The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and the media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of President Lukashenka and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Individuals could not criticize Lukashenka and 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. Authorities also prohibited wearing facemasks, displaying unregistered or opposition flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
For example, on May 11, a district court in Smalyavichy sentenced Leanid Kulakou, a European Belarus activist, to seven days in jail for displaying an opposition white-red-white flag and a banner, with the legend, “Invaders, Go Away!” in protest of pro-Putin Russian bikers touring the country.
On August 22, Lukashenka pardoned political prisoner Yury Rubtsou, a member of the Independent Union of Electronic Industry Workers, who police had arrested on multiple occasions for wearing T-shirts bearing anti-Lukashenka slogans.
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 false or derogatory.
Press and Media Freedoms: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were limited, primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of media.
For example, on March 12, police in Mahilyou searched the apartment of Ihar Barysau, the Nash Mahilyou web portal editor and an opposition activist, and confiscated three computers, a modem, and his private notebooks based on allegations that Barysau insulted a local businessman in online publications in January. Authorities returned most of his belongings following the closure of the libel investigation and the dropping of administrative charges related to running the website.
Under the law the government may close a publication, printed or online, after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, 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.
Limited information was available in the state-run press about the October presidential election, including about independent candidates. Authorities did not censor the publication of candidates’ programs in print media. State media otherwise provided only limited coverage of the three candidates running against Lukashenka, who did not participate in a live television debate held before the election.
On May 5, Information Minister Liliya Ananich warned the media about criticizing the government and stated that the law required reporting to “accurately” reflect reality, “facilitate the development of society, and not harm national interests.” Ananich also repeated her warning to owners of websites, who may be punished for abusive or “incorrect” comments on their message and forum boards.
The Information Ministry continued to deny registration to independent media outlets. In spite of the lack of registration, independent media, including newspapers, magazines, and internet news websites, sought to provide coverage of events. They operated, however, under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of papers, and raising the cost of printing.
The government confiscated independent and opposition newspapers and seized leaflets and other materials deemed to have been printed illegally or which they labeled “extremist.” For example, on October 8, authorities at a customs checkpoint in Hrodna briefly detained freelance journalist Aliaksei Trubkin and confiscated his copy of a 2010 human rights report by the “Vyasna” Human Rights Center and a book by Andrzej Poczobut, System Bialorus, with a photo of Lukashenka on the cover.
Authorities also often fined distributors of independent press publications. On April 27, a Mahilyou district court fined United Civic Party activist Mikalai Hladyshau 4.5 million rubles ($282) for distributing copies of the independent newspaper Novy Chas and the party’s anticorruption platform at a local railway station.
On January 23, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from the Narodnaya Volya newspaper challenging a November 2014 warning by the Information Ministry about publishing materials deemed detrimental to public and national interests in an op-ed, which featured an analytical piece on the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union.
On March 2, the Information Ministry issued warnings to three local private newspapers, Gazeta Slonimskaya, Intex-Press, and Hantsavichski Chas, for minor errors. The two latter newspapers were accused of using a two-letter abbreviation “RB” instead of spelling out “Republic of Belarus.” On March 5, the independent Borisovskie Novosti and a commercial supplement received two similar warnings from the ministry. On March 20, the ministry issued the same warning to the private weekly Novy Chas. After a complaint from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the ministry also warned two state publications, the satirical magazine Vozhyk, and Nash Krai newspaper, on the same grounds as the independent papers.
State-owned media, which were biased and served largely as a propaganda arm of the regime, dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state-owned kiosk system, Belsayuzdruk, continued to refuse to deliver or sell numerous independent newspapers that covered politics.
Although authorities continued to allow the circulation of Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva, two independent national newspapers, through state distribution systems, they remained subject to restrictions on the number of copies allowed to circulate and to financial penalties.
Several independent newspapers, including Vitsyebski Kuryer, Salidarnasc, BDG, and Bobruysky Kuryer, disseminated internet-only versions due to printing and distribution restrictions.
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 and then with a lag time that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable by authorities. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their international news programs with local programming.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that, as of December 20, police detained 14 journalists while performing their professional duties. For example, on February 26, police detained a journalist of the Belarusian edition of the popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda for taking photos of the building of the Academy of Sciences. He was released four hours later after an identification check. The newspaper responded by running an article identifying buildings that were “too sensitive” to photograph.
The government routinely denied accreditation to journalists who work with foreign media. As of December 20, at least 15 journalists had been fined in 28 cases for not having government accreditation or cooperating with a foreign media outlet. On May 19, the Minsk city court upheld earlier decisions by the Foreign Ministry to refuse official accreditation to Viktar Parfianenka, a Hrodna-based freelance journalist writing for various foreign media broadcasting in the country. This was his seventh accreditation denial.
Independent journalist and military expert Aliaksandr Alesin was detained on November 25 and faced charges of cooperating with foreign intelligence sources, which carry a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. He was released on December 10 but was banned from leaving the country, and at year’s end no trial date had been set.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state broadcast and print media. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.
Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints. Authorities banned state media from citing works and broadcasting music by independent local and well-known foreign musicians, artists, writers, and painters who were named on an alleged, unofficial nationwide “blacklist” for speaking in support of political prisoners and opposition or democratic activists.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Journalists reporting for international media that gave extensive coverage to the country, such as the Warsaw-based independent satellite channel Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, were denied press accreditation and received warnings from the Prosecutor’s Office and heavy fines.
Libel/Slander Laws: 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.
On August 6, police in Slonim opened an investigation, based on interviews by local residents, into a July 29 story in the local private newspaper Slonimskaya Hazeta that purportedly defamed Lukashenka.
Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
The government interfered with internet freedom by reportedly monitoring e-mail and internet chat rooms. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the peaceful expression of views via the internet, including by e-mail, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists’ e-mails and other web-based communications were likely to be monitored.
On January 1, media law amendments making news websites and any internet information sources subject to the same regulations as print media came into effect. Under the amended law, online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered by the authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. Amendments also restricted access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that can harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. In addition, owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The amended law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from the authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. Amendments also prohibit foreign states and foreign individuals from holding more than a 20 percent stake in local media companies.
In January various state agencies, including the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry’s cybersecurity department, and the Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration refused to investigate cases of websites being blocked in December 2014, as requested by the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In December 2014, after a sharp devaluation of the Belarusian currency, access to several independent news websites, including onliner.by, belapan.com, belapan.by, naviny.by, charter97.org, gazetaby.com, zautra.by, belaruspartisan.org, udf.by, and 21.by, was blocked. With the exception of onliner.by, authorities did not publicly claim responsibility for the blockage. Information Minister Liliya Ananich warned independent media outlets against “inciting panic” during the currency devaluation.
While the list of blocked internet resources remained unavailable to the public, from January to November the Ministry of Information reportedly blocked access to 40 internet sites, including 18 for drug trafficking, 11 (with a court mandate) for distributing extremist materials, five for illicit promotion of medications, one for child pornography and other content violations. Access to four of these sites was later restored.
The authorities reportedly monitored internet traffic. By law the telecommunications monopoly, Beltelekam, and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
A 2010 presidential edict requires registration of service providers and internet websites, and requires the collection of information on users at internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon request. Violations of the edict are punishable by prison sentences.
State companies and organizations, which included the workplaces of up to 80 percent of the country’s workers, reportedly had internet filters.
In response to the government’s interference and internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to internet domains operating outside the country. Observers said the few remaining independent media sites with domestic “.BY” (Belarus) domain suffixes practiced self-censorship at times.
On May 15, the Information Ministry issued a warning to the website of the Polish-based Radio Racyja and requested information about its owner for reportedly violating media laws. The website of the United Civic Party, the opposition news website www.freeregion.info, and music website tuzin.fm received similar notifications of violating media laws and allegedly spreading “false information that may cause harm to state or public interests.”
On June 18, the Ministry of Information blocked access to art and life-style portal kyky.org, after having previously issued a warning to the site. The ministry stated that the website was blocked in accordance with the media law, as its opinion pieces contained content that was judged to be harmful to the national interests, including derogatory remarks about Victory Day and “taboo language.” According to the site’s editor, kyky.org received a letter on May 15 from the ministry with a warning but did not receive subsequent communication before it was shut down. On June 24, Deputy Information Minister Ihar Lutski ordered access to the site restored after the editor removed the opinion pieces.
On several occasions cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily disabled independent news portals and social networking sites. For example, on October 5, the popular independent news agency BelaPAN issued an official statement regarding Distributed Denial of Service attacks, which began on October 3, after BelaPAN’s sister site, naviny.by, posted a critical article about a high-level event on October 2, in which Lukashenka participated. The news agency described its coverage, which included an interview with students sent to the event, as objective.
According to various media sources, the number of internet users reached approximately 6.5 million persons or approximately 70 percent of the population who used the internet daily or numerous times a month. Internet penetration was approximately 83 percent among users 15 to 50 years of age.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from being led by opposition members. The education minister has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.
Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language (vice Russian) in the majority of fields of study were scarce. The administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes.
The Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU), an official organization modeled on the Soviet-era KOMSOMOL, urged university students to join the BRYU to receive benefits and dormitory rooms. Local authorities also pressured BRYU members to campaign on behalf of government candidates. On October 10, the last date of early voting in the presidential election, students from the Belarusian State University of Computer Science and Radio electronics reported to an independent election monitoring group that university faculty were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from the dormitories. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.
According to an Education Ministry directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in anti-government or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. On October 10, the last date of early voting in the presidential election, students from the Belarusian State University of Computer Science and Radioelectronics reported to an independent election monitoring group that university faculty were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from the dormitories.
The government continued to discourage and prevent teachers and activists from advancing the wider use of the Belarusian language and the preservation of Belarusian culture. A number of universities across the country continued not to enroll students in their undergraduate Belarusian linguistic programs for teachers of the Belarusian language and literature, citing low demand and a low number of applications in recent years.
The government also restricted cultural events, selectively approving performances of what they deemed opposition music groups at small concert halls. Approvals required groups to go through cumbersome and time-consuming procedures to receive permissions. The procedures continued to force some opposition theater and music groups out of public venues and into bars and private apartments by banning their performances.
According to the Belarusian State University (BSU) student association, the BSU administration banned the school’s theater group from showing a play based on the life of prominent Belarusian language advocate and linguist Branislau Tarashkevich (1892-1938), who standardized the modern Belarusian language. The play premiered on November 14 and was shown again two days later, after which the administration cancelled subsequent scheduled performances. Authorities also suppressed unofficial commemorations of historical events. In his interview with independent press outlets on August 4, Lukashenka acknowledged that some musicians could be banned unofficially because they could be “some thugs, who have insulted or are against the government.”
Authorities in Hrodna banned a July 26 concert by the popular Polish rock band Lombard, although concert organizers were granted prior permission to hold it on the condition that Russian and Belarusian bands would also perform. The organizers, associated with the independent and unregistered Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB), attributed the ban to Lombard’s promotion of Polish Solidarity movement ideas and their plans to participate in events related to the 10th anniversary of the UPB. Lombard performed in Hrodna in 1988 and 2008.
The government also restricted the activities of a nonofficial writers union, the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, and extensively supported the pro-government Union of Writers of Belarus. Authorities harassed distributors of books authored by critical and independent writers or written in the Belarusian language. Although sold at bookstores and online across the country, authorities did not allow printing houses and publishers to print copies of books by Sviatlana Aleksievich, winner of the Nobel prize for literature.
In December 2014 the tax ministry imposed a fine of one billion rubles ($62,700) on Ihar Lohvinau’s publishing house for “unlicensed retailing.” Lohvinau had applied eight times for a license since authorities ordered him to obtain one in January 2014; each application was rejected. Lohvinau’s original license was revoked in 2013, after authorities determined that his 2011 Belarus Press Photo book was “extremist material.” In January a Minsk court dismissed Lohvinau’s appeal of the fine, which the publisher paid after a fundraising campaign. Authorities subsequently licensed the business.