Belarusian Association of Journalists about Freedom of Expression and Media in Belarus

Belarusian Association of Journalists
Freedom of Expression and Media in Belarus Belarusian Association of Journalists expresses its concern over media freedom situation in Belarus ahead of local and presidential elections scheduled to take place in April 2010 and early 2011 respectively.

Today, there are serious reasons to state that Belarusian media will not be able to provide voters with objective and up-to-date information or serve as a forum for the exchange of views about candidate’s programmes. 

In recent months, worrying signs for media freedom in the country included official warnings issued by the Ministry of Information to print media, one of which put in danger the publishing of the Narodnaya Volia newspaper, and the preparation of a draft law on regulation of the Internet. The closure of independent newspapers and restrictions on the usage of the Internet, which remains a relatively free source of multifaceted information, will unavoidably have a profoundly negative impact on freedom of expression in Belarus.

At the moment Belarusian non-state newspapers are facing different types of discrimination such as refusal to register, economic pressure and deprivation of the possibility to be distributed through the state distribution system of Sayuzdruk newsstands and Belposhta subscription catalogues. The problem of access to information and journalist’s accreditation at state bodies has also aggravated. This has had greater impact on journalists in the regions, as they become ‘hostages’ to local authorities’ understanding of the media law.

Foreign journalists face the same problems. At the end of 2009 the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus allowed the European Radio for Belarus to open an office in the country for one year. However, in general, the authorities refuse the accreditation to foreign journalists and declare activities of non-accredited journalists illegal.

Police forces’ actions against journalists covering public actions or street protests is another serious problem. Representatives of law enforcement agencies prevent journalists from conducting their professional duties, although the current law on the media guarantees their right to be present at and to report from places of public actions.

Being part of the Eastern Partnership, Belarus has to uphold international standards of freedom of expressions and press. In this regards, BAJ once again reiterates that the following conditions have to be met:

1. Ensuring equal economic conditions for all media outlets, their form of ownership notwithstanding. In particular,
•    returning all independent newspapers to the system of Sayuzdruk, Belposhta state subscription catalogue and Belarusian printing houses, and inadmissibility of printing and distribution restrictions in future;
•    removing administrative and economic pressure on companies and enterprises that cooperate with editorial boards of independent media.
       2. Ensuring real access to information, in particular:
•    to abolish articles of the law “On State Service” and provisions of other legislation acts that restrict journalist’s right to access information about activities of authorities;
•    to guarantee freedom of accreditation of correspondents and the opening of offices of foreign media as well as the introduction of accreditation scheme upon request;
•    unacceptability of cases of refusals by state officials to provide journalists with information.
  3. Bringing national media legislation in accordance with international standards, in particular:
•    to bring Belarus’ media-related legislation (in particular, the media law and the law “On Counteraction to Extremism”) and its implementation in line with international standards;
•    to abrogate articles of the Criminal Code that provide for criminal liability for defamation, especially Article 188 “Calumny”, Article 189 “Insult”, Article 367 “Calumny in relation to the President of the Republic of Belarus”, Article 368 “Insult of the President of the Republic of Belarus”, Article 369 “Insult of the representative of the authorities”, Article 369–1 “Defamation of the Republic of Belarus”.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists is certain that these steps will not only allow to hold free and democratic elections, but also do not facilitate the improvement of the current situation regarding freedom of expression and independent media in Belarus as necessary prerequisites for the development of a democratic country.

Adopted by the BAJ Board
19 January 2009
Belarusian Association of Journalists