Proposed law amendments in Belarus pose serious threats to Freedom of Expression and Press
The increased detention of over 480 journalists between 2020 and 2021, the searching of editorial offices and homes of journalists and the forced diversion of the Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens to Vilnius that subsequently led to the detention of journalist and political activist Roman Protasevich show that the Belarusian authorities are taking action to hinder freedom of the press. This is evident in the introduction of new amendments on 24th May 2021 that threaten the work of journalists. These are amendments to the Law on Mass Events, the Law on Mass Media, and the Law on Telecommunications.
#Belarus: President Lukashenko signs amendments to the Laws on Mass Media & Mass Gatherings that bar media from covering unsanctioned protests, publishing results of polls on political and social issues conducted without accreditation. @baj_by reports:https://t.co/RyQuweUwOa— CPJ Europe and Central Asia (@CPJ_Eurasia) May 24, 2021
Belarusian journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organisations (CSOs) are concerned about the proposed new amendments on the Law on Mass Gatherings and the Mass Media Law that are pending enactment. This concern also extends to CSOs, human rights defenders and institutions abroad. The amendments to both these laws represent significant barriers to civil society’s ability to express and voice opinions and to hold leaders accountable, and further threaten democratic principles in Belarus. They specifically pose serious threats to press freedom, the right to assembly and association, and free expression and information rights.
"Belarusian authorities have been systematically repressing the remaining free voices in the country, and now they want to change the law to further harass independent journalists into silence" Gulnoza Said, Committee to Protect Journalists Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator
New amendments threaten freedom of expression
The new amendments on the Law on Mass Gatherings and the Mass Media Law pose significant barriers to civil society’s ability to express and voice opinions and to hold leaders accountable, and further threaten democratic principles in Belarus. These amendments follow an extremely precarious time for Belarus, where elections have been widely contested and opposition groups, journalists, media houses and civil society organisations have experienced violent crackdowns, closure, censorship and arrests.
According to the BAJ Media, Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch, these amendments are a reaction to the opposition from journalists, protestors and CSOs following the fraught election period. They also consider them as a means to deter media coverage and as a retroactive justification for recent prison sentences handed down to journalists arrested for documenting protests – including Katsiaryna Barysevich, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), and Darya Chultsova. Additionally, these laws could easily be used to bring to trial any of the thousands of protestors who have been detained and for them to continue to face detentions in the post-election period, with many reports of torture and ill-treatment by authorities. There is also a concern that amendments could criminalise the work of civil society organisations operating in the country and who have already been targeted with searches, seizures and detentions earlier this year.
IBAHRI calls for the Parliament of #Belarus to reject proposed #law amendments that will infringe the independence of the legal profession, stifle #FreedomofExpression, violate #HumanRights & further undermine the #RuleOfLaw in Belarus.— IBAHRI (@IBAHRI) May 19, 2021
Amendments to 2008 Law on Mass Media
The enactment of these new amendments will create a crippling climate in which journalists cannot carry out their legitimate work for fear of reprisals. According to the leading Belarusian news outlet TUT.BY (access to this site has currently been blocked by authorities), the proposed amendments to the Mass Media Law would make it illegal for journalists to “discredit” the state, effectively prohibiting any criticism directed at government, making it challenging for journalists to report on matters that would hold authorities accountable for their actions. The amendments would also enable authorities to strip journalists of accreditation without a court order for allegedly committing a crime while carrying out their professional duties. According to the Human Rights Foundation, some of the amendments on the Law on Mass Media have the following impact:
- Placing further limits on individuals or legal entities who can start and operate media outlets.
- Expanding the list of grounds upon which authorities can refuse registration of media outlets.
- Allowing authorities to suspend a media outlet following two written warnings in 12 months.
- Allowing authorities, in addition to the courts, to suspend a media outlet without warning if it is deemed to be a national security threat.
- Restricting online media outlets in cases where those outlets are publishing materials considered propaganda, harmful to national security, or extremist.
- Curbing the rights of journalists by expanding how and when accreditation can be revoked.
- Banning the publishing of public opinion polls, and hyperlinks to them, on socio-political issues without proper accreditation.
Amendments to 1997 Law on Mass Events
The amendments to the Law on Mass Events largely bans any form of public protest against the authorities and threatens individuals who might participate and journalists or media outlets which cover such events. According to the Human Rights Foundation, some of the amendments to the Law on Mass Events have the following impact:
- Prohibiting live coverage in the media of mass events, including online streaming if such events are organised in violation of the law.
- Placing restrictions on journalists which could mirror those of mass events participants, thus allowing for the potential arbitrary arrest of journalists.
- Prohibiting the collection of funds to pay fines or other expenses for those found guilty of violating the law, including journalists.
Amendment to 2005 Law on Telecommunications
The amendments to the Law on Telecommunications mainly restrict access to information and restricts journalists' ability to share information. According to the Human Rights Foundation, some of the amendments to the Law on Telecommunications provide the following power to authorities:
- They establish the power of the Operations and Analysis Centre (OAC), formerly a subdivision of the State Security Committee, now under the Presidential Administration, to restrict and/or suspend the functioning of telecommunications networks.
- They give the OAC power to limit or block internet access for any reason they see fit.
“[The Mass Media Law amendments are] the most repressive media law in Europe and turns Belarusian journalists’ work into a minefield.” Andrei Bastunets, President Of The Belarusian Association of Journalists
The new amendments will have a great impact on the coverage of protest actions in Belarus. The draft amendments to the Mass Gatherings Law prohibit journalists from livestreaming mass unauthorised protests. When reporting on authorised gatherings, journalists are required to follow the same rules as protest participants. According to Human Rights Watch, another bill outside these two empowers police to prohibit any filming or photography, including at protests. This may have the effect of authorities unlawfully attacking and detaining protestors without journalists reporting on these for the purpose of raising awareness and holding them accountable for the use of force.