The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the government did not respect these rights in practice and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and the media. Moreover, the all-dominant state press almost exclusively propagated views in support of Lukashenka.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Wearing masks, displaying unregistered flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order are also prohibited.
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information to a foreigner about the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country that authorities deem to be false or derogatory.
Freedom of Press: The government restricted press freedom and censored the media. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, or jailed members of the media and harassed bloggers who publicly criticized the government. Under the law the government may close a publication after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on speech and the press. In addition regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Information Ministry can suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits the media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.
The Information Ministry continued to deny registration to many independent media outlets, i.e., privately owned media perceived to be publishing information independently of government control. In spite of the lack of registration, independent media, including newspapers, magazines, and Internet news Web sites, sought to provide objective and independent coverage of events. However, they operated under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies.
State-owned media, which was extremely biased and served as a propaganda arm of the regime, dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There is no country-wide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state-owned kiosk system, Belsayuzdruk, continued to refuse to deliver or sell at least 10 independent newspapers that covered politics.
Although authorities continued to allow the circulation of Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva, two national independent newspapers, through state distribution systems, they remained subject to restrictions and financial penalties. For example, in January Belsayuzdruk refused to increase the number of Nasha Niva copies available for sale despite high demand for the newspaper. On July 29, the Minsk city economic court fined Nasha Niva 14 million rubles ($1,690) for receiving two warnings during the year. On August 8, the Supreme Economic Court fined the Narodnaya Volya the same amount on similar charges.
International media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their news programs with local programming. Broadcasts from other countries, including Poland and Lithuania, could be received in parts of the country, usually along the border.
On May 27, Lukashenka criticized Russian media for helping provoke an “artificial” economic crisis. On June 13, presidential Chief of Staff Uladzimir Makei dismissed what he called speculation about a ban on Russian media in the country as “complete nonsense.” Conversely, Makei charged that Russian authorities disregarded “flagrant violations of Belarusian laws and journalistic code of ethics by a number of Russian media outlets.”
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to routinely harass, arrest, and assault journalists.
Security forces arrested seven members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), who later were convicted of “participating in mass disturbances” or organizing activities that “violated public order” as a result of their work on presidential campaigns. These included Sannikau spokesman Alyaksandr Atroshchankau, sentenced to four years in jail in March and pardoned in September; Sannikau aide Zmitser Bandarenka, sentenced to two years in jail; Nyaklyaeu aides Alyaksandr Fyaduta and Syarhei Vaznyak, both given two-year suspended sentences; Rymasheuski aide Paval Sevyarynets, sentenced to three years of internal exile; independent journalist and Sannikau’s wife Iryna Khalip, given a two-year suspended sentence; and editor of the Charter97 Internet portal Natallya Radzina, who was charged, released from pretrial holding facilities on her own recognizance, and fled the country in March. Authorities dropped charges against Radzina in August.
On December 19, 2010, police detained at least 15 local journalists, all members of the BAJ, and at least five foreign correspondents. Mariya Antonova of Agence France Presse was detained overnight. Twenty-two other local and foreign journalists reported being the victims of physical violence during the police crackdown. These included Michael Schwirtz and James Hill of the New York Times, Anton Kharchenko and Victor Filyaev of television channel Russia Today, and Hanz Cezarek, a photojournalist for the Austrian Internet-based news service news.at. At least 11 local independent journalists were jailed for up to 15 days for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration.
In the weeks following the December 2010 crackdown, authorities raided offices of media organizations, including the Minsk office of Poland-based European Radio for Belarus (ERB), the Minsk office of Poland-based Belsat TV, and Nasha Niva. Security forces also raided the residences of at least 12 journalists in search of videos, photographs, or printed materials related to postelection demonstrations. During their search of the ERB offices, police removed all employees from the premises and then seized more than 50 pieces of office and studio equipment, leaving little but tables and chairs behind. In anticipation of the raid, Belsat staff had vacated their premises several days earlier. Between December 19, 2010, and late February, police seized at least 114 pieces of office and studio equipment from media outlets and independent journalists around the country.
On January 26, Internal Affairs Minister Anatol Kulyashou claimed that police raided the homes and offices of journalists in a manner consistent with the law and had not used violence against reporters during the postelection crackdown. He also claimed that a journalist had assaulted a police officer with a video camera.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover “silent” and other protests in Minsk. During the year more than 80 independent journalists were detained for their coverage of “silent” protests across the country. Thirty journalists petitioned the Office of the Prosecutor General to probe the arrests of their colleagues during the “silent” protests. In response, the prosecutor general sent a letter to the interior minister urging him to have police comply with the media law, which allows journalists to attend and report on public demonstrations. The letter also noted that police were entitled to temporarily limit or ban access of individuals, including journalists, to some places and even have them leave such places for personal and public security reasons. The BAJ welcomed the prosecutor general’s statement in July that police officers should be punished if they impeded journalists covering protests; however, according to press reports no sanctions against police followed.
Routine harassment of journalists was also common. For example, on March 25, police detained BelaPAN news agency correspondent Uladzimir Laptsevich and BAJ member Dzmitry Salauyou at a Freedom Day demonstration. Three days later, a court in Mahilyou convicted the two of using obscenities and resisting police orders. Laptsevich was sentenced to seven days in jail, and Salauyou received five days. Authorities refused Laptsevich’s request for trial proceedings to be conducted in Belarusian or for an interpreter to be present.
On June 15, Hrodna-based journalist Ihar Bantsar was jailed for five days on charges of minor hooliganism. Police arrested Bantsar just outside his home on June 14 to prevent him from attending his associate Andrzej Paczobut’s court hearing.
Authorities also harassed and obstructed the work of foreign journalists. Following the crackdown on civil society, political opposition, and independent media in the wake of the December 2010 postelection demonstrations, a number of journalists reporting for international media were detained, interrogated, searched, and threatened with prosecution for their coverage of political events and ongoing criminal investigations. For example, on February 16, authorities questioned Belsat correspondent Tatsyana Bublikava about her cooperation with foreign media. On February 28, the prosecutor general issued her a warning that she could face liability for working without accreditation.
On March 28, the Foreign Ministry recalled the newly issued accreditation of Russian journalist Aleksandr Lashmankin, editor in chief of the Samara-based Svoboda news agency. Authorities detained him upon arrival in Vorsha on March 24, and jailed him for three days on charges of disorderly conduct. On May 30, police arrested Russian “Dozhd” television channel correspondent Rodion Marinichev after he interviewed political prisoner Iryna Khalip. Officers confiscated his materials, deported him, and banned him from the country for five years.
On June 27, two BBC journalists were notified by the Belarusian embassy in London that their visas were cancelled and they could not travel to Belarus despite being accredited by the Foreign Ministry. Citing a right not to give an explanation for cancellation, embassy officials advised the journalists against applying for visas “in the near future.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The vast majority of publications were forced to exercise self-censorship. The government tightly controlled the content of domestic broadcast media. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news; however, most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national issues or risk censorship. Authorities frequently pressured such stations into sharing materials and cooperating with authorities to intimidate local opposition and human rights groups that met with foreign diplomats.
In 2009 Lukashenka again stated that control of radio and television stations was a high priority for the government and that private stations would not be allowed to operate in the country. He dismissed concerns about closing Russian channels. Following the December 2010 postelection demonstrations, Lukashenka threatened journalists, saying they would be held “fully responsible for every word.”
In June Minsk authorities discontinued broadcasting Russian popular entertainment channel TNT known for satirical and critical jokes about Lukashenka.
Only the state-run radio and the state-run television networks were allowed to broadcast nationwide. The government continued to use its monopoly of television and radio broadcasting to disseminate its version of events and minimize all opposing viewpoints. State television apparently coordinated its propaganda documentaries with the country’s security services, as evidenced by the use of surveillance footage and wiretaps transcripts in broadcasts. Authorities banned state media and radio from citing works and broadcasting music by independent local and well-known foreign musicians, artists, writers, and painters who were named on an alleged “black list.”
Local authorities frequently warned independent editors and journalists to avoid reporting on certain topics and not to criticize the government. Authorities harassed bloggers for the same reasons. Authorities also warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints. During the year the Ivatsevichy-based independent newspaper Gazeta Dlia Vas was forced to close due to reduced advertising.
Journalists reporting for international media that gave extensive coverage to the country, such as the Warsaw-based independent satellite channel Belsat TV and the Polish radio station Radio Racyja, continued to receive warnings from the Prosecutor’s Office for working without accreditation. After enactment of the new media law, authorities sent warnings to at least 24 independent journalists.
Libel Laws/National Security: Libel is a criminal offense. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report.
For example, in April police arrested Andrzej Paczobut on charges of slandering and insulting the president. On July 5, a court in Hrodna convicted him of slander in a closed-door proceeding and sentenced him to a three-year suspended sentence, with two years of probation. He was acquitted of the charge of insult. Paczobut also was prohibited from leaving the country. On September 20, a higher court rejected his appeal.
In June Lida-based blogger Yauhen Kutsko was fined 700,000 rubles ($85) after a court convicted him of slandering the then chairman of the Lida regional government. Following the publication of the offending article on his blog at the end of 2010, Kutsko was dismissed from his job and remained unemployed at year’s end.
Authorities also frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media. On January 12, authorities closed popular independent radio station Autoradio, claiming that it broadcast “public calls for extremist activities” by broadcasting legal campaign advertisements for presidential candidate Sannikau. Autoradio’s multiple legal appeals to resume broadcasting were denied.
After an explosion at a Minsk subway station on April 11, authorities issued at least nine warnings to independent journalists and media outlets for disseminating “unfounded information regarding the tragic event at the subway” and “speculations that discredit the Belarusian state and public.” Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya were among the warned outlets, and KGB officers interrogated Nasha Niva editor in chief Andrei Skurko on April 18 and forced the newspaper to remove a video of the explosion site from the newspaper’s Web site.
Publishing Restrictions: The government took numerous actions during the year to limit the independent press, including limiting access to newsprint and raising the cost of printing presses. Several independent newspapers, including Vitsyebski Kuryer and Tavarysch, printed materials in Russia because domestic printing presses (almost all of which were state-owned) refused to print them. Tavarysch subsequently was forced to suspend publication due to financial constraints. Both newspapers remained out of circulation in the country at year’s end. Other independent newspapers, such as Salidarnasc, BDG, and Bobruysky Kuryer, disseminated Internet-only versions due to printing and distribution restrictions.
Conversely, authorities provided robust support for government-controlled media. On August 26, authorities pledged that 25 state-owned publications would receive more than 400 billion rubles ($48 million) in subsidies to cover printing costs, the purchase of paper, and salaries for staff. On August 23, Information Minister Aleh Pralyaskouski said that state newspapers were more popular “than so-called opposition publications and numbers of their subscribers could not even be compared.”
During the year the government confiscated numerous independent and opposition newspapers and seized leaflets and other materials deemed to have been printed illegally. For example, on March 21, police briefly detained distributors of the independent newspaper Novy Chas in central Minsk and in Slutsk, confiscating more than 200 copies of the newspaper.