Freedom of expression in Belarus
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This right is enshrined in Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As per the Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, all people around the world must have free access to information. Why it is so important? It is believed, and not unreasonably, that freedom of information, press and media is equal to the level of actual freedom of people. If we take a look at the chart composed by Reporters Without Borders we will see the following picture: all authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that are spread around the world have low freedom of press index.
But what about Belarus? During the past one and a half years, Belarus has been thrust under the spotlight of international interest. However, it is important to mention that this whole story with human rights violations did not start in a split second. It was a logical outcome of years of perpetual restrictions, illegal decrees, and the slow dismantling of human rights.
After the 1994 election campaign, the crackdown on independent media, press, and journalists began.
Belarusian authorities' control over media. Timeline
Belarusian authorities exercise absolute control over the media now, which helps neither the authorities nor people. The state terrorizes media platforms, newspapers, journalists. It does not let any critical information pass to the audience. Due to these facts, Belarusians tend to get information from social networks, Internet media and newspapers with an online platform.
People used to fully rely on the 'Belarusian Yahoo' platform - TUT.by – created in the autumn of 2000. Unlike the state channels and newspapers, TUT.by was a loudhailer in a country that served verified information and had accreditation. It was one of the major independent media portals in the country till it was raided and shut down in May 2021 (Belarus authorities raid offices of independent media outlet). This development reduced the access of ordinary citizens to verified information, and also served to hinder communication between the people and the state, since the authorities were also users of this platform. Developments such as these spell the end of open professional journalism and instead force its exodus to the Internet or Telegram.
It is no secret that more than half of TV air time is taken by Russian-created content. Belarus is located in the media field of Russia, thus, 60-70% of the media content in Belarus is created by Russia. There are many Russian TV channels that broadcast Russian news, movies, entertainment programs, and so on. Belarus does create its own content, but the resources are not the ones Russia has. And the level of propaganda clearly demonstrates it. Belarusian propaganda is straight to the point while on Russian TV channels information is presented more delicately, more carefully, and in a more polished manner. The same is true of newspapers and online media. In Belarus, there are some Russian online news platforms (for example Sputnik) that convey the news in concordance with Russian opinion on different matters. They may act like independent media, but any time they can become a part of propaganda channels.
The situation described is very frightening especially when there is a total crackdown on the press, media, journalists, and freelancers inside the country. Russia can influence and manipulate the opinions of Belarusians by having almost unlimited access to broadcasting. The problem has become more real since, in the wake of strikes by TV workers, the Russian state sent its own media personnel to help Belarusian authorities continue to air a sanitised version of the news.
The work of Russian propaganda
2020 and the first half of 2021 can be regarded as the most challenging years in the Belarusian media field so far. We would like to take a look at each of the information sources Belarusians use and their paths through these years.
Approximately 45 Telegram channels have been added to the list of extremist channels. Their number started growing since 2020 (as of 2019 there were only 2 of such).
Approximately 20 websites are now blocked by Belarusian Mininform. Among them is the previously mentioned TUT.by, as well as Naviny.online, the 3rd most visited news website in Belarus. The reasons given for blocking are mostly politically sensitive content. Around 10 websites and media receive warnings from the Ministry of Information each year. It should be noted that two or more warnings received by an outlet within a year can lead to its closure. Nevertheless, websites try to provide different perspectives, and some even offer apps.
The work of media is also being disrupted by constant arrests of journalists, photographers, analytics, bloggers. In 2020 they reached their peak.
In 2020, 480 detentions of journalists were recorded; there were 97 cases of journalists serving administrative arrests; in total, journalists spent more than 1,200 days behind bars; after election day on 9th August, at least 62 cases of physical violence against journalists were recorded.
As of now, around 29 people linked to the media sphere are under arrest, and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (currently under threat of liquidation by the Ministry of Justice) has compiled the following lists of repressions against journalists in Belarus in 2020 and in 2021.
During the campaigns of candidates for the presidency, many bloggers were detained to prevent their media coverage of the situation in Belarus – among others, bloggers such as Ihar Losik, Sergey Tsikhanouski, Vladimir Tsyganovich, Dmitri Kozlov, and Sergey Petruhin. There are approximately 15 bloggers under arrest, including politicians.
Independent and regional newspapers, including newspapers in the Belarusian language have been attacked as well. There was a refusal to print some newspapers in 2020 before and after the elections. Throughout 2021 this crackdown on newspapers has continued. Instead of newspapers, people use leaflets with printed independent news. People print them out on printers, spread them among friends and in their neighbourhoods.
In recent years, state-owned media has confined itself to displaying pictures that are either neutral or positive – for example, of planting and harvesting seasons. As mentioned previously, the propaganda is less subtle than that produced by Russian state media. Electoral seasons lead to a rise in politically motivated content: since the 2020 presidential elections, the state-owned media and newspapers have published regular hate speech, point-blank fake news, and propaganda. What is more, Belarusian TV does not hesitate to take part in tortures by broadcasting interviews obtained under duress which is inappropriate on many levels. For that reason, the EBU has decided that from Thursday 1 July, Belarusian Television and Radio Company (BTRC) will no longer be able to access EBU services.
The recent crackdown on Belarusian media in July. The mass detentions can be regarded as full stripping of any independent or free-thinking people. Also, some big projects from authorities may be on the way so the detentions serve as a preventive measure.
What is the situation in Belarus now?
- new legislation has come into power that cuts down the work of all journalists, independent or otherwise;
- new legislation allows imposing harsher punishments towards those who do not comply with the new laws, which includes criminal cases;
- there is an ongoing purge of independent media;
- the availability of objective, unbiased information is under threat;
- the Internet freedom level has dropped drastically;
- it is increasingly difficult to find verified information;
- ideology instead of education is prioritised in schools and at workplaces.
What is next?
Belarusians and independent media continue to fight for their rights and freedoms and to do everything possible to present unbiased information to the people. It is becoming harder to work within the country: however, there are many courageous people citizens and journalists who stay inside the country and continue to perform their work.
* Some figures may already be outdated since the political crisis is continuing, the media remains under attack, and detentions are increasing.
November 23 2021
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