CPJ condemns draft law to silence government criticism

New York, December 7, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by draft legislation that makes criticism of authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and his government punishable by up to five years in prison. The lower house of parliament passed amendments to the Penal Code on December 2, a move criticized by the United States and European Union. The upper house is scheduled to vote on the bill on Thursday before it is sent to Lukashenko for signing.

One clause in the bill titled “Discrediting the Republic of Belarus” prohibits “presenting false information about political, social, military, or foreign policy in Belarus” to international organizations, agencies, or governments, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported.

Local press reports said that the wording of the draft legislation is so vague that it gives Belarusian authorities great latitude to interpret the law as they see fit. One clause establishes penalties of up to five years in jail for persons who disseminate through the media “appeals” to international organizations or foreign governments, which authorities deem harmful to the security interests of Belarus. The draft neither explains what is meant by appeals nor defines “harmful to security interests.”

“The Bill will effectively criminalize criticism of the government and throw Belarus back into the dark days of Stalinism,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on lawmakers in the upper house of parliament to overturn it.”