Censorship in Belarus

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Censorship in Belarus, although prohibited by the country's constitution, is enforced by a number of laws. These include a law that makes insulting the president punishable by up to five years in prison, and another that makes criticizing Belarus abroad punishable by up to two years in prison.[1]

Freedom of the press in Belarus remains extremely restricted. State-owned media are subordinated to the president and harassment and censorship of independent media are routine. The government subjects both independent and foreign media to systematic political intimidation, especially for reporting on the deteriorating economy and human rights abuses. Journalists are harassed and detained for reporting on unauthorized demonstrations or working with unregistered media outlets. Journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances.[2] Most local independent outlets regularly practice self-censorship.[3]

Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 154th out of 178 countries in its 2010 Press Freedom Index.[4] In the 2011 Freedom House Freedom of the Press report, Belarus scored 92 on a scale from 10 (most free) to 99 (least free), because the Lukashenko regime systematically curtails press freedom. This score placed Belarus 9th from the bottom of the 196 countries included in the report and earned the country a "Not Free" status.[3]

Registration and state control on the media[edit]

The Ministry of Information of Belarus was established in 2001[5] and serves as Belarus' media regulator. Licensing and registration procedures are opaque and politicised. Since 2009 all media outlets, including websites, need to register or face blockage. Independent publications have been forced to use foreign-based internet domains. Outlets that "threaten the interests of the state" can also be denied accreditation and shut down.[6]

The government established in February 2009 a Public Coordination Council in Sphere of the Mass Information, aimed at: co-ordination of interaction of state management, public associations and other organisations carrying out activities in the sphere of mass information; maintenance of correct application of the law on mass media and other legislation in sphere of mass information; consideration of the questions as issues from applications to the law on mass media.[5]

Since December 2014, websites can be blocked without court order after two warnings within 12 months. Mass media status was expanded and liability for contents was widened to include user comments too.[6]

A state commission was established in August 2014 to evaluate whether media outlets contain "extremist" materials, passible to a ban under a 2007 counter-extremism law.[6]

State control over broadcast media[edit]

The state maintains a virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media, only the state media broadcasts nationwide, and the content of smaller television and radio stations is tightly restricted. The government has banned most independent and opposition newspapers from being distributed by the state-owned postal and kiosk systems, forcing the papers to sell directly from their newsrooms and use volunteers to deliver copies, but authorities sometimes harass and arrest the private distributors.[3]

The Russian media is allowed to transmit television programming, sell newspapers and conduct journalistic activities in Belarus (though some Russian journalists have been expelled by the Belarusian government), thus giving some members of the public, typically those in large cities with many Russian residents, access to an alternative point of view in the Russian language (nearly all Belarusians understand and most of them speak Russian). Several opposition media outlets broadcast from nearby countries to provide Belarusians alternative points of view. This includes the Belsat TV station and European Radio for Belarus (Eŭrapéjskaje Rádyjo dla Biełarúsi).[7]

In 2014-2015, dozens of freelance journalists have been fined for working with foreign media (including Belarusian-language media based in the EU) without official state accreditation from the Foreign Ministry, as foreseen by Article 22.9(2) of the Belarusian Code on Administrative Offence. Journalists were fined several hundreds of euros for having published through foreign media, rather than based on the content of their work. Computer equipments were also seized. The journalists fined had published on Polish-based Belsat TV, Deutsche Welle. Procedural guarantees, including the hearing of witnesses in court, were reportedly not followed by Belarusian authorities, but appeals were rejected. The prosecution of freelancers was condemned by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), which deemed it a gross violation of the standards of freedom of expression, as well as by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). Since April 2014, 38 freelance journalists have been fined €200-500, totalling over €8,000 - some of them being repeatedly prosecuted and fined.[8]

In 2012, Belarusian largest state network MTIS stopped broadcasting of Euronews for unknown reasons. Euronews was the last independent TV channel available in Belarus.[9][10]

Charges, attacks and threats against journalists[edit]

In 2014 the media environment in Belarus remained extremely restrictive. More than 20 journalists were questioned, warned or fined in 2014 for "illegal production and distribution of media products". Many were targeted for contributing without accreditation to foreign-based media in Poland and Lithuania. Some foreign journalists were refused accreditation at the Ice Hockey World Championships. Some were turned back at the border, others were required to obtain a separate accreditation to cover non-sport-related issues.[6]

Arbitrary detention, arrests and harassment of journalists are the norm in Belarus. Anti-extremism legislation targets independent journalism, including materials deemed contrary to the honour of the President of Belarus. Independent reporting is deterred by the threat of closure of media outlets.[11]

Censorship in Belarus, although prohibited by the country's constitution, is enforced by a number of laws. These include a law that makes insulting the president punishable by up to five years in prison, and another that makes criticizing Belarus abroad punishable by up to two years in prison.[1]

  • The Belarusian journalist Andrzej Poczobut has been repeatedly charged of defamation against the President since 2011. In September 2013 the State Prosecutor dropped all charged for lack of evidence and released him from a 3-years suspended sentence.[11]
  • In May 2014 the wife of Babruysk-based blogger Aleh Zhalnou was prosecuted for alleged violence against a police officer. Their son was then sentenced to three years in a penal colony and $5,000 of fine for violence against a traffic police officer. Zhalnou himself has faced over a dozen trials, was repeatedly summoned by the police, and had his professional equipment (cameras) confiscated several times.[6]
  • In November 2014 the journalist Alyaksandr Alesin of the independent newspaper Belarys i rynok was detained by the State Security Committee (KGB) and then charged with espionage and treason, after he had written about military issues concerning the Ukraine conflict.[6]


Internet censorship[edit]

In 2006, 2007, and 2008 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) listed Belarus as an "Internet enemy". In 2009 Belarus moved to RWB's countries "under surveillance" list where it remained in 2010 and 2011.[12] In 2012 Belarus was moved back to the RWB list of Internet Enemies.[13]

The OpenNet Initiative classified Internet filtering in Belarus as selective in the political, social, conflict/security, and Internet tools areas in November 2010.[14]

The Belarus government has moved to second- and third-generation controls to manage its national information space. Control over the Internet is centralized with the government-owned Beltelecom managing the country’s Internet gateway. Regulation is heavy with strong state involvement in the telecommunications and media market. Most users who post online media practice a degree of self-censorship prompted by fears of regulatory prosecution. The president has established a strong and elaborate information security policy and has declared his intention to exercise strict control over the Internet under the pretext of national security. The political climate is repressive and opposition leaders and independent journalists are frequently detained and prosecuted.[14]

A new media law that took effect in February 2009 requires domestic and international websites to register with the Information Ministry or be blocked. In August 2010, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced its intention to toughen criminal penalties for the dissemination of slanderous information through the Internet. Since 2007, Internet cafe owners have been required to keep records of their customers’ identities and the websites they visit, facilitating inspection by the security services.[3]

On January 6, 2012, a law took effect requiring that all commercial websites selling goods or services to Belarusian citizens to be operated from within the country and under a .by domain name. Moreover, those who provide internet access (including ISPs and Wi-Fi hotspot operators) must register all users, and they must also censor websites on a blacklist covering pornography and other "extremist" websites.[15]

Bloggers and online journalism used to be almost free, although limited to a very narrow audience; the government has started censoring the web too, since internet penetration has started growing.[6]

  • In March 2014 Beltelecom blocked the Nasha Niva newspaper website - possibly as a test for the upcoming 2015 presidential elections.[6]

Cyber-attacks[edit]

DDoS cyber-attacks have been reported, on the upcoming to the 2015 Presidential election, to the websites of the websites of BelaPAN news agency (Belapan.com and Naviny.by) and web portal TUT.by, after they published a critical article about students ordered to attend official events. The Belarusian Association of Journalists has expressed concern.[16]

  • In July 2014 the EuroBelarus website reported a cyberattack, possibly related to its coverage of the Ukraine conflict.
  • On 19 December 2014 several Belarusian websites were blocked, including Belapan.by, Naviny.by, Belaruspartisan.org, Charter97.org, Gazetaby.com, Zautra.by, UDF.by. The block extended within 2015.[6]

Music censorship[edit]

In the past few years, many Belarusian musicians and rock bands have been unofficially banned from radio and television, have had their concert licenses revoked, and have had their interviews censored in the media.[17] Researchers Maya Medich and Lemez Lovas reported in 2006 that "independent music-making in Belarus today is an increasingly difficult and risky enterprise", and that the Belarusian government "puts pressure on ‘unofficial’ musicians - including ‘banning’ from official media and imposing severe restrictions on live performance."

Belarus government policies tend to divide Belarusian musicians into pro-government "official" and pro-democracy "unofficial" camps. Economic barriers have been placed against various artists, leading to self-censorship.[1]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Maya Medich & Lemez Lovas (31 January 2007). "Music censorship in Belarus (video)". Freemuse, Copenhagen. Retrieved 22 August 2009. 
  2. ^ "The death of Oleg Bebenin", Michael Harris, Index on Censorship, 4 September 2010
  3. ^ a b c d "Country report: Belarus", Freedom of the Press 2011, Freedom House, 21 April 2011
  4. ^ Press Freedom Index 2010, Reporters Without Borders, 20 October 2010
  5. ^ a b Elena Kononova, Belarus, EJC Media Landscapes, circa 2010
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Freedom House, 2015 Belarus freedom of the press report
  7. ^ "Dissent hits Belarus via Warsaw", Gordon Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 29 January 2011
  8. ^ Freelance journalists in Belarus face fines for working with foreign media, Index on Censorship, 6 October 2015
  9. ^ В сети МТИС прекращена трансляция канала "Евроньюс" (in Russian). Naviny.by. 1 January 2012. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  10. ^ "В Минске отключают Euronews" (in Russian). Euroradio. 31 December 2011. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  11. ^ a b Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Background report on The Protection of media freedom in Europe, prepared by Mr William Horsley, special representative for media freedom of the Association of European Journalists, AS/Cult (2014) 25, 18 June 2014, p. 12
  12. ^ "Countries under surveillance: Belarus", Reporters Without Borders, March 2011
  13. ^ Internet Enemies, Reporters Without Borders (Paris), 12 March 2012
  14. ^ a b "ONI Country Profile: Belarus", OpenNet Initiative, 18 November 2010
  15. ^ "Belarus drops iron firewall on Internet in effort to keep ecommerce cash inside the country". ITWorld. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Belarus/Беларусь: Independent media under DDoS attacks during electoral campaign, Mapping Media Freedom, 3 October 2015
  17. ^ Lemez Lovas and Maya Medich (15 February 2007). "Hidden Truths – Music, Politics and Censorship in Lukashenko's Belarus (Report no. 7)". Freemuse, Copenhagen. p. 88. ISSN 1601-2127. Retrieved 22 August 2009. 

External links[edit]