Belarusian authorities have carried out concerted attacks on media freedom over the past two years that directly affect the climate in which news media will cover the country before, during, and after the upcoming European Games, Human Rights Watch said. The European Olympic Committees (EOC) should ensure that all journalists, foreign and local, covering the 2019 European Games, from June 21-30, in Belarus, can operate free from harassment.
In the past two years, Belarusian authorities have filed a record number of criminal charges against journalists and bloggers, carried out groundless searches of the editorial offices of several news organizations, introduced tighter state control of the internet, and expanded grounds for prosecuting speech. On May 8, in response to concerns about press freedom raised by Human Rights Watch and other groups, the EOC told Human Rights Watch that it would appoint a representative to monitor media freedom during the games.
“It’s good news that the EOC has committed to dealing with interference with press freedoms, but it needs to follow up with effective action,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s disturbing that journalists covering the games will need protection from Belarusian authorities’ harassment.”
Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarus’ top media rights watchdog, has said that “2018 has become the darkest year for Belarusian journalism since 2011,” when there was a massive crackdown following elections in December of the previous year. Bastunets has said that the authorities are trying to strengthen their control of mass media ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of 2019 and 2020.
Legislation adopted in 2014 authorized the Information Ministry to compel internet providers to block access to websites without judicial review. Amendments to the Law on Mass Media in 2018 introduced a burdensome registration procedure for online media to be able to cover the government. And reporters are being prosecuted under the 2016 amendments to the country’s anti-extremism law.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists documented 26 police searches of journalists’ and bloggers’ homes and of media offices in 2018. In February 2018, a court sentenced three bloggers to five years in prison and suspended their sentences, after they had spent 14 months in pretrial custody, for posts that allegedly “questioned Belarus’s sovereignty” and “insulted the Belarusian nation.” In March 2019, police arrested two Russian journalists as they were giving a lecture about operating small online outlets. A blogger who covered environmental protests is facing dubious “criminal insult” charges.
In April, a court convicted an independent media editor of criminal negligence on allegations that some of her staff had been accessing the website of BelTA, the state news agency, without paying a subscription fee. The charges were wholly inappropriate for the alleged offense, Human Rights Watch said. In connection with similar cases, police searched the offices of several independent media outlets, and held eight journalists in custody for three days. They, along with at least six others, were also prosecuted and fined.
Authorities have prosecuted bloggers who cover controversial issues on a range of dubious or trumped-up charges. They have also routinely detained and fined journalists covering unauthorized protests.
President Aliaksandr Lukashenka will mark his 25th anniversary in office in July. His presidency has been marked by entrenched authoritarian rule, Human Rights Watch said. The government severely restricts independent media and independent organizations and refuses permission for most human rights groups to register and operate freely. It is the only country in Europe that continues to allow the death penalty.
In recent years, the government made some improvements in the human rights situation. It has downgraded “unregistered” involvement in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from a criminal offense to an administrative one and has released most high-profile political prisoners. The authorities have jailed fewer journalists than in the past, though they have greatly increased prosecutions that result in fines.
Human rights and media freedom groups have repeatedly urged the EOC to establish media freedom procedures for the Minsk Games. In a May 8 letter to Human Rights Watch, the EOC’s leadership wrote that it had appointed a “contact person to monitor” the rights of journalists during the games.
The EOC should ensure that the information about the contact person is made available to foreign and Belarusian journalists alike, and that the individual has the resources to respond effectively to any complaints. The EOC, an association of 50 National Olympic Committees, owns and regulates the European Games. The EOC and its members are part of the Olympic Movement and governed by the Olympic Charter, which has explicit guarantees for media freedom.
“The situation for press freedoms in Belarus is alarming,” Denber said. “The EOC needs to do whatever is required to ensure journalists can report safely during the games.”