Belarus, the country where journalists are terrorists

It is hard to imagine something more damning as an indicator of press freedom than a leader banning the country’s journalism union and threatening penalties and jail for anyone who has dealings with it.

Yet this is what has been done by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus, fast becoming a model for media repression. In February, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) was designated by the authorities in the country as an “extremist formation”.

The authorities also identified eight people, including BAJ chair Andrey Bastunets, who now face up to ten years in prison for “establishing or participating” in the organisation. Others who have financed or “abetted” BAJ could also face jail time, arbitrary detentions, interrogations, and searches.

While another 20 media companies, most of the mainstream, independent Belarusian media, have also been given a similar label, this is the first human rights organisation to be designated thus.

Now the Belarusian authorities have gone a step further and BAJ’s website, social media accounts and logo have now been designated as “extremist materials”. Anyone disseminating the association’s content or merely liking an article on its social feeds could mean a 15 day stay in jail.

The situation is like Britain’s government putting the National Union of Journalists in the same category as Al Qaeda.

Journalists in Belarus, at least those who report critically about Lukashenka’s activities, are now under threat. Some are in jail – 34 media workers at the end of June) – despite Lukashenka this week telling the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg that there are no political prisoners in the country.

Other journalists have left the profession while others have fled abroad.

In spite of these attacks, Bastunets, speaking to Index about the challenges facing journalists, says the independent media of Belarus is far from dead.

“Those journalists who left the country face different challenges than their colleagues in Belarus,” he says, with particular problems in obtaining legal residency in host countries, the high cost of living and renting accommodation even though many of them have their own, now empty, apartments in Belarus.

“There is also the different legal environment, language problems, the sometimes discriminatory attitude to Belarusians as co-aggressors, …and, for some, psychological burn-out.”

Many of those who left Belarus expected to return in a month or two, he says.

“Repression has been going on for almost three years and it is not clear when it might stop. And if media outlets have mostly coped with relocation, survival, and the arrangement of their activities, new challenges await us if current trends persist. One of them is the necessity of accepting the fact that we are in exile for a long time.”

But rumours about the death of the independent media in Belarus are “exaggerated”, he says.

“Several influential media outlets are still working in the country. But, of course, their working conditions are extremely unfavourable. Journalists live under constant threat of raids, detentions, interrogations, and criminal prosecution.”

As a result, media organisations that still operate in Belarus have reinforced safety measures for their journalists as well as using even more secure communications protocols.

They are also self-censoring to some extent.

“Editorial boards have to take extra care when publishing pierces on sensitive issues – on government activities, on opposition, on the war in Ukraine, etc. – in order to minimise the risks,” says Bastunets.

In addition to media outlets with editorial offices in Belarus, there is also a large number of freelance journalists who continue to operate in the country but contribute, usually anonymously, to editors in exile.

This carries grave risks.  On 30 June, cameraman Pavel Padabed was sentenced to four years in prison after being accused of cooperation with the Polish TV channel Belsat, which has also been recognised as an extremist formation.

There is plenty to report on.

The news two weekends ago that Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose legitimacy as the leader of Belarus is contested, had acted as a “peacemaker” between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin provided an interesting story for Belarusian media, both in and outside the country.

Lukashenka promised Prigozhin that could come to Belarus as part of a deal he claimed to have brokered to reduce the tension. Confusingly, he has since announced that Prigozhin is not in Belarus but in St Petersburg (or Moscow).

Most independent media actively covered the actions of Prigozhin and Wagner against the Russian Defence Ministry, with editors and commentators using a variety of terms – military uprising, putsch, coup attempt, march of justice, conflict – to describe it.

“State-run media outlets focused on ‘praising’ Lukashenka’s role in settlement of the conflict, which is questioned by many independent experts,” says Bastunets. “It is unknown whether Prigozhin and Wagner Group mercenaries are now in Belarus and whether they were or will be here at all. But there is a feeling that the Wagner mercenaries will not be welcome guests.”

If Prigozhin does turn out to be in Belarus, the country’s independent media are still there to report on it.

Belarus’ counter-extremism laws used to restrict free expression

Credit: Shutterstock / Fedor Selivanov

Credit: Shutterstock / Fedor Selivanov

Miklos Haraszti, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus, has called for reforms to the country’s laws and practices that for two decades have stifled freedom of expression.

“Critical opinion and fact-finding are curtailed by the criminalisation of content that is deemed ‘harmful for the State’; by criminal defamation and insult laws that protect public officers and the president, in particular, from public scrutiny; and by ‘extremism’ laws that ban reporting on political or societal conflicts,” Haraszti said in a 6 November statement.

Belarus anti-extremism law came into force in 2007. According to Article 14 of the Law On Countering Extremism, it is prohibited to publish and or disseminate extremist materials, even through the media. Information products propagandising extremist activities can be seized by the decision of state security services, law enforcement agencies, prosecutor’s office or courts. If deemed extremist, the court can order the materials be destroyed.

The threat for free speech lies in the broad definitions of “extremist activities” and “extremist materials”. Under Belarusian law, extremist activities include “degrading of national honor and dignity”. Such provisions are contrary to international standards of freedom of expression.

“Unfortunately, this is one of the indicators of the current legislation of Belarus – the absolute vagueness of definitions and the absolute possibility of law enforcement to interpret them as they want,” Andrey Bastunets, chairperson of Belarusian Association of Journalists, said.

Critical materials regarded as extremist can end up banned. In 2011, the Ministry of Information issued a warning to Autoradio for broadcasting a message “containing calls for extremist activities”. The warning concerned a phrase by Andrei Sannikau, candidate for the presidency in 2010, that “the fate of the country is solved in the square, not in the kitchen”. The Supreme Economic Court and the National Commission on Broadcasting upheld the warning and the radio was stripped of its frequency.

The law has led to frequent seizures of imported printed material and videos by Belarusian customs offices. Usually, the seized materials are examined to determine if the items are extremist, but it is unclear how to properly get any property out of impound. Often the rightful owners are forced to repeatedly ask for the return of their material.

One of the most sensational cases related to “countering extremism” was the recognition of Belarus Press Photo 2011 album as extremist materials in 2013. The album contained images that won in 2011 the National Press Photo contest — an open annual contest of press photography. In November 2012, 41 copies of the album were seized for expert examination at the border with Lithuania border from three photojournalists, who were organisers of the contest.

Then the Belarusian KGB’s Hrodna regional department initiated proceedings to categorise the album as extremist material. Ashmiany District Court decided that the publication under consideration was extremist. The court’s decision was based on the KGB’s report that “the choice of the photos for the photo album in the aggregate reflects only negative sides of the life of the Belarusian people, together with the author’s own insinuations and conclusions, which, with the view of the socially accepted norms and morals, insults the national honor and dignity of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, diminishes the authority of the state power organs, undermines the trust of foreign states, foreign and international organisations to them.”

As a result, the seized copies of the album were ordered to be destroyed. Further, the court decision served as grounds to withdraw the license from Lohvinau, the publisher of the album. At least 17 anti-extremism motivated seizures of publications have been carried out by Belarusian customs officers since then.

In 2014, the National Commission of Experts on Assessment of Information Productions Regarding Extremist Contents was established as a permanent body with regional subcommissions set up in the regions. Two-thirds of the National Commission’s members are state officials — including representatives of the KGB and customs — who often initiate proceedings to recognise a material as extremist. In the first six months of its existence, the National Commission considered over 100 different publications, 25 of which have been recognised as extremist.

In November 2015, Belarusian customs officers seized two publications for expert examination.

On 10 November 2015, Oleksandr Doniy and four other Ukrainian TV journalists were interrogated and searched by Belarusian officers at the Ukraine-Belarus border while traveling by car to Vilnius, Lithuania. The journalists, who were working for the cultural programme Last Barricade, were held for five hours. A total of 22 items were seized, including five copies of a documentary about the Ukrainian Revolution (1917-1921) and 11 books, among them Confession From a Condemned Cell, Marshal Zhukov and Ukrainians During World War II. The Ukrainian journalists have been accused of importing “extremist literature and audio productions”.

On 19 November 2015, a number of human rights books were seized by customs officers from Aliaksandr Hanevich who was returning to Belarus from Lithuania. Those were De-facto Implementation of International Human Rights Standards: The Experience of Belarusian ILIA Program Alumni, Enlightened by Belarusianness by Ales Bialiatski, My Fight by Valery Hrytsuk, The Death Penalty in Belarus and Pervasive Violations of Labor Rights and Forced Labor in Belarus.

Besides the anti-extremism law, the grounds for stifling freedom of speech are contained in the Law On Mass Media. In the beginning of 2015, the new Article 51.1 was incorporated that set the procedure for restricting access to online information resources. It can be carried out extrajudicially by the decision of the ministry of information upon the request of any state body if the online resource disseminates information prohibited by law. The law also prohibits propaganda of extremist activities. Blocking websites can follow only one violation of the law, within three months since it occurred. This concerns access to both Belarusian and foreign websites viewed in Belarus.

In 2015, the ministry of information has restricted access to 40 websites, 11 of them have been blocked for disseminating extremist materials.


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