The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press; however, the government did not respect these rights in practice and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and the media. Moreover, the all-dominant state press almost exclusively propagated views in support of Lukashenka.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Wearing masks, displaying unregistered or opposition flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order also were prohibited.
For example, on May 15, Dzmitry Kramyanetski, a Young Front activist, along with Mikalai Dzemidzenka and Raman Vasilyeu, were sentenced to jail on minor hooliganism charges after unidentified security officials entered their apartment and arrested them for displaying an opposition white-red-white flag outside their window. Kramyanetski received additional time in jail for allegedly using obscenities after his arrest, a charge often used against the opposition and civil society activists.
Authorities suppressed activists who publicly advocated for a popular boycott of the parliamentary elections. On September 3, authorities detained activist Barys Khamaida after he displayed a poster supporting a boycott. He was subsequently fined for holding an unauthorized protest.
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information to a foreigner about the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country that authorities deem false or derogatory.
Freedom of Press: Government restriction of press freedom severely limited access to information and often resulted in self-censorship by the media and even the closing of publications. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were nonexistent, except for extremely limited access required by law during election campaigns, which was then subject to official censorship. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, or jailed members of the media and harassed bloggers who publicly criticized the government. Under the law the government may close a publication after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. In addition regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Information Ministry can suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits the media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.
During the 2012 parliamentary election campaign, state-controlled media outlets censored speeches by democratic opposition candidates, a step back from the 2010 presidential elections, when candidates were allowed to appear live. For example, in September Belarusian Television warned parliamentary candidate Mikalai Kazlou that his recorded speech would be forwarded to the central election commission for censoring and that he should not call for an election boycott.
The Information Ministry continued to deny registration to many independent media outlets. In spite of the lack of registration, independent media, including newspapers, magazines, and Internet news Web sites, sought to provide objective and independent coverage of events. However, they operated under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies.
State-owned media, which were extremely biased and served as a propaganda arm of the regime, dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There is no countryide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state-owned kiosk system, Belsayuzdruk, continued to refuse to deliver or sell numerous independent newspapers that covered politics.
Although authorities continued to allow the circulation of Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva, two independent national newspapers, through state distribution systems, they remained subject to restrictions and financial penalties. For example, on February 9, a Minsk district court ordered Nasha Niva to pay five million rubles ($585) to compensate for “moral damage” to a former state television journalist whom the newspaper accused of fraud. The journalist claimed that a newspaper editorial defamed him by calling him a criminal before his conviction, which later was overturned.
On December 12, the Information Ministry refused to reregister Arche magazine, an independent intellectual and literary journal published in Belarusian, citing its new chief editor’s lack of the required five years of managerial experience.
International media continued to operate in the country, but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and then with a lag time that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable by authorities. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their news programs with local programming. Satellite broadcasts from other countries, including Poland and Lithuania, could be received in parts of the country, usually along the border.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to routinely harass, arrest, and assault journalists.
In 2011 security forces arrested seven members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), who later were convicted of “participating in mass disturbances” or organizing activities that “violated public order” as a result of their work on presidential campaigns in 2010. These included former presidential candidate Sannikau’s aide Zmitser Bandarenka, sentenced to two years in prison and pardoned in April; former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu’s aides Alyaksandr Fyaduta and Syarhei Vaznyak, both given two-year suspended sentences; former presidential candidate Vital Rymasheuski’s aide Paval Sevyarynets, sentenced to three years of internal exile; independent journalist and Sannikau’s wife Iryna Khalip, given a two-year suspended sentence; and Sannikau’s spokesman Alyaksandr Atroshchankau, sentenced to four years in prison and pardoned in September 2011. At year’s end Sevyarynets remained in internal exile, and Khalip remained under a form of house arrest.
During the year authorities raided offices of media organizations. For example, on May 2, police confiscated computers from the office of the Polish radio station Radio Racyja in Minsk.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. For example, on September 18, unidentified security officers brutally dispersed picketers of the Tell the Truth campaign in support of boycotting parliamentary elections and detained seven independent journalists, including members of the foreign press. All correspondents were released after a two-hour identity check, and some of their video footage and photographs were deleted. An officer punched Associated Press photographer Syarhei Hryts, breaking his glasses and injuring his face. On the same day, two Poland-based Belsat TV journalists also were detained briefly. Although both were released without charge, police confiscated their camera for further examination.
On September 28, the Minsk city police office rejected a BAJ proposal for a meeting to discuss mistreatment of journalists who cover opposition demonstrations. Officials cited lack of need for “additional interaction” between police and journalists as a reason for their refusal. They also claimed that specially designated police officers were deployed during street demonstrations for interaction with media and to answer questions or explain regulations.
Harassment of Belarusian and foreign journalists was also common. For example, on June 22, a Minsk district court sentenced Poland-based European Radio for Belarus journalist Paval Svyardlou to 15 days in jail for allegedly using obscenities in public. Independent observers linked his arrest to his earlier report on breaches in the security of the subway system in Minsk.
On May 7, authorities denied the Hrodna-based correspondent of the Radio Racyja station, Viktar Parfyanenka, his fourth accreditation application.
In August the Foreign Ministry denied accreditation to Gesine Dornbluth, a correspondent of the German Deutschlandradio, who intended to cover the September 23 parliamentary elections, without providing a reason for the denial. On September 21, authorities detained and searched Australian television correspondent Amos Roberts at the airport. Although he had an official accreditation from the Foreign Ministry, his laptop, camera, and data storage devices were seized.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The vast majority of publications were forced to exercise self-censorship. The government tightly controlled the content of domestic, state broadcast media. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news; however, most were under government pressure to forego reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship. Authorities frequently pressured such stations into sharing materials and cooperating with authorities to intimidate local opposition and human rights groups that met with foreign diplomats.
In 2009 Lukashenka repeated his belief that control of radio and television stations was a high priority for the government and that private stations would not be allowed to operate in the country.
Only state-run radio and the state-run television networks were allowed to broadcast nationwide. The government continued to use its monopoly of television and radio broadcasting to disseminate its version of events and minimize all opposing viewpoints. State television apparently coordinated its propaganda documentaries with the country’s security services, as evidenced by the use of surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts in broadcasts. Authorities banned state media from citing works and broadcasting music by independent local and well-known foreign musicians, artists, writers, and painters who were named on an alleged “black list.”
Local authorities frequently warned independent editors and journalists to avoid reporting on certain topics and not to criticize the government. Authorities harassed bloggers for the same reasons. Authorities also warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Journalists reporting for international media that gave extensive coverage to the country, such as the Warsaw-based independent satellite channel Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, were unable to receive press accreditation and thus continued to receive warnings from the Prosecutor’s Office for working without it. During the year authorities sent warnings to at least 12 independent journalists.
Libel Laws/National Security: Libel is a criminal offense. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report.
For example, in April 2011, police arrested Andrzej Paczobut, Belarusian journalist for Polish Gazeta Wyborcza and leader of the unregistered Union of Poles (UPB), on charges of slandering and insulting the president. In July 2011 a court in Hrodna convicted him of slander in a closed-door proceeding and sentenced him to a three-year suspended sentence with two years of probation. He was acquitted of the charge of insult. Paczobut was also prohibited from leaving the country. In September 2011 a higher court rejected his appeal. On June 21, he was arrested after authorities pressed new slander charges against him. On June 30, he was released unexpectedly on his own recognizance. At year’s end he was facing five years in jail pending completion of the investigation.
Authorities also frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
Publishing Restrictions: The government took numerous actions during the year to limit the independent press, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of papers, and raising the cost of printing. Several independent newspapers, including Vitsyebski Kuryer, printed materials in Russia because domestic printing presses (almost all of which were state-owned) refused to print them. Other independent newspapers, such as Salidarnasc, BDG, and Bobruysky Kuryer, disseminated Internet-only versions due to printing and distribution restrictions.
Conversely, authorities provided robust support for government-controlled media. In January authorities pledged that state print media, television, and radio would receive more than 490 billion rubles ($57 million) in subsidies to cover broadcast and printing costs, the purchase of paper, and salaries for staff.
During the year the government confiscated numerous independent and opposition newspapers and seized leaflets and other materials deemed to have been printed illegally. Authorities also often fined distributors of independent press publications. For example, on January 15, police seized a print run of 10,000 copies of Vitsyebski Kuryer. On June 7, a Vitsyebsk district court fined civil society activist Syarhei Kandakou two million rubles ($234) for distributing copies of independent newspapers in the streets. The same fine was imposed earlier on another local activist, Hanna Hadleuskaya, for distributing an opposition bulletin.
The government continued to interfere with Internet freedom and actively monitored e‑mail and Internet chat rooms. While individuals and groups were generally able to engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e‑mail, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions. Opposition activists faced the likelihood that their e-mails and other Web-based communications would be monitored. Moreover, government providers blocked independent and opposition Web sites during major political events, such as elections or demonstrations.
The independent online research agency Gemius Belarus reported that as of November 1, the number of Internet users reached approximately 4,460,000 persons, or 13 percent more than in 2011. More than 80 percent of those using the Internet did so daily, and the level of Internet penetration was approximately 55 percent.
The authorities monitored Internet traffic. By law the telecommunications monopoly, Beltelekam, and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain Internet domains.
In 2010 Lukashenka issued an edict that requires registration of service providers and Internet Web sites, establishes restrictions on access to sites containing “extremist activity” (which many activists believed could be interpreted to include government opponents), and requires the collection of information on users at Internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on the Internet use of individuals for a year and to provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon their request. On January 6, a law went into effect delineating sanctions for violations of the edict.
The edict restricts access to Web sites whose content includes “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and the promotion of violence. It requires service providers to eliminate access to these subjects from government offices, educational facilities, and cultural institutions if ordered to do so by the KGB, prosecutor general, the Presidential Administration’s Operation and Analytical Center, or other state agencies. The edict does not block access from private sites such as homes or private companies. According to credible sources, the list, which was not released publicly, contained approximately 80 Web sites, including opposition portals Charter97 and Belarusian Partisan. Internet service providers are required to update the list on a daily basis. Decisions to restrict access to Internet sources may be appealed to the courts.
State companies and organizations, which included the workplaces of 80 percent of the country’s workers, reportedly had Internet filters. In response to the government’s interference and Internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to Internet domains operating outside the country. The few remaining independent media sites with domestic “.BY” (Belarus) domain suffixes practiced self-censorship.
On several occasions during the year, especially during the parliamentary elections campaign and on election day, cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily disabled independent news portals and social networking sites. For example, on July 16, a Web site promoting a boycott of the elections was not accessible for almost the entire day after a second cyberattack in a week. On election day, September 23, a Web site reporting independent election monitoring was also unavailable.
In June 2011 an Internet-organized group known as Revolution through Social Networks created a page on the popular Russian social networking Web site Vkontakte.ru that called for “silent” demonstrations to take place in public spaces around the country. As these protests gained attention and broader public support, Internet users reported being unable to access Vkontakte.ru for several hours before the “silent” protests were to take place. There were also reports of users being redirected to fake mirror Web sites that attempted to collect users’ full names and other personal information. On May 5, Anton Skaryna, an activist of the Revolution through Social Networks group, reported that his Skype and e‑mail accounts were hacked, and the online community’s page was the target of a cyberattack. In April police seized computers from two online community activists, one of whom was sentenced to 10 days in jail.
On August 31, a Minsk district court sentenced Paval Yeutsikhiyeu, a moderator of the online group We Are Fed up with This Lukashenka, to five days in jail. He was arrested and interrogated at his home the day before. The same day another online activist, Andrei Tkachou, the administrator of an anti-Lukashenka online group, was given seven days in jail on minor hooliganism charges. KGB officers also raided the residence of Aleh Shramuk, Yeutsikhiyeu’s associate in Vitsyebsk, detained him, transported him to a police precinct for a lengthy interrogation, and released him without charge the same day.
On the same day police also apprehended 17-year-old Raman Pratasevich, an opposition online activist, took him to a precinct for a four-hour interrogation, and released him later without charge.
The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenka. Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language in the majority of fields of study were scarce. The administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes.
During the year authorities harassed, intimidated, and dismissed teachers and professors on political grounds. For example, in September the administration of the Hrodna state university dismissed history professor Andrei Charniakevich, who coauthored a book about the history of the Hrodna region. While authorities claimed that he repeatedly violated labor laws, his associates linked the dismissal to the book’s impartiality. It outlined historical facts prior to the Lukashenka regime and described historical symbols of medieval Belarus, including the white-red-white tricolor, which authorities regarded as an opposition symbol and forbade from public display, but which served as the state flag from 1991 to 1995. In October the university administration dismissed another history professor, Ihar Kuzminich, for his civil society engagement, for posting his works on the traditional tricolor and other historical symbols on his blog, and for speaking out against arbitrary dismissals.
Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. All schools, including private institutions, were obligated to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and could not be led by opposition members. The education minister has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.
The Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU), an official organization based on the Soviet-era Komsomol, urged university students to join the BRYU in order to receive benefits and dormitory rooms. Local authorities also pressured BRYU members to campaign on behalf of government candidates. In addition authorities at times pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services. High school students feared that they would not be allowed to enroll in universities without BRYU membership, and university students reported that proof of BRYU membership often was required to register for popular courses or to receive a dormitory room. Universities also offered BRYU members discounts on tuition. On December 10, at a meeting with BRYU leader Ihar Buzouski, Lukashenka stated that the government would continue to support the union, which served as a good “reserve for personnel” for the KGB, police, and law enforcement agencies.
According to an Education Ministry directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. During the year at least eight students were expelled for political reasons, compared with 45 or more in 2011. Some school officials continued to cite poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for the expulsions. In January former political prisoner Uladzimir Yaromenak, convicted of participation in postelection demonstrations in 2010, was expelled from a university in Minsk for his political activity after serving 15 days in jail for staging a protest in December 2011.
The government continued to ban teachers and democratic activists from promoting the wider use of the Belarusian language and the preservation of Belarusian culture. For example, a number of universities across the country announced that they would no longer enroll students in their undergraduate Belarusian linguistic programs for teachers of the Belarusian language and literature, citing low demand and a low number of applications in recent years.
The government also restricted cultural events. During the year the government continued to force opposition theater and music groups out of public venues and into bars and private apartments. Authorities also suppressed unofficial commemorations of historical events. For example, on September 28, local authorities pressured owners of a private art center in Minsk to cancel a concert of prominent singer Lyavon Volski, who was forced to perform at offices of an opposition political party. Earlier, authorities evicted the art center, which gathered popular artists, independent writers, and journalists and hosted cultural events, from its premises in central Minsk. In December it was evicted for the third time. During the year authorities also banned a number of concerts and cultural performances by other prominent musicians and artists, who reportedly remained on the government’s blacklists for speaking out in support of political prisoners and opposition or democratic activists.
On December 7 and 8, police disrupted performances of the Belarus Free Theater in Minsk. Police checked the identification of actors and the audience and recorded their names. There were no detentions or charges, but police remained outside the premises during the performances.
The government also restricted the activities of a dissident writers union and extensively supported the progovernment Union of Writers of Belarus. Authorities harassed distributors of books authored by dissident writers or written in the Belarusian language. For example, on July 10, a Minsk district court sentenced distributor Ales Yaudakha to a year of partial house arrest for alleged large-scale illegal business activities and ordered him to pay compensation of 57 million rubles ($6,700) for supposed illegal proceeds.
In September authorities detained Valer Bulhakau, the former editor in chief of Arche magazine, and confiscated more than 5,000 books written in the Belarusian language, allegedly because he did so without obtaining proper registration. Authorities subsequently froze Arche magazine’s bank accounts, and state-controlled media criticized Arche as supporting historical revisionism, extremism, and Nazi propaganda.