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    Belarus appeared among the few European countries that refused to announce a lock-down in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. But for that, the government rejected the seriousness of this deadly disease for a long period of time.The President of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka called the pandemic a 'psychosis' and 'infodemia' and called on the Ministry of Information and law enforcement agencies to fight the spread of 'hype' on the subject of coronavirus.


    No. 2 (61) 2020

    Spe­cial Issue


    ‘The KGB should be tougher here, and the police, and the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion should mon­i­tor every­one… And they shouldn’t be afraid that we may be accused of some unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic actions. It will be over one day, and we will see, who has been esca­lat­ing the psy­chosis.’

    Ali­ak­san­dr Lukashen­ka, Pres­i­dent of Belarus

    ‘Jour­nal­ists should not be intim­i­dat­ed, pros­e­cut­ed or detained for report­ing on issues of pub­lic inter­est and on the COVID-19 sit­u­a­tion. In Belarus, like in all coun­tries, jour­nal­ists have a key role to play in report­ing on the pan­dem­ic and in pro­vid­ing impor­tant infor­ma­tion to the pub­lic.’

               Harlem Désir, the OSCE Rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Free­dom of the Media



    On March 21, A. Lukashen­ka pub­licly appealed to Valery Vakulchyk, the chair­man of the State Secu­ri­ty Com­mit­tee of Belarus to deal with ‘the vil­lains who spread fakes’ (about deaths relat­ed to COVID-19): ‘It is enough to look at it. We need to check care­ful­ly all these sites and chan­nels.’

    Сon­se­quent­ly, an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Siarhei Sat­suk was detained in four days after the President’s appeal, on March 25, 2020. He is the edi­tor of Yezhed­nevnik Pri­vate Online Web-resource. The ‘Reporters with­out Bor­ders’ inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion con­nect­ed the journalist’s deten­tion with his open ques­tion­ing of ‘Belaru­sian government’s health­care poli­cies’.  


    Criminal Investigation against Siarhei Satsuk

    Siarhei Sat­suk is a well-known jour­nal­ist and edi­tor, who deals with inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism.  One of his high-pro­file inves­ti­ga­tions about cor­rup­tion in the Health Care sys­tem of Belarus appeared as a series of pub­li­ca­tions in the ‘Yezhed­nevnik’ online edi­tion.  A num­ber of high-rank­ing offi­cials of the Min­istry of Health Care were lat­er con­vict­ed of cor­rup­tion.  In August 2019, Siarhei Sat­suk stat­ed in his inter­view to the Bela­PAN News Agency that he had received threats because of his jour­nal­is­tic activ­i­ty.

    Fol­low­ing the editor’s deten­tion, his house and the office of ‘Yezhed­nevnik’ online edi­tion were searched. The office equip­ment and doc­u­ments were seized.

    The State Con­trol­ling Com­mit­tee com­ment­ed on the deten­tion only 6 days lat­er, accus­ing the jour­nal­ist of receiv­ing a large bribe ‘for prepar­ing and post­ing on his web­site an arti­cle that con­tained com­pro­mis­ing infor­ma­tion about the legal enti­ty’s com­peti­tors.’

    S. Sat­suk’s deten­tion and the crim­i­nal case against him pro­voked seri­ous crit­i­cism from the Belaru­sian and inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. Harlem Désir, the OSCE Rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Free­dom of the Media and the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists linked the fil­ing of a crim­i­nal case against S. Sat­suk with his pre­vi­ous mate­ri­als on cor­rup­tion in the Belaru­sian health care sec­tor. The demand to release the inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist was also dis­sem­i­nat­ed by the Euro­pean Parliament’s Del­e­ga­tion on rela­tions with Belarus, the Belaru­sian human rights orga­ni­za­tions, the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists and the Euro­pean Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, as well as the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee of the Belaru­sian Nation­al Plat­form of the East­ern Part­ner­ship Civ­il Soci­ety Forum.

    The Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al of Belarus can­celed the deci­sion to detain the edi­tor of ‘Yezhed­nevnik’ online edi­tion Siarhei Satsuk on the 10th day since he had been taken into cus­tody.

    How­ev­er, the crim­i­nal case against him hasn’t been dis­missed yet.

    Administrative Prosecution of ‘Media Palessie’ Online Edition

    On April 6, the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of Belarus issued an offi­cial warn­ing in the writ­ten form to the own­er of ‘Media-Palessie’ Web-site in con­nec­tion with a pub­li­ca­tion about COVID-19 epi­dem­ic devel­op­ment in the region that appeared on the online Web-resource.

    The Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion not­ed that ‘it was found dur­ing the inspec­tion, which had been con­duct­ed joint­ly with Brest Region­al Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, that the pub­li­ca­tion con­tained inac­cu­rate infor­ma­tion about a patien­t’s death, and that the spread of this infor­ma­tion could harm the state and pub­lic inter­ests.’  

    The edi­to­r­i­al acknowl­edged the mis­take, but not­ed that the infor­ma­tion was cor­rect­ed with­in 15 min­utes after its appear­ance on the Web-site and that nei­ther the patient, nor his fam­i­ly expressed any claims.

    How­ev­er, a few days lat­er a police inspec­tor of Luninets Dis­trict Depart­ment of Inter­nal Affairs ini­ti­at­ed admin­is­tra­tive pro­ceed­ings in this case. He accused the ‘Media-Palessie’ edi­to­r­i­al of pub­lish­ing infor­ma­tion on the web­site that caused dam­age to the nation­al inter­ests of the Repub­lic of Belarus and ‘con­tributed to the esca­la­tion of social ten­sions and pan­ic in the soci­ety as well as led to mass dis­in­for­ma­tion of the pop­u­la­tion.’

    It should be men­tioned in this respect that the COVID-19 epi­dem­ic sit­u­a­tion is very com­pli­cat­ed in the area. More­over, the ‘Media-Palessie’ jour­nal­ist Vasil Matske­vich passed away with the symp­toms, which were sim­i­lar to the COVID-19 symp­toms, late­ly. The COVID-19 tests were neg­a­tive at that.

    Nev­er­the­less, on May 13, Luninets Dis­trict Court fined the ‘Media-Palessie’ Web-site edi­to­r­i­al 120 base amounts that equals around EUR 1 250, accord­ing to the offi­cial exchange rate of the Nation­al Bank of Belarus. The media out­let was charged for ‘Dis­sem­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion by the media, which is banned for dis­sem­i­na­tion in the media’ (arti­cle 22.9, part 3–1 of Belarus Code of Admin­is­tra­tive Offens­es).

    Accord­ing to the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, it was the first case, when the legal norm was applied. It was intro­duced to the Code of Admin­is­tra­tive Offens­es in 2018.

    Restriction of Media Access to Information about Epidemiological Situation

    These events took place against the back­ground of wide­spread refusals of offi­cial author­i­ties to pro­vide jour­nal­ists with infor­ma­tion about the real epi­demi­o­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Belarus.On March 30, the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists pub­lished a state­ment about the neces­si­ty of pro­vid­ing up-to-date and truth­ful infor­ma­tion about the COVID-19 epi­dem­ic devel­op­ment in the coun­try.

    The BAJ state­ment was sup­port­ed by TUT.BY, which is appar­ent­ly the largest online Web-resource of Belarus, the Bela­PAN News Agency and Naviny.by Web-site.

    How­ev­er, these appeals remained unheard. The last brief­ing of the Min­istry of Health Care for jour­nal­ists, where they could pose ques­tions to the min­is­te­r­i­al offi­cials, took place on April 17, 2020. As of the end of May 2020, none of such events with an open dia­logue have been held again. The Min­istry of Health Care lim­it­ed itself to read­ing a press release with­out the oppor­tu­ni­ty for jour­nal­ists to ask their ques­tions dur­ing the fol­low­ing brief­ing a week lat­er. Con­se­quent­ly, the Min­istry start­ed pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion through its press-releas­es only.

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