 2020[2], 113 cases were recorded in 2021[3], and 43 cases were recorded in 2022[4].

  • Number of legal acts providing guarantees of citizens' access to information (1).[5]

Regarding this indicator, it seems necessary to note that the current Law "On Information, Informatization and Information Protection" does not provide sufficient and effective legislative guarantees to citizens, while the necessary policies and other institutional measures to implement SDG 16.10 have not been adopted in Belarus.

Investigative journalism in Belarus

Investigative journalism in Belarus, which is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, faces numerous challenges - including the risk of criminal prosecution of journalists, state reprisals against media outlets and forced relocation of media representatives.

  • the case of Dzianis Ivashyn

Dzianis Ivashyn[6] is a Belarusian investigative journalist and political prisoner sentenced to 13 years and 1 month of imprisonment. Ivashyn is known for his investigations into the influence of the "Russian world" on Belarus and Syria, the scandalous development in Kuropaty, as well as the transition of former Ukrainian Berkut officers into the security services of Belarus. Dzianis Ivashyn was charged under Articles 356 (treason against the state) and 179 (illegal collection and dissemination of private information) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus for his professional activities.

  • the case of Siarhei Satsuk

Siarhei Satsuk[7]  is a Belarusian investigative journalist and political prisoner sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment. One of Satsuk's most high-profile investigations, after the publication of which he faced problems with the official authorities, was the material about large-scale corruption in the medical industry in Belarus. Siarhei Satsuk was charged under Articles 130 (incitement of enmity or discord), 426 (exceeding power or official authority) and 430 (bribery) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus for his professional activities.

  • Independent media publishing investigative journalism

In Belarus, a number of independent media outlets that publish investigative journalism have also faced state repression following 2020. For instance, the largest media portal TUT BY[8] was forced to cease its activities due to state harassment in the form of numerous searches of the editorial office, blocking of the website, criminal cases against its staff, deprivation of media status and recognition as an 'extremist organisation'. Another illustrative example in this regard is the BELSAT TV channel[9], whose website is blocked on the territory of Belarus, with employees facing administrative and criminal prosecution. Moreover, BELSAT is officially recognised as an "extremist formation" and its content as "extremist materials" whose distribution is prohibited.

Details of other reprisals against independent media outlets can be found at the following link.[10]

  • Belarusian Investigative Center

Belarusian Investigative Center is a project launched in 2019 that brings together investigative journalists and aims to expose corruption schemes and violations of the law at the highest level. Since April 2022, Belarusian Investigative Center has been a member of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Centre (OCCRP). After a search of the project's  office in 2021 and an active crackdown in the media space, the project team was forced to relocate and continue to conduct investigations from abroad.

Challenges for independent media and journalists in Belarus

  1. Key challenges in the field of policies and other institutional measures.

Currently, the main challenges for independent journalism in Belarus in the field of politics and other institutional measures include criminal prosecution of media representatives, administrative detentions and searches of independent journalists, application of "anti-extremist" legislation, administrative measures to restrict access to information, as well as difficulties for journalists to access information held by the state and a clear disadvantage compared to state-owned media.  It should be emphasised that all of the above challenges are compounded by the lack of effective remedies in Belarus, which could allow independent journalists and media to defend their rights and interests.

  • criminal prosecution of journalists

To date, according to BAJ monitoring data, 31 media representatives in Belarus have been subjected to criminal proceedings and remain behind bars. The maximum sanction applied to blogger and freelance consultant Ihar Losik[11] is 15 years of imprisonment in a high-security colony. Each of the cases of criminal prosecution of media representatives is politically motivated while among the incriminated articles predominate Article 342 (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them), Article 361-1 (establishment or participation in an extremist formation), Article 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities), Article 357 (plot or other actions aimed at seizing state power) and Article 130 (inciting hatred or discord) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus.

  • administrative detention and searches of journalists

As mentioned above, according to BAJ monitoring, there were 481 cases of arbitrary detention of media representatives in 2020, 113 cases were recorded in 2021, and 43 cases of detention and 55 searches occurred in 2022. It should be stressed that the decrease in the number of arbitrary detentions does not indicate a softening of state repression, but is caused by a decrease in the number of journalists staying in Belarus (high number of media representatives were forced to re-locate for security reasons or to quit their professional activities).

  • application of "anti-extremist” legislation

Anti-extremist legislation is one of the key tools of the state's struggle against independent media and is actively used as a basis for restricting access to independent media content as well as for prosecuting any involvement in their activities. According to the BAJ monitoring, in 2022, 9 independent media outlets were labelled as 'extremist formations', the media portal TUT BY was declared an 'extremist organisation', while around 1500 web resources were recognised as 'extremist materials'. It should be emphasized that this has led to mass prosecution of internet audience of independent media for distribution of "extremist" media content.

  • administrative measures to restrict access to information on the Internet

One of the key instruments used by the state to control information is an arbitrary restriction of access to Internet resources. According to official data, in January-November 2022 alone, the state restricted access, fully or partially, to 3 002 Internet resources. It should be stressed that the blocking of Internet resources in Belarus is done out-of-court and is within the competence of the Ministry of Information and the Prosecutor's Office.

  • сhallenges to journalists' access to information

In the course of their professional activities, Belarusian independent journalists constantly face exclusion from public court hearings and official events, as well as unjustified refusals to provide information when contacting state bodies. Moreover, it should be highlighted that state authorities do not seek to proactively post public information offline and online, the publication of which is not directly provided for in the law.

  • the disadvantage in comparison to state media

In order to establish total control over information, the state uses both legal and political methods to maintain a monopoly over the propaganda media in the fields of radio, television and print media. It should be stressed that the management staff of state media, who are appointed on a non-competitive and non-transparent basis, must show absolute loyalty to the authorities. Moreover, state-owned media are directly supported from the state budget and have other financial preferences, which is clear evidence of discrimination in access to financial support compared to non-state media. Moreover, since 2020, the authorities have deprived independent print media of the possibility to print and distribute their content, reinforcing the monopoly of the state-owned press.

  1. Key challenges in the field of legislative regulation.

As noted earlier, the legislative framework in Belarus allows for arbitrary criminal and administrative liability for media representatives. However, in addition to this, special attention should be paid to the legal acts regulating the media and access to information in Belarus.

  • Law "On Mass Media"

The main legal act regulating the activities of media and journalists in Belarus is the Law "On Mass Media". The main deficiences of the Law include:

  • lack of necessary guarantees for journalists

Firstly, it should be emphasized that the Law uses a narrow interpretation of the term "journalist", referring only to those persons who have contractual relations with legal entities that have official media status (media status in Belarus is granted on a permissive basis). Thus, journalists of unregistered media and freelancers are not considered as "journalists" within the meaning of the law and cannot enjoy their guarantees.

Secondly, another significant problem is the need for accreditation, provided for by the Law,  which significantly limits the access of independent journalists and media to information. First of all, only a person who would be considered a "journalist" within the meaning of the law could apply for accreditation. Moreover, accreditation in fact gives state agencies the right to permit a journalist to cover their activities.

Thirdly, although the right of journalists to request and receive information from State bodies is enshrined, there are no real guarantees for the implementation of this right in the legislation. In particular, the Law does not take into account the category of "public interest" in the context of determining the legality of providing journalists with information.

  • a blanket ban on information

The Law provides for a wide range of information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in the media and on Internet resources. First of all, it is necessary to emphasize that the list of this information is open, since Article 38 of the Law contains the vague wording "other information the dissemination of which is likely to harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus or is prohibited by other legislative acts". Secondly, as a result of innovations in 2021, it is also prohibited to publish the results of public opinion polls related to the socio-political situation in the country, conducted without obtaining specific accreditation. Moreover, hyperlinks to materials and messages containing information the dissemination of which is prohibited are also forbidden.

  • arbitrary restriction of access to media content

Firstly, the Law gives the Ministry of Information, as well as the Prosecutor's Office, broad powers to arbitrarily restrict access to any Internet resource. Secondly, the Ministry of Information can extrajudicially suspend the activities of a media outlet for up to three months. Thirdly, the Ministry of Information is also capable of terminating a mass media outlet both judicially and non-judicially.

It should be emphasized that in all cases the grounds on which the media may be subjected to these liability measures are excessively broad and open up unlimited opportunities for abuse.

  • Law "On Information, Informatization and Information Protection"

The key legal act regulating the issue of access to information in Belarus is the Law "On Information, Informatization and Information Protection. It should be highlighted that according to the Global Right to Information Rating[12] this Law received only 38 points out of 150 possible, which is obviously a  low  rate. Among the key problems of the Law are the following:

  • Lack of an effective mechanism for appealing the refusal of a state body to provide information.

  • Wide restrictions on access to information.

According to the Law, in Belarus there are "publicly accessible information" (information access to which may not be restricted) and "information the provision and (or) dissemination of which is restricted". However, it should be emphasized that the list of categories of publicly accessible information is closed, while the list of restricted information is not only excessively broad, but also is open and may be supplemented by regulatory legal acts of various levels.

  • Lack of an independent authorized body to control access to information.

Key findings and recommendations

The above data clearly shows that independent media in Belarus today are one of the most vulnerable groups from the point of view of the risk of political persecution. Independent journalists and media outlets face a whole range of legislative and political challenges that create extremely serious obstacles for them to carry out their professional activities. In connection with the general state of media freedom in Belarus, the situation of investigative journalists, who play an important role in the context of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, remains extremely difficult, and two investigative journalists are currently political prisoners.

Therefore, BAJ can identify the following key recommendations that can contribute to the implementation of SDG Target 16.10 in Belarus:

  • to release investigative journalists Dzianis Ivashyn, Siarhei Satsuk, and other media representatives who remain behind bars immediately;

  • to stop the practice of arbitrary detentions and searches of journalists, bringing them to administrative and criminal responsibility for their professional activities and other obstruction of their work by law enforcement bodies;

  • to stop the practice of applying "anti-extremist legislation" to independent media and journalists, as well as their audiences;

  • to stop the practice of arbitrarily restricting access to Internet resources, as well as suspending and terminating the activities of media outlets;

  • to stop the practice of unjustifiably denying journalists access to information;

  • to end the policy of monopolizing state-owned media and to create transparent and competitive mechanisms for financing the media;

  • to undertake legislative reform in the field of freedom of the media and access to information in accordance with international standards of freedom of expression;

  • to create effective legal remedies allowing journalists and media to protect their legitimate rights and interests.