His Excellency Aleksandr Lukashenko
President of Belarus
38, Karl Marx St.
Via facsimile: + (017) 226 0610 and (017) 226 3217
Dear Mr. President,
As an independent, nonpartisan organization defending press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists calls on you to veto a severely restrictive draft media law, which will further curb press freedom conditions in Belarus. The bill was adopted by the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament on June 28 and now awaits your consideration.
The bill was entered in parliament by your government--the Council of Ministers--on June 10 and given priority status. The lower chamber passed the bill in two consecutive readings, on June 17 and June 24, without encouraging debate or the feedback of independent journalists and media outlets--the two groups most affected by the bill.
The bill was rushed through parliament in a few days without ever being made public, and without due discussion, raising doubts about your government's stated intentions to improve the work climate for the press in your country. CPJ research and interviews with local sources show that the proposed draft aims at nothing but facilitating state agencies to further crack down on Belarus's embattled independent media outlets, and broaden the control of the state over critical news outlets and their reporters. Furthermore, despite your government's assurances that the new law is not aimed at controlling the Internet, the bill contains provisions that enable state agencies to exercise strict control over information published on the Web.
CPJ joins the Belarusian and international media community in urging you to veto the bill. Here are the provisions we are particularly concerned about:
- Journalists' accreditation
Article 35 of the new bill gives broad power to various state agencies--on both the local and federal levels--to deny accreditation to individual journalists and their outlets on unidentified grounds. In contrast to the current law, this bill allows state agencies to grant accreditation at will. Moreover, the article obligates Belarusian and international journalists to seek individual accreditations from multiple state agencies, creating further hurdles for the media to do their job. The article prohibits international journalists from working in Belarus without accreditation.
- Control over the Internet
The crackdown on traditional mass media outlets under your administration has turned the Internet into the last refuge for independent journalists, but the proposed draft allows the government to censor the Web. The new bill equates Internet-based publications with traditional mass media outlets, making them subject to the same restrictions. In addition, Articles 11 and 17 of the bill give extra power to the Council of Ministers to single-handedly deny the registration of Web news publications, and to restrict the distribution of Internet-based information.
The broadly worded Article 8 bans mass media outlets from accepting money and other donations from international persons and groups, as well as from anonymous sources--donations from foreign nationals are allowed only if they permanently reside in Belarus or are mentioned in the charter of a news outlet. This further jeopardizes the sustainability of independent outlets, whose editorial stance prohibits seeking funding from the state.
Article 14 requires media outlets to re-register with every technical change, such as a replacement in the founders' board, a change of name of the media outlet, or a change in the editorial staff. The proposed draft also requires that all media outlets re-register within a year after this new law takes effect (Article 54)--a measure that grants Belarusian authorities the power to deny a license to publish to any outlet they deem undesirable on re-registration. The registration process itself is excessively cumbersome. According to Andrei Richter, director of the Moscow-based Media Law and Policy Institute, who analyzed the draft bill for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, "the demand that detailed information be submitted on the content, as well as on the subject of the publication, plus a multitude of bureaucratic barriers, all testify that the registration scheme will be used to exercise [state] supervision over the media."
Chapter 9, "On Liability," makes the violation of the same bill a criminal offense. The chapter provisions penalties for media outlets ranging from written warnings, to suspensions for up to three months, to a total closure. Under the new bill, the Ministry of Information receives broad authority to suspend media outlets; the ministry and state prosecutors are given the authority to shut down outlets permanently. These state agencies can suspend or close the outlets if they find their content to be inaccurate, defamatory, "not corresponding to reality," or "threatening the interests of the state or the public." The bill leaves the interpretation of these terms in the hands of state authorities.
We are gravely concerned by this draconian bill and call on you to veto it. In its current form, it is nothing but a biased, targeted weapon against independent outlets, and takes away what little room for critical reporting and opinion there is in Belarus. The nongovernmental media are already hammered with crippling fines, bureaucratic harassment, pressure on printers and distributors to deny them service and on businesses not to advertise with them, and politically motivated prosecutions. In its current format, the proposed media law would be detrimental to the media in Belarus--both print and Web-based. We urge you to return it to parliament and encourage lawmakers to include independent journalists, media experts, and press freedom advocates in its dynamic, constructive discussion.