Crackdown on independent media continues in Belarus

Peaceful Assembly

On 16th July 2016, a court in Minsk found LGBTI activist Viktoria Biran guilty of violating the mass public assemblies law and sentenced her to pay of 367.5 Belarusian rubles (USD 85). The conviction came after Biran held a brief 'protest' in May 2018 when she took three pictures in front of the Interior Ministry, the State Security Committee (KGB) and the House of Government. In the photographs she is seen holding a sign with the words “YOU are fake”. The action was taken in response to an article posted on the Ministry of the Interior's website saying that the "LGBTI-community and all this struggle for their rights, and the very Day of the LGBTI-community – are just fakes”. 

Amnesty International said

“Today's court ruling is simply absurd. Viktoria was ‘protesting’ for three seconds and she was alone except for a friend who took the photos. It is just not conceivable that this can be taken seriously as a mass protest offence."

In a separate incident, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" sent a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, to highlight the case of 11 opposition activists who were handed a fine of 4,786 USD for participating in a protest on 24th August 2018. 

The letter stated that: 

“The courts which fined the participants in the spontaneous peaceful assembly did not substantiate the permissible restrictions on the free expression of opinion and the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly established in para. 3 of article 19 and article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and necessary in a democratic society. The courts failed to substantiate how the protest of solidarity with the leaders of the trade union posed a threat to national security, public order, health and morality of the population.”

Expression

Between 7th and 10th August 2018, at least 18 journalists were arrested and charged under Article 349(2) of the Belarusian Criminal Code for allegedly accessing information belonging to the state news agency BelTA. Previously, the Investigative Committee of Belarus (Sledstvennyi Komitet – SK) searched the editorial offices of independent media outlets Tut.by, Belarus Private News Agency (BelaPAN), realty.by, Belaruskaya Navuka, and Kultura. Although all the journalists were later released, the criminal case against them continues.  

In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists said: 

"Raiding newsrooms, detaining reporters, searching their apartments, and seizing their equipment is a clear sign of government's crackdown on independent reporting, whatever the pretence."

In a separate incident, in July 2018, Natal’lya Radzina, the editor in chief of the Charter97 portal - one of the oldest and most popular independent online news outlets in Belarus, received anonymous death threats to her personal inbox. After being released from pretrial detention (she was arrested in 2011 and accused of organising mass disturbances) Natal’lya Radzina fled Belarus and moved to Poland where she continues her work. 

Association

At the beginning of September 2018, the Belarusian Ministry of Justice organised a meeting to discuss the procedures for the registration of associations. Participants of the meeting included employees of the justice department and officers in charged with the registration of associations. The main topics discussed during the event were the registration of political parties, registration of non-governmental organisations and trade unions.