New York, August 5, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is troubled to learn that President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a restrictive new media law, which, according to CPJ research, will allow authorities to further restrict press freedom in Belarus.
The Belarusian parliament—before its adjournment in late June—rushed the bill through in three consecutive readings and passed it to the Constitutional Court for review. According to the local press, the court rubberstamped the bill in July and Lukashenko signed it into law on Monday.
Concerned with the draconian measures, CPJ sent a letter to President Lukashenko in June calling on him to scrap the proposal. Among other provisions, the law equates the Internet with regular media, making sites subject to the same restrictions; bans local media from accepting foreign donations; allows local and state authorities to shutter independent publications for minor violations; and requires accreditation for all foreign journalists working in the country.
“Not content with controlling traditional media, with this legislation, Belarus is now seeking to restrict online publications,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “We urge President Lukashenko to reconsider this repressive new law and, in the meantime, use his influence to ensure that its most restrictive provisions not be used to stifle critical journalists.”
Andrei Bastunets, a lawyer with the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists, told CPJ he was not surprised that Lukashenko signed the bill, since it was initiated and controlled by the president’s office. “We knew that he [Lukashenko] would sign it, yet hoped he would finally listen and respond to calls coming from local groups and international press advocates,” Bastunets told CPJ. “Unfortunately, Belarusian authorities are deaf to foreign calls, so now we have to deal with the reality and hope for a dialogue on the issue of Internet regulation.”
The new media law places control over the Internet-based media in the hands of the Council of Ministers. Bastunets told CPJ that the law does not define what qualifies as Internet-based media and leaves room for interpretation to state officials. “They seem to have no idea how to approach the Internet, so now we have a mess as according to the law, any Web site could be considered mass media,” Bastunets told CPJ.
In June, the local press quoted presidential administration representative Natalya Petkevich as saying that the new media bill is not restrictive but aims at “bringing discipline and setting the rules” for the local media. According to the news Web site Telegraf, Petkevich said, “only Internet analogues of printed media will be regulated by the new law.”
Aside from Internet control, the new media law also requires Belarusian and international journalists to seek individual accreditation from multiple state agencies, creating further hurdles. It also obliges Belarusian media to seek re-registration from state authorities—a process that could be fatal for outlets critical of state officials.
Additionally, under the new law, the Ministry of Information receives broad authority to suspend media outlets; the ministry and state prosecutors are given the authority to shut down outlets permanently. These state agencies can suspend or close the outlets if they find their content to be inaccurate, defamatory, “not corresponding to reality,” or “threatening the interests of the state or the public.” The bill leaves the interpretation of these terms in the hands of state authorities.