The UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus Miklós Haraszti presented the report on freedom of expression in Belarus to the UN General Assembly. Independence of the media in Belarus is impossible because of the permit-based nature of registration and arbitrary rules for withdrawal of licenses, says the report. The main conclusions of the report are as follows: there is no pluralism of mass media; Belarus is the only country in Europe without private all-national broadcasters; the government is a direct regulator for all types of mass media; critical expression and investigations are obstructed through criminalization of contents regarded as “harmful for the state”, with the help of the articles on criminal defamation and insult of public officials, in particular, of the president.
The presidential elections on October 11 went by with many violations of journalists’ rights, such as denial of information on electoral updates, interference into their work at and near polling stations, bans to take photo and video recording.
Several of the violations registered by the Monitoring group of BAJ directly or indirectly related to the electoral campaign.
At the end of August, six political prisoners were released, including BAJ member Yauhen Vaskovich. Meantime, pressure on independent mass media, including prosecution under art. 22.9, denial of services and interference into work of journalists at task continued in its ordinary manner.
The reporting period was marked by intensive correspondence with executive and judicial institutions who were telling they could not help prosecuting freelance journalists under article 22.9, did not want to do anything to state monopolists, did not want to provide information to independent press; luckily, police in Mahilow do not know how to draw up documents correctly, through which two cases against journalists were closed.
The sum of fines imposed on journalists under art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code already reached 137 million rubles, which is over 8000 euro.
Within the reporting period, one more journalist was fined for cooperation with foreign mass media. Several online provocation occurred, involving an independent news outlet and a human rights defender. BAJ member, political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich had a short-term meeting with his relatives.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of Speech Dunja Mijatović raised the issue of numerous fines for “illegal production and distribution of mass media products”, in fact, for that journalists contribute to foreign mass media without accreditation in Belarus. “The authorities have to stop imposing restrictive measures on freelance journalists, hindering them to do their job in a free and safe manner,” Mijatović said on April 3. “A constructive solution to this issue should be reached. My Office stands ready to assist the authorities in any way necessary in order to reverse this destructive trend, as well as facilitate a dialogue and joint activities of government institutions and media organizations on the topic.”
BAJ received an official reply to its request filed to the ministry of Home Affairs; journalists asked to publicize the internal ruling that banned taking pictures of administrative buildings. The deputy head of the chief department on crime prevention and maintaining public order I.Kubrakou answered that “lately, there have been facts in the country when citizens, including foreign ones, took photos of administrative buildings with the purpose of further discrediting of state bodies.” So, measures were taken to prevent potential threats – “from provocations to terrorist acts”. The official representative claims that law enforcement agencies have the right to find out for what purpose such pictures are taken. However, they are not obliged to publicize an internal document. The lawyer of BAJ Andrei Bastunets said BAJ would file a claim against the “internal document”.
Most discussed issues of the period were written warnings to several independent mass media for minor faults and an internal document of the Ministry of Home Affairs which prevented people from taking pictures of administrative buildings.
Law enforcement agencies keep following work of independent journalists contributing to foreign mass media. Besides, a new trend appeared: the Ministry of Information started issuing warnings to independent regional newspapers for minor insufficiencies in publishing data. Editors consider it to be a renewed approach aimed to place newspapers in vulnerable position before the forthcoming presidential elections.
Within the reporting period, there were threats and obstacles to journalists’ work; state agencies kept answering something about the blocking of websites in December; and the commission on extremism announced it found no banned contents in a human rights report.