Proposed funding cut to Belsat TV threatens free expression in Belarus
Given the challenges faced by independent media operating in Belarus, since 2007 Belsat TV has been a vital source of objective news and information for Belorussians. Created by Belorussian and Polish journalists, with the support of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as several European governments and foundations, Belsat TV broadcasts into the country from Poland and provides an important alternative to the dominant state-run television programming. Recently, civil society reacted with concern to the Polish government's announcement that it might reduce funding for Belsat TV and eliminate broadcasting in the Belarusian language, thereby threatening the channel's future viability. In a statement on 2nd January, the Belarusian National Platform for the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum addressed its concerns to the Polish Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski. Anżelika Borys, the leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, declared that "the closure of Belsat would be a blow to Belarusian civil society.” To raise wider public awareness of the potential threat to Belsat TV's sustainability, civil society, journalists and viewers launched a social media campaign in support of the channel, using a special hashtag #белсатжывi (Live, Belsat).
The Belarusian government has a long track record of silencing dissent from independent voices and political parties. In early December, three Belarusian bloggers - Dzmitry Alimkin, Yury Paulavets and Syarhey Shyptsenka - became the latest victims of this crackdown when they were arrested by the authorities for criticising government policies on their blogs. They could face up to 12 years imprisonment on charges of “inciting racial hatred” through their blog posts published on the Russian news websites: Regnum, Lenta.ru and EADaily. Reporters without Borders (RSF) has demanded their release.
“The posts of these three bloggers are controversial but that does not justify their imprisonment,”
declared Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Since 2016, human rights groups in Belarus have been more actively calling for an end to the death penalty. Belarus remains the only country in Europe using execution as a form of punishment for crimes, with Amnesty International reporting four death penalty cases in 2016. Executions are often done in secret and immediate family and relatives are not informed until after the fact. Though independent civil society remains under threat in Belarus, organisations and activists could openly advocate on the death penalty issue within the Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus campaign organised by the Human Rights Center "Viasna." Although no concrete policy changes have yet been made, the government is planning to conduct debates and hearings on abolishing the death penalty in 2018.
In its January 2017 report on the human rights situation in Belarus, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" found "no systemic changes, which would demonstrate an intention by the Belarusian authorities to contribute to a qualitative change in the human rights situation." In fact, the Center cited several violations of protest and free expression rights. For example, activists and politicians were given administrative sanctions or fines for participating in unauthorized protests. "Viasna" also reported several cases of arbitrary detention involving two members of the Young Front opposition group - Pavel Prakapovich and Artsiom Leuchanka - who had participated in peaceful protests. The activists were eventually released, however, the authorities refused to provide justification for their detention.