Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize the president or 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 displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
On June 10, a Minsk regional court convicted prominent painter and art performer Ales Pushkin for holding banners urging Belarus to join NATO as well as protesting “Russian Aggression in Europe” in the town of Krupki on June 6. Despite the fact that Pushkin staged his protest alone, authorities charged him with violating the Law on Mass Events and resisting police and fined him 204 rubles ($100).
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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 rare and limited primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of independent media.
By 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 Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, continued to operate under restrictive 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 newspapers, and raising the cost of printing. For example, journalists from independent media outlets Euroradio, BelaPAN, and tut.by did not receive accreditation to cover President Lukashenka’s April 19 annual address to the nation and the parliament, allegedly because the press center did not have enough seats.
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations.
Some 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 with a time delay that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced 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 authorities briefly detained an accredited German media outlet’s driver and impounded media equipment, which prevented the outlet from covering a rally on November 15.
On March 4, a Minsk district court convicted popular independent news portal tut.by editor in chief Maryna Zolatava of “executive inaction” allegedly for allowing tut.by journalists to access the subscription service of state-run news agency Belta without payment. The court sentenced her to a fine of 7,650 rubles ($3,740). In addition, Zolatava must pay Belta’s court costs of 6,000 rubles ($2,930). Criminal charges against several other journalists from tut.by and an independent press agency Belapan were dropped after the accused agreed to pay fines.
The government refused to register some foreign media, such as Poland-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined freelance journalists working for them. As of September 25, at least 17 journalists were fined in 38 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, freelance journalists received fines totaling more than 35,000 rubles ($17,200). Most of the fines were imposed on journalists working for Belsat Television.
In October the Foreign Ministry refused the 11th accreditation application of freelancer Viktar Parfyonenka to work for Radio Racyja.
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-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to air at least 30 percent local content. 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.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) monitoring report, during the November 17 parliamentary elections campaign at least seven opposition candidates’ prerecorded television speeches were not aired, and state newspapers censored or refused to publish a number of opposition candidates’ campaign platforms.
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 warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. 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 April 9, police searched Belsat Television’s Minsk office and confiscated computer equipment. The Investigative Committee press service indicated that the search was related to an unspecified defamation case. According to Belsat journalist Ales Zaleuski, the criminal case might have been connected to an article in which Belsat Television incorrectly reported that Andrei Shved, the head of the Committee for Forensic Examination, had been detained. Belsat Television issued a retraction and apology, and the committee returned the computer equipment on April 11.
On April 18, a Brest district court convicted popular video blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin on charges of defaming and insulting police officers and sentenced him to a fine of 9,180 rubles ($4,480). In addition, Piatrukhin was ordered to pay 7,500 rubles ($3,660) in damages to police officers.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups in various communities around the country.
The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training of persons to demonstrate, financing of public demonstrations, or solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Some violations are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
Persons with unexpunged criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals cannot act as mass event organizers as well as persons who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events (during one year since the imposition of the fine). The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials can be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if held at designated venues far from city centers.
Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in some demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unauthorized events.
On January 24, the government adopted a system of reimbursements for police, medical and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts, which were not applied to mass events cosponsored by state agencies. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 6,380 rubles ($3,120) and at a nondesignated venue the price is 1.5 times higher.
On April 25, organizers of the annual Charnobylski Shlyakh (Chernobyl March) announced that for the first time in approximately 30 years they would not be holding the event due to the high costs of required services. The opposition parties that filed the event application were able to negotiate the Minsk city police’s fee down from 7,500 rubles ($3,660) to 5,740 rubles ($2,800), but the organizers said they still could not afford to pay such a sum. Organizers withdrew their application, but some activists marched the route on April 26 and laid flowers at a commemorative chapel. Subsequently, authorities fined at least 12 participants, including economic expert Siarhei Chaly and Belarusian Christian Democrat Volha Kavalkova, up to 1,280 rubles ($625) each.
On April 29, a Minsk district court fined the leaders of the organizing groups of authorized March 24 Minsk Freedom Day events, including Movement for Freedom NGO chairman Yury Hubarevich, Belarusian Christian Democracy Party cochair Volha Kavalkova, and United Civic Party chairman Mikalai Kazlou, ordering them to pay 765 rubles ($374) each after their organizations refused to pay for security services at the March 24 rally and concert. On May 2, Belarusian Social Democratic Party Hramada chairman Ihar Barysau, also one of the organizers, was fined 765 rubles ($374) for similar reasons.
During the year local authorities countrywide rejected dozens of applications for permission to stage various demonstrations.
Minsk city authorities rejected applications from the Belarus Popular Front and Art Siadziba, an independent public cultural initiative, to hold a March 25 Freedom Day concert at Freedom Square, Dinamo stadium, or near the Palace of Sports. The authorities allowed opposition political parties to hold a concert and a rally at a remote location on March 24, during which at least two opposition activists, including Zmitser Dashkevich and Belarusian Christian Democracy cochair Vital Rymasheuski, were briefly detained. Human rights advocates reported that a total of 15 people were detained at different events on March 25, including United Civil Party chair Mikalai Kazlou, Belarusian Christian Democracy cochair Vital Rymasheuski, and musicians Liavon Volsky, Zmitser Vaityushkevich, Ihar Varashkevich, and Paval Arakelyan, who had announced a street concert. All were released with no charges.
During the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without the government’s approval in March and April.