The report of the Special Rapporteur clearly indicates “the absence of significant improvements” in the country, and despite some marginal improvements on freedom of association, flags “further restrictions on online media.”
As said by one of Belarus’ prominent independent media professionals, “2018 has become the darkest year for Belarusian journalism since 2011.” In the past two years, Belarusian authorities filed a record number of criminal charges against journalists and bloggers, and carried out groundless searches of several news organizations. 2014 legislation authorized the Information Ministry to block access to websites without judicial review. 2018 Amendments to the Law on Mass Media introduced burdensome registration for online media, effectively banning them from reporting on the work of the government. Authorities are using the vague definition of “extremism” to penalize independent journalists and bloggers.
In April, a court convicted an independent media editor of criminal negligence on allegations that some of her staff had been accessing the website of the state news agency without paying a subscription fee. The charges were wholly inappropriate for the alleged offense. Also in April, a blogger who covered environmental protests was fined on dubious “criminal slander and insult” charges. Although authorities have jailed fewer journalists, they have greatly increased prosecutions that result in fines.
The government downgrading of involvement in “unregistered” NGOs from a criminal to an administrative offense is positive, but could still lead to fines of up to 1,225 Belarusian rubles (US$600). We are concerned that authorities could continue using such provisions to prevent the work of independent human rights organizations, just as they continue to deny them registration on arbitrary pretexts.
We therefore once again urge the Council to maintain its scrutiny of the situation and renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur until tangible steps are taken by Belarus, including meaningful cooperation with UN mechanisms, ending harassment of critics, and dropping the ban on involvement in unregistered NGOs. The attention of this Council is essential to translate minimal reforms into tangible changes and to prevent violations in the context of the upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections, marked in the past by severe repression.