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 selectively 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 Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
Since May the government undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression. The government harassed bloggers and social media users, detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in June authorities detained Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, and charged them with “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their opposition political commentary.
Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in protest.
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. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.
The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations.” On March 12, a Minsk district court tried in absentia video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich on charges of calling individuals to participate in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 15 days of arrest. In a video Tsyhanovich reportedly urged supporters to show up at the state-run Belneftekhim headquarters to protest increased gas prices starting on February 25. On June 9, police detained Tsyhanovich to serve his sentence and on June 15, he was given an additional 15-day sentence for participating unauthorized mass event on May 31. On June 26, human rights groups reported that authorities charged Tsyhanovich with organizing or participating in activities that grossly violate public orders and are connected with resisting authorities’ orders. He remained in detention at year’s end on those charges.
On November 12, a court in Drahichyn fined a local resident 999 rubles ($410) for calling to assemble in the city center on October 15. Police detained the resident on the same day. He was released, but the charges remained pending the result of court hearings.
The government prohibits “extremist” information, which is defined as information materials–including printed, audio, visual, video materials, placards, posters, banners and other visuals–intended for public usage or distribution and seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.
On October 20, a Minsk district court recognized Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by pro-opposition Belarusians to organize protests, and its logo as extremist, alleging it promoted mass riots and disorder in addition to distributing other “extremist” materials (see Internet Freedom, below). In addition the government charged the channel’s founder, Stsyapan Putsila, and its former editor, Raman Pratasevich, with organizing mass riots, organizing a group activity grossly violating public order, and inciting hatred based on professional duties, in particular against law enforcement officers and public servants. Both individuals were outside Belarus but were put on the country’s wanted list. The government also prohibits content that promotes violence or war; contains information regarding illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; involves trafficking in persons or pornography; or that may harm the national interests of the country.
The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it only allows registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.
The government prohibits the spread of “fake news” on the internet but did not enforce the prohibition against regular citizens.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. 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 the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.
On October 2, authorities cancelled the accreditation of all foreign press representatives as part of a process they claimed was an effort to update the accreditation process for foreign press. Prior to the cancellation, in August authorities had already begun cancelling foreign press accreditations, including those of the BBC, Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, the German ARD television channel, Deutsche Welle, the French Agence France-Presse news agency, Reuters, and Russian TV Rain. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant accreditation to dozens of foreign correspondents who filed paperwork seeking to cover the August 9 presidential election. Some correspondents were reaccredited, with journalists from Deutsche Welle and BBC among the first, but a number of Belarusian-based freelance journalists were not.
Prior to the October 2 cancellation of foreign press accreditations, authorities refused to accredit some foreign media outlets, such as Polish-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined unaccredited freelance journalists working for these outlets. As of December 10, at least 17 journalists were fined in 30 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. Most of the fines in connection to accreditation or registration were levied on journalists working for Belsat Television.
Authorities deported some members of the foreign press. For example, on August 29, authorities deported two Moscow-based Associated Press correspondents as part of a series of actions that decreased the number of independent correspondents in the country.
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. Regulations also 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. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.
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. After a number of state television personnel resigned in protest over the allegations of presidential election fraud and subsequent police violence starting in August, Lukashenka requested assistance from the Russian state media organization RT. Starting August 17, Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press while authorities suppressed domestic independent voices and pressured the state journalists who had resigned. After August 17, representatives of Russian state-media organizations generally faced less pressure from authorities, when RT began supporting and controlling Belarusian domestic state media.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, in particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover pre- and postelection demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country and at times used violence against journalists and brought false allegations against them. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 500 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and short-term jail sentences. These cases were reportedly in connection to journalists’ alleged participation in unauthorized mass events, livestreaming demonstrations, or working without accreditation for foreign media. On October 12, the Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement noting that the situation for journalists in the country had gone “from grave to catastrophic” due to violence and other forms of pressure on journalists.
In one example of government pressure, on June 20, police detained two journalists of the independent Hantsavitski Chas newspaper, Alyaksandr Pazniak and Syarhey Bahrou, during a live stream in Hantsavichy. At the local police department, Pazniak was reportedly beaten and threatened. Authorities charged the two with resisting police and participating in unauthorized mass events. On June 22, a local court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days of arrest and fined Pazniak 810 rubles ($332).
There were reports that security forces deliberately targeted members of the press for violence during demonstrations. For example, on August 10, security officers were reported to have targeted and dispersed a group of correspondents covering postelection protests who were clearly marked as press and wearing corresponding vests and badges. Officers fired rubber bullets, injuring independent newspaper Nasha Niva journalist Natallya Lubneuskaya, who was hospitalized for more than a month.
There were reports that some journalists were seriously abused during detention. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, an unaccredited 33-year-old journalist with the Poland-based television station Belsat, Vitaliy Dubikov was on his way to a work assignment in Minsk when two police officers stopped him and searched his belongings. Upon finding a camera and microphone with a Belsat logo, they forced him into a tiny compartment in a police van and took him to a Minsk police precinct, where riot police beat him and other detainees with truncheons, ordered them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. Dubikov and other detainees spent the night outdoors, first flat on the ground then kneeling against a wall. In the morning he was crammed into a police van with other detainees and held there for several hours without food, water, or ventilation. On August 14, Dubikov was released without charges.
Security officials also confiscated or deliberately broke journalists’ video and audio equipment. For example, according to press reports, on August 11, security forces approached Associated Press photographer Syarhey Hryts and several colleagues while they were covering police dispersing a demonstration. According to Hryts, riot police, who were not wearing any identifying symbols, swarmed them, seized the memory sticks from their equipment, and smashed his camera.
The government reportedly prosecuted journalists in retaliation for the content of their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 25, officers of the State Control Committee detained Syarhey Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after searching his offices and seizing documents. Satsuk had heavily criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption in the health-care system. He was charged with accepting a bribe, which Reporters without Borders called retaliation for an editorial casting doubt on the official COVID-19 statistics and criticizing an order issued by Lukashenka to “deal with” media outlets that are “sowing panic” regarding the epidemic. On April 4, he was released on his own recognizance; the government investigation continued as of November.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The threat of government retaliation led the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see Internet Freedom, below).
The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines (see Freedom of Speech, above). Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad.
The government reportedly failed to reply to requests for information, and some outlets were believed to have held back coverage to avoid punishment for publishing incorrect information.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings, controls on the size of press runs of newspapers, and inflated costs for printing. For example, after popular opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the nonstate daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (the local branch of the mass-market Russian tabloid) extensively covered violence and beatings of protesters in the days after the election, authorities began censoring further daily editions by blocking printing through two state-run distribution systems, the retail kiosk network Belsayuzdruk and the postal subscription service.
The government controlled printing presses in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a few days after the protests began, the state publishing house began to refuse to print independent newspapers, citing an array of “technical problems,” including lack of materials and broken equipment, which observers believed were pretexts for the refusals. The CPJ noted that, on the same day that an independent newspaper was denied the ability to print an edition with a white-red-white flag on the cover (the symbol of anti-Lukashenka protests), a state-controlled newspaper was able to print an edition featuring an interview with a pro-Lukashenka singer.
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. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of 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 defamation.
On September 23, officers of the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich, searched his apartment, and confiscated computer equipment. Authorities released Martsinovich after detaining him for 72 hours, but he remained charged with libel against Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou in connection to an interview the newspaper published in which Barsukou was accused of beating detainees inside holding facilities.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, authorities detained lawyer Maksim Znak, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council. He was charged with “calling for actions aimed at harming national security.” Other members of the Coordination Council were also charged with similar offenses. The case was widely believed to be retaliation for Znak’s political activism.
The government monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without judicial oversight. All internet service providers must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year. Companies were also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.
The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.
Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.
Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. From August 9 to August 12, internet access in the country was severely restricted for approximately 61 hours. Only intermittent text messages and voice calls worked for most individuals. While authorities blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions, independent experts attributed the disruptions to the government. Starting in August, there were repeated internet disruptions and complete internet shutdowns, usually coinciding with major protests and police actions to disperse them. Private internet service providers notified customers that the shutdowns were requested by the government on national security grounds. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations occurred.
Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). 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. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”
There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online. On October 20, a Minsk district court ruled the Telegram channel NEXTA Live and its NEXTA logo were “extremist” and subsequently restricted access to information resources using its name. According to state-run media outlet BelTA’s announcement, the decision was made in response to the finding of “extremist activities” on the Telegram channel, including calls for “organization and public appeals to stage mass riots.” NEXTA, an encrypted channel, was a leading source of information on events in the country and published suggestions for protest routes and meeting points.
Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online. For example, on June 25, security forces raided the home of Ihar Losik, the administrator of the popular opposition Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain. He was charged with “actions that gravely violate public order,” which carries up to three years in prison if convicted, and as of November, remained in pretrial detention. Observers believed the charges to be in retaliation for his moderation of the opposition Telegram channel.
Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information.
By law, the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on users who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violations of the edict was punishable by prison sentences, although no such violations were prosecuted. These government efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages were attacked after the August 9 presidential election, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
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.
The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions of some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.
Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals may not act as mass event organizers. Individuals who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from 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 may 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. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.
The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. 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. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,290 rubles ($2,990); at a nondesignated venue, the price is 1.5 times higher.
Authorities often formulated pretexts to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example, on July 30, opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rally in Minsk drew 63,000 participants, making it the largest campaign rally since the country’s independence. Tsikhanouskaya was subsequently blocked from holding additional campaign rallies by local Minsk authorities. On August 2, authorities announced that state events would take place every evening at every permitted campaign rally location between August 2 and August 8, despite the fact that Tsikhanouskaya had submitted an application in mid-July to hold rallies at locations in Minsk on August 5 and August 8.
Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. For example, on October 27, a Minsk district court sentenced Zmitser Dashkevich, an opposition and civil society activist and former leader of the Malady Front opposition youth group, to 15 days’ imprisonment after being detained at an October 25 protest. Dashkevich was a key organizer of the Night of Assassinated Poets, an annual opposition commemorative event held October 29 at the Stalinist mass-killings site at Kurapaty to honor more than a hundred Belarusian poets, writers, and public figures killed in 1937.
During the year local authorities countrywide delayed answering or rejected applications for permission to stage various demonstrations. For example, 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 government approval.
Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished at a later date.
Between August and December, police detained more than 30,000 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals detained during protests. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences of 10 to 15 days, or both. Police also opened at least 900 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between August 9 and December. In June and July, plainclothes and uniformed security officials also arbitrarily detained demonstrators who peacefully stood in lines along roads in many cities, with particular focus paid to individuals wearing opposition symbols or flying the white-red-white opposition-affiliated flag. Nondemonstrators were also detained by police. Other than during the mass detentions on August 9-11, the majority of individuals who were detained before and after the election were registered by police and released the same or next day, although authorities had the ability to apply short-term jail sentences at later dates.
Authorities detained a number of protest leaders, opposition members, and activists and jailed them for initial short-term sentences, then applied additional charges from earlier detentions to keep them jailed for longer periods of time. For example, after his May 6 arrest for participating in an unauthorized 2019 mass event, on May 29, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy. On June 8, Tsikhanouski and six other detainees were charged with “disturbing public order” and “obstructing elections.” On June 16, a criminal case was opened against him for allegedly interfering in the election process and hindering the work of the Central Election Commission. On July 30, authorities announced additional criminal charges against Tsikhanouski, alleging “preparation for mass riots” and an investigation into charges of incitement of violence against police. As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in prison while investigations into these criminal charges proceeded (see also sections 1.d. and 3).
Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations.
On October 12, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Henadz Kazakevich stated that law enforcement bodies would use “special equipment and lethal weapons if need be” to “guarantee the law in the country.” Authorities used live ammunition in a few isolated instances, which led to the death of two protesters (see section 1.a.).
Human rights groups reported authorities sought to mark or tag protesters who had opposition symbols, chanted pro-opposition slogans, or resisted arrest. Water in water cannons was also reportedly dyed to allow identification of protesters later. Authorities reportedly singled out marked individuals for higher levels of physical and psychological abuse in detention facilities.
Plainclothes officers detained individuals with opposition symbols or who had been identified as protest participants or police claimed were protest leaders. When faced with large crowds at unauthorized mass events, plainclothes officers detained, and sometimes beat, suspected rally participants at random along the periphery of events and forced many into unmarked vehicles. From May to December, masked plainclothes police officers often did not announce themselves or present documentation.
In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms under criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. From August 9-11, isolated instances of demonstrators throwing rocks, firecrackers, or Molotov cocktails were filmed by media. Rock throwing also reportedly occurred during protests September 23 after Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported at least 10 instances of motorists hitting police from August 10-12. After August 11, the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful and instances of violence on the part of demonstrators appeared to follow police use of force or violent detentions, especially by masked plainclothes officers. From June through November, isolated fist fights between security officers and demonstrators or attempts by demonstrators to resist arrest occurred in various cities, generally following security officer attempts to arbitrarily detain protesters or disperse peaceful crowds.
For example, on September 29, the Maladzechna Regional Court convicted and sentenced local residents Paval Piaskou and Uladzislau Eustsyahneyeu to up to three years and three months in a low-security prison. Authorities charged them with resisting riot police when on June 19 they attempted to prevent police from detaining a protester.
Since early May the Investigative Committee of Belarus initiated at least 900 criminal cases against individuals who were detained during protests on charges including participation in mass disturbances or riots, causing harm to national security, resistance, and violence or threat of violence against an official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hooliganism, incitement to hostility or hatred, and organization of or participation in actions violating public order. For example, investigators charged at least 231 individuals for allegedly organizing or participating in actions violating public order after detaining them at a protest on November 1. According to the report, this indicated a return to government criminalization of peaceful protests.
Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. According to a Ministry of Education 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, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. For example, in April administrators expelled a fourth-year student at Minsk State Linguistic University for allegedly not attending classes. The student claimed she was in a two-week quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. The student was a member of the executive board of the opposition-affiliated Union of Belarusian Students. From March 20 to March 23, she protested alongside other students near the university, handed out free medical masks, and chanted, “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!” a criticism of authorities’ COVID-19 response. The student claimed the university administration’s decision to expel her was a politically motivated. From October to December, more than 140 students were reportedly expelled due to their political views.
Freedom of Association
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.
Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.
The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity.
On August 27, a presidential decree on foreign aid entered into force. The decree provides that only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside of a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt categories and taxable categories, that latter of which would require a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduced penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.
Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.
The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.
Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. At its formation on August 18, the group had approximately 70 members, seven of which were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were in prison.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government appeared to prosecute regularly officials alleged to be corrupt. There were, however, also allegations that some high level officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country. In March 2019 the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared the country noncompliant with its anticorruption standards. The government did not publish evaluation or compliance reports, which according to GRECO’s executive secretary, “casted a dark shadow over the country’s commitment to preventing and combating corruption and to overall cooperation with GRECO.” In October 2019 GRECO’s executive secretary repeated its concerns regarding the country’s “continuous noncompliance.”
Corruption: According to official sources, most corruption cases involved soliciting and accepting bribes, fraud, and abuse of power, although anecdotal evidence indicated such corruption usually did not occur as part of day-to-day interaction between citizens and minor state officials.
The absence of independent judicial and law enforcement systems, the lack of separation of powers, and a harried independent press largely barred from interaction with a nontransparent state bureaucracy made it virtually impossible to gauge the scale of corruption or combat it effectively.
The most corrupt sectors were state administration and procurement, the industrial sector, the construction industry, health care, and education.
There were numerous corruption prosecutions during the year. For example, in January the BKGB announced it arrested four general managers of sugar refineries, including the head of the Belarusian Sugar Company and the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s organized crime and corruption department, Uladzimir Tsikhinya. They were reportedly charged with accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes, and Lukashenka accused them of “pocketing kickbacks and corruption” for allegedly selling sugar through intermediaries at lower price, which exported it to Russia and illegally re-exported back at higher prices. On August 25, independent media reported that Tsikhinya, who purportedly notified general managers of possible inspections and abuses against them, was charged and released, while other suspects reportedly remained in pretrial detention.
In general, corruption prosecutions remained selective and nontransparent.
Financial Disclosure: Anticorruption laws require income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials, their spouses, and members of households who have reached legal age and continue to live with them in the same household. According to the law, specialized anticorruption departments within the Prosecutor General’s Office, the BKGB, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs monitor and verify anticorruption practices, and the prosecutor general and all other prosecutors are mandated to oversee the enforcement of anticorruption law. These declarations were not available to the public; an exception applies to candidates running in presidential, National Assembly, and municipal elections. There are administrative sanctions and disciplinary penalties for noncompliance.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
There were a number of active domestic human rights NGOs, although authorities were often hostile to their efforts, restricted their activities, selectively cooperated with them, and were not responsive to their views.
Prominent human rights NGOs–such as the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Center for Legal Transformations–operated as registered entities. The government refused to register some other NGOs, placing them at risk of fines. Some unregistered NGOs, including Vyasna and Legal Assistance to the Population, continued to operate.
Authorities at times harassed both registered and unregistered human rights organizations. They subjected them to inspections and threats of deregistration and reportedly monitored their correspondence and telephone conversations. Beginning in August, human rights activists were also arrested during the government’s violent crackdown. For example, on September 17, Vyasna human rights activist and volunteer coordinator Marfa Rabkova was detained and later charged with criminal activity for the “training or other preparation of persons to participate in riots, or funding such activities.” Vyasna asserted that Rabkova’s detention and charges were politically motivated in response to her efforts to train short-term election observers for the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections volunteer initiative and her work in documenting severe abuses of detainees. As of December, Rabkova remained in detention along with two other Vyasna volunteers, Andrei Chapiuk and Ksenia Syramalot. Vyasna considered all three individuals to be political prisoners.
The government largely ignored reports issued by human rights NGOs and rarely met with unregistered groups. State-run media rarely reported on human rights NGOs and their activities.
During the year the Belarusian Helsinki Committee’s bank accounts remained blocked due to long-standing tax arrears related to foreign funding the organization received in the early 2000s, on which the government places restrictions, but the government allowed the committee to operate without other interference.
Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law, including the law on mass events. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Justice Ministry to monitor NGO activities and review their documents. NGOs must also submit detailed annual reports to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, and total number of members.
Authorities were generally reluctant to engage on human rights problems with international human rights NGOs or other human rights officials, and international NGO representatives often had difficulty gaining admission to the country in their official capacity. Authorities routinely ignored local and international groups’ recommendations on improving human rights in the country, as well as requests to stop harassing the human rights community.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council appointed Anais Marin as the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. The government continued to speak against “the politicized and senseless” mandate of the rapporteur, refused to recognize the mandate, and denied Marin entry to the country. On September 17, a total of 17 OSCE participating states invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” against the country to look into reports of serious human rights abuses, including election fraud and substantial interference with freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly. The country did not cooperate with the mechanism’s expert mission or allow it access to the country.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The country does not have an ombudsman or other national human rights institution. A standing commission on human rights in the lower chamber of the National Assembly was ineffective.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression and allows individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. Restrictions apply only in cases when such discussion poses a threat to national security, territorial integrity, public order, or safety. Nonetheless, there were allegations that authorities did not always respect freedom of expression for the press. Journalists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent lawsuits. Concentration of ownership of major media outlets in the hands of a few political figures, and oligarchs further limited the independence of the press.
Freedom of Speech: In Transnistria a 2020-2026 Strategy for Combating Extremism was approved on March 20 that provides “authorities” new repressive tools to silence dissent and further repress freedom of expression, complementing the existing 2007 “law” on fighting extremism activities. There were at least five individuals facing charges pursuant to the “antiextremism” law for publicly criticizing the de facto “authorities” during the year.
Larisa Calic, a writer from Transnistria, was charged with extremism after she published a book about violent hazing and corruption in the Transnistrian “army.” Calic fled Transnistria and was in hiding. Alexandr Samonii, a member of the Tiraspol “city council” for the opposition Communist Party, has been under investigation since June 2 for extremism based on social media postings in which he criticized the ruling regime in Transnistria. Samonii reportedly fled Transnistria and remained in hiding. Individuals such as Oleg Horjan, Tatiana Belova, and Serghei Mirovici (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees) were sentenced to prison for criticizing “authorities” by “insulting a public official,” an act which is prohibited under the region’s “criminal code.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to media, NGOs, and international monitors, independent media were active and expressed a plurality of views but were often marginalized by larger outlets owned or controlled by a few politicians and oligarchs. Large media outlets pressured smaller outlets, including by colluding to prevent advertisers from buying advertising space from those smaller outlets, which brought several to the brink of closing. Prominent journalists left key outlets acquired by oligarchs. Internal and external propaganda and manipulation, concentration of ownership of mass media in the hands of some politicians and oligarchs, unfair competition within the television advertising market, and limited independence of the broadcasting regulatory authority, the Audiovisual Council (CCA), were among the major problems that restricted independent media space.
Oligarchs closely supervised content and maintained editorial control over reporting from outlets they owned or controlled. Russian news channels rebroadcast in the country continued to disseminate propaganda and presented distorted information about regional and international events.
Media outlets supportive of President Dodon and the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova expanded their dominance in the media market, replacing former Democratic Party of Moldova leader Vlad Plahotniuc as having the largest media holdings.
On March 24, during the state of emergency that was declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCA issued a ruling blocking media outlets from criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic or reporting information that contradicted the government or World Health Organization’s official statements. The CCA cancelled the order on March 26 after public outcry from NGOs, opposition parties, and diplomatic missions.
On July 9, parliament approved the appointment of three new CCA members; opposition parliamentarians claimed the selection process was not transparent or inclusive.
Independent media NGOs and watchdogs accused the CCA and the public broadcaster, Teleradio Moldova, of progovernment bias. The NGOs also noted the government discriminated against media outlets that were not affiliated with President Dodon or the Socialist Party by refusing them access to senior officials for interviews.
On October 26, the CCA penalized TV8 with a 7,000 lei (approximately $400) fine for “not ensuring impartiality” during the talk show “Natalia Morari’s Politics.” The CCA ruled that the show failed to uphold impartiality and balance of opinion when one of the guests on the talk show, lawyer Ștefan Gligor, said there were risks of election fraud in the upcoming November 1 presidential election. The CCA stated that TV8 failed to give airtime to the opposing view. TV8 representatives stated that the channel ensured balance of opinion throughout the show and did not limit the right to freedom of expression. TV8 characterized the CCA’s action as an attempt to silence media discussion of possible electoral fraud and “an attack on freedom of expression.” On October 31, the Chisinau Court of Appeal struck down the CCA fine and ruled that TV8 did not violate the requirement for balance of opinion. On November 1, the Supreme Court of Justice affirmed the Court of Appeal ruling cancelling the fine.
Media freedom in separatist-controlled Transnistria remained a concern despite the local “authorities’” declarations that they would promote competition and media freedom. During the year, Freedom House again assessed the Transnistrian region’s media as “not free.” Transnistrian television channels and radio stations are regulated by the “state media service” and “state telecommunications service.” The “state media service” oversees “state-run” media and “state” policy in the information sector.
Two organizations controlled the Transnistrian mass media market: the “Public Agency for Telecommunication,” which controlled official news information agencies, newspapers, and one of the two most popular television channels; and Sheriff Holding, a business conglomerate with considerable influence in the Transnistrian “Supreme Soviet.”
Violence and Harassment: There were reports of government and political leaders obstructing freedom of the press by restricting the media’s ability to cover events. Journalists were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and frequent lawsuits. Female journalists, in particular, were subjected to intimidation.
On May 20, the Nordnews.md portal team was denied access to the headquarters of the Drochia district council where President Dodon met representatives of local public authorities. Employees of the State Protection and Guard Service (SPPS) also prohibited filming of the presidential motorcade.
On May 18, journalist Natalia Cebotari was fined 2,400 lei (approximately $140) by police for alleged defamation for her coverage of abusive and unhealthy work conditions at a textile factory in the town of Ceadir-Lunga that had also violated COVID-19 safety guidelines. She was charged only after the factory manager filed a complaint with local police. The media community condemned the move as interference with media freedom.
There were also reports of government officials initiating lawsuits against media outlets for their investigative reporting into corruption allegations and the officials’ personal assets.
In January, Deputy Prosecutor General Ruslan Popov filed a defamation lawsuit against the Center for Independent Journalism in response to two investigative reports implicating him in corruption.
In May the Ziarul de Garda newspaper was targeted in a defamation lawsuit by President Igor Dodon in response to an investigation revealing his wealth and assets. The second hearing was scheduled for September, but did not take place due to Dodon’s refusal to attend. The hearing was postponed to November.
Censorship or Content Restriction: In many cases, journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the sponsors or owners of their media outlets, many of whom are politicians or oligarchs connected to political parties.
Journalists voiced concern that a personal data protection law restricted journalists’ access to information. In addition investigating journalists complained of problems accessing websites of legal entities. Journalists also noted that a March 18 decision by the Emergency Situation Commission’s to extend the deadline for authorities to respond to public information requests from 15 days to 45 days during the state of emergency, undermined the public’s right to access to information.
In Transnistria journalists similarly practiced self-censorship and avoided criticizing separatists’ goal of independence or their “foreign policy” to avoid “official” reprisals.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are punishable by a fine, community service, being barred from holding certain public offices for a period of months, or a combination of these punishments. Defamation is not a crime, but individuals and organizations can be sued civilly for defamation. Some newspapers practiced self-censorship and avoided controversial issues due to concerns that government officials and other public figures could use slander or defamation accusations to retaliate against critical news reports (see the Natalia Cebotari case under Violence and Harassment, above).
As modified in March 2019, the “law” in Transnistria criminalizes public insults of the region’s “leader,” which may be punished by a fine or up to five years in prison.
On April 7, Transnistrian “law enforcement” arrested Irina Vasilachi, a civic activist and opposition politician, after she accused Igor Nebeigolova, a close ally of former Transnistrian “leader” Igor Smirnov, of corruption and criminal activity on her YouTube channel, where she posted videos criticizing the Transnistrian leadership and its associates. Vasilachi was found guilty of slander and fined the equivalent of $170. Irina Vasilachi fled the region for Chisinau with her children on December 20, fearing arrest in a criminal case opened against her in Transnistria on accusations of using force against Transnistrian law enforcement officials on April 7. Tatiana Belova and Serghei Mirovici were similarly arrested and received three-year prison sentences for “insulting” the Transnistrian “leader” online (see also section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
The government did restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
On March 20, the country’s national intelligence agency, the Information and Security Service, blocked 52 online news portals for the duration of the 60-day state of emergency period, claiming that the sites were spreading “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Transnistria the agency on telecommunication services ordered the second largest internet service provider (ISP), Linkservice in Transnistria, operating in Bender/Tighina, to cease operations on January 12 due to violations of the region’s ISP “regulations.” On April 28, an “appeals court” allowed Linkservice to continue its operations throughout the COVID-19 state of emergency in the region. Internet users and civil society in Transnistria suggested that the region’s largest ISP, Sheriff-controlled Inderdnestrcom, was trying to eliminate its competitors in the ISP market in Transnistria.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; authorities imposed additional restrictions during the state of emergency declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly. While the government usually respected this right, there were several exceptions.
On July 16, a group of veterans from the 1992 Transnistria conflict protested the government’s failure to improve veterans’ services. Police prevented protesters from erecting tents outside the parliament building, leading to clashes between law enforcement and the protesters. Civil society and opposition claimed riot police violently dispersed the protesters and disproportionately used crowd-dispersing methods, such as batons, Tasers, and tear gas. Several protesters were arrested for allegedly assaulting police, and an opposition member of parliament claimed to have witnessed police beating a protester. Human rights NGOs condemned police actions against the protesters, calling them “disproportionate and unjustified.”
The government also banned public gatherings during the COVID-19 state of emergency, but allowed small-scale gatherings of up to 50 persons during the subsequent public health state of emergency, provided that participants respected social distance. “Authorities” in Transnistria continued to restrict freedom of assembly and generally refused permits for public protests.
“Authorities” in Transnistria continued to restrict freedom of assembly and generally refused permits for public protests.
Ghenadie Ciorba, a civil society activist and opponent of the Transnistrian regime, was charged with extremism for organizing a July 2 protest on the Ribnita-Rezina Bridge against travel restrictions imposed by the Transnistrian “authorities” under the pretext of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. He remained in pretrial detention at year’s end. Nine other protesters received administrative fines.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association and states that citizens are free to form parties and other social and political organizations, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits organizations “engaged in fighting against political pluralism, the principles of the rule of law, or the sovereignty and independence or territorial integrity” of the country.
In Transnistria separatist “authorities” severely restricted freedom of association, granting it only to persons they recognized as “citizens” of the region. All activities had to be coordinated with local “authorities”; groups that did not comply faced criminal charges and harassment by “security forces.” “Authorities” strictly prohibited organizations favoring reintegration with the rest of the country and prosecuted several individuals for organizing or leading an extremist group–charges that carry a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government failed to implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Despite some improvement, corruption remained a serious problem. Corruption in the judiciary and other state structures was widespread.
The law authorizes the National Anticorruption Center to verify wealth and address “political integrity, public integrity, institutional integrity, and favoritism.” The National Integrity Authority (NIA), which was formed to check assets, personal interests, and conflicts of interest of officials, was not fully operational due to prolonged delays in selecting integrity inspectors, as required by law. The former ruling coalition harshly criticized both the National Anticorruption Center and the NIA for lack of action in investigating corrupt officials. For example the National Anticorruption Center detained 10 persons on corruption charges in 2018, including three judges from the Court of Appeals, two judges from the Chisinau Central Court, and a prosecutor from the Chisinau prosecutor’s office. During preliminary hearings in April, only seven of the 10 suspects showed up in court; the cases continued at year’s end. In December, Socialist and Shor Party members of parliament adopted a law that limited NIA powers and reduced the term for asset reviews for dignitaries from three years to one year following their term in office. The opposition criticized the law and challenged its constitutionality at the Constitutional Court.
Corruption: Two key anticorruption institutions, the NIA and the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency, made limited progress on investigations of illicit enrichment or asset seizures.
The 2019 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index report noted that the government hindered anticorruption efforts through stagnant reform of the judiciary, lack of true investigation of banking fraud and state capture, and lack of progress in recovering stolen money. The report concluded that these practices were indicative of high-level corruption and political corruption, which led to what it labelled “state capture” (i.e., private interests significantly influencing a state’s decision-making processes).
On June 24, the Prosecutor General’s Office decided against opening an investigation into alleged corruption by President Igor Dodon after a video was released showing former Democratic Party of Moldova leader Vladimir Plahotniuc handing Dodon a plastic bag during a private meeting. The Prosecutor’s Office stated there was not sufficient evidence that a crime was committed to open an investigation.
In 2016 the Anticorruption Prosecution began a criminal case to investigate 30 million lei (over $1.3 million) transferred before that year’s presidential election from an offshore company in the Bahamas that allegedly ended up on the accounts of some Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova members of parliament. No progress was reported in the investigation as of year’s end.
The criminal investigation of former Supreme Court of Justice president Ion Druta and four other judges accused of money laundering and illicit enrichment that began in September 2019 continued during the year. In July the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office announced it was still waiting for financial investigation data from the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency before it could send the case to court. In December the Chisinau Court of Appeals canceled the Superior Council of Magistrates decision that allowed Druta’s criminal investigation and closed the case.
On October 26, the Superior Council of Magistrates approved a request to reinstate five judges detained in September 2016 on money laundering charges in the “Russian Laundromat” scheme that illegally channeled millions of dollars through the Moldovan banking and legal system. The requests for reinstatement came after the Prosecutor General’s controversial September decision to drop the money laundering investigation against 13 judges involved in the scheme. It was also ruled that the five judges would receive approximately five million lei ($300,000) in damages for back pay from the state budget. The decision drew criticism from anticorruption advocates, opposition parties, and civil society.
Financial Disclosure: Laws require financial disclosure by public officials, including state officials, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and local officials holding leadership positions. The NIA has the legal power to apply sanctions. The law provides that officials who fail to declare their assets may be dismissed from office and barred from holding public office. NIA integrity inspectors have authority to alert relevant authorities, the Tax Office and the Prosecutor’s Office, and request seizure of illegally acquired assets by a court decision. The law requires the heads of state enterprises and local councilors to submit income statements and provides for an online system for wealth and interest statement submissions. By law officials must make public income statements within 30 days of their appointment and before March 31 of each year for the duration of their term in office.
Both opposition and ruling coalition members of parliament sent multiple requests to the NIA to verify assets and incomes of other parliamentarians. Consideration of those requests continued at the year’s end.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.
Authorities in Chisinau did not have full access to or control over the Transnistrian region. According to local and international experts, authorities in Transnistria continued to monitor and restrict activities of human rights NGOs. There were credible reports that no human rights NGO in the region investigated serious human rights violations due to fear of repression and harassment from authorities.
Government Human Rights Bodies: There are three human rights bodies in the country: The Office of the People’s Ombudsman, the Agency for Interethnic Relations, and the Council for the Prevention of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality (Equality Council). The People’s Ombudsman and the Equality Council are independent institutions that report to parliament, while the Agency for Interethnic Relations is part of the government. All three institutions were fully operational and active in reporting on human rights issues during the year.
The law provides for the independence of the people’s ombudsman from political influence and appointment to a seven-year, nonrenewable term. The Office of the People’s Ombudsman may initiate an investigation based on complaints or on its own authority. Although the Office of the People’s Ombudsman lacked the power to enforce decisions, it acted as a monitor of human rights conditions, including in prisons and other places of detention. A separate ombudsman for children’s rights operates under the same framework within the Office of the People’s Ombudsman.
The Equality Council is responsible for reviewing complaints of discrimination and making recommendations, but lacks enforcement powers.
The Agency for Interethnic Relations oversees and implements state policies in the area of interethnic relations and the use of languages in the country.
Parliament also has a separate standing committee for human rights and interethnic relations, but the committee’s powers and areas of oversight were narrowed during the year.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. The media environment continued to improve during the year. According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the authorities’ response to instances of violence toward and intimidation of journalists was slow and inefficient.
In the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions on the July 15 parliamentary elections, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) stated, “media coverage of the elections lacked critical assessment of platforms and provisions regarding paid political advertisement favored the three largest parties.” The statement noted, “Significant improvements in media freedoms in recent years were not reinforced by systematic reforms in the media sectors, such as ensuring the political neutrality of the public Macedonian Radio and Television and the media regulator” (Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services). Observers expressed concerns the COVID-19 pandemic caused deterioration in already challenging conditions for journalists. The OSCE report further noted, “Ongoing stagnation in the advertising market caused by the pandemic has further increased the dependence of media on owners and state subsidies.”
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report released March 4 noted an improvement in the score from two to three (out of maximum four points), “because pressure on journalists has eased in recent years.” The April 21 Reporters without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index noted “slight improvement” of the country’s media freedom. The report added that, “regrettably, senior government officials have an engrained tendency to threaten and insult journalists. The culture of impunity is well entrenched and still an obstacle for journalists’ safety. The number of the physical attacks on journalists declined; however, there is a growing practice of cyberbullying and verbal abuse.”
As of October 1, the government had not taken measures to address calls from media stakeholders and the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest (SCPC) to abolish 2018 amendments to the Electoral Code permitting taxpayer money to be used for political campaigning in commercial media.
The government prosecuted journalists during the year for disclosing confidential or classified documents. On March 4, the Skopje Criminal Court convicted journalist Aleksandar Mitovski and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison sentence for leaking confidential documents related to the “Racketeering” criminal investigation. He published the first page of a witness deposition on his portal, Infomax, in August 2019. On July 30, the PPO filed a summary indictment against Ljupco Zlatev, the editor of Lider, a financial news portal, for disclosing classified documents from the National Security Agency in two texts the portal published in July.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately. The Helsinki Human Rights Committee and other human rights and media freedom activists reported an increase in hate speech, particularly along interethnic lines and in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. On June 8, the committee issued a press release urging public figures to refrain from speech blaming interethnic coexistence for the public health crisis and to focus instead on increased compliance with COVID-mitigation measures.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction continued to increase. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.
Central government advertising on commercial channels is banned, but local government advertising is permissible. The state continued to subsidize print media. Budget funds were allocated to media to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The state subsidized paid political ads in commercial media for the campaign leading to the July 15 early parliamentary elections.
Several organizations raised concerns over the media environment prior to the July 15 parliamentary elections. The ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission’s (SEAM) Preliminary Findings noted: “The legal framework for the allocation of funds for paid time, and the distribution of maximum limits for such advertisements, was modified by a government decree enacted on 22 June, the last day of the state of emergency. The provisions favor the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)-led coalition, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).” The ODIHR also noted: “The newscasts of all national broadcasters monitored by the ODIHR SEAM provided superficial coverage of the campaign activities…in-depth analytical reporting or policy-based discussions were largely absent from the coverage of the campaign, limiting the opportunity for voters to make an informed choice between distinct policy alternatives.”
According to an analysis of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, published August 14, parties spent nearly two million euros ($2.4 million) on commercials, 550,000 euros ($660,000) on online media, 150,000 euros ($180,000) on radio ads, and 40,000 euros ($48,000) on print media. For the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, it was problematic that the political parties could decide without any criteria in which media outlets to place ads. The State Anticorruption Commission, in its draft National Anticorruption Strategy endorsed by the executive in January, urged the government to terminate paid political advertising in media, seeing it as a “potential risk for corruption and creation of clientelist relationships.”
The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media filed misdemeanor charges against Macedonian Radio 1, Alsat-M TV, Shenja TV, and Telma TV for violating the media blackout preceding the election. On July 30, the Skopje Appellate Court upheld a conviction against both Macedonian Radio 1 and its director. On November 3, the Skopje Misdemeanor Court issued a judgment against TV Shenja and Alsat-M TV. Both outlets were appealing the decision before the Skopje Criminal Court. Telma TV was acquitted.
On February 4, following an open call, the government allocated 43.9 million Macedonian denars (MKD, approximately $852,000) to cover half of the 2019 printing and distribution expenses to 12 print media outlets. The State Anticorruption Commission’s draft National Anticorruption Strategy, finalized on January 17, urged the government to introduce more specific subsidizing criteria to avoid “not purposeful spending of awarded funds.”
On October 8, the ECHR issued a judgement against North Macedonia under Article 10 (Violation of Freedom of Expression) in a case involving journalist Nikola Gelevski. The ECHR found that a 2011 criminal conviction for defamation against Gelevski for criticizing another journalist in an opinion piece limited critical and investigative journalism as a matter of legitimate public interest. The court noted the criminal conviction could have a chilling effect on political debate between members of media on matters of importance and characterized the authorities’ interference as disproportionate.
The Media Ethics Council continued to work on promoting self-regulation. As of August 10, the council received 106 complaints for unethical reporting and fake news, which the council noted was triple the number received in the same period in 2019. Of the complaints, 33 percent were related to misinformation on COVID-19.
Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats and harassment against journalists during the year.
As of October 24, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia registered 16 cases of attacks on journalists, of which 14 cases were verbal attacks, most of them involving life threats on social media, and two were physical attacks. The association noted the fact that of all verbal attacks, eight were directed against female journalists. In all cases the association called on police and the prosecution to investigate and bring perpetrators to justice, and reiterated concern that impunity remained a serious issue with respect to attacks on journalists. On July 28, the association reiterated its call to the authorities to amend the criminal code to ensure attacks on journalists were treated as criminal offenses prosecuted ex officio.
On March 16, the Skopje Basic Court issued a 20-month prison sentence, preceded by psychiatric treatment in Bardovci Mental Hospital, for Emil Jakimovski, then assistant head of department in the Central Registry, for death and sexist threats made separately against journalists Meri Jordanovska and Iskra Korovesovska during January and during November and December 2019, respectively. The case triggered numerous reactions domestically and internationally, including by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Over several days in July, Brussels-based correspondent for state news agency MIA Tanja Milevska received numerous death and rape threats from anonymous Twitter and Facebook users. The case triggered reactions by media organizations in North Macedonia, the region, and internationally, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists, as well as North Macedonia’s Ministry of Information Society and Administration. Milevska reported the threats to police in Belgium and in North Macedonia but had not received any response as of August 12.
In April journalists and media staff Dushica Mrgja, Natasha Stojanovska, Goran Trpenoski, Vlatko Stojanovski, Biljana Nikolovska, Tome Angelovski, and Igor Jankovski filed civil compensation lawsuits against the state for violating their right to freedom of speech before the Skopje Civil Court. The plaintiffs, who testified in court in the parliament violence case, sought financial and moral compensation for the PPO’s lack of action to prosecute the “United for Macedonia” civil movement members who insulted and physically attacked press crews reporting on the April 27, 2017, storming of parliament. As of August 31, the case was pending before the court.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports the government pressured journalists into self-censorship.
On February 4, the Independent Media Trade Union signed the first collective agreement with a media outlet, state news agency MIA, which regulates terms and conditions of MIA’s employees, including but not limited to guarantees for a 36-hour working week, paid overtime work, protection from arbitrary dismissal, and guaranteed freedom of expression.
Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. The government generally implemented the law, but there were reports officials engaged in corruption. NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption. The government was the country’s largest employer. According to the minister of information, society, and administration, as of December 31, 2019, there were 132,900 persons employed in the public sector. There are reports that some individuals on the government’s payroll do not fill real positions in the bureaucracy. On September 13, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Political System and Community Relations Artan Grubi announced the government would assign 1,300 civil servants, paid by the ministry but not currently filling bureaucratic positions, to specific jobs across government institutions as soon as possible.
Corruption: In its October 6 update report on North Macedonia, the EC stated the country “has made good progress as reflected in its consolidated track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying high level corruption cases.” The EC’s March 2 report noted the SCPC took a proactive role in tracing nepotism, conflict of interest, and corruption across political party lines. As of August 20, a total of 49 public-sector institutions and six private-sector entities submitted midyear reports to the commission in accordance with the Law on Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest.
As of August 20, the SCPC received 260 citizen and one whistleblower complaint, the majority dealing with misuse of public funds, failure to exercise due diligence, and other unethical conduct. In addition the commission received 69 conflict of interest complaints. The SCPC opened eight cases on its own initiative involving allegations of corruption, and another four involving conflicts of interest. The commission also published 68 decisions that resulted in public reprimands against public officials, the recommendation of disciplinary action against four public officials, and a proposal to dismiss another official. In July the commission took remedial action in a 2019 whistleblower’s complaint. Eighteen other complaints submitted in 2019 were still pending as of August 20. The commission received additional complaints from citizens, political parties, and other entities during the campaign season prior to the year’s early parliamentary elections.
As of August 20, the commission reviewed a total of 123 cases and adopted and published 128 related decisions. In one case the commission recommended the PPO open a criminal investigation, and in another four cases it filed inquiries with government institutions to determine the culpability of public officials in management or working-level positions. As of August 20, the commission filed 10 misdemeanor cases for conflict of interest and recommended removal of a management board member for conflict of interest. The number of cases the commission received and reviewed as of August 20 was notably smaller than the number reviewed in the same period in 2019. This was likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to anticorruption civil society organizations (CSOs), there were indications of corrupt practices and lax due diligence in public procurement, both at the central and local levels. They noted this was especially true with respect to procurement of service vehicles, where there was a lack of effective control and oversight mechanisms. Anticorruption CSO Center for Civic Engagement’s September 30 report on COVID-19-related emergency public procurement covering the first six months of the pandemic indicated lax compliance with the public procurement laws and significant price differences for procurement of similar protective gear.
On June 18, the Skopje Criminal Court sentenced former special public prosecutor Katica Janeva to seven years in prison, and codefendant Bojan Jovanovski (aka Boki 13) to nine years in prison in the OCCPO “Racketeering” case. The court found Janeva guilty of misuse of official authority by accepting bribes and abusing her official position while handling the “Empire” case, a multimillion-dollar embezzlement and money-laundering case involving a former government official and a number of businessmen. Jovanovski was found guilty of accepting bribes to exert illegal influence and money laundering. The court issued a three million MKD (approximately $58,000) forfeiture order against Janeva and a separate forfeiture order of 735,000 MKD (approximately $14,300) against Jovanovski’s luxury-brand clothes, art, and furniture. As of November 3, Jovanovski and Janeva remained under house arrest, pending appeal before the Skopje Appeals Court.
On July 1, the OCCPO’s “Racketeering 2” trial against Jovanovski, SDSM Member of Parliament Frosina Remenski, and three other defendants, as well as the NGO International Alliance began in the Skopje Criminal Court. According to the indictment, Remenski was charged with accessory to fraud for using her authority in a manner that augmented defendant Boki 13’s ability to defraud victims. The trial continued as of November 3.
Former SPO-initiated trials, including several high-profile cases, continued before the Skopje Criminal Court. In the “Titanic” trial, which deals with election irregularities during the 2013 local elections, witnesses testified that they neither donated nor authorized anyone to make bank transfers to VMRO-DPMNE in their names and only learned of the donations when shown evidence by the SPO. As part of the “Titanic” indictment, 21 former government and party officials from VMRO-DPMNE, including former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, were charged with criminal conspiracy, electoral fraud, and violating campaign finance rules.
As of June 30, the Ministry of Interior’s Sector for Internal Control, Criminal Investigations, and Professional Standards (ICCIPS) filed six criminal complaints against a total of 10 police officers for abuse of official position and authority, receiving a bribe, and unscrupulous conduct in the service.
On July 28, the OCCPO opened an investigation into the SEC’s procurement of software to tabulate the results of the July 15 parliamentary elections. According to official sources, the Ministry of Interior was conducting a separate investigation into an election-day cyberattack on the SEC’s website. On November 4, the OCCPO requested the court issue precautionary measures against four SEC members and one other individual to prevent their fleeing or tampering with evidence during a continuing investigation of public procurement misuse charges.
On August 24, the Skopje Basic Prosecutor’s Office indicted VMRO-DPMNE Member of Parliament Antonio Miloshoski and another 12 persons in former SPO case “Strongman.” The indictment charged Miloshoski with fraud and abuse of official position in relation to 2.97 million MKD (approximately $58,000) worth of real estate and construction fraud. The case was pending before the Skopje Criminal Court as of November 3.
Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close family members to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public may view disclosure declarations on the SCPC’s website. The commission routinely received and checked conflict of interest statements submitted by public officials.
On April 10, the SCPC announced an inquiry into former SPO chief Janeva and her assistant prosecutors for allegedly failing to report their bonuses on their financial disclosure statements. The inquiry was pending as of November 3. On September 29, the State Audit Office released a preliminary report of the audit on SPO’s financials stating the payment of extra bonuses did not entirely conform to the law.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often willing to listen to these groups but were also sometimes unresponsive to their views. During the year several ministries hosted working group meetings that included members of civil society.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman worked to protect citizens from infringement of their rights by public institutions, reduce discrimination against minority communities and persons with disabilities, promote equitable representation in public life, and address abuses of children’s rights.
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, but threats and attacks on journalists, a lack of transparency of media ownership, and the oversized role of the state in the country’s oversaturated media sector undermined these freedoms. The Nations in Transit 2020 report from the watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded the country from a “semiconsolidated democracy” to a “transitional or hybrid regime,” citing deterioration of media freedoms as one of the country’s biggest problems. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the NGO Reporters without Borders noted, “Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate.” Unbalanced media coverage and a large volume of fake, misleading, or unverified news stories continued to threaten the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but were limited in their ability to express a wide variety of views by the oversaturation of the media market and government support of progovernment outlets. The media market was oversaturated with more than 2,500 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable.
Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia, and television stations were heavily dependent on government advertising monies. The largest distributor of paid media content was United Group, which controlled more than 50 percent of the broadband (cable) market, followed by Telecom Serbia, a majority state-owned firm with more than 25 percent of the market. Both firms were vertically integrated and controlled production and distribution of the media content as well as physical infrastructure. This concentration and dependence on government advertising monies strongly benefited incumbents during election periods and made it difficult for opposition leaders to communicate with potential voters.
Independent journalists and outlets continued to operate several independent newspapers, albeit with low and declining circulation. Tabloids remained popular but regularly published incorrect or unverified information. Many of the stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headlines on the cover page. On January 21, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) published a report asserting that the four highest-circulation tabloids, Informer, Srpski Telegraf, Alo, and Kurir, published at least 945 false or unfounded claims on their front pages in 2019. Informer led with 317 such claims, followed by Alo (259), Srpski Telegraf (227), and Kurir (142). The report noted that these four publications negatively reported on the political opposition and its leaders while reporting positively on President Vucic and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Violence and Harassment: The law prohibits threatening or otherwise putting pressure on public media and journalists or exerting any other kind of influence that might obstruct their work. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported 72 cases during the year in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, physical assaults, and frivolous lawsuits for reputational damage, which had a chilling effect on reporting. In July 2019 authorities detained Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic without bail for criticizing President Vucic on Twitter. In January the High Court of Belgrade sentenced her to six months of suspended imprisonment. According to the court verdict, the judge determined the tweet was a threat. Authorities released Aranitovic on the day of the verdict, since she had been imprisoned during the six-month procedure. In September, Internal Affairs Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic announced he was suing Danas for one million dinars ($10,000) for reporting eyewitness accounts of violence during antigovernment protests in July. In 2018, two assailants set fire to the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped through a rear window. Jovanovic worked as an investigative journalist for a local news outlet in the Belgrade suburb of Grocka that reported on local corruption. Dragoljub Simonovic, the mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, was indicted for ordering the arson attack. As of September the assailants were yet to be convicted or released as the trial continued. In the meantime Simonovic filed 16 lawsuits against Jovanovic and another journalist for reputational damage based on their reporting about his activities.
Spontaneous violence and threats against journalists also occurred and demonstrated the willingness of nationalistic groups to echo the rhetoric of political leaders while perpetrating violence. Local news and Safe Journalists, a regional press freedom group, reported on July 7 and 8 that demonstrators and police attacked at least 10 journalists who were documenting protests in Belgrade against the government’s decision to reapply restrictions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 1, police arrested Ana Lalic, a reporter for news website Nova.rs, hours after she published a report on the chaotic conditions in a local COVID-19-designated hospital. Authorities held Lalic in custody overnight and charged her with publishing information that could incite panic.
In April 2019, four former members of the security apparatus were sentenced to 100 cumulative years of detention for their role in the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija. Curuvija, a vocal critic of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was shot and killed outside his house in Belgrade in 1999. On September 7, the verdict sentencing the four officers for his murder was overturned on appeal. According to the Belgrade Appeals Court, the trial court verdict convicting the men was quashed “due to significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure.” A new trial started October 5.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 15, the government imposed a state of emergency enabling it to introduce a range of restrictive measures aimed at halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On March 29, the government adopted a decree, Conclusion on informing the population about the condition and consequences of the infectious disease COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The decree required all local crisis headquarters and medical institutions to send all COVID-19-related information to the Belgrade-based Pandemic Crisis Team, which would then provide information to the public. In support of government efforts to create a centralized flow of information, the decree warned of the “legal consequences for spreading misinformation during a state of emergency.” Civil society expressed concern regarding efforts to control the flow of information, noting the decision was not in line with the UN and EU recommendations that called for journalists to be allowed to work without obstacles to provide citizens with access to key information. The government ultimately rescinded the decree.
There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on a number of issues. Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship, refraining from publishing content critical of the government, based on a fear of government harassment or economic consequences, according to media association representatives.
Media outlets relied heavily on public funding to stay afloat. Direct government funding to media outlets was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared aimed at supporting entities loyal to the ruling party rather than bolstering independent journalism. In June the Press Council, an independent, self-regulatory body, issued a report, Cofinancing of Media that Violates Ethical Standards. The paper noted that during 2019 the state disbursed more than 2.1 billion dinars ($21.5 million) to media. The Press Council assessed that “local media [recipients], with rare exceptions…became the mouthpiece of officials and ruling parties.” The council stated that funds intended to support truthful reporting and impartiality in the media had become “a reward for obedience and praise of authorities.”
Government representatives continued to receive far more media coverage than opposition politicians. The law mandates equal coverage during campaign periods, but the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) often considered campaign-style rallies by government officials to be official activities and therefore outside the scope of the law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended the REM did not pursue its mandate effectively and continually sided with the ruling party, ensuring an unfair media environment before, during, and after electoral campaigns and thereby effectively denying the political opposition access to the media.
Nongovernmental Impact: During the year several media outlets published articles that accused numerous journalists, NGO activists, and independent institution representatives of being “traitors” to the country and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. NGOs and their employees received frequent threats; these threats often mirrored or amplified the rhetoric employed by public figures on social media and were often targeted by distributed denial of services attacks to take their websites offline.
There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, or censored online content.
Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain certain data for one year, including the source and destination of a communication; the beginning, duration, and end of a communication; the type of communication; terminal equipment identification; and the location of the customer’s mobile terminal equipment. While intelligence agencies may access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.
On April 2, Twitter announced that “toward the end of 2019, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity that led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.”
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights in some cases. The platform Three Freedoms for Preserving the Space for Civil Society in Serbia continued to register and report cases of alleged violations of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected the right. The law obliges protesters to apply to police for a permit, providing the exact date, time, and estimated number of demonstrators. Police generally issued a permit if a protest was not likely to disturb the public or public transportation; otherwise, police consulted with city authorities before issuing a permit. Higher-level government authorities decided whether to issue permits for gatherings assessed as posing high-security risks.
Large assemblies, including antigovernment protests, occurred throughout the year. On July 7, spontaneous protests broke out in downtown Belgrade in response to the announcement of possible COVID-19-related quarantines. Media and observers reported that some fringe individuals and groups among the larger group of protesters attempted to stoke violence and attack police, including by attempting to gain entry to parliament. At least one police action–caught on video and made viral on social media–showed police using disproportionate force on a protester who had fallen to the ground. Human Rights House stated the police response during the protest contained “elements of serious violations of freedom of assembly.” The law on public assembly was updated in 2016; civil society organizations (CSOs) opposed the law because it establishes penalties and fines for organizers of unauthorized assemblies to a point where organizations considered it overly restrictive of the right to free assembly established in the constitution. The law gives the government broad authority to identify organizers and impose misdemeanor sanctions or fines against individuals or organizations. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that while the laws on freedom of assembly are generally in line with EU standards, the country lacked secondary legislation to implement fully the law on freedom of assembly.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
All companies continued to pay mandatory annual membership to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. In 2017 the Association for Protection of Constitutionality and Legality filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, asserting that mandatory membership was against the constitution. In 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that mandatory membership in the chamber was constitutional.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. There was a widespread public perception that the law was not being implemented consistently and systematically and that some high-level officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government reported an increase in prosecution of low- to mid-level corruption cases, money laundering, and economic crimes cases, largely through the use of authorities permitted under the law and based on technical assistance and training provided by international donors. Even so, corruption was prevalent in many areas and remained a problem of concern.
The Freedom House annual report for the year described the country as a “hybrid regime” rather than a democracy due to reported corruption among senior officials that had gone unaddressed in recent years. While the legal framework for fighting corruption was broadly in place, anticorruption entities typically lacked adequate personnel and were not integrated with other judicial entities, which inhibited information and evidence sharing with the prosecution service. Freedom House’s 2019 report on the country noted the work of the Anticorruption Agency (ACA) was undermined in part by the ambiguous division of responsibilities among other entities tasked with combating corruption. Freedom House downgraded the country’s political pluralism and participation score in part based on the credible reports that the ACA did not thoroughly investigate dubious political campaign contributions, including the use of thousands of proxy donors to bypass legal limits on individual campaign donations and disguise the true source of funding. The GRECO 2019 Annual Report found that the country had not fully implemented anticorruption measures related to the recruitment and rules of conduct governing members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors.
EU experts noted continuing problems with the overuse of the vague “abuse of office” charge for alleged private-sector corruption schemes. Despite the government’s publicly stated commitment to fight corruption, both the country’s Anticorruption Council and the NGO Transparency Serbia continued to point to a lack of governmental transparency.
Corruption: There were numerous cases of corruption during the year. Between March 2018 and March 2020, the Specialized Prosecutorial Anticorruption Department reported 344 corruption-related convictions through trial and 783 convictions based on plea agreements. In the first six months of the year, the Specialized Prosecutorial Anticorruption Department reported 188 trial convictions and 163 plea agreements. The number of cases proceeding through the courts indicated the anticorruption prosecutorial departments made progress in working with other government agencies, investigating malfeasance, and indicting suspects.
The newly formed Anticorruption Department within the Ministry of Interior was created to investigate corruption and economic crimes. In the first nine months of the year, the department filed 216 criminal charges against 591 low- to mid-level government individuals for 532 crimes. The Police Service for Combating Organized Crime filed two charges for high-level corruption. On October 9, organized crime prosecutors and police arrested and charged an assistant minister for agriculture for accepting bribes. According to the charges, the assistant minister received monthly kickbacks of approximately 1,000 euros ($1,200) for helping a private entity receive a service contract.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed or elected officials. The ACA is designed to be an independent institution that monitors financial disclosures of public officials, political party financing, and conflicts of interest. The ACA oversees the filing of disclosures and verifies their completeness and accuracy. Declarations are publicly available on the ACA website and upon request. Failure to file or to disclose income and assets fully is subject to administrative and criminal sanctions. Significant changes to assets or income must be reported annually. Officials also must file a disclosure form immediately after leaving office and must inform the ACA of any significant changes to their assets for two years after leaving office.
The ACA continued to initiate administrative and criminal proceedings against several former and current government officials who failed to file or incorrectly filed asset disclosure forms. Between January 1 and June 30, the ACA recommended the dismissal of Vrnjacka Banja Mayor Boban Durovic because of a conflict of interest related to nepotism and reported investigating the former mayor of Brus and Brus Municipal Assembly member Milutin Jelicic Jutka for failing to disclose assets. Transparency Serbia and investigative media outlets, however, criticized the ACA throughout the year for failing to investigate numerous cases of high-level corruption, failure to report assets, and conflicts of interest.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without major government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. While government officials were mostly cooperative and responsive to questions on this subject, at times government bodies selectively ignored freedom of information requests, especially those related to COVID-19 emergency measures. Forty-one initiatives disputing the constitutionality or legality of general enactments adopted during the state of emergency were filed with the Constitutional Court by May 13. The Constitutional Court did not begin a review of constitutionality or legality of any of the initiatives, nor did it dismiss them.
Civil society groups were subject to criticism, harassment, investigation, and threats from some public officials as well as nongovernmental actors, including progovernment media outlets and a number of suspected government-organized NGOs. The government’s Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML) sent an official request on July 13 to all commercial banks in the country to provide information and documentation related to all transactions and accounts of 37 civil organizations, media, and individuals for the previous year. The organizations and individuals included media associations, investigative journalists, philanthropy and community crowdsourcing organizations, and human rights and accountability monitoring groups. While the APML has authority to request this information, the appearance of selective investigation raised great concern. Official statements and media reporting on the investigation negatively influenced public opinion with regard to the targeted civil society groups and put some individuals at risk of danger.
On October 10, extremists attacked a local art gallery and destroyed art that they deemed anti-Christian. Police arrested five suspects (three of them minors) involved in the attack, who were to face criminal charges. The Ministry of Culture issued a statement condemning the violence against the gallery but also stated the presentation of “indecent and immoral content under the guise of artistic creativity rightly provokes negative reaction.”
On September 24, the Helsinki Committee premiered the play, Srebrenica: When We, the Killed, Rise Up, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide committed by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica. Immediately following the premiere, the Helsinki Committee and the play’s director and actors received threats on social media for their involvement in the play and its message. In an October 6 press statement, the Helsinki Committee criticized these “brutal threats” and called on the police, Prosecutor’s Office, and courts to prevent further intimidation. The Helsinki Committee reported it provided evidence of the threats to the Ministry of Interior’s Cybercrime Unit and police but received no official response.
Under the state of emergency, the government Office for Cooperation with Civil Society discontinued the allocation of grants from the country’s budget to organizations granted EU funding under a 2019 call for proposals, including for projects focused on investigation and monitoring of human rights. Requests from civil society groups for waivers to allow them to deliver humanitarian assistance and services to vulnerable categories during the emergency lockdown were ignored, which ultimately resulted in their inability to assist the most vulnerable members of the population.
In February members of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, led by convicted war criminal and, at the time, member of parliament Vojislav Seselj, physically and verbally assaulted Natasa Kandic, recipient of the first international Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award in 2013, and other activists in a Belgrade municipal building as they distributed a report detailing information on war crimes committed in the country. There were no arrests or charges against those who attacked the group.
By law NGOs without a lawyer registered in the bar are not allowed to provide legal aid, apart from a few exceptions. The Belgrade Bar Association warned that attorneys who act as statutory representatives for NGOs would be disbarred. In late 2019, 14 CSOs notified the international human rights community, including the International Bar Association, that the Belgrade Bar discriminated against CSOs with regard to their ability to provide free legal aid and raised concerns that the association’s actions would limit access to legal aid for vulnerable populations.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2019 there were 2,595 Serbia-related cases presented before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), of which 2,445 (94 percent) were rejected. Of the remaining 150 cases, there were 24 verdicts, 22 of which established at least one ECHR violation. The country generally implemented ECHR’s decisions. On October 26, parliament amended the Law on Ministries, removing the Justice Ministry’s obligation to monitor the execution of ECHR decisions, along with the obligation to represent the country and publicly disclose ECHR verdicts.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Government bodies dedicated to the protection of human rights included the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, and the Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. All three bodies were active during the year and especially during the state of emergency. On October 25, the government created the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue.
The Office of the Ombudsman was responsible for responding to citizen complaints, identifying problems within state institutions, and making recommendations on remedies. Three new deputy ombudspersons were appointed a year after the expiration of the previous mandates; one deputy was yet to be appointed. The number of complaints filed by citizens with the Ombudsman’s Office during the COVID-19 state of emergency was significantly higher than usual (4,700 between January and June, compared with an average of 1,400 annually).
The Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality (equality commissioner) celebrated its 10th anniversary on May 27, the same day the commissioner’s five-year term in office expired. While the parliament must elect a new equality commissioner within three months of the expiration of the previous commissioner’s term in office, as of October it had not done so due to the pandemic and parliamentary elections. Before leaving office, the outgoing equality commissioner issued six recommendations concerning the COVID-19 state of emergency, mostly aimed at improving the status of those who were at greater risk of discrimination, such as victims of domestic violence, elderly persons, and socially vulnerable persons.
The commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection was active in issuing opinions and advisories before, during, and after the state of emergency, including one highlighting the importance of access to timely information and protection of personal data. At the initiative of the Share Foundation, a local CSO, the commissioner requested that Google appoint a representative in the country pursuant to the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which the company did on May 21. The commissioner and citizens may now report all problems related to online data processing to Google’s Serbia representative to ensure compliance with the PDPA.