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  • E‑newsletter “Mass Media in Belarus”, #4 (74)

    August – November. DOWNLOAD PDF

    Pres­sure on jour­nal­ists and restric­tions on free­dom of speech con­tin­ued in Belarus with­in the peri­od under review. The applied meth­ods includ­ed:

    - crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of media work­ers,

    - the use of anti-extrem­ism leg­is­la­tion as a for­mal basis for restrict­ing free­dom of speech,

    - forc­ing blog­gers to ter­mi­nate their pub­lic activ­i­ties, includ­ing the media work­ers, who are not focused on the polit­i­cal agen­da,

    - cen­sor­ship or coer­cion into self-cen­sor­ship in the still ‘legal’ Belaru­sian inde­pen­dent media.

    The BAJ’s activ­i­ty in sup­port of the inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian press was marked by the award of the East­ern Part­ner­ship Civ­il Soci­ety Forum, pre­sent­ed on Novem­ber 14, 2023.

    Criminal prosecution

    A crim­i­nal case for the alleged fund­ing of extrem­ist activ­i­ties has been filed against the orga­niz­ers and par­tic­i­pants of “We care!” online char­i­ty marathon of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Belaru­sian polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, which was held at the end of July 2023 with the sup­port of more than twen­ty inde­pen­dent media orga­ni­za­tions. The Min­istry of Inter­nal Affairs of Belarus stat­ed that about 60 peo­ple from among the marathon orga­niz­ers and their assis­tants were regard­ed as sus­pects in the case.

    Three new sen­tences were pro­nounced on crim­i­nal cas­es against jour­nal­ists. Larysa Shchyrako­va, a for­mer employ­ee of ‘Bel­sat TV’ chan­nel from Homiel was sen­tenced to three and a half years in prison on August 31, 2023. Her col­league from Vit­seb­sk Viachaslau Laza­rau was sen­tenced to 5.5 years of impris­on­ment with­in the peri­od under review.

    Ali­ak­san­dr Mant­se­vich, the ‘Rehiyanal­naya Haze­ta’ Edi­tor-in-chief from Mal­adziech­na (Min­sk region) was pun­ished with 4 years of impris­on­ment and a fine in the amount of BYN 14,800 (around EUR 4,350) for the alleged “dis­cred­i­ta­tion” of Belarus (arti­cle 369–1 of Belarus Crim­i­nal Code). 

    Fol­low­ing the con­sid­er­a­tion of appeals against the ver­dicts of Vit­seb­sk Region­al Court, which were sub­mit­ted by a cam­era­man Viachaslau Laza­rau and his spouse Tat­siana Pyt­sko on Novem­ber 21–22, 2023, Lazarau’s sen­tence was reduced by half a year, i.e. to 5 years in prison. His wife Pyt­sko got the same sen­tence of three years in prison. How­ev­er, it was sus­pend­ed for the term of three years. It allows her to stay at home with cer­tain restric­tions.

    A crim­i­nal case has been filed against a for­mer free­lance jour­nal­ist Andrei Tolchyn under arti­cle 361–1 of Belarus Crim­i­nal Code (‘cre­ation of an extrem­ist for­ma­tion or par­tic­i­pa­tion in it’) for the alleged col­lab­o­ra­tion with ‘Bel­sat TV’.

    Ihar Kazmer­chak, the edi­tor of orsha.eu inde­pen­dent news Web­site (Orsha, Vit­sieb­sk region) has learned that his apart­ment in Belarus was seized by the author­i­ties. It is most like­ly that the seizure was caused by a crim­i­nal case for “insult­ing the pres­i­dent,” which had been filed against him back in 2022. 

    Persecution of bloggers

    The author­i­ties focused their close atten­tion on the blog­gers, who are not deal­ing with the polit­i­cal agen­da, with­in the peri­od under review.

    Thus, Dzmit­ry Selvi­as­truk, a sports blog­ger and author of the «Sil­ver Age. Foot­ball of Belarus» Telegram chan­nel as well as Ali­ak­san­dr Ihnat­siuk, the author of ‘About Slonim’ blog and the for­mer edi­tor of Slonim’s inde­pen­dent dis­trict news­pa­per were charged with “facil­i­ta­tion of extrem­ist activ­i­ties” (Arti­cle 361–4 of the Crim­i­nal Code) and placed in cus­tody.

    It was report­ed about the arrests of influ­en­tial Min­sk blog­gers and media per­son­al­i­ties with­in the peri­od under review, includ­ing Anna Bond, who served 15 days of admin­is­tra­tive arrest for «dis­obey­ing a police offi­cer,» Larysa Hry­balio­va, who is on the so-called «black list» for con­demn­ing vio­lence in Belarus in 2020, and Dzia­n­is Kuryan, despite the fact that none of them dwell upon polit­i­cal issues in their work.

    It looks like the author­i­ties intend to get rid of all influ­en­tial pub­lic per­son­al­i­ties in the coun­try if they are rel­a­tive­ly inde­pen­dent of the regime in pow­er.

    Censorship and pressure on journalists and mass media

    Six cas­es of deten­tion were record­ed dur­ing August-Novem­ber 2023, which end­ed in admin­is­tra­tive arrests in two cas­es.

    A trend became evi­dent when cen­sor­ship went beyond polit­i­cal top­ics and began to extend to even the least crit­i­cal mate­ri­als con­cern­ing the activ­i­ties of offi­cial cir­cles. The first case in the series was the pogrom of «Ranak» TV chan­nel (Svet­la­horsk, Homiel region), which includ­ed arrests and fines for its employ­ees for spread­ing infor­ma­tion about an acci­dent at a local indus­tri­al enter­prise.

    The Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion con­tin­ued to exer­cise cen­sor­ship, block­ing access to the con­tent of inde­pen­dent media. Thus, pub­lic access was dis­abled to the Web­sites Plan B, Media IQ, and resport.by (a new web­site of «Press­ball» news­pa­per about foot­ball, cre­at­ed after the pre­vi­ous Web resource had been blocked in June 2023).

    The Brest­Note Web­site (Brest) was tem­porar­i­ly blocked, due to post­ing a hyper­link to an «extrem­ist» media in the archived pub­li­ca­tion. The Web­site of “Zhyt­st­sio Palessia” (“Palessie Life”) dis­trict state news­pa­per from Mazyr (Homiel region) was blocked, too. The pub­lic access was dis­abled to the lat­ter one due to an anony­mous com­plaint that appeared in a Telegram chan­nel, cre­at­ed by the police. Some­one found it sus­pi­cious that an adver­tise­ment for recruit­ment to the Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my was placed next to an adver­tise­ment for funer­al ser­vices in the news­pa­per issue, which was pub­lished on Octo­ber 19, 2023.

    An inter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non of “self-cen­sor­ship” was reg­is­tered in the case of “Ves­nik Hly­bochchyny” dis­trict newspaper’s edi­to­r­i­al, which restrict­ed access to their Web­site from abroad on their own ini­tia­tive.

    Against the back­ground of sys­tem­at­ic per­se­cu­tion for crit­i­cal state­ments on the Inter­net, block­ing access to dozens of inde­pen­dent media and clas­si­fy­ing the online con­tent of cer­tain groups as «extrem­ist,» the Belaru­sian author­i­ties orga­nized the «Inter­net Gov­er­nance Forum» («Belarus IGF») in Novem­ber 2023, in order to cre­ate the impres­sion of nor­mal­i­ty and legit­imize repres­sive prac­tices. The event hadn’t been held from 2020 to 2023. A state­ment was issued by the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists togeth­er with oth­er human rights orga­ni­za­tions on this occa­sion.

    The use of ‘anti-extremist’ legislation to persecute the distributors of ‘banned’ content of independent mass media and oppositional Web-resources

    The “Ranak” TV chan­nel (Svet­la­horsk, Homiel region), “Ex-press.live” and “Homiel­skaya Vias­na” human rights organization’s info-resources as well as sev­er­al inde­pen­dent blog­gers’ social media accounts were labeled as “extrem­ist for­ma­tions” by the Belaru­sian author­i­ties in August – Novem­ber 2023.

    The Supreme Court rec­og­nized the Belaru­sian Inves­tiga­tive Cen­ter, an asso­ci­a­tion of inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists based out­side Belarus, as an «extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tion» with­in the peri­od under review.

    The con­vict­ed TUT.BY employ­ees Lyud­mi­la Chek­ina and Mary­na Zolata­va, jour­nal­ists Larysa Shchyrako­va, Yauhien Merkis, Pavel Pad­abed, Pavel Mazhey­ka, as well as Andrei Famin were includ­ed in the list of cit­i­zens «engaged in extrem­ist activ­i­ties.»

    The KGB includ­ed a polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Tat­siana Kuz­i­na to the list of per­sons “engaged in ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties” with­in the peri­od under review. She had been sen­tenced to 10 years in prison on charges of con­spir­a­cy to seize state pow­er, calls for sanc­tions and incite­ment of enmi­ty.

    Umer­ous pub­li­ca­tions were rec­og­nized as “extrem­ist mate­ri­als” by the Belaru­sian author­i­ties, includ­ing the con­tent of “Hantsav­it­s­ki Chas” news­pa­per, the Insta­gram account of TV pre­sen­ter Kat­siary­na Pytl­e­va etc. in August – Novem­ber 2023.

    Courts con­tin­ued to pro­nounce ver­dicts for «dis­sem­i­na­tion of extrem­ist mate­ri­als» that includ­ed sub­scrip­tion to pro­hib­it­ed infor­ma­tion sources apart from pub­li­ca­tion or dis­tri­b­u­tion of cer­tain con­tent. As it was explained on the YouTube chan­nel asso­ci­at­ed with the Belaru­sian secu­ri­ty forces, it is not for­mal­ly a crime to be sub­scribed to pro­hib­it­ed Web-resources. How­ev­er, it was not­ed, that “it is as clear as day that if a per­son is inter­est­ed in these kind of things, oth­er legal vio­la­tions will def­i­nite­ly be found. The for­mal absence of cor­pus delic­ti is not an excuse to ignore an offend­er.”

    Developments in the state media field

    The Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment of the Belaru­sian State Uni­ver­si­ty enrolled stu­dents only to the sub­si­dized places in 2023. The depart­ment dean Ali­ak­sei Bialayeu stat­ed that there was no need in the stu­dents, who pay for their stud­ies, since “the Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment ful­fills the state order and trains spe­cial­ists for the state media.”

    The Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion Uladz­imir Piart­sou called the first-year stu­dents of the Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment «fight­ing bay­o­nets in the infor­ma­tion war» dur­ing a meet­ing with them.

    On August 3, 2023, in con­nec­tion with the adop­tion of anoth­er pack­age of EU sanc­tions against Rus­sia and Belarus, restric­tive mea­sures were intro­duced against sev­er­al Belaru­sian pro­pa­gan­dists, employed by the state TV, includ­ing Kseniya Lebedzie­va, Yauhien Pus­tavy, Anas­tasiya Benedzi­siuk as well as Vadz­im Hihin, who is the cur­rent chair of the “Vedy” (‘Knowl­edge’) soci­ety.

    Two TV chan­nels oper­at­ing in the Gagauz Autonomous Region of Moldo­va were fined for rebroad­cast­ing the «Belarus 24» TV pro­grams in Octo­ber 2023.On this occa­sion, the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of Belarus expressed its indig­na­tion at «the desire of the offi­cial author­i­ties of Moldo­va to deprive the cit­i­zens of their coun­try of access to any alter­na­tive infor­ma­tion.»

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