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, without giving room for other critical voices.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize Lukashenka and 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. Authorities also prohibited wearing masks, displaying unregistered or opposition flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
For example, on March 31, police detained prominent poet Slavamir Adamovich for an identification check. Adamovich was wearing a white-red-white opposition ribbon and a yellow-blue ribbon in solidarity with Ukraine. Police released him without charge.
On July 3, a court in Minsk sentenced two activists, Aleh Korban and Uladzimir Siarheyeu, of the unregistered opposition youth group Alternatyva, to 10 days in jail for purportedly putting up a sign reading “For an Independent Belarus” at a subway station in Minsk. Police arrested the two at Korban’s residence, and authorities held hearings behind closed doors. Korban was rearrested and again sentenced to 10 days in jail on August 12 for posting white-red-white flags in a town near Minsk. On August 5, authorities sentenced another Alternatyva activist, Aleh Kerol, to 10 days in jail on similar charges.
On September 19, a court in Minsk sentenced youth activists, Nastassia Dol and Zmitser Latushkin, to six and five days in jail, respectively, for organizing a movie showing in an underground crossing in central Minsk the previous day. Authorities convicted both on the charges of allegedly using foul language and resisting police. Police detained at least 28 other individuals in connection with the movie showing but released all others without charge.
In November 2013 authorities arrested Yury Rubtsou, a member of the Independent Union of Electronic Industry Workers, during a government-sanctioned commemoration event at the Kurapaty Forest massacre site, 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 rereleased him only after removing the shirt. Authorities detained Rubtsou a number of times during the year. For example, upon his release on May 21 after a 25-day term in jail, authorities re-arrested Rubtsou and sentenced him to five days in jail in Homyel. Rubtsou defied police threats to stop wearing a T-shirt saying “Lukashenka Go” and in protest refused food in detention.
On August 3, Rubtsou told the press that authorities opened a criminal investigation against him for purportedly insulting the judge at closed hearings on April 28. On September 16, at the first hearing of this case, the “insulted” judge testified that Rubtsou called him “a scum” and threatened him. Three other witnesses, including two police officers and a court secretary, confirmed the judge’s testimony from what transpired at the closed hearing. On October 6, the court charged Rubtsou with insulting the judge under the criminal code and sentenced him to 30 months of restricted freedom, “khimiya.” The court reduced the sentence to 18 months based on a current amnesty law. Rubtsou’s appeal was rejected on November 21. He began serving his sentence on December 22.
On October 9, police detained 14 Ukrainian and 11 Belarusian soccer fans during and after a match in Barysau. The fans had been chanting pro-Ukraine, pro-Belarus, and anti-Putin slogans. A court convicted 12 Ukrainians and sentenced several to jail and fines. The court charged one with using fascist symbols and the others for profanity. Authorities released all detained Ukrainian fans after the Ukrainian government voiced its concern. The court also fined 12 Belarusians on similar charges.
On December 1, authorities in Vitsebsk fined independent journalist Kastus Mardzvintsau and Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) activist Tatsiana Sevyarynets three million rubles ($280) and 3.75 million rubles ($350) respectively, on charges of allegedly holding an unsanctioned demonstration on November 5. On November 28, independent journalists Alena Stiapanava and Zmitser Kazakevich received a penalty of three million rubles ($280) each and BCD activist Alena Shabunia a penalty of 2.7 million rubles ($250) on similar charges. On December 3, a local court sentenced Petr Biarlinau, a passer-by who joined the activists for a photo, to three days in jail and Paval Levinau, a local human rights advocate, to a fine of 3.75 million rubles ($350) on December 17. At court hearings a police officer testified that investigators studied online photos of all defendants holding self-made paper birds and paper cages and posing in front of graffiti on a building in Vitsebsk portraying birds flying out of cages. An officer testified that the group planned this event in advance, which equated it to a demonstration.
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 limited access to information and often resulted in self-censorship by the media. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were limited to those required by law during election campaigns. In 2012 official censorship further limited them during the parliamentary election, and limited information was available in the state-run press about the local elections. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of the media. Under the law the government may close a publication after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, 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 authorities allowed candidates to appear live. During the year candidates in local elections did not have opportunities to publish any materials in state-controlled media.
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 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 independent and opposition newspapers and seized leaflets and other materials deemed to have been printed illegally. For example, on September 25, a higher court in Mahilyou denied an appeal filed by a local opposition activist, Ihar Barysau, to challenge his 4.5-million ruble ($420) fine for allegedly violating the media law. Courts earlier convicted Barysau of transporting and illegally disseminating 11,000 copies of various printed media, including the local newspaper Nash Mahilyou, and the opposition Social-Democratic party’s bulletins, A Social Democrat, that police confiscated from him on July 16. Authorities also often fined distributors of independent press publications.
On May 12, the information ministry issued a warning to the independent newspaper Svobodnye Novosti Plus for publishing information deemed detrimental to public interests and creating a negative portrayal of the World Ice Hockey Championship held in Minsk. The claim referred to a May 6 article stating that none of Russia’s players in Minsk had played at the Sochi Olympic Games.
State-owned media, which were extremely biased and served largely as a propaganda arm of the regime, dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was 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 on the number of copies allowed to circulate and to 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 harass and detain journalists routinely.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. For example, on March 2, authorities briefly detained six independent journalists who covered an opposition demonstration to protest reported deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine. Authorities released all without charge after an identification check.
Harassment of local and foreign journalists was also common. The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that during the year authorities charged at least 14 journalists or had them stand trial for cooperating with an unaccredited foreign media outlet. For example, on May 23, the Foreign Ministry refused official accreditation to Viktar Parfianenka, a Hrodna-based freelance journalist writing for various foreign media broadcasting in the country. This was his sixth accreditation denial.
On September 16, police searched Mahilyou-based independent journalist Aliaksandr Burakou’s apartment as well as his parents’ apartment. Officers seized several computers and hard drives. Authorities subsequently opened a civil case against Burakou for the “illegal production” of media products in connection with an article that appeared on the website of Deutsche Welle, which was not accredited in the country. A local human rights defender told the independent media outlet Belapan that authorities harassed Burakou because of his complaints against police officers. On October 8, a court in Mahilyou fined Burakou six million rubles ($560) for cooperating with Deutsche Welle.
On September 25, a court in Babruisk fined Maryna Malchanava, a Bobruysky Kuryer reporter, 4.8 million rubles ($450) for working for foreign media without accreditation. Authorities charged Malchanava with writing for the Poland-based Belsat TV website.
On October 20, police detained for an hour political opposition leader and poet Uladzimir Niakliaeu, cameraman Ales Lubenchuk, and freelance journalist Mariya Artsybashava. The two were filming Niakliaeu reading poems in a public park.
On November 25, authorities reportedly detained independent journalist Aliaksandr Alesin but without any official, public confirmation. On December 8, authorities informed his family that he was in KGB custody and faced charges of espionage and treason. On December 10, authorities released Alesin from KGB detention on his own recognizance but forbade him from leaving Minsk. Authorities dropped the treason charge against him but maintained charges of cooperating with foreign intelligence sources, which carry a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. The case remained pending at year’s end.
On December 2, Hrodna-based independent journalist Andrei Mialeshka was fined six million rubles ($560) on charges of illegally producing and distributing publications. This was his third fine during the year in addition to 4.5 million ruble ($440) and 5.25 million ruble ($495) fines for writing articles for the Polish Radio Racyja.
On December 18, authorities in Biaroza fined freelance journalist Tamara Shchapiotkina 4.5 million rubles ($420) for writing for Radio Racyja. On December 24, authorities in Brest fined independent journalist Ales Liauchuk six million rubles ($560) for working for a foreign media outlet without 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 forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.
Authorities allowed only state-run radio and the state-run television networks 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. 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 reportedly warned independent editors and journalists to avoid reporting on certain topics and not to criticize the government. Authorities occasionally 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 or receive heavy fines.
Authorities issued warnings to at least six independent and freelance journalists for working without accreditation. For example, on June 10, the Brest prosecutors’ office issued a warning to Maksim Khliabets for working for the Radio Racyja without accreditation. In March, Khliabets was summoned to security services and reported that officers attempted to recruit him.
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.
On March 17, a court in Babruisk fined local blogger Aleh Zhalnou 5.85 million rubles ($550) for posting on YouTube a video of a local senior police official meeting with local residents.
Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
The government continued to interfere with internet freedom by reportedly actively monitoring e-mail and internet chat rooms. While individuals, groups, and publications 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 and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists faced the likelihood that their e-mails and other web-based communications would be monitored.
On December 20, Lukashenka signed media law amendments making news websites and any internet information sources subject to the same regulations as print media. Under the amended law, online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered by the authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. Authorities may block access to the sites that fail to obey government orders or based on a single violation of distributing prohibited information without a prosecutor’s or court’s mandate. The amended law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from the authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. Amendments also prohibit foreign states and foreign individuals from holding more than 20 percent in local media companies. The amendments were set to go into effect in 2015.
On December 19, access to several independent news websites, including onliner.by, belapan.com, belapan.by, naviny.by, charter97.org, gazetaby.com, zautra.by, belaruspartisan.org, udf.by, and 21.by, was blocked; however, with the exception of onliner.by, authorities did not publicly claim responsibility for the blockage or launch an investigation. Information Minister Liliya Ananich warned independent media outlets against “inciting panic” amid ongoing currency devaluations. At year’s end at least three news websites remained blocked.
The independent online news portal TUT.by reported that as of October the number of internet users reached approximately 4.9 million persons or approximately 52 percent of the population. More than 60 percent of those using the internet did so daily, and the level of internet penetration was approximately 71 percent among users 15 to 74 years of age.
The authorities reportedly 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 presidential edict 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 prison sentences.
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 authorities did not release publicly, contained approximately 80 websites in 2013, including opposition portals Charter 97 and Belarusian Partisan. Authorities required internet service providers 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. Observers said the few remaining independent media sites with domestic “.BY” (Belarus) domain suffixes practiced self-censorship at times.
In December 2013 the prosecutor general, responding to an inquiry by the human rights organization Vyasna, stated the government blocked the Vyasna website on computers at government buildings and other official institutions because the group was not registered, which rendered its activities illegal.
On several occasions cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily disabled independent news portals and social networking sites.
According to the opposition news portal Charter97, Beltelekam blocked access to the website for customers of a number of internet providers across the country for several hours on August 14. On October 15, the news portal stated their website was subjected to an attempted cyberattack.
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 January university officials did not re-elect Ina Sorkina, associate professor of history at Hrodna State University, to an associate professor position, which she viewed as politically motivated. The election was held early due to a restructuring of the Belarusian history department and resulted in severing her association with the university. Sorkina had actively protested earlier politically motivated dismissals of her colleagues, in promoting wider use and teaching in the Belarusian language at schools.
In December, Hrdona State University refused to extend an employment agreement with Sviatlana Kul-Sialverstava, a professor of history also teaching at a school in Poland, on grounds of allegedly not complying with her job requirements and failing to publish her works on history annually. The university notified professor of archeology Genadz Semianchuk, one of the leading archeologists in the country and author of various textbooks on archeology, that his employment agreement would not be extended after December 27.
Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, 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. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.
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. According to Ina Kulei, chairperson of the unregistered Committee for Assistance to the Repressed “Solidarity,” authorities expelled at least 12 students from universities on political grounds during the year, including for participating in the March local elections.
The government continued to discourage and prevent teachers and democratic activists from advancing 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. For example, authorities selectively approved performances of what they deemed as opposition music groups at small concert halls, which required groups to go through cumbersome and time-consuming procedures to receive permissions. It continued to force some 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 2013 Lukashenka stated that he was not aware of any blacklist for musicians or artists. He suggested that authorities punished musicians for “spitting on the country” and accused them of accepting payments from outside groups.
On May 12, Minsk city ideology officers banned punk band Amaroka from performing at a night club in Minsk on the grounds that their lyrics could pose a threat to national security and public order, violate human rights, and be of an extremist nature. On July 8, Minsk city authorities refused an application for prominent singer and songwriter Zmitser Vaitsushkevich to hold a concert on September 11. Authorities stated that he was “controversial.” Nevertheless, authorities allowed Vaitsushkevich, who had been banned from performing since 2011 for supporting an opposition presidential candidate in 2010, to perform at a large venue on October 29 following prior scrutiny of his lyrics and approval for each song to be performed. The official permission notice stated Vaitsushkevich’s works “can be allowed for distribution in the country.” Nevertheless, on December 12, authorities prevented Vaitsushkevich from performing at a large concert hall in Minsk.
The government also restricted the activities of a nonofficial writers union, the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, 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 October 23, Lukashenka invited the heads of the independent Union of Belarusian Writers and the pro-regime Union of Writers of Belarus, as well as the Belarusian PEN Center chairman, to a televised meeting on literature. He told his interlocutors that “no one dictates what and how to write” and claimed that there was “no censorship and no state monopoly on printing books.”
In 2013 a commission of experts ruled that Ales Byalyatski’s book about Belarusian literature, which he wrote in detention, “caus[ed] harm to the image of Belarus” and its political interests. Customs officers in Ashmyany had confiscated 40 copies of the book from Byalyatski’s associate Tatsyana Ravyaka and forwarded them to the commission for examination. On February 11, a court in Ashmyany denied Ravyaka’s appeal seeking to return copies of the book and lift the ban on the book’s distribution in the country. At year’s end the book remained banned from distribution in the country.
On October 13, customs officers confiscated 20 copies of books written by Zianon Pazniak, emigre opposition leader, from Paval Sevyarynets, co-chair of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy, at a border with Poland. Authorities told him that the books would be sent to local authorities for an examination in terms of any extremism content.
On October 23, police detained Viktar Martsinovich, deputy editor of the independent weekly Belgazeta and well-known writer, during a presentation of his book Mova (Language) in Hrodna. According to Martsinovich authorities accused him of “organizing an unsanctioned event,” and he received a legal “evaluation” on his case. No charges followed.
On December 17, the tax ministry imposed on Ihar Lohvinaw’s publishing house a penalty of one billion rubles ($93,000) for “unlicensed retailing.” Lohvinaw has applied eight times for a license since authorities ordered him to obtain one in January. Authorities refused his request each time. In 2013 the Information Ministry revoked the Lohvinaw Publishing House’s s license over the publication of the 2011 Belarus Press Photo book, which the authorities determined to be “extremist material.”