Activists face tougher regulation and state surveillance
Presidential Decree no. 5 on Foreign Gratuitous Aid came into force in March, requiring mandatory pre-registration of foreign donations, toughened reporting procedures, increased state control on the use of the donations and creating preferential treatment for humanitarian projects approved by the state. The final version of the Decree did however contain some minor concessions, including the removal of certain bureaucratic barriers on international technical assistance, the exclusion of anonymous donations from the definition of foreign donations and the extension of a list of activities for which foreign funding can be received. In the first part of 2016, several associations with an educational, youth, gender and human rights focus were refused registration. Most recently, on June 28, the Mahilioŭ Regional Department of Justice refused to register the Center For Gender Studies Ruža, stating that equality is guaranteed by the authorised state bodies and does not fall within the association’s competence. Increasing numbers of organisations from Belarus are transferring aspects of their activities, including registration abroad, with many setting up NGOs in Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic and other countries. Ahead of the next round of the EU-Belarus human rights dialogue, several Belorussian human rights CSOs published a common position on May 25th, urging both parties to keep human rights in Belarus high on the agenda and asking for human rights CSOs to be included in the dialogue. In February, the EU removed most sanctions against Belarus on the grounds of “improving EU-Belarus relations”, a decision that was received with widespread criticism, including from CSOs in Belarus.
Peaceful protest remains extremely difficult in Belarus in the middle of 2016. Most protests held so far this year were concerned with new regulations affecting the economic interests of small entrepreneurs. Independent media reported that between 150 and 300 protesters gathered in a number of regional centres and major cities. Most were unauthorised and resulted in fines and criminal charges for the protesters involved. The Ministry of Economy responded by creating a working group for dialogue between local authorities and small businesses, which has so far been ineffective and appears to have become inactive since the end of the protests. Ahead of the unofficial celebration of Freedom Day on the March 25th, the authorities threatened students with sanctions for participating in civil society protests. One week later, on 2nd April - a day when Belarusian-Russian unity is officially celebrated - a Czech-registered opposition organisation called Malady Front organised an anti-Russia protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk. A dozen people took part in the protest, displaying anti-Russian messages, expressing solidarity with Ukraine and asking for the release of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian first lieutenant captured by pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Some protesters were criminally prosecuted. In June, authorities refused to authorise a protest by small entrepreneurs in Baranovych. In the same month, authorities convicted several peaceful protesters involved in unauthorised assemblies related to human rights, animal rights, solidarity pickets with political detainees and activists.
In a report issued in July 7th, Amnesty International accused Belarus of using phone networks to curtail free speech and dissent. Big telephone companies grant the Belarusian government nearly unlimited access to their customers’ communications and data, making activists' work almost impossible. Conditions also continue to be very difficult for journalists in Belarus. At a conference in July, Andrei Bastunets, the chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, stated that only around 30 independent media outlets cover socio-political issues, out of which around a dozen have been eliminated from state-run networks of distribution. A series of new legal provisions introduced in 2015 requires media distributors to submit information to the State Register, making it illegal for unregistered media distributors to operate. Ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2016, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights Center Viasna launched the "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections" campaign, which aims to assess the electoral process with regard to Belarusian legislation and international standards on free and democratic elections.
Civic Space Developments