Belarusian journalists win action against Belarus
Some time ago, Tatsiana Smotkina, Dzmitry Lupach (assisted by human rights defender Pavel Levinau), Tamara Schapetkina, and Larysa Schyrakova (assisted by human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka) filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee.
They claimed that the rights of journalists to freedom of expression are violated in Belarus. The country prosecuted these journalists and imposed administrative fines on all of them for allegedly distributing media products without proper accreditation.
On 14 March 2023, the Committee considered their complaints on the merits.
The Committee noted that part 3 of Article 19 of the Covenant allows restrictions to freedom of expression, including freedom of speech in the media and the dissemination of information and ideas, only insofar as provided by law and only when necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others; or to protect national security or public order, or public health or morals.
Any restriction on freedom of expression must not be excessive, that is, it must be the least intrusive instrument amongst those which might achieve their protective function, and proportionate to the interests to be protected.
The Committee suggested that Belarus demonstrate that the restrictions on the rights of journalists under Article 19 of the Covenant were necessary and proportionate. The response from the Belarusian authorities read that all journalists allegedly violated the Belarusian Law on Mass Media and worked without press credentials.
The Committee noted that in this case the applicants were subjected to administrative penalties: large fines under the Law on Mass Media, which entails a ban on journalistic activities in the territory of Belarus involving work for foreign media without possessing press credentials as a foreign media representative.
In this regard, the Human Rights Committee refers to Article 34 of the Constitution of Belarus on freedom of opinion and expression and stated that national systems of registration or licensing of journalists are incompatible with Article 19(3) of the Covenant.
Limited press credentials-acquiring schemes are permissible only if it is necessary to provide journalists with privileged access to certain events.
The Committee notes that the penalties imposed by the Belarusian authorities on the journalists were based on domestic law. However, neither the State party nor the domestic courts have explained how such restrictions were justified in terms of necessity and proportionality, as required under Article 19, paragraph 3 of the Covenant, and whether the penalties (i.e. administrative fines), even if based on law, were necessary and proportionate and met any of the legitimate aims outlined in that provision. It therefore concludes that the applicants’ rights under Article 19, paragraph 2, of the Covenant have been violated.
Belarus is therefore under an obligation to take appropriate measures to compensate the journalists for the fines and other legal costs incurred by the them in connection with the national proceedings. The State is also under an obligation to take all necessary measures to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future. In this regard, the Committee notes that it has considered similar complaints concerning the same laws and practices in the State party, and therefore Belarus should review its legal framework, in particular the Law on Mass Media, following its obligation under Article 2 of the Covenant to ensure the full enjoyment of the rights outlined in article 19 of the Covenant.
The Human Rights Committee expects to receive information from Belarus on the measures taken within 180 days.