The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press. Nevertheless, the government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and the media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of Lukashenka and official policies.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of possible 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, authorities sentenced Ruslan Mirzoev to seven days of administrative arrest for posting videos online that detailed the daily life of workers at the Minsk Automobile Plant. He was fired from his job in July.
On August 16, a psychiatric commission at a hospital in Vityebsk concluded that Doctor Ihar Pastnow should receive forced psychiatric treatment after he frequently criticized local government authorities for underfunding in the state medical system and posted critical videos on the internet. Pastnow accused Alyaksandr Kosinets, head of the regional government, of wasting public funds. In September Pastnow was released from involuntary treatment.
On September 30, authorities fined four joggers taking part in a charity run in Minsk approximately 1.3 million rubles ($140) each for reportedly wearing T-shirts with the image of imprisoned 2010 presidential candidate Mikolai Statkeivich. Yawhen Naporka, Maksim Dubowski, Andrey Vislovich, and Kiryl Zhyvalovich were charged with “standing in front of the stage and people, wearing T-shirts with images.”
On November 3, authorities arrested Yury Rubtsow, a member of the Independent Union of Electronic Industry Workers (REP), during a government-sanctioned commemoration event at the Kurapaty Forest massacre site for the Dzyady holiday and sentenced him to three days in jail for wearing a T-shirt bearing anti-Lukashenka slogans. Upon his release, authorities re-arrested him for wearing the same T-shirt and he was re-released only after removing the shirt.
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.
Press Freedoms: Government restriction of press freedom severely limited access to information and often resulted in self-censorship by the media. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were limited to those required by law during election campaigns. In 2012 they were further limited by official censorship during the parliamentary election. 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.
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 websites, sought to provide objective and independent coverage of events. They operated, however, under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of papers, and raising the cost of printing. 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.
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 countrywide 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.
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.
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 international 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.
During the year suspended sentences against several members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) expired. These sentences were the result of the 2011 convictions of several BAJ journalists on charges of “participating in mass disturbances” or organizing activities that “violated public order” as a result of their work on presidential campaigns in 2010. Security forces continued to monitor the activities of a number of journalists following the expiration of their suspended sentences.
Authorities raided offices of media organizations. For example, on April 29, Radio Racyja journalist Ryhor Sapyazhynski reported that unknown individuals entered the Radio Racyja offices over the weekend and allegedly accessed studio records and journalists’ computers.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. For example, on April 26, following a government-sanctioned Chernobyl commemoration march, authorities detained two independent journalists who covered the march and sentenced them to jail terms. Authorities sentenced Henadz Barbarych and Alyaksandr Yarashevich, reporters for Polish-based Radio Racyja, to three days in jail for failing to comply with police orders. Authorities also allegedly searched their office computers.
Harassment of Belarusian and foreign journalists was also common.
On January 23, the Foreign Ministry refused to renew official accreditation to Pavel Svyardlow, a European Radio for Belarus correspondent. On August 1, the ministry granted Svyardlow a new accreditation.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government obliged the vast majority of publications to exercise self-censorship. The government tightly controlled the content of state broadcast and print media. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forego reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.
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 broadcast crudely propagandistic documentaries targeting opposition and often civil society actors that contained surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts that appeared to be supplied by the security services. 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, unofficial nationwide “blacklist” for speaking in support of political prisoners and opposition or democratic activists.
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.
On March 26, the Foreign Ministry again denied accreditation to Belsat TV and accused Belsat journalists of repeatedly violating Belarusian laws in their work.
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, on July 26, authorities sentenced playwright Andrei Karelin to a 10-million Belarusian ruble ($1,066) fine for two comments he made on an internet portal that were critical of police officers. Karelin was convicted for “insulting an officer on duty” after claiming police officers did not offer him proper assistance when unnamed assailants attacked and beat him in Minsk in May.
On August 17, police in Homel region raided the apartment of Henadz Zhuleha, a blogger and civil society activist, after he filmed the house of the head of the Svetlahorsk District Executive Committee and posted the video online. Police confiscated his computer for further examination.
On September 23, a Hrodna court lifted all restrictions, including a criminal record, against independent journalist and former political prisoner Andrzej Poczobut. The ruling came upon the expiration of his two-year probationary sentence. In 2011 a Hrodna court sentenced Poczobut to a three-year suspended sentence for slandering the president. In 2012 authorities arrested him on new charges but subsequently released him. During this time period authorities prohibited Poczobut from leaving the country.
Authorities also frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
The government continued to interfere with internet freedom by actively monitoring 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 websites during major political events, such as demonstrations and previous national elections.
The independent online research agency Gemius Belarus reported that as of November 2012 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.
A 2010 edict issued by Lukashenka requires registration of service providers and internet websites, 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 provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon their request. Violations of the edict are punishable by jail time.
The edict restricts access to websites 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 websites, including opposition portals Charter 97 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.
In December the prosecutor general responded to an inquiry by the human rights organization Vyasna and stated that the government blocks the Vyasna website on computers at government buildings and other official institutions because the group is not registered, rendering its activities illegal.
On several occasions cyber attacks of unknown origin temporarily disabled independent news portals and social networking sites. For example, on April 25, a cyber attack targeted Vyasna’s website, resulting in changes to their website content. Distributed denial-of-service cyber attacks also targeted the Belarusian Association of Journalists’ website the following day.
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.
Authorities harassed, intimidated, and dismissed teachers and professors on political grounds. For example, in June university administrations dismissed Valyantsina Alinevich, a professor at Belarusian State Economic University in Minsk and mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, and Valery Beraziyenka, a professor at Belarusian-Russian University in Mahilyow and member of an opposition party.
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 modeled on the Soviet-era Komsomol, urged university students to join the BRYU to receive benefits and dormitory rooms. Local authorities also pressured BRYU members to campaign on behalf of government candidates. In addition authorities at times reportedly 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.
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. School officials, however, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions.
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 continued not to 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. It continued to force opposition theater and music groups out of public venues and into bars and private apartments by banning their performances. Authorities also suppressed unofficial commemorations of historical events. In January Lukashenka stated that he was not aware of any blacklist for musicians or artists. He suggested that musicians are punished for “spitting on the country” and accused them of accepting payments from outside groups.
On April 19, the administration of the Youth Popular Music Theater cancelled an April 24 concert in commemoration of prominent national revival activist Aryna Vyachorka, the wife of opposition politician Vintsuk Vyachorka.
On August 8, Uladzimir Shcherban, a director of the Belarus Free Theater (BFT), wrote that police visited a BFT performance and recorded the passport information of attendees. Such incidents occurred at least four times during the year, including on September 14, when police disrupted another BFT play, recorded the passport information of attendees, and ordered everyone to disperse.
The government also restricted the activities of a nonofficial writers union and extensively supported the progovernment Union of Writers of Belarus. Authorities harassed distributors of books authored by critical and independent writers or written in the Belarusian language.
On February 6, plainclothes policemen disrupted a book launch event featuring a novel by poet and 2010 presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu in Minsk. A policeman warned Andrei Khadanovich, chairman of the Belarusian PEN Center and the Union of Belarusian Writers, that the event was unscheduled and asked him to end his presentation of Nyaklyaeu’s work. Nyaklyaeu remained at the venue and signed autographs under the watch of plainclothes policemen.
On April 18, a judge of the Ashmyany District Court declared a book featuring photos selected for the 2011 Belarus Press Photo contest to be “extremist material.” The judge ordered Vadzim Zamirouski, Yuliya Darashkevich, and Alyaksandr Vasyukevich, the contest’s co-organizers, to pay 217,500 rubles ($23) each in litigation costs. On September 23, the Information Ministry stripped the Minsk-based private Lohvinau Publishing House of its license for its role in publishing the photobook. The Supreme Economic Court of Belarus subsequently rejected a lawsuit brought by Lohvinau Publishing House to restore their license. In November 2012 authorities seized 41 copies of the book from the contest co-organizers when they returned from a trip to Lithuania. The court ordered the destruction of these 41 confiscated copies.
On May 22, the Information Ministry re-registered the Belarusian language literary magazine Arche. In September 2012 authorities arrested editor chief Valer Bulhakau and confiscated more than 5,000 books written in the Belarusian language. Bulhakau fled the country, and authorities subsequently froze Arche magazine’s bank accounts.
On September 3, a commission of experts ruled that political prisoner Ales Byalyatski’s book about Belarusian literature, which he wrote in detention, “caus[ed] harm to the image of Belarus.” Customs officers in Ashmyany confiscated 40 copies of the book from Byalyatski’s associate Tatsyana Ravyaka on July 3 and forwarded them to the commission for examination.