Ruling obstructs Belarusian Association of Journalists

New York, March 23, 2010—The Belarusian Supreme Court has upheld a government order that will obstruct the work of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the country’s most prominent press freedom and media support organization. The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the ruling, which was handed down Monday.

The court backed a directive issued in January by the Ministry of Justice that orders the association, known as BAJ, to halt legal assistance work on behalf of local journalists. It also ordered BAJ to revise language on its Web site, to revoke its membership cards, and to halt the issuance of similar cards.

BAJ has one month to meet the conditions of the order or face a six-month suspension. It faces permanent closure if it ultimately fails to comply, according to local press reports and CPJ interviews. BAJ will appeal the ruling to the court’s chairman, the group’s director, Zhanna Litvina, told CPJ.

The Ministry of Justice told BAJ on January 13 that its membership cards, which contain the word “Press,” would allow “the unwarranted appropriation by members of the said organization of the rights of journalists who work for mass media,” BAJ reported on its Web site. Journalists, particularly freelancers, occasionally use BAJ cards to identify themselves as members of the press.

The order also said that the organization’s Law Center for Media Protection, which provides journalists with pro bono legal support, does not comply with BAJ’s “stated mandate.” The ministry ordered BAJ to revise the goals spelled out on its Web site to conform precisely to the group’s charter, BAJ reported.

The organization appealed the ministry’s order in February, leading to Monday’s ruling.

Andrei Bastunets, BAJ’s deputy director and a lawyer, told reporters that the Ministry of Justice was unable in court to specify any Belarusian law that the association had violated. Bastunets said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent in effectively allowing the government to define who in Belarus is a journalist and who is not.

“This ruling is a serious blow to press freedom in Belarus and must be overturned,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The government cannot point to a single law that the Belarusian Association of Journalists has broken.”

Founded in 1995, BAJ has been recognized domestically and internationally for its work. The group has more than 1,000 members, 85 percent of whom work for independent media outlets. BAJ documents and publicizes press freedom violations; organizes press conferences and discussions on issues facing Belarusian journalists; monitors election coverage; provides free legal support for journalists in trouble; and maintains an investigative reporting center. In 2004, BAJ received the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament.