Civil society alarmed over blocking of critical websites
Belarusian journalists, human rights groups and independent media outlets have raised their voices against the government's decision to block certain online news and information portals as an assault on freedom of expression. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), and as reported in Charter97.org, this represents an ongoing tactic by the government to control citizens' access to information.
State blocks critical websites
Most recently on 24th January 2018, the Charter97.org website - known for publishing opposition voices and taking a critical position on issues - was blocked. In December 2017, another website - "Belarus Partisan" - was blocked. In both cases, the decisions to block the sites were made without notification or legal justification. BAJ reported that the Ministry of Information issued a press release, claiming that Charter97 had violated the Law on Mass Media. Charter97 later reported that it had been “accused of having spread information which could potentially damage the national interests of the Republic of Belarus...and of distributing materials considered to be extremist". BAJ has reportedly petitioned the authorities to reverse their decision to block the two sites. The head of Human Rights Centre "Viasna", Ales Bialiatski declared in defence of the website and a pluralistic media environment that:
“Charter-97 has always taken an uncompromising stance, they’ve had their own vision of the socio-political events in Belarus, which sometimes triggered significant debates. This position certainly has the right to exist. If the Belarusian society wants to receive diverse pluralistic information, we should cherish the right to freedom of expression".
Belarusian authorities must immediately provide access to the two independent websites Charter 97 and Belarusian Partisan. With the sites censored, there are almost no more reliable news sources about what’s going on in #Belarus https://t.co/7W9TpEnHhV— NHC (@nhc_no) February 3, 2018
In addition, BAJ and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee appealed to the Constitutional Court of Belarus to address cases of journalists being prosecuted under Article 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. In such cases, journalists are being sanctioned "for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation". BAJ has requested that the government review and amend such provisions that hinder journalists' independent reporting and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
So-called "parasite tax" annulled
On 26th January 2018, Radio Free Europe reported on changes to the Belarusian law that obligated unemployed people to pay taxes. Known as the so-called "parasite tax", the law sparked mass protests from February to March 2017. Some of the protests turned violent and there were reports of journalists injured while reporting on the protests. Radio Free Europe reported that the Presidential Decree on the law institutes new provisions which mean that, instead of paying taxes, unemployed Belarusians will have to pay for all state-provided services.
Protest against the construction of a pulp-bleaching factory
On 30th January 2018, Belarus Digest reported on a protest organised by environmental activists against the construction of a new factory in the town of Svetlahorsk. The protesters claim that the authorities have disregarded the factory's potential damage to citizens' health and the environment as well as local residents' opinion of the construction project. The authorities, however, assert that the factory will contribute to creating new jobs. In 2015, Chinese investors and the Belarusian authorities agreed on its construction and are planning to produce thousands of tons of pulp a year.
On 23rd January 2018, Human Rights Centre "Viasna" reported on the government's disruption of the workings of the Trade Union of the Radio and Electronic Industry. The Union issued a public statement condemning the authorities' recent interrogations of its members, in an alleged attempt to disrupt and enfeeble the organisation. Union leader Henadz Fiadynich claims that members of the union have been subjected to an "unprecedented wave of harassment". The harassment reportedly started last year in August 2017, when leaders of the union were charged and prosecuted; one was handed a two-month prison sentence and the other had travel restrictions imposed. Also, during that time, the Union's two offices were raided and searched.