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  • Media Problems in Belarus: Between the Present and the Future

    Belarus is usually placed at the bottom of international press freedom rankings, distinguishing itself by the degree of the government’s control over information space.

    In late 2016, there was an impres­sion that the sit­u­a­tion was chang­ing for the bet­ter, as only 13 jour­nal­ists had been sub­ject­ed to police deten­tion over the year, where­as the BAJ record­ed 167 deten­tions in the peak year of 2011. Since April 2016, there had been almost no instances of jour­nal­ists being fined for coop­er­a­tion with a for­eign media out­let with­out accred­i­ta­tion, where­as there had been 48 instances in which jour­nal­ists were fined for the mere fact that their reports were pub­lished by for­eign media out­lets, irre­spec­tive of the con­tent of the report.

    How­ev­er, there were no fun­da­men­tal changes for the bet­ter. More­over, author­i­ties increased pres­sure on jour­nal­ists in March 2017, when mas­sive protests start­ed to be held in Belarus. In the spring of 2017, the BAJ record­ed 96 deten­tions of jour­nal­ists. Ten of them end­ed with the sen­tenc­ing of jour­nal­ists to jail terms of up to 15 days. Author­i­ties also resumed pun­ish­ing reporters for coop­er­a­tion with for­eign media out­lets. As of the end of May, judges had imposed 22 fines total­ing more than €7,500 on jour­nal­ists.

    The government’s puni­tive machine is still in action. Author­i­ties con­tin­ue to insti­tute crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings against jour­nal­ists. For­mer­ly, jour­nal­ists were most­ly charged with defama­tion – the Crim­i­nal Code of Belarus has six arti­cles penal­iz­ing defama­tion, includ­ing slan­der and insult against the pres­i­dent – but in 2016, they start­ed to active­ly use the Crim­i­nal Code’s Arti­cle 130, which penal­izes foment­ing racial, eth­nic, reli­gious and social enmi­ty or dis­cord. In par­tic­u­lar, Eduard Palčys, the founder of the web­site 1863x.com known for crit­i­cism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, was con­vict­ed under this arti­cle in Octo­ber. In Decem­ber, author­i­ties arrest­ed three Belaru­sian con­trib­u­tors to Russia’s Reg­num News Agency. Siarhej Šyp­cien­ka, Yury Paŭlaviec and Dzmit­ry Alimkin alleged­ly insult­ed the Belaru­sian lan­guage and attempt­ed to “dri­ve a wedge between the two broth­er­ly nations.” They have been in deten­tion for about six months now.

    Other major problems include:

    — the exces­sive pow­ers of the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion, which is enti­tled to ini­ti­ate the clo­sure of a media out­let and block access to news web­sites with­out a court deci­sion;

    — restric­tions on access to infor­ma­tion about gov­ern­ment agen­cies’ activ­i­ties for jour­nal­ists;

    — the use of laws against extrem­ism for putting pres­sure on media out­lets and jour­nal­ists.

    The BAJ has devel­oped a roadmap for reform­ing the media sec­tor. For the ini­tial stage, we pro­pose mea­sures that would not require amend­ments to laws and can be car­ried peri­od with­in a short peri­od of time. At the sec­ond stage, it is nec­es­sary to make seri­ous changes in laws cur­rent­ly in force. At the final stage, we pro­pose fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing the legal basis with a view to reform­ing the entire sys­tem of gov­ern­ment-soci­ety-media rela­tions and bring­ing it into line with inter­na­tion­al demo­c­ra­t­ic stan­dards.

    The measures to be carried out at the initial stage include:

    — stop­ping the prac­tice of pun­ish­ing jour­nal­ists under Part Two of Arti­cle 22.9 of the Civ­il Offens­es Code for coop­er­a­tion with for­eign media out­lets;

    — stop­ping the prac­tice of plac­ing sus­pects in cus­tody and impris­on­ing con­victs in cas­es relat­ed to free­dom of expres­sion, “unless the crit­i­cism or insult was intend­ed or like­ly to incite immi­nent vio­lence” (the Johan­nes­burg Prin­ci­ples on Nation­al Secu­ri­ty, Free­dom of Expres­sion and Access to Infor­ma­tion);

    — ensur­ing equal access to infor­ma­tion for all jour­nal­ists work­ing for online and offline media out­lets, irre­spec­tive of the form of own­er­ship;

    — impos­ing a mora­to­ri­um on the use of extra­ju­di­cial penal­ties against media out­lets, includ­ing the block­ing of news web­sites.

    The measures to be carried out at the second stage include:

    — decrim­i­nal­iz­ing defama­tion;

    — chang­ing laws against “extrem­ism” on the basis of rec­om­men­da­tions from the Office of the OSCE Rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Free­dom of the Media;

    — abol­ish­ing the require­ment for new­ly found­ed media out­lets to obtain state reg­is­tra­tion and intro­duc­ing the noti­fi­ca­tion prin­ci­ple for the reg­is­tra­tion of media out­lets;

    — trans­fer­ring the reg­is­tra­tion func­tion from the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion to an inde­pen­dent body;

    — strip­ping the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of super­vi­so­ry func­tions and the pow­er to use penal sanc­tions against media out­lets;

    — lift­ing the ban on Belaru­sian jour­nal­ists’ coop­er­a­tion with for­eign media out­lets with­out accred­i­ta­tion because this runs counter to the con­sti­tu­tion and the country’s inter­na­tion­al com­mit­ments;

    — chang­ing the pro­ce­dure of pro­vid­ing pub­lic funds for sup­port for media out­lets and pro­vid­ing that this should be done irre­spec­tive of the form of own­er­ship and only on a com­pet­i­tive basis;

    The measures to be carried out at the third stage include:

    — pri­va­tiz­ing state-owned media out­lets, pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies, print­ing plants and press dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works;

    — pro­hibit­ing gov­ern­ment agen­cies from being founders of media out­lets, except pub­li­ca­tions that pub­lish offi­cial gov­ern­ment reports and ordi­nances;

    — estab­lish­ing an inde­pen­dent reg­u­la­to­ry body for the broad­cast­ing sec­tor;

    — trans­form­ing Belaru­sian State Tele­vi­sion and Radio Com­pa­ny into a pub­lic tele­vi­sion net­work.

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