a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize the president and the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Authorities also prohibited wearing facemasks, displaying unregistered or opposition flags and symbols, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
On April 27, anarchist activist Viachaslau Kasinerau was given a fine after a court in Minsk found him guilty of hooliganism for putting a rope around the neck of a sculpture of a city guard that stands in front of the Interior Ministry on March 12. Although the prosecutor asked for two years of “restricted freedom” (similar to house arrest), which independent human rights observers called incommensurate with his action, the judge instead fined him 115 rubles ($61).
On June 6, a court in Minsk fined prominent graffiti artist Aleh Larychau and his associate Hanna Novik 690 rubles ($370) and 230 rubles (125), respectively. Police arrested the two on charges of using obscenities after painting political street graffiti in Minsk on June 3. Larychau, a member of a street art group known for painting and posting images that mocked government officials and police officers, claimed he was followed by unidentified individuals before his arrest.
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country.
Press and Media Freedom: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were limited primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of media.
By law the government may close a publication, printed or online, after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.
On March 14, the independent newspaper Nasha Niva and the most popular news portal TUT.BY received warning Ministry of Information letters informing the publications that they had violated the Law on Mass Media by distributing information that “could cause damage to the national interests of Belarus.” Nasha Niva’s editors reported that the ministry cited eight online comments made by readers that purportedly criticized the government, police actions, and detentions following protests that were immediately removed from the newspaper’s webpage after the warning. Nasha Niva also stated that it would more meticulously moderate its online forums in order to avoid any provocative statements or remarks. In the case of TUT.BY, the warning reportedly stemmed from the site’s February 15 article regarding Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine. The article was immediately removed from the portal. Authorities did not take any further action against the two media outlets.
Limited information was available in the state-run press concerning the September 2016 parliamentary elections, including on independent candidates. Although authorities did not generally censor the publication of candidates’ programs in print media, some opposition candidates complained that local television channels refused to televise their addresses.
While no independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, applied for registration to the Ministry of Information, they continued to seek to provide coverage of events. They operated, however, under repressive media laws, and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of newspapers, and raising the cost of printing.
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state distributor of printed press, Belsayuzdruk, allowed the distribution of at least nine independent newspapers and magazines that covered politics, including Novy Chas, Borisovskie Novosti, and Intexpress, which have been banned from distribution for 11 years.
The exclusion of independent print media from the state distribution system and the requirement that private stores secure registration to sell newspapers and magazines effectively limited the ability of the independent press to distribute their publications.
International media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and with a time lag that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced their international news programs with local programming.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that, as of November 15, police fined, detained, and arrested at least 45 journalists while performing their professional duties in more than 184 separate cases.
On March 31, police searched two Minsk offices of the Poland-based media outlet Belsat TV, confiscating television and computer equipment and reportedly detaining one journalist. The Prosecutor General’s Office authorized the searches, referring to a 2014 Supreme Court case that banned the outlet from using the Belsat TV trademark, allegedly because it was registered in 2001 by another entity called BELSATplus. On October 10, a Minsk district court sentenced Belsat TV camera operator Aliaksandr Barazenka to a fine of 920 rubles ($470) for violating trademark rights and ordered confiscation of his video and computer equipment.
The government routinely denied accreditation to journalists who work with foreign media. As of November 15, at least 22 journalists were fined in 55 cases for not having government accreditation or cooperating with a foreign media outlet. For example, on April 5, a Minsk city court denied an appeal filed by Belsat TV camera operator Aliaksandr Barazenka. Police detained Barazenka at the March 25 protests in Minsk, where he was covering the protest with his colleagues. Authorities convicted him for using obscenities and sentenced him to 15 days in jail. Barazenka’s defense lawyer presented a video in court of his defendant being detained that showed he had not shouted any political slogans or obscenities and had informed police he was a journalist.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state broadcast and print media. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.
Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Journalists reporting for international media that gave extensive coverage to the country, such as the Warsaw-based independent satellite channel Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, were denied press accreditation and received warnings from the Prosecutor’s Office and heavy fines.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report.
On March 24, a district court in Minsk ended Aliaksandr Lapitski’s compulsory treatment for mental illness. In April 2016 Lapitski was for convicted of “committing socially dangerous acts” and violating Article 368 (“insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”), and Article 369 (“insulting the authorities”), Article 391 (“insulting a judge or a lay judge”) of the Criminal Code of Belarus. The charges against Lapitski stemmed from his emails and blog posts that, according to authorities, insulted the president. Authorities stated that Lapitski suffered from mental illness and sentenced him to a period of compulsory psychiatric treatment.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
The government interfered with internet freedom by monitoring email and internet chat rooms. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the peaceful expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions, and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists’ emails and other web-based communications were likely to be monitored.
By law news websites and any internet information sources are subject to the same regulations as print media. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. The law also restricts access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that may harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. In addition owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The amended law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from the authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. The law prohibits foreign states and foreign individuals from holding more than a 20 percent stake in the country’s media companies.
Independent online media outlets generally were not blocked during the year.
Authorities monitored internet traffic. By law the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekam and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
A presidential edict requires registration of service providers and internet websites, and requires the collection of information on users at internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon request. Violations of the edict are punishable by prison sentences.
State companies and organizations that included the workplaces of up to 70 percent of the country’s workers reportedly had internet filters.
In response to the government’s interference and internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to internet domains operating outside the country. Observers reported that the few remaining independent media sites with the country domain BY practiced self-censorship at times.
On several occasions, cyberattacks of unknown origin temporarily disabled independent news portals and social networking sites.
According to various media sources, the number of internet users reached more than seven million persons, of which approximately 90 percent used the internet daily or numerous times a month. Internet penetration was approximately 83 percent among users ages 15 to 50.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as their principals. The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.
Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian language (vice Russian) in the majority of fields of study were scarce. The administrations of higher educational institutions made no effort to accommodate students wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes.
The Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU), an official organization modeled on the Soviet-era KOMSOMOL, urged university students to join the BRYU to receive benefits and dormitory rooms. Local authorities pressured BRYU members to campaign on behalf of government parliamentary candidates and to vote early. Students from various universities and colleges reported to an independent election-monitoring group that their faculties were pressuring students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from their dormitories. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.
According to 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, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. In March the Mahilyou State University administration expelled Alena Kisel after she was fined 345 rubles ($180) for participating in unauthorized protests in the city.
On May 24, a Minsk district court dismissed an appeal filed by Khrystsiyan Shynkevich challenging his expulsion from the Belarus State Teachers Training University after his detention on March 26 in Minsk. A university representative claimed in court that Shynkevich was expelled because he failed to attend 40 percent of his classes during the academic year.
In some cases the government also restricted cultural events, selectively approving performances of what they deemed opposition music groups at small concert halls. Approvals required groups to go through cumbersome and time-consuming procedures to receive permissions. The procedures continued to force some opposition theater and music groups from public venues and into bars and private apartments by banning their performances.
The government also restricted the activities of a nonofficial writers union, the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, and extensively supported the progovernment Union of Writers of Belarus. Authorities harassed distributors of books authored by critical and independent writers or written in the Belarusian language. Authorities did not allow local printing of books by Sviatlana Aleksievich, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, although her books were widely available in bookstores and online, primarily in Russian editions.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration 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. A general atmosphere of repression and the threat of imprisonment or large fines exercised a chilling effect on potential protest organizers.
The law criminalizes the announcement of demonstrations via the internet or social media before official approval, the participation in the activities of unregistered NGOs, the training of persons to demonstrate, the financing of public demonstrations, or the solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Violations are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
Organizers must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission to conduct a public demonstration, rally, or meeting, and government officials are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if held far from city centers. Authorities used intimidation and threats to discourage persons from participating in demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unsanctioned demonstrations. In addition authorities required organizers to conclude contracts with police, fire department, health, and sanitary authorities for their services during and after a mass event. In some localities, local officials told permit applicants that they must first secure these contracts before a permit could be issued. During the year local authorities countrywide rejected dozens of applications for permission to stage demonstrations to protest a presidential decree requiring Belarusian nationals and noncitizens permanently residing in the country who officially work less than 183 calendar days per year to pay an annual tax. They also rejected applications to demonstrate on May Day on May 1.
Opposition activists held dozens of unsanctioned rallies during the year and faced administrative charges and fines for allegedly violating the Law on Mass Events. Those who refused to pay fines, calling them politically motivated, potentially faced property confiscation and travel bans. Authorities regularly fined the same activists for their continuous political activity during the year. For example, on August 1, a Minsk district court sentenced Leanid Kulakou, an activist of the European Belarus campaign, to a fine of 690 rubles ($350) for participating in a July 7 unauthorized protest in Minsk against the September Belarus-Russia joint military exercise ZAPAD.
On March 3-24, authorities detained, fined, or jailed for up to 15 days approximately 300 individuals for their participation in various unauthorized protests against a presidential decree across the country. Activists described continued abuse of force by police, including against Ales Lahviniec, a democratic activist who was hospitalized with a concussion and broken nose after being arrested on March 23.
Authorities took various measures to prevent prodemocracy activists from celebrating Freedom Day, the March 25 anniversary of the country’s 1918 declaration of independence (an event the government does not recognize). The Minsk city authorities failed to respond to an opposition’s application for permission to hold a demonstration in central Minsk within the legally required five days prior to the demonstration. While the Mayor’s Office had originally scheduled a meeting with the Freedom Day organizing committee on March 20, it was postponed until March 24. The organizing committee argued it was too late to notify the public of the changed route requested by the city.
In a police operation meant to prevent any unsanctioned demonstrations from taking place in the center of Minsk to celebrate Freedom Day, metro trains did not stop near the gathering point of the demonstration in front of the Academy of Sciences. Buses and other public transportation also did not stop in the vicinity. Police detained more than 600 participants throughout the city. The majority of those detained were released the same day; more than one hundred faced a variety of charges, including minor hooliganism, resisting police, or participating in an unsanctioned demonstration.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to become 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, an extraordinary burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs and individual property owners’ fears of renting space to independent groups. Individuals listed as members were vulnerable to reprisal. The government’s refusal to rent office space to unregistered organizations and the expense of renting private space reportedly forced most organizations to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or to deregister. The law criminalizes activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from large fines to two years’ imprisonment (also see section 7.a.).
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, a provision widely believed to be aimed at the Polish minority.
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 Department for Humanitarian Affairs of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of the Economy for technical aid before they may accept such funds or register the grants.
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 in an effort 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.
On May 15, the Ministry of Justice registered Tell the Truth as a public association. On April 11, the group has filed application for registration; it was the seventh time the group had applied for registration as an NGO.
On July 21, the Justice Ministry denied an application to register the research and educational NGO known as “Dzeya (Act).” The main goal of the group was to monitor human rights and fundamental freedoms, track the country’s compliance with international agreements, and promote the rule of law, civil society, and development of democratic institutions. The ministry noted that the application missed a surname and had some other minor errors.
On October 4, the Supreme Court upheld the Justice Ministry’s decision to deny registration to the Social Christian Movement, a new NGO affiliated with the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party. In August the Ministry denied the registration because a component of one of the founders’ name was written incorrectly and because the NGO chairperson was not named in the application documents. This was the group’s second denial during the year.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence indicated in mandatory stamps in their passports.
The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.
Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.
Students required permission from the head of their educational institution to study abroad. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.
Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, and many were in self-imposed exile.
Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a procedure for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin.
All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians may legally settle and obtain residence permits in the country based on their Russian citizenship. Overall, as of October 1, immigration authorities accepted 463 applications for asylum compared with 596 in 2016, including from 359 Ukrainians, 10 Syrians, 8 Afghans, and 12 Pakistani.
In addition to refugee status, the country’s asylum law provides for complementary protection in the form of temporary residence. In the period January-September, 364 foreigners were granted complementary protection (333 Ukrainians, 14 Syrians, six Yemenis, seven Afghans, one Georgian, and three Egyptians).
Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status of asylum-seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.
Durable Solutions: Adult asylum seekers have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees.
Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.
As of July 1, the Ministry of the Interior and UNHCR listed 5,915 stateless persons in the country; all had permanent residence according to authorities.
Permanently resident stateless persons held residence permits and were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR, stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.
There is a path towards citizenship for this stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization procedures but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship. The decrease of the number of stateless individuals in the country was attributed to their naturalization.