(Berlin) – Belarusian authorities have carried out concerted attacks on media freedom over the past two years that directly affect the climate in which news media will cover the country before, during, and after the upcoming European Games, Human Rights Watch said today. The European Olympic Committees (EOC) should ensure that all journalists, foreign and local, covering the 2019 European Games, from June 21-30, in Belarus, can operate free from harassment.
In the past two years, Belarusian authorities have filed a record number of criminal charges against journalists and bloggers, carried out groundless searches of the editorial offices of several news organizations, introduced tighter state control of the internet, and expanded grounds for prosecuting speech. On May 8, in response to concerns about press freedom raised by Human Rights Watch and other groups, the EOC told Human Rights Watch that it would appoint a representative to monitor media freedom during the games.
“It’s good news that the EOC has committed to dealing with interference with press freedoms, but it needs to follow up with effective action,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s disturbing that journalists covering the games will need protection from Belarusian authorities’ harassment.”
Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarus’ top media rights watchdog, has said that “2018 has become the darkest year for Belarusian journalism since 2011,” when there was a massive crackdown following elections in December of the previous year. Bastunets has said that the authorities are trying to strengthen their control of mass media ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of 2019 and 2020.
Legislation adopted in 2014 authorized the Information Ministry to compel internet providers to block access to websites without judicial review. Amendments to the Law on Mass Media in 2018 introduced a burdensome registration procedure for online media to be able to cover the government. And reporters are being prosecuted under the 2016 amendments to the country’s anti-extremism law.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists documented 26 police searches of journalists’ and bloggers’ homes and of media offices in 2018. In February 2018, a court sentenced three bloggers to five years in prison and suspended their sentences, after they had spent 14 months in pretrial custody, for posts that allegedly “questioned Belarus’s sovereignty” and “insulted the Belarusian nation.” In March 2019, police arrested two Russian journalists as they were giving a lecture about operating small online outlets. A blogger who covered environmental protests is facing dubious “criminal insult” charges.
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 BelTA, the state news agency, without paying a subscription fee. The charges were wholly inappropriate for the alleged offense, Human Rights Watch said. In connection with similar cases, police searched the offices of several independent media outlets, and held eight journalists in custody for three days. They, along with at least six others, were also prosecuted and fined.
Authorities have prosecuted bloggers who cover controversial issues on a range of dubious or trumped-up charges. They have also routinely detained and fined journalists covering unauthorized protests.
President Aliaksandr Lukashenka will mark his 25th anniversary in office in July. His presidency has been marked by entrenched authoritarian rule, Human Rights Watch said. The government severely restricts independent media and independent organizations and refuses permission for most human rights groups to register and operate freely. It is the only country in Europe that continues to allow the death penalty.
In recent years, the government made some improvements in the human rights situation. It has downgraded “unregistered” involvement in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from a criminal offense to an administrative one and has released most high-profile political prisoners. The authorities have jailed fewer journalists than in the past, though they have greatly increased prosecutions that result in fines.
Human rights and media freedom groups have repeatedly urged the EOC to establish media freedom procedures for the Minsk Games. In a May 8 letter to Human Rights Watch, the EOC’s leadership wrote that it had appointed a “contact person to monitor” the rights of journalists during the games.
The EOC should ensure that the information about the contact person is made available to foreign and Belarusian journalists alike, and that the individual has the resources to respond effectively to any complaints. The EOC, an association of 50 National Olympic Committees, owns and regulates the European Games. The EOC and its members are part of the Olympic Movement and governed by the Olympic Charter, which has explicit guarantees for media freedom.
“The situation for press freedoms in Belarus is alarming,” Denber said. “The EOC needs to do whatever is required to ensure journalists can report safely during the games.”
For details about the new legislation and the cases brought against journalists and bloggers, please see below.
New Restrictive Legislation
Legislation adopted in 2014 authorized the Information Ministry to compel internet providers to block access to websites without judicial review.
In the last two years, access to two independent news platforms, Belarusian Partisan and Charter ’97, were blocked for “disseminating prohibited information,” including information about an “unauthorized assembly.” Both remain blocked, although one re-opened under a different domain.
Amendments to the Law on Mass Media in 2018 introduced a burdensome procedure for “voluntary” registration for online media outlets. Websites without this registration cannot file requests for accreditation with government institutions, effectively banning them from reporting on the work of the government.
Websites that want to be registered must have an officially registered company and office. The website’s editor-in-chief must be a citizen of Belarus with more than five years of media experience. The Belarusian Association of Journalists told Human Rights Watch that as of the beginning of 2019, only five websites were registered.
The amendments require both registered and unregistered online media outlets to keep public records of the names of people who submit comments online and disclose that information to authorities. The amendments also make owners of online media criminally liable for any content posted on their website and provide additional grounds for the Information Ministry to block websites without judicial oversight.
Amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses, also adopted in 2018, introduced fines for disseminating “prohibited information,” up to 4,900 Belarusian rubles (about US$2,320) for registered media outlets, and 2,450 Belarusian rubles (about US$1,160) for unregistered outlets.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), which oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), found that many aspects of Belarus media regulation, including the 2018 legal amendments, “severely restrict freedom of opinion and expression.”
Misuse of “Anti-Extremism” Legislation to Restrict Legitimate Speech
Legislative amendments adopted in 2016 expanded the definition of “extremist activity” to include, among other things, “disseminating extremist materials.”
Two high-profile examples illustrate how Belarusian authorities have used criminal “extremism” charges to suppress provocative speech related to Russian-Belarusian relations. The Belarus authorities have tried to prevent information about the cases getting out, closing the trials to the public and requiring the accused and their lawyers to sign non-disclosure agreements.
In one of the cases, in an August 2016 closed hearing, a Minsk court found that nine articles published on 1863x.com, a news and analytical website often critical of the government, were “extremist,” alleging that some content contained pornography and incited ethnic hatred. In reaching its conclusion, the court relied exclusively on a state expert’s analysis.
The website’s administrator, Eduard Palchys, was arrested in May 2016, convicted in October on criminal extremism charges following a closed trial, sentenced to 21 months on parole, and released. Palchys and his lawyer had to sign a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting them from speaking publicly about the trial. Human Rights Watch understands that the speech was provocative and might be offensive to some, but it did not call for violence.
In the second case, in December 2016, authorities arrested Yuri Pavlovets, Dimitri Alimkin, and Sergei Shiptenko, bloggers with the Russian-language websites Regnum, Lenta.ru, and EADaily, on charges of inciting extremism and sowing social discord between Russia and Belarus, for posts authorities said “questioned Belarus’s sovereignty” and “insulted the Belarusian nation.” It appears that the articles that formed the basis for the charges were dismissive of the Belarusian language and speculated that Belarus could face a nationalist revolt and might follow the example of Ukraine, where a public uprising in 2013-2014 overthrew the government. In February 2018, the court convicted them and handed down five-year suspended prison sentences, upheld later on appeal. All three spent 14 months in pre-trial custody.
In December, Internal Affairs Minister Igor Shunevich presented a draft law to parliament that would create additional administrative and criminal liability for the “propaganda and rehabilitation of Nazism.” Parliament approved the bill on the first reading, but the bill would have to be approved in two more readings and be signed by the president to become law.
Around the same time, authorities started using existing articles of the administrative offenses code prohibiting “propaganda or public demonstration of Nazi symbols”(article 17.10) and “dissemination of information containing calls for extremist activity” (article 17.11) to penalize journalists and activists, in particular, those involved in the anarchist movement, for their social media posts.
In one example, in November, Aliaksandr Dzianisau, a freelance journalist, was fined 612.5 Belarusian rubles (about US$290) for reposting two videos of a 2017 rally against the “social parasites tax.” These videos were re-posted from a group that authorities had blacklisted in 2016 for featuring “extremist” content, making reposting of any of the group’s publications an offense.
In other cases, Aliaksandr Horbach and Mikalay Dziadok, freelance journalists, were fined for posts involving Nazi symbols. Horbach was fined for posts featuring anti-fascist graffiti, from 2013 to 2016. Dziadok was fined several times, including for posts that depicted a swastika and condemned famous Belarusian public figures for being photographed with the flag of a neo-Nazi group called Misanthropic Division.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that in mid-March 2019, police in Minsk detained two Russian journalists, Pavel Nikulin and Jan Potarsky, while they were about to give a lecture about small-scale media outlets at the Belarusian Press Club. They were released after three hours without charge, but their presentation materials were confiscated. The police said later that they had filed an administrative case against Nikulin and Potarsky for disseminating “extremist” materials. Both are with moloko plus, a Russian noncommercial media project devoted to studying violence.
The BelTA Case
In August 2018, Belarusian authorities opened a criminal inquiry against several media outlets for allegedly using passwords to access a paid subscription to the state-owned news agency, BelTA, without authorization and without paying for a subscription.
Police searched the offices of BelaPAN, the only independent news agency in Belarus, and TUT.by, a leading news website that is one of the few registered, independent online outlets. TUT.by has the largest audience among independent Belarusian media, comparable with that of state television channels. Police also searched the editorial offices of several other media outlets, some of them state-owned, and the homes of several journalists. They confiscated computers and other data storage devices.
A lawyer with the Belarusian Association of Journalists told Human Rights Watch that at least 18 journalists and editors from various online outlets were interrogated as suspects or witnesses, eight of whom were detained for up to three days.
In September, Dzmitry Bobrik, editor of FINANCE.TUT.by, said in a social media post that the Investigative Committee, Belarus’s criminal investigative service, had forced him to cooperate by threatening his family and privacy. Investigative Committee officials denied his allegations.
In November, 14 suspects were charged with “unauthorized access to computer information for personal gain, causing significant damage” under part 2, article 349 of the Criminal Code. Violations are punishable by up to two years in prison.
Aliaksei Kazliuk, co-founder of Human Constanta, an independent human rights group, told Human Rights Watch that such charges are intended for cyber-crimes like hacking, and not for abusing a password to get free access to a commercial website. “These journalists are not hackers”, he said, “and such situations should be dealt with in the framework of civil proceedings.”
By the end of December, the criminal charges had been replaced with administrative charges. Each of the accused had to pay fines and damages ranging from 3,000 to 17,000 Belarusian rubles (US$1,420 – $8,050) to BelTA and another state-owned media company.
In March, a court found Maryna Zolatava, the editor of TUT.by, guilty of criminal negligence for allegedly being aware that her staff was using log-in data for BeITA's paid subscription. The court fined her 7,650 Belarusian rubles and ordered her to pay BeITA 6,000 Belarusian rubles (US$3,650 and $2,860, respectively) in legal costs.
During her trial, Zolatava admitted that she became aware that one employee was using a BelTA paid subscription password, and said she immediately ordered the person to stop. The defense underscored that all the news that appears on the BelTA paid subscription service is published, usually several minutes later, for open access.
The defense said that there were only two instances in which the investigation had been able to demonstrate that news originating from BelTA appeared on TUT.by’s website before being publicly released by BelTA. Nevertheless, the prosecution insisted that BelTA and its subscribers incurred damages that equaled the total cost of several paid subscription licenses for several months.
“The entire case appears to be an attempt by the law enforcement to intimidate and bring under control leading independent media, in particular TUT.by,” Andrei Aliaksandrau, a Belarusian media expert, told Human Rights Watch. “During hundreds of interrogations conducted for this case, journalists were asked detailed questions on how the work of their editorial offices is organized, which went far beyond what was necessary.... Law enforcement also obtained a large amount of data stored on seized computers, which potentially may be used to persecute journalists and their sources.”
In June 2018, two months before the BelTA case was opened, the authorities began investigating Ales Lipai, head of the BelaPAN news agency, on criminal tax evasion charges. A week before the case was opened, the tax authorities imposed an administrative fine on Lipai for late submission of his 2016-2017 tax returns. Lipai paid the fines in full by the day the criminal investigation was opened, but the authorities proceeded with it anyway, seized his property and putting him under house arrest. They dropped the case after Lipai died in August from cancer.
Harassment of Journalists Contributing to Foreign Media
Belarusian media legislation requires journalists working for media outlets registered outside Belarus to obtain accreditation from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, even if they are Belarusian nationals. The same law also requires them to have an official labor contract with the accredited foreign media outlet, which makes it difficult for freelancers to become accredited. Authorities have often arbitrarily denied accreditation to journalists working for foreign media.
For years, law enforcement officials harassed journalists contributing to foreign media without accreditation, mostly by issuing warnings. In April 2014, the authorities started prosecuting them under part 2 of article 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offences, for “illegal production and distribution of mass media products.”
According to Human Rights Center Viasna, an independent Belarusian group, in 2018 alone, the courts imposed 131 fines on 36 journalists and bloggers for this offense, ranging from 490 to 1,225 Belarusian rubles (US$230 to US$580). The total sum, more than 110,000 Belarusian rubles (about US$52,000), exceeded the amount of the fines imposed in the previous four years for this offense. In the first four months of 2019, authorities have brought at least 35 such cases against 15 journalists.
Freelance journalists contributing to the Belarusian-language TV channel Belsat are the main targets of these charges, as well as of other harassment. Belsat is registered in Poland but positions itself as the only independent Belarusian TV channel. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the total amount of fines imposed on Belsat journalists for this offense in 2018 had exceeded the equivalent of US$47,000.
Volha Chaichyts, a freelance journalist, was fined for her work with Belsat 14 times in 2018 for a total of 12,250 Belarusian rubles (about US$5,860). Although she and her husband, Belsat cameraman Andrei Koziel, who was himself fined seven times for a total of about US$4,220, had paid all the fines, in September they were barred from leaving Belarus for a planned trip abroad where they were supposed to speak about the situation concerning media freedom in Belarus.
The day before their trip, a court bailiff told them they could not travel because it was impossible to verify whether they had paid the entire amount, as “the database was not working.” Chaichyts told Human Rights Watch that the ban was lifted the following day, and by then Chaichyts had to travel to Vilnius to take another flight.
Other Persecution of Belsat Journalists
In March 2017, police searched the Minsk offices of Belsat, allegedly for unlawfully using its trademark, and seized the channel’s equipment, which was not returned.
In March 2017, law enforcement also brought six charges in a single day against Larysa Shchyrakova, a freelance journalist working with Belsat, for covering protests on Freedom Day on March 25. She told Human Rights Watch they also threatened, twice, to take away her 10-year-old son. Police accused her of cooperating with unregistered foreign media, failing to appear for questioning, failing to register her pet dog, and, for good measure, having a pile of sand outside her house. Since then, she has been repeatedly fined for other groundless media-related infractions.
Kanstantsin Zhukouski, another freelancer, told Human Rights Watch he had to leave the country in January 2019 due to continuous pressure on him that intensified after he published an exposé with Belsat on the security services’ work on illegal migration across the Belarusian border. In 2018 alone, he was fined 12 times for his cooperation with Belsat. He said that he and his family had received threats online, he had been beaten by police, and his home had been broken into. None of these incidents was investigated. In January, he was attacked by unidentified men, who splashed some burning liquid in his face, knocked him down, and tore up his passport. Zhukouski and his family requested asylum in another European country.
In April 2019, police raided Belsat’s Minsk office in connection with libel charges. The case was prompted by a 2018 article on the channel’s website, which mistakenly alleged that the former deputy prosecutor general, Andrei Shved, had been arrested together with his brother, Aleh, on corruption charges. Belsat’s representatives publicly acknowledged the error, as the arrest and bribery charge involved Aleh Shved only, and published a correction. During the search, police seized all the data storage devices and computers in the office, returning them two days later.
Harassment of Journalists, Bloggers Covering Protests
Journalists covering unauthorized public assemblies, in particular annual rallies on March 25, Freedom Day, and April 26, the anniversary of Chernobyl, are regularly detained, as law enforcement officers often do not distinguish journalists covering such rallies from participants. Media rights organizations say the number of detentions has started to decrease, and that the journalists are now for the most part fined instead for dubious reasons.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, in 2017, the authorities arbitrarily detained at least 101 journalists, in most cases while they were reporting on street protests, and sentenced them to at least 10 and up to 15 days in detention on a variety of trumped-up charges. Also in 2017, the association said, police beat six journalists. In 2018, 31 journalists were detained, including 10 during Freedom Day rallies.
In December 2017, a court fined Anatol Bukas, chief editor of Borisov News, a local independent news website, 345 Belarusian rubles (roughly US$163) for writing that an unauthorized rally would take place in Minsk. This violated the law on mass gatherings, which bans giving the date and time of demonstrations if they are not authorized. The trial followed a warning issued to the outlet by the Information Ministry in November. Under Belarusian law, two warnings may lead to an outlet’s closure.
In July 2018, parliament amended the Law on Mass Events, introducing a requirement for journalists covering rallies to clearly identify themselves by providing their identity documents and documents confirming official accreditation and wearing a visible “press” sign. Belarusian rights defenders are concerned that law enforcement officials may use this provision to justify penalizing unaccredited freelancers and bloggers who cover protests. If they identify themselves to police as press, they may be fined for working without official accreditation, and if they do not, they may be detained and fined as participants of the unauthorized rally.
Harassment of Bloggers
In 2018, Siarhei Piatrukhin, a blogger whose posts are critical of the authorities and attract large numbers of viewers, was regularly detained and fined for the coverage of weekly protests against the construction of a battery plant near Brest over serious concerns about the plant’s environmental impact.
Piatrukhin told Human Right Watch that in May, the police came to his apartment, seizing his laptop, a tablet that belonged to a third party, mobile phone, and camera. In July, a court charged him with disobeying police when he would not allow police to enter his apartment. The police officer had come in relation to a complaint filed by a person who accused Piatrukhin of insulting them. The charges stem from a series of videos the blogger had uploaded to YouTube, which alleged that police in Brest beat a local resident in 2016. The alleged victim has repeatedly petitioned authorities to prosecute the abusive police, but no criminal proceedings followed.
A criminal slander and insult case was filed against Piatrukhin, and in August, police again searched his apartment, seizing equipment. Masked policemen broke the door and used force to take him to the police station for interrogation.
In April 2019, a court convicted Piatrukhin, fined him 9,180 Belarusian rubles (US$4,380), and ordered him to pay the equivalent of US$3,700 in moral damages to four police officers who were allegedly targeted in his YouTube videos. Piatrukhin plans to appeal.
In March 2019, police in the Homel region arrested Andrei Pavuk, a blogger who lives in the rural area around Homel. He created a local online community for independent news and has about 9 000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. The police also searched his apartment and seized his equipment.
The investigation claims that Pavuk emailed a fake bomb message to the regional department of the Emergencies Ministry, causing the agency to evacuate staff of the local government building. After questioning Pavuk on criminal charges of making a “knowingly false statement of danger,” the police released him. In mid-April, Pavuk was notified that the criminal charges against him had been lifted, but police have not returned his confiscated equipment.
Foreign Journalists Prevented from Working in Belarus
In the past two years, there have been fewer incidents of Belarusian authorities denying entry to or deporting foreign, especially Western, reporters than in the past. This is part of Belarus’s declared policy of openness to the West, which includes short-term visa-free entry for nationals of many Western countries. The few cases in 2018 and 2019 were prompted by cooperation between Belarusian and Russian border police services and decisions by Russian authorities to include journalists in blacklists that are now shared between both states.
In October 2018, police in Minsk detained Mykola Balaban, a Ukrainian national and publisher of The Village Ukraine magazine. He was in Belarus to attend an international Media Management and IT forum.
The police came to Balaban’s hotel room at 5 a.m., took him to a police station, and put him in a cell. Six hours later, they released him. It turned out police had mistaken him for another Ukrainian journalist with the same name and date of birth, apparently blacklisted in Russia, who works for Informnapalm.org website, which investigates Russia's military involvement in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Following the incident, Balaban cancelled his participation in the event and returned to Ukraine.
In January 2019, border guards detained Olga Vallee, FOJO Media Institute program coordinator and a Swedish national, at the Minsk airport. She arrived in Belarus at the invitation of the Belarusian Association of Journalists for a meeting with young journalists. Border guards told Vallee she could not enter Belarus, since her name appears on a Russian “blacklist.” As a result, she had to return to Riga.
FOJO Media Institute has cooperated with Belarusian journalists’ organizations for more than 15 years. Its representatives had faced no impediments to visiting Belarus. Vallee had received a business visa for a year in October 2018.