The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press. 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 President Lukashenka and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Individuals could not criticize President 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 facemasks, displaying unregistered or opposition flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
On January 29, a Minsk district court fined three men, Maksim Pekarski, Viachaslau Kasinerau, and Vadzim Zheromski, in the so-called graffiti case; the fines ranged from 630 rubles ($300) to 1,050 rubles ($500) on the charges of property damage. While the judge dropped the criminal charges of hooliganism and vandalism, the three were convicted of painting graffiti with patriotic slogans, such as, “Belarus should be Belarusian,” that police deemed to be “promoting violence in society and disregard of universally accepted rules of conduct.” Police brutally detained the three men and their two associates, who were later released without charge, in August 2015, and Kasinerau told the press in September 2015 that during his detention, police bundled him into a bus, and an officer hit him in the face, fracturing his jaw. When they arrived at the police precinct, investigators pressured him to plead guilty and showed him records of his private phone conversations with his spouse, which were reportedly wiretapped months before the arrest. Although authorities opened an investigation into his reported beating, there were no developments during the year in bringing any charges related to police brutality.
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 and Media Freedoms: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. 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, primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of media.
Under the law, the government may close a publication, printed or online, 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.
On March 2, the Information Ministry announced that it issued warnings to two independent, internet publications: the online newspaper Yezhednevnik and the online version of the print newspaper Nasha Niva. The former purportedly violated the media law by using images of World War II German military equipment in an article about the armed forces’ readiness checks, which, according to the ministry “discredited the army.” Nasha Niva was warned for violating the law by publishing an article about the demographic situation in the country, which reportedly did not comply with figures released by the National Statistics Committee, and discredited the “successful” demographic policies of the government. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists condemned the warnings as far-fetched penalties, violations of media freedom, and an unacceptable measure to censor publications.
Limited information was available in the state-run press about the September parliamentary election, including about independent candidates. Although authorities did not generally censor the publication of candidates’ programs in print media, some opposition candidates complained that local television channels refused to televise their addresses. For example, in Hrodna Mikalai Ulasevich, a United Civic Party member and antinuclear activist, accused authorities of not broadcasting his speech, which included criticism of the country’s nuclear power plant project and discussion of corruption and lack of local governance. In another case, Siarhei Kalyakin, leader of the Just World Belarusian Party of the Left, complained to the regional election commission that the text of his biography was edited without his authorization on the official poster listing the biographies of all candidates in the Orsha district. The printed text of Kalyakin’s biography was missing a sentence referring to Kalyakin’s efforts as an MP to impeach President Lukashenka in 1996. State media otherwise provided only limited coverage of the campaign, focusing largely on the activities of the president and other state officials as well as political statements of the Central Election Commission chairperson.
On February 7, Information Minister Liliya Ananich warned media about criticizing the government and against publicizing inaccurate information, in particular taking remarks or statements out of a broader context, and fomenting negative sentiments, which she described as “destructive.” She committed to continue tight monitoring of the internet and printed media, so “they serve [the cause of] consolidation of society.” Ananich stated that any media violating the country’s laws would receive official warnings and subsequently be blocked.
The Information Ministry continued to deny registration to independent media outlets. In spite of the lack of registration, independent media, including newspapers, magazines, and internet news websites, sought to provide 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.
State-owned media 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. For example, on September 14, Aksana Kolb, an editor of the Novy Chas independent weekly newspaper, told the press that Belposhta and Belsayuzdruk had refused to distribute the newspaper through their subscription and retail chains, respectively. Novy Chas is a Belarusian-language weekly that publishes materials about national culture, history, identity, and information related to reinforcing the country’s sovereignty. The exclusion of the independent printed press from the state distribution system and the requirement that private stores secure registration to sell printed media effectively limited the ability of the independent press to distribute their publications.
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.
Several independent newspapers, including Vitsyebski Kuryer, 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.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that, as of November 11, police detained at least six journalists while performing their professional duties.
The government routinely denied accreditation to journalists who work with foreign media. As of November 1, at least two journalists had been fined in 10 cases for not having government accreditation or cooperating with a foreign media outlet.
Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of the Warsaw-based Belarusian-language channel Belsat, told media on June 1 that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to its application to accredit 10 local journalists. The ministry was supposed to respond to the accreditation application by May 21. She pledged that the unregistered Minsk-based office and journalists across the country would continue their operations and would “not adjust our reporting to meet the Belarusian authorities’ wishes because we represent free journalism.”
Independent journalist and military expert Aliaksandr Alesin was detained in November 2014 and faced charges of cooperating with foreign intelligence sources, which carry a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. He was released in December 2014, although he was banned from leaving the country. On January 20, he told the press that authorities suspended the criminal charges brought against him for allegedly “establishing cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign security or intelligence service.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly 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 television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or 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.
Authorities 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 denied press accreditation and received warnings from the Prosecutor’s Office and heavy fines.
Libel/Slander Laws: 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 September 23, a Minsk city court declined an appeal in the case of Aliaksandr Lapitski, who was convicted on April 12 of “committing socially dangerous acts” and violating Article 368 (“insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”), Article 369 (“insulting the authorities”), Article 391 (“insulting a judge or a lay judge”) of the Criminal Code of Belarus. The charges against Lapitski stem from e-mails and blog posts he wrote that, according to the authorities, insulted the president. Authorities alleged that Lapitski suffered from mental illness and sentenced him to a period of compulsory psychiatric treatment. Human rights group Vyasna called on authorities to end prosecution for defamation offenses and claimed that Lapitski’s involuntary hospitalization infringed on his personal freedom.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
The government interfered with internet freedom by reportedly 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’ e-mails and other web-based communications were likely to be monitored.
In January 2015 authorities introduced 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 to do so by the authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. Amendments also restricted access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that can harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. In addition, owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. 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 a 20 percent stake in local media companies.
While the list of blocked internet resources remained unavailable to the public, from January 2015 to March 2016 the Ministry of Information reportedly blocked access to 46 internet sites for drug trafficking, for distributing extremist materials, for illicit promotion of medications, for child pornography or for other content violations. Independent online media outlets were not generally blocked during the year, however, the election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) stated in a postelection press conference that its observers monitoring online news noted at least four online news sources, including popular news portal tut.by, had unexplained outages on election day, September 11.
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 presidential edict requires registration of service providers and internet websites, and requires the collection of information on users at internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon request. Violations of the edict are punishable by prison sentences.
State companies and organizations, which included the workplaces of up to 70 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.
On several occasions, cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily disabled independent news portals and social networking sites.
According to various media sources, the number of internet users reached more than seven million persons, of which approximately 90 percent used the internet daily or numerous times a month. Internet penetration was approximately 83 percent among users 15 to 50 years of age.
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 of Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenka. 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 prohibited schools from being led by opposition members. The education minister has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.
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 (vice Russian) 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.
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 parliamentary candidates and to vote early. Students from various universities and colleges reported to an independent election-monitoring group that their faculties were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from their dormitories. 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 anti-government 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. On January 20, Hleb Vaykul, a second-year student of the philology department, received final orders of his expulsion from the Belarusian State University. Earlier in January Vaykul announced he had been expelled, at which time the university stated the expulsion orders had not been signed. The student called his expulsion politically motivated as he was one of the organizers of a December 2015 student protest against the university’s decision to impose fees to retake exams. Authorities fined Vaykul 324 rubles ($175) for organizing through the “Students Against” community on the social networking website VKontakte and participating in the unsanctioned demonstration. The university administration stated Vaykul was expelled for failing to pass an examination on the psychology of literary works three times and not attending classes for the course during the fall semester.
The government continued to discourage and prevent teachers and activists from advancing the wider use of the Belarusian language and the preservation of Belarusian culture. 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, selectively approving performances of what they deemed opposition music groups at small concert halls. Approvals required groups to go through cumbersome and time-consuming procedures to receive permissions. The procedures continued to force some opposition theater and music groups out of public venues and into bars and private apartments by banning their performances.
Organizers of Theater Ch, an independent theater troupe, announced on January 20 that their two scheduled performances at the Modern Arts Center in Minsk were cancelled with short notice by the center’s administration. Opposition leaders, 2010 presidential candidates, and former political prisoners Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and Mikalai Statkevich attended the premier of their play What to do with the Tiger? and took pictures with the cast after the performance. The administration of the Modern Arts Center claimed they cancelled the performances after only four tickets were sold, while Theater Ch’s managers reported that the two shows in January were sold out. The Polish Institute in Minsk sponsored the production of the play.
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. Although sold at bookstores and online across the country, authorities did not allow printing houses and publishers to print copies of books by Sviatlana Aleksievich, winner of the Nobel prize for literature.