Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Belarusian authorities to reconsider the draconian provisions of a newly unveiled media bill that is causing a great deal of concern, and to take account of the media’s own proposals.
Belarusian civil society has only just learned about the new bill although it is already in its final stages and is due to be submitted to a plenary session of the National Assembly’s lower house today.
The authorities say the bill is “based on international experience” and aims to guarantee equality among journalists and to turn the Internet into a “protected” environment. But independent journalists, who have long complained about the existing media law’s repressive provisions, regard the bill as even more threatening, especially for online media.
“An overhaul of Belarusian media legislation is desirable if it allows more press freedom, but the government’s proposed reforms will unfortunately do the opposite,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk
“Far from eliminating undue obstacles to media activity, they increase the repressive provisions, especially as regards the Internet. We call on the authorities to amend this bill by taking account of the media’s recommendations.”
Two-tier system for online media
The Belarusian media currently have to comply with a complicated registration procedure that the authorities can exploit in order to sideline critical outlets. Instead of simplifying the procedure, the bill plans to extend it to news websites. The granting of a licence would be subject to strict conditions: a news site could not be run from someone’s home and the editor in chief would have to be a Belarusian citizen with at least five years of experience in a senior journalistic position.
Online media would not be obliged to obtain this licence but their rights would be limited if they did not. Without a licence, they could not request information from government departments and their reporters would not enjoy official status as journalists. This would prevent them from getting press accreditation for official events and would increase their chances of being arrested while covering demonstrations. But not having a licence would not exempt them from the restrictions and sanctions that apply to all media.
Harsher, more arbitrary penalties
Under the proposed law, the authorities would be able to block any online content without a court order on even vaguer grounds than at present. They would just have to say that a website was “disseminating illegal content” or was being used for “illicit activities” – dangerously vague concepts open to the broadest interpretation.
“In the absence of technical means” for blocking an individual webpage, the authorities would be empowered to block an entire website. There would no way to appeal against decisions by the information ministry, which alone would have the power to remove a website from the official blacklist. Blocked websites could also find themselves being automatically stripped of their licence, a punishment that needs a court’s approval in the case of traditional media.
Heavy fines could also be imposed for “disseminating illegal content” in addition to the sanctions already envisaged by the law in most cases. Media outlets could, for example, be fined up to 12,200 roubles (5,000 euros) for disseminating information from banned opposition parties or information regarded as “extremist” in nature.
End of Internet anonymity ?
The bill’s new provisions also undermine online anonymity, a valuable asset in a repressive country such as Belarus. Websites and online forums that allow readers to post comments would be required to identify them and to moderate their posts in order to avoid being blocked. The bill is so vague on this point that these provisions could also apply to social networks.
Although the government had been drafting the bill for several months, journalists did not learn about it until the end of March. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an RSF partner, submitted its recommendations to the National Assembly on 9 April and asked for experts to be consulted before a vote is held.
At a meeting with the information minister on 6 April, BAJ chairperson Andrei Bastunets voiced the concern of journalists about the bill and said it was regrettable that no account had been taken of the BAJ’s many proposals for improving the current legislation.
Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.