Mass Media Situation in Belarus in 2018. Report by BAJ
In 2018, the Belarusian authorities intensified pressure on independent media and journalists. This happened despite the liberalization policy declared by the authorities and the dialogue on human rights with the European Union and the United States.
The main events and trends in 2018 included:
- changes in the mass media legislation involving tightening government control;
- criminal prosecution related to freedom of expression (the case of Regnum journalists; criminal prosecution of the blogger Piatrukhin; the case of the head of the BelaPAN news agency Ales Lipaj closed because of his death; the “BelTA case”, which ended with the conviction of Maryna Zolotava, editor-in-chief of the most popular Belarusian website TUT.BY,);
- extrajudicial blocking of popular online news resources in Belarus;
- increased pressure on freelance journalists for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation;
- using counter-extremist legislation to restrict freedom of expression (especially, online).
These actions by the authorities were, rather, not a “new attack on the media,” but a continuation of a targeted and consistent policy of the Belarusian state aimed at establishing maximum control over the information space in the country. In 2018, the “Belarusian segment of the Internet” became the primary target.
Having taken full control over the television and radio broadcasting (with the exception of a few foreign media operating in the country, including the Polish TV channel Belsat and ousted independent print media, whose cumulative weekly circulation is less than the daily circulation of the Presidential Administration newspaper SB Belarus Segodnya, into a ghetto, the authorities have been trying to strengthen control over the Belarusian segment of the Internet, in which the state-owned media are obviously losing to independent resources.
Meanwhile, according to a survey conducted by the Information Analytical Center under the Presidential Administration, in Belarus, the Internet as a source of information is catching up in popularity with television.
The leading Belarusian portal TUT.BY outpaces by a huge margin (by ten folds) the popularity of government-owned online resources, including the news agency BelTA (which probably became the real reason for the “BelTA case”, directed primarily against the competitors of this state news agency).
Experts regard the attempts by certain circles in power to solve the problem of the Internet by tightening state control over it as a strategic mistake from the point of view of national security in the media sphere. The ousting of independent media from the information space will not lead to an increase in the popularity of government-owned media, but to an increase in the presence of Russian media in the country. Today, the extent of their influence on the audience is already huge: over sixty percent of the products of some of the leading Belarusian TV channels included by the government in the publicly available mandatory TV package are Russian-made.
Instead of trying to stifle independent voices, the authorities, at least from an instinct of self-preservation, should promote the development of non-government media in Belarus.
CHANGES TO THE MEDIA LEGISLATION
In June 2018, the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus (the Belarusian parliament) adopted a law on amending the media legislation, significantly extending state control over the Internet space in Belarus.
- introduces the voluntary registration of online resources as mass media, but retains the unreasonably complicated authorization procedure for this registration;
- deprives the online resources that failed to pass the registration barrier, the rights of the media, and their correspondents the journalistic status, while extending to them all the liabilities provided for by the Law on Mass Media;
- maintains the extrajudicial procedure for blocking online resources by the Ministry of Information and introduces additional grounds for this (for example, using an online resource for carrying out activities prohibited in accordance with the Belarusian legislation);
- binding the online resources to identify commentators on their pages and on forums and to conduct moderation of their comments under the threat of liability for them.
The professional community criticized the amendments to the mass media law.
Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, also expressed his concern over them. “Many of the provisions are excessive and disproportionate and could result in the curtailing of freedom of expression,” Désir said in a statement. .
New rules that introduce additional responsibility for the owners of online resources have also been introduced into the Administrative Code (Article 22.9 “Violation of the law on mass media”). A fine has been established for the distribution of “prohibited” information. The maximum amount of the fine is 200 base values (about 2,000 euros) for the websites registered as mass media, and 100 base values for the online resources that do not have the media status. At the same time, the legislation does not provide for the list of prohibited information and approaches to its definition. The control over the compliance with legislation on the media in this area has been assigned to police officers.
CRIMINAL PERSECUTION RELATED TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The “Regnum case”
On February 2, the Minsk City Court made findings of guilt in the criminal case against Yury Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin and Sergey Shiptenko, three Belarusian authors who were published in Russian media (the so-called “Regnum case” named after the Russian news agency which had published their articles). The court found them guilty of deliberate actions aimed at inciting national hatred or discord committed by a group of persons (Article 130 (Part 3) of the Criminal Code) and sentenced them to the five years’ imprisonment with a three-year reprieve in the execution of the sentence. The convicts were released in the courtroom. If they do not commit violations of public order during the reprieve and comply with court orders, the court can release them from serving the sentence.
The “Regnum case” was instigated on the basis of a letter of the Ministry of Information to the Investigative Committee about the. The defendants were under arrest for 14 months - from the moment of their detention in December 2016.
“These sentences would be appropriate for dangerous criminals, to deter them from reoffending, but not for bloggers who were prosecuted for expressing controversial views,” said Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Borders’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Under international standards on freedom of expression, there is no justification for such disproportionate sentences. We call for their convictions to be overturned on appeal.”
Yury Pavlovets and Sergey Shiptenko appealed the verdict, but the Supreme Court upheld it.
The case of Ales Lipaj, the head of BelaPAN
On June 12, 2018, a criminal case was instituted against Ales Lipaj, the head of the leading Belarusian independent news agency BelaPAN, on intentional income tax evasion on an especially large scale in 2016-2017 (Article 243 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus). A search was conducted in the apartment of Ales Lipaj, during which documents and professional equipment were seized. Belarusian human rights organizations have declared the political background of the case and associated it with the general trend of increasing pressure on non-state media and online resources in Belarus.
In early August, the instigation of the “BelTA case”, in which two leading BelaPAN employees were charged, confirmed this conclusion.
Soon, on August 23, Ales Lipaj died at the age of 52. On September 12, the criminal case against him was discontinued in connection with his death.
“The BelTA case” and criminal prosecution of the editor-in-chief of the TUT.by portal Maryna Zolatava
On August 7–9, the editorial offices of the news agency BelaPAN, the portal TUT.BY and several other media outlets, as well as the apartments of some of their employees were searched. During the searches, professional equipment and storage media were seized. About twenty journalists were detained and questioned by investigators; eight of them were sent to the temporary detention center for up to three days.
The reason for the large-scale “special operation” was the unauthorized use by some journalists of the passwords to the subscription-based news feed of the website of the state news agency BelTA. It should be noted that the materials of the BelTA website are in free public access, and the media used them in accordance with the rules set by BelTA.
Nevertheless, criminal cases were initiated against fifteen journalists under Article 349 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code (unauthorized access to computer information, while acting out of other personal interest, causing significant damage).
The actions of the investigators drew protests from human rights activists, journalistic organizations and international bodies including the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
At the end of 2018, criminal cases against fourteen journalists were dropped. The administrative action was brought against them in the form of large fines and an actual coercion to pay compensation to the state-owned media – BelTA and the newspaper of the Presidential Administration, SB Belarus Segodnya. The compensation amounts ranged from 3,000 to 17,000 rubles (1,250 to 7,000 euros). BAJ regards the payment of compensation as a forced step on the part of journalists in order to avoid a much tougher punishment under the criminal article and other adverse consequences associated with criminal liability.
Maryna Zolatava, the editor-in-chief of the online portal TUT.BY was the only defendant charged in the “BelTA case”. Moreover, she was charged under another article - the omission to act (Article 425 of the Criminal Code).
On March 4, the Zavodski district court in Minsk found Maryna Zolatava guilty and sentenced her to a fine of 7,650 rubles (more than 3,000 euros); it also ordered the collection of court fees in the amount of 6,000 rubles (2,500 euros) in favor of BelTA.
“Conviction & fining of Marina Zolotova, editor of @tutby, along with disproportionate measures of law enforcement against @belapan & @tutby agencies in 2018, may exert chilling effect on independent media in #Belarus”, twitted Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
“The way the authorities persisted with this case, which was out of all proportion from the outset, shows their determination to undermine the state media’s rivals”, said Reporters Without Borders after the conviction of Maryna Zolatava.
RESTRICTION ON ONLINE FREEDOM
On January 24, 2018, the Ministry of Information decided to restrict access to the popular online resource charter97.org.
The Ministry justified this decision by an alleged publication of prohibited information on the website. By the “prohibited information” the Ministry meant some “materials containing information the dissemination of which could harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus, … articles indicating the date and venue of a mass event, a permission to hold which was not received at the time of publication, … the distribution through the website charter97.org of information products of a resource, which was recognized as an extremist material by a court decision and included in the Republican list of extremist materials.”
The Belarusian Association of Journalists noted that the blocking of charter97.org was the second decision of the Ministry of Information within a month to restrict access to popular information resources in Belarus (at the end of December 2017, it decided to block belaruspartisan.org). In both cases, the decisions to restrict access to the websites were taken in a non-transparent, out-of-court way, without disclosing which materials provided the reasons for blocking.
Using “anti-extremist” legislation to restrict freedom of expression
In 2018, the imposition of administrative sanctions against journalists and activists for publishing on social networks became more frequent. For this, they used Article 17.11. of the Administrative Code, which provides for liability for dissemination of information products that contain appeals for extremist activities or promote such activities.
The freelance journalist Alexander Dzianisau was fined 612.5 Belarusian rubles for reposting two videos about the participation of Brest anarchists in a protest rally, the "March of parasites", in 2017.
Alexander Horbach and Mikalaj Dziadok were fined for posting symbols recognized as extremist on social networks. Meanwhile, on the contrary, in their materials, both of them criticized manifestations of neo-Nazism. So, Mikalaj Dziadok was fined for a post in which he condemned the fact that some people who were well-known in Belarus had taken photos with members of a group whose emblem was recognized as extremist in Belarus (these photos were given as an illustration).
FINES FOR COOPERATION WITH FOREIGN MEDIA
The prosecution of freelance journalists for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has intensified. The courts used Article 22.9 (Part 2) of the Administrative Code to fine journalists.
Article 22.9 (Part 2) of the Administrative Code provides for liability for the illegal production and / or distribution of media products. According to BAJ, journalists cannot be held accountable under this article, since the liable party under it is not journalists, but the editorial staff of the media.
In 2018, journalists were held liable under this article at least 118 times (which is more than in the previous four years taken together). The total amount of fines exceeded 100,000 rubles (about 43,000 euros).
In 2018, in most cases, the journalists who collaborated with Belsat TV channel were persecuted. Belsat forms a part of the Polish television but positions itself as the first independent television channel in Belarus.
INCREASE IN THE STATE MEDIA FUNDING
On December 30, 2018, the law “On the republican budget for 2019” was signed. In accordance with it, 151,211,151 rubles (about 63 million euros) were allocated to finance state-owned media in 2019. This is almost one third more than in previous years. The allocation of funds occurs on a non-competitive basis.
RATINGS, INDICES, STATISTICS
The international human rights organization Freedom House in its ranking of freedom in the world in 2018 ranked Belarus among the non-free countries and assessed the degree of media freedom and Internet freedom in the country as the lowest (1 point out of 4). At the same time, “Press Freedom Status” and “Net Freedom Status” of the state were defined as “Not Free”.
In the latest press freedom rating of the international organization Reporters Without Borders, published in April 2018, Belarus ranked 155th among 180 states https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2018, down two positions from the previous rating.