Back to top

Country in Focus: Belarus

Population GDP/Capita USD Capital City 2018 XpA Scores
9,485,000 6,290 Minsk Freedom of Expression: 0.22
ICCPR ratified 1993 Belarus currently sits near the top of the 4th quartile Civic Space: 0.28

Constitution of Belarus 1994 (revised 2004)

SECTION 2, ARTICLE 33

Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thoughts and beliefs and their free expression.

Digital: 0.41
Media: 0.18
Protection: 0.36
Transparency: 0.20

 

Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, celebrated his 25th year in power in July 2019. He is now the longest-ruling leader in the former Soviet Union.[1]

Figure 31: 

Lukashenko exercises a typically authoritarian leadership style; he has amended the constitution to expand his own authority and scrap term limits, and he relies on the secret service, the KGB, which still carries the same name as its Soviet-era forebear.

The country’s parliament has effectively been stripped of its power, the liberal opposition crushed, and media outlets censored. Some opposition lawmakers have vanished, and political protests are suppressed.[2] Courts are subservient to the President, who appoints Supreme Court justices with the approval of the rubber-stamp parliament.

After permitting limited displays of dissent – part of a drive to improve ties with the European Union – Belarus has returned to attempting to control the public sphere through restrictions on journalists, online media, and demonstrations. The government owns the only internet service provider, and controls the internet through legal and technical means.[3]

Belarus is the only European country to use the death penalty. Those condemned to death are executed by a shot to the head. Authorities inform families of neither the execution date nor the burial place.[4]

Harassment and prosecution of journalists

In 2018, activists, lawyers, CSOs, and independent media continued to face government harassment and pressure. Authorities prosecuted dozens of journalists on a variety of arbitrary grounds, and adopted new restrictions on internet freedoms.

Prosecution of freelance journalists for cooperating with unregistered foreign media increased, with 85 cases lodged against 31 journalists between January and September.[5] In February, the police beat Belsat cameraman, Andrus Koziel, for live-streaming vote counting during local elections, and jailed him overnight. In March, a court fined him for disobeying the police.

In February, police seized 19-year-old blogger Stsiapan Sviatlou’s laptop and camera. His parents’ apartment was also searched for videos that allegedly insulted the President.[6]

In June, parliament passed a law criminalising spreading false information online, while amendments to the media law that took effect in December created bureaucratic registration requirements for online media outlets (see below).[7]

Tax evasion to inciting extremism: the usual suspects

Belarus handed down more than 100 fines in 2018, 91 of which were given to reporters working for Belsat TV, a Belarusian exile TV channel based in Poland.[8]

Dzmitry Halko, editor of Belarussian Partisan, was given four years of forced labour and a fine over dubious charges of assaulting police officers during a police raid, which had interrupted his son’s birthday party.[9]

Ales Lipai, head of the independent Belarusian Private News Agency, was investigated in June and banned from leaving the country over criminal tax evasion. The case was closed following his death.[10]

In August, authorities investigated several publications for accessing the state news agency for free, without authorisation. The response was disproportionate, including home and office raids, and there are serious concerns that the issue was leveraged to punish news outlets. 18 journalists were arrested on charges of ‘unauthorized access to computer information causing significant harm’.[11]

Information on lockdown

Information is tightly controlled; in January, the Information Ministry ordered the blocking of independent news websites Belarusian Partisan and Charter ’97 for ‘disseminating prohibited information’.

In December, Belarus enforced a much-criticised new media law, providing for the prosecution of those who spread ‘false information’ on the internet.[12] This law spells the end of online anonymity, the denial of accreditation to journalists from ‘unregistered’ online media, a ban on distribution of foreign media without a permit, and new powers to block social media. Internet users in Belarus must now prove their identity before they can post online, and website owners are obliged to create systems for users to identify themselves and sign a user agreement. The law recommends the use of SMS activation through linking to a user’s phone number and entering a code sent via SMS. SIM cards in Belarus can only be purchased with legal identification, such as a passport or ID card.

The new regulation also contains provisions regarding collection and storage of users’ personal data. Owners of websites or domains are obliged to store data on servers hosted inside Belarus, in keeping with Russia’s recent policies pushing towards a ‘sovereign internet’ . The owners of internet domains must store user data and be ready to provide it ‘at the request of the investigative authorities, prosecutors and investigators, bodies of the State Control Committee, the Ministry of Information, tax authorities and courts’.[13]

Protests repressed and organisers arrested

At least 110 people were detained at peaceful protests held in Minsk and other cities on 25 March, which the opposition traditionally celebrated as Freedom Day. In the lead-up to the rally, police arrested opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich and organisers of the demonstration.

Individuals monitoring the events were also detained, including seven members of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Viasna. Six were charged with ‘participating in unauthorized mass events’, one of whom was additionally charged with ‘disobeying a police officer’.[14]

Civic space choked

Legislation restricting the operation of CSOs remains in place, forcing many organisations to register abroad or keep bank accounts outside the country.

Registration of CSOs remains strict and often arbitrary; regulations ban ‘foreign assistance’ to entities and individuals deemed to promote foreign meddling in internal affairs.[15]

Authorities continued to deny registration to independent groups and opposition parties on arbitrary pretexts. In April, the Justice Ministry rejected the seventh registration application filed by the Belarusian Christian Democracy party due to minor errors in the application. The Supreme Court subsequently dismissed the appeal.

In August, a court in Minsk sentenced the head of the Belarusian Radio and Electronics Workers’ Union, as well as its accountant, to a five-year curfew on dubious tax-evasion charges relating to foreign funding.

In May, the Belarusian Council of Ministers submitted a draft law to make the activities of unregistered organisations an administrative, rather than criminal, offence. This gives hope for a more open environment in the future.

Tension with Russia affects expression

Following more than a year in pre-trial detention, bloggers Dzmitry Alimkin, Yury Paulavets, and Syarhey Shyptsenka received five-year suspended sentences after being convicted of ‘inciting racial hatred’.

Alimkin’s blog had called for the unification of Belarus with Russia; Paulavets’s accused the government of using anti-Russian sentiment to distract from economic problems; and Shyptsenka’s suggested that the relationship between Belarus and Russia could result in a situation similar to the conflict in Ukraine.[16]

 

 

[1] Following the resignation of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019: Roman Goncharenko, ‘Belarus strongman Lukashenko marks 25 years in power’, Deutsche Welle, 10 July 2019, available at https://www.dw.com/en/belarus-strongman-lukashenko-marks-25-years-in-power/a-49530563

[2] Roman Goncharenko, ‘Belarus strongman Lukashenko marks 25 years in power’, Deutsche Welle, 1 July 2019, available at https://www.dw.com/en/belarus-strongman-lukashenko-marks-25-years-in-power/a-49530563

[3] Freedom House, ‘Belarus’, Freedom in the World 2019, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/belarus

[4] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p73, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019

[5] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p73, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019

[6] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p74, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019

[7] Freedom House, ‘Belarus’, Freedom in the World 2019, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/belarus

[8] Reporters without Borders, Harassment of Journalists Breaks Records in Belarus – Nearly 100 Fines So Far This Year, 14 November 2018 available at https://rsf.org/en/news/harassment-journalists-breaks-records-belarus-nearly-100-fines-so-far-year

[9] Reporters without Borders, Belarusian Journalist Sentenced to Four Years of Forced Labour, 18 July 2018, available at https://rsf.org/en/news/belarusian-journalist-sentenced-four-years-forced-labour

[10] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019

[11] ARTICLE 19, Belarus: Stop Harassment of Independent Media Outlets, 8 August 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/blog/resources/belarus-stop-harassment-of-independent-media-outlets/

[12] Radio Free Europe, ‘Belarus passes legislation against “fake news” media’, 14 June 2018, available at https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-assembly-passes-controversial-fake-news-media-legislation/29291033.html

[13] ARTICLE 19, Belarus: New Decree Severely Limits Right to Anonymity Online, 4 January 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/blog/resources/belarus-new-decree-severely-limits-right-to-anonymity-online/

[14] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p73, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019

[15] Freedom House, ‘Belarus’, Freedom in the World 2019, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/belarus

[16] Reporters without Borders, Five-Year Suspended Jail Sentences for Three Belarusian Bloggers, 5 February 2018, available at https://rsf.org/en/news/five-year-suspended-jail-sentences-three-belarusian-bloggers

 

Font Resize
Contrast