• Restrictive law requires media obtain government registration.
• Administration eases some repressive tactics to gain EU favor.
13: Independent papers blacklisted by state-controlled distributors.
Authorities eased their heavy-handed tactics of repression for much of the year even as a restrictive new media law took effect. The change in tone coincided with the European Union’s suspension of a three-year-old travel ban against President Aleksandr Lukashenko and 35 top officials that was first imposed in response to the regime’s treatment of opposition activists and journalists.
THE PRESS: 2009
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But journalists debunked the notion of any significant, sustained improvement in the press freedom climate. The government continued to bar independent newspapers from using state-controlled distribution companies, police harassed independent and pro-opposition reporters, and regulators denied accreditation to foreign news outlets and their reporters. And by late year, the government began to apply the provisions of its new media law more aggressively. The law, which was passed in 2008 and took effect in February 2009, required all media to obtain new government registration, complicated the accreditation process for reporters, toughened sanctions against news outlets to include closure and suspensions, barred international financing of domestic media, and applied longstanding restrictions on traditional media to online publications. Lukashenko had signed the measure over the objections of domestic and international media advocates.
Journalists encountered surprisingly few obstacles in the first few months under the new law, CPJ research showed. The Information Ministry created a simple process for media to apply for new registration, Aleksei Korol, editor of the independent weekly Novy Chas, told CPJ. The Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) said that by late year about 45 percent of the nation’s media outlets, many of them entertainment-based, had successfully obtained registration. The law required all outlets to obtain new registration within a year of its inception on February 8.
Korol told CPJ that authorities had also backed away from explicit repressive tactics—arrests, newsrooms raids, equipment confiscation, and exorbitant fines—that they had heavily relied on in past years. The government did not immediately apply the new media law to online publications, as advocates had feared, and did not block domestic access to pro-opposition Web sites. But the regime did not remove its yoke from the independent media, Korol and others noted.
Andrei Bastunets, a legal analyst for BAJ, told CPJ that the regime’s tactics changed in the fall, and the press freedom climate again deteriorated. The Information Ministry unexpectedly amended registration requirements in September by imposing experience and educational requirements for top editorial staff and barring outlets from using an editor’s home as an official address, Bastunets said. (Many independent newspapers, small and with few resources, are based in editors’ homes.) After these changes, several independent newspapers—Mahilyouski Chas, Soligorsk Plyus, Novaya Gazeta Bobruiska, Prefekt Plyus, and Marinahorskaya Hazeta among them—saw their applications for registration denied.
Hundreds of other media outlets were waiting in late year for word on their registration applications, and advocates feared the hardening of the government’s tone signaled the potential for numerous denials.
The EU imposed travel and financial sanctions against Belarussian officials in 2006 in response to the regime’s crackdown on opposition activists and journalists. The travel ban was suspended in October 2008 by the EU, which then extended the suspension throughout 2009. The EU said it was pursuing a policy of engagement; analysts noted that European diplomats were concerned about Russian influence on the former Soviet state. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU external relations commissioner, told reporters in Minsk that government progress on democracy and human rights issues—including the release of political prisoners—had prompted the EU to ease the sanctions. Still, Lukashenko’s regime had not demonstrated full respect for press freedom or allowed civil society activists to work without fear of reprisal, Ferrero-Waldner told the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
International press freedom advocates—including the International Federation of Journalists, Index on Censorship, and the Open Society Institute—concluded after a September fact-finding mission that authorities continued to rely on “a number of repressive provisions that can be used to silence critical, oppositional, or alternative voices.” In their post-mission report, titled “For Free and Fair Media in Belarus,” the groups said press freedom was threatened by the state’s monopoly on newspaper distribution, the regular denial of accreditation to foreign outlets and their local reporters, and tax and economic policies that favor state media. BAJ noted that tax exemptions for state media gave them a significant competitive advantage over private outlets.
State-controlled distributors Soyuzpechat and Belpochta continued to blacklist 13 independent newspapers, including the prominent publications Novy Chas, Tovarishch, Vitebsky Kuryer, and Gazeta Slonimskaya, local and international media experts said. Authorities also harassed private businesses and detained volunteers who sought to circulate the blacklisted publications, CPJ research found. The state-controlled distributors claimed they were acting within the law by refusing to sign service agreements with independent media outlets, Korol said. Their position was backed by Natalya Petkevich, a senior administration official who said the government would not force the distributors to carry independent newspapers in their catalogues and kiosks.
Internet penetration in the country reached 30 percent, the state news agency BelTA reported in March, citing government statistics. This greater access, coupled with the poor climate for the traditional press, led most embattled independent and pro-opposition media to establish themselves on the Web, winning loyal audiences both inside the country and abroad, CPJ research shows. While the government did not exercise any notable online censorship in 2009, its ownership of the country’s sole Internet service provider, Beltelekom, gives it the ability to block access to critical publications.
Authorities were sensitive to critical coverage originating from Poland-based broadcasters, leading them to target the outlets for obstruction. Authorities barred Poland-based Radio Racyja and satellite television channel Belsat from opening offices in the country, and denied credentials to their reporters. In November, after a prolonged application process, the Poland-based European Radio for Belarus won permission to open a bureau for one year; the Belarusian government approved the permit just as it was undergoing a periodic EU review. The Foreign Ministry denied an entry visa to Belsat Director Agnieszka Romaszewska, who planned to attend an international conference organized by the German Embassy in Minsk. According to the local press, the Foreign Ministry did not provide Romaszewska with an explanation.
In March, the Information Ministry refused to renew accreditation to Andrzej Poczobut, a local correspondent for Poland’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. Authorities told Poczobut his application had been denied because of a series of articles critical of the Lukashenko administration. Poczobut’s articles covered a police fingerprinting initiative; the deportation of three Polish Catholic priests; and criminal lawsuits filed against recently released political prisoners. The Foreign Ministry declared the articles biased and insulting to the president, according to local news reports.
The credentials of journalists Ivan Roman and Viktor Parfenenko of Radio Racyja also were denied, according to local press reports. Throughout the year, prosecutors issued warnings to at least 14 local journalists who contributed to unaccredited foreign broadcasters, Bastunets told CPJ.
In September and October, police harassed journalists covering protest rallies in Minsk that commemorated political prisoners and opposition politicians who disappeared in the late 1990s, local press reports said. Plainclothes agents followed reporters and blocked their cameras when they tried to document arrests of protesters gathered in downtown Minsk, Bastunets told CPJ. Police also detained and beat several journalists at an October 29 opposition rally. The government’s long history of arresting and harassing journalists has resulted in widespread self-censorship, especially in the regions, Korol told CPJ.