On April 2, Belarus’ parliament moved forward eight bills, including a raft of amendments to the country’s Mass Media Law and Mass Gatherings Law. If adopted, these amendments will further undermine freedom of speech and the work of independent journalists in Belarus.
The new bills expand legal restrictions on mass media outlets and broaden the already extensive list of grounds authorities can use to deny them accreditation, shut them down, or block their websites. Proposed amendments also further restrict journalists, especially when reporting on mass protests.
Since last year, Belarusian authorities have been charging independent journalists with participation in peaceful protests they cover and stripped one independent news outlet of its media credentials. The government attempts to stifle independent press through smear campaigns, arbitrary arrests, raids on homes and offices, police brutality, and political prosecutions.
In the last six months, authorities opened at least 18 criminal cases against journalists. Three journalists – Katsiaryna Barysevich, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), and Darya Chultsova – were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years over their reporting on peaceful public protests. The new legislative amendments would provide formal grounds for further escalation of the crackdown.
According to the leading Belarusian news outlet TUT.BY, the proposed amendments to the Mass Media Law would make it illegal for journalists to “discredit” the state, effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government. The amendments would also enable authorities to strip journalists of accreditation for allegedly committing a crime while carrying out professional duties.
The draft amendments to the Mass Gatherings Law prohibit journalists from livestreaming mass unauthorized protests. When reporting on authorized gatherings, journalists are required to follow the same rules as protest participants.
Another bill empowers police to prohibit any filming or photography, including at protests.
The parliament should reject these bills, which aim to deal another crushing blow to media freedom in Belarus. Instead of stifling independent press, the authorities should be striving to create a climate in which all journalists can carry out their legitimate work without fear of reprisals.