This article is the fifth and final of a series based on the Index on Censorship report Belarus: Time for media reform.
Analysis shows there have been no visible improvements of Belrusian media freedom during in recent years. The state continues to dominate the broadcast media market and preserves tight control over printed publications. State-owned media are used as a tool for government propaganda, while the independent socio-political press faces discrimination. The internet re-shapes the news media market as it provides new opportunities for free flow of information and ideas, but its full-scale development as a free speech domain is hindered by economic peculiarities and attempts of state regulation.
Despite continuous calls for reforms from Belarusin civil society and the international community, media-related legislation remains restrictive and fails to foster the development of pluralistic and independent news media in Belarus. Other laws, such as defamation articles of the Criminal Code, anti-extremist or state secrets legislation are also used to curtail media freedom, restrict access to information and prosecute journalists. Despite the recent talks between Belarus’s Foreign Ministry and the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the authorities of the country remain reluctant to discuss any possible legal reforms of the media field with civil society and professional community.
Physical safety of journalists and impunity remain serious problems that have a chilling effect of media freedom in Belarus. The most acute issue is police interference with journalistic activities and arbitrary detentions of reporters during mass street actions.
As Belarus remains one of the least free places in Europe for journalists and the media to operate, immediate reforms of the Belarus media field should be launched to end harassment and persecution of reporters, and eliminate excessive state interference in media freedom.
The European Union and other international institutions must place the issue of media freedom on the agenda of any dialogue with the Belarusian authorities to demand genuine reforms of the media for the country to live up to its international commitments in the field of freedom of expression.
Index on Censorship believes changes are needed to bring the Belarusian media-related legislation and practices of its implementation in line with the Constitution of the country and its international commitments.
Reforms of the Belarusian media field should be launched, including de-monopolising of the electronic media, introducing public service media and creating a competitive media market. The outline of these reforms should result from a dialogue with professional community and civil society of the country.
The practice of arbitrary detention of journalists, including those that cover street actions, should be immediately stopped. All cases of interference of the police and other state officials into legitimate journalistic activity should be investigated, and those responsible should be brought to account.
All forms of economic discrimination against non-state independent press should be eliminated, in particular:
• independent publications should be treated equally by the state system of press distribution and Belposhta subscription catalogues;
• the state has a pro-active duty to protect and promote freedom of expression and so should investigate anti-competitive practices including the charging of unequal prices for paper and the distribution services for publications for different types of ownership.
The Law of the Republic of Belarus “On Mass Media” must be reformed, in particular:
• to allow for independent self-regulation of journalism allowing reporters of both online and offline news media, including freelance journalists, to operate freely;
• registration procedures for new media outlets should be simplified to lift all the artificial restrictions for entering the media market;
• a possibility of extrajudicial closing down of media should be eliminated; the Ministry of Information should not have the authority to impose sanctions on media, including initiating of cases of closure of media outlets.
Six articles of the Criminal Code providing for criminal liability for defamation should be abolished:
• Article 188 “Libel”
• Article 189 “Insult”
• Article 367 “Libel in relation to the President of the Republic of Belarus”
• Article 368 “Insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”
• Article 369 “Insulting the representative of the authorities”
• Article 369–1 “Discrediting the Republic of Belarus”
Equal and full access to information should be ensured for all journalists of both online and offline media. The institute of accreditation should not be used to restrict the right to access information. In particular, the existing ban for cooperation with foreign media without an accreditation should be lifted as it contradicts the Constitution of Belarus and its international commitments in the field of freedom of expression.
Several provisions of the Presidential Decree No 60 of 1 February 2010 on regulating the internet should be dropped in line with the recommendations in ‘Belarus: Pulling the Plug’ policy paper, along with various other edicts related to the implementation of the decree. In particular, owners of websites should be free to register them at any domain and host them in any country. News websites should not be black-listed and blocked.
Part 1 Belarus: Europe’s most hostile media environment | Part 2 Belarus: A distorted media market strangles independent voices | Part 3 Belarus: Legal frameworks and regulations stifle new competitors | Part 4 Belarus: Violence and intimidation of journalists unchecked | Part 5 Belarus must reform its approach to media freedom
A full report in PDF is available here