BAJ Petitions to Change Media Law in Belarus
On January 22 BAJ representatives had a meeting with Andrei Navumovich, the chairperson of the Committee on human rights, national relations and mass media, which is a separate committee in the House of Representatives of the Belarusian Parliament. The aim of the meeting was to hand over suggestions from BAJ on amendments to the current mass media law.
The document contains 15 specific suggestions to the “Law on mass media”.
The problematic issues of the current law are: authorization-based system for registration of new mass media; unfeasible demands for publishers of low-circulation press; unfavorable conditions for freelancers; accreditation being like a permit to search, collect, store or disseminate information; broad definitions for issuing a warning; the Government’s right to regulate activities of online media without defining the notion of such media etc.
Even before the “Law on mass media” was adopted four years ago, BAJ suggested a number of formulations into the draft law. Several of them (seven from more than 30) were taken into consideration by the House of Representatives in the second reading of the document.
In the meantime, the then-chairperson of the Committee Y.Kulakouski declined the idea to hold parliamentary hearings on the issues, claiming that “there was no practical experience of fulfilling the provisions” of the new law.
“Now the experience has been acquired. The law enforcement practice regarding the “Law on mass media” has revealed its weak points some of them had been singled out by BAJ even before the law was adopted,” writes BAJ.
BAJ suggests that the Committee should hold hearings on the media law, consider the suggestions from BAJ and start public discussion of the “Law on mass media” and the law enforcement practice.
“All these problems require many-sided discussion and correction,” says Zhanna Litvina. “We hope that the House of Representatives will respond to our suggestions”.
“These suggestions can be divided into several blocks.
The first part deals with journalists’ access to information.
The Law on Mass Media envisages an authorization-based procedure of accreditation. Moreover, the law does not envisage a possibility to appeal against a refusal to accredit as a journalist.
We suggest that accreditation should be not viewed as a permit, but as an acknowledgement of journalists’ powers, that would create more favorable conditions for journalist work. It does not mean that a journalist is forbidden to carry out professional activities if he or she is not accredited.
We consider that accreditation of foreign mass media journalists is also an outright violation of media law and international obligations of Belarus. The ban on journalists’ activities without accreditation should be eliminated from the media law.
In our view, accreditation can be applied only when the interest of the media is hard to satisfy due to physical limitations: for example, there is not enough room for all journalists and the like. Only here accreditation makes sense. Again, we emphasize that accreditation must not be a permit to do journalism.
We also suggest changing art. 36 of the Media Law dealing with the right to search, store and disseminate information. In its present form the norm is absolutely declarative, rewritten from the Constitution.
By the way, the actual law does not prescribe the terms how long it must take to answer a journalist’s request. Now it is all up to the addressee. We suggest that we should get back to the maximum 10-day term to consider a journalist’s request. Also, we suggest changing the list of information banned for distribution in the media.
The second part deals with work of freelance journalists.
Here we suggest changes in several articles: the first one about the notion “journalist of a mass medium” that should be changed into “journalist” simply, without the attachment to a mass medium.
One more important issue: to give the right to issue service certificates for journalists not only to editorial offices of the media, but also to journalistic organizations – BAJ and BUJ. It will significantly increase journalists’ legal protection. Now these are only editorial offices of mass media that can issue such certificates; in most civilized countries this right also belongs to journalistic organizations.
The third block deals with the legal protection of journalists.
Today a warning has a character of sanctions: two or more warnings might lead to closure of a mass medium. We suggest either eliminating the possibility to appeal to the Ministry of Information in order to close a mass medium or making it with strictly defined conditions, prescribed in the law – only because of very serious violations of the Media Law.
The next issue is protection of sources of information. Currently, investigative and inquiry bodies have the right to demand journalists to disclose sources of information; we want only the court to have this right.
We would like also change the provision about the limitation on legal action and the sum of damages that can be demanded from a journalist in a civil litigation. We suggest that the limitation on legal action must be one year only – this is how long mass media must store their materials. The size of moral damage compensation should be limited by one hundred base amounts (one base amount is about 9 euro).
The fourth block deals with Internet media.
Internet mass media are mentioned in the law, but there is no definition of them – only entitling the Council of Ministers with powers to regulate activities of the online media.
We suggest that the online resources must have the right to obtain the status of a mass medium if they want. It will allow employees of such resources to enjoy full powers of journalists, but will not be an obligation for them to fall under strict registration (such system exists in Russia). In our view, it will help avoid many problems with defining the notion of “Internet mass media”.