Made last month, the justice ministry request is clearly based on spurious grounds and, in reality, is designed solely to prevent the BAJ, an NGO that defends journalists, from continuing to promote independent and pluralistic media and journalism.
The amicus brief that RSF filed at the BAJ’s request on 10 August is expected to be considered at a Supreme Court hearing on 11 August.
“Disbanding the BAJ on the grounds proposed by the government would be another flagrant and very serious violation of Belarus’s international obligations,” said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF’s legal unit. “We have unfortunately become used to this after a year of systematic harassment of civil society, especially journalists. RSF calls on the Supreme Court to play the role it should be playing, that of guarantor of international obligations signed up to by Belarus, by allowing an NGO that should be the pride of Belarus to enjoy the freedom to operate.”
The Belarusian authorities have had their sights on the BAJ for years, but especially so since the wave of protests following President Alexander’s disputed reelection on 9 August 2020. The BAJ’s activities in defence of Belarusian journalists and in defence of media freedom, pluralism and independence have now made it a priority target for the government.
In February, the authorities searched its premises and the homes of several of its leaders, seizing thousands of documents and sealing its offices. In June, the justice ministry ordered an audit of the BAJ involving further searches and seizures. The BAJ was then asked to provide thousands of pages of documents – documents that it was unable to produce as a result of the confiscations and closures of its premises. The authorities also allege that two of its local branches do not have legal addresses – a claim that the BAJ denies.
In mid-July, the justice ministry submitted a request to the Supreme Court for the BAJ to be liquidated on the grounds of “failure to correct the violations revealed by the ministry of justice during the inspection,” namely the failure to produce the requested documents and the lack of legal addresses for the two local branches.
The amicus brief – the legal term for a submission by a third party with the aim of providing a judge with relevant information and legal arguments – submitted by RSF draws attention to Belarus’s international obligations with regard to the freedom of association, the protection of human rights defenders and the freedom of expression, and explains how the BAJ’s dissolution would violate these obligations and international law.
Belarus has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that translates the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into binding terms, and supplemented by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Belarus is also a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The Covenant, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the OSCE’s guidelines on safeguarding freedom of association and freedom of expression all impose strict limitations on the restrictions that may be placed on these rights and freedoms.
The Covenant clearly states that any such restrictions must pursue a legitimate objective and be necessary and proportionate to that objective in a democratic society. Belarus is also subject, under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to an obligation to honour its commitments in good faith. A decision by the supreme court to confirm the BAJ’s dissolution – as unfortunately seems likely – would constitute a flagrant and very serious violation of all these obligations.
Belarus fell five places in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 158th out of 180 countries.