Belarus Tightens Media Control to Prepare for Election

Image from BBC News

Last month Belarusian authorities continued their offensive against independent media. An amendment to the media law, in force since 1 January, tightened the state's control over the Internet.

Eight days later, the state ordered the confiscation of profits from an independent publisher (Lohvinau). On 19 January the Ministry of Information used the tragic shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo to warn its domestic media of the risks of free speech. And on 26 January the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya against the Ministry of Information’s warning.

Information control has long been Minsk’s preferred approach to coping with economic problems and swaying public opinion ahead of elections. While independent newspapers can be easily purchased in the street and all websites are accessible from home computers most of the time, the state frequently harasses media outlets so they know “who the boss is." This time, however, its heavy-handed approach may inadvertently strengthen the influence of Russian media in Belarus.

Tightening Grip over the Internet

As a growing number of Belarusians seek information online, the Belarusian state has sought to limit dissent in the Internet. The amendments to the 2008 law on the Media that came into force on 1 January seeks to regulate the distribution of media products online.

They also expand the state's power to block Internet resources. While previously only the propaganda of war, violence, cruelty, or extremism could be blocked, now any information that can harm Belarus’s "national interests" may trigger the shutting down of a website.

Materials published as far back as three months can serve as grounds for blocking. As Andrei Bastunets, Deputy Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, notes in a 23 January article in Foreign Affairs, a broad interpretation of the law would put even foreign websites within the reach of state censors. Additionally, web hosts can now be held accountable for all comments posted on their websites.

The changes were adopted without public discussion and supplement the legislation that has already left little space for freedom of speech. Starting in 2010, customers at Internet cafes were required to present passports and register. In turn, Internet providers had to collect customer information and install search and surveillance systems. Websites catering to Belarusians had to be hosted exclusively on domestic servers.

While seeking to rein in independent media, the state is stepping up its own online presence. Minsk is about to launch an online media portal aggregating information from all governmental media on the Internet.

The portal is supposed to serve as a “source for all professional information” about Belarus, according to Deputy Information Minister Vladimir Martusevich. Unsurprisingly, independent media outlets were not invited to join.

Stifling Print Media: Narodnaya Volya vs the Information Ministry

The new focus on Internet censorship is not distracting the Belarusian authorities from their harassment of print media.

On 23 January, Belarus’s Supreme Court ended the proceedings in the case of Narodnaya Volya against the Ministry of Information. Narodnaya Volya, an independent newspaper with a circulation of 55,000, lost its appeal against the Ministry’s warning that it was spreading false information.

On 3 October 2014, Narodnaya Volya received a warning for the column “Chained,” written by senior editor Svetlana Kalinkina. Kalinkina wrote that Belarus would be unable to leave the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) upon ratifying the agreement, citing Article 13 of the Union Treaty that stipulates that withdrawal decisions are made by "consensus minus the vote of the Member State" seeking to leave.

“Once you sign up - it's forever,” she concluded, thus drawing the ire of the Ministry of Information. The Ministry pointed to conflicting article 118 of the ratification agreement.

As this was already Narodnaya Volya's second warning, the Ministry of Information can exercise its “legal” right to shut down the paper.

At President Aleksandr Lukashenka's 29 January meeting with the press, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Iosif Seredich, complained directly to the President about the harassment his newspaper had suffered at the hands of the Ministry of Information. Lukashenka said he would look into the matter and went as far as to promise to meet with Seredich personally.

Exploiting the Charlie Hebdo Tragedy to Taunt Domestic Media

In its attempt to control information, Belarus did not hesitate to exploit the shooting at Charlie Hebdo on 7 January. Although the Ministry of Information did not explicitly prohibit reprinting the caricatures, it later threatened to “analyse” the domestic media’s “reaction” to the events in Paris. On 19 January, Minister of Information Lidia Ananich said at an online conference that outlets reprinting the cartoons would be “publicly reprimanded.”

Were the “public reprimand” to take place, it would affect kuku.org, which reprinted some of the most controversial images, and Vitebskiy Kurier, which published some of Charlie Hebdo’s earlier caricatures.

What is more, three participants of the solidarity action with Charlie Hebdo in front of the French embassy in Minsk on 11 January were charged with participating in an “unsanctioned mass action.” Interestingly, when asked about the charges by BBC journalist Tatsiana Melnichyk at the 29 January press conference, Lukashenka said he did not consider a four-people action problematic and promised to look into the matter.

Three days later, the court proceedings for the former editor of the satirical newspaper Novinki Pavel Konovalchik, the leader of the United Civic Party Anatoly Lebedko, and the deputy of the Green party Dmitry Kuchuk were cancelled.

Such an unexpected denouement suggests that the president has decided to play good cop, leaving the bad cop role to the Ministry of Information. Lukashenka's ostensible concern about Narodnaya Volya at the same press conference confirms this impression.

Media outlets that reprint controversial images in Belarus have been prosecuted before. In 2006, the independent newspaper Zgoda published Jullands Posten’s cartoons of Muhammed. One of its editors, Alexander Zdzvizhkou, was sentenced to three years in prison "for “inciting racial, national or religious hatred" but released after a month.

Undermining a Potential Ally?

The intensification of media control can be seen as Belarus's preparation for the presidential election on 15 November. A contributing factor is the poor state of the Belarusian economy, which may follow that of Russia into a recession in 2015. Real wages are declining and the ruble has plummeted.

As soon as the government slapped a 30% tax on foreign currency purchases in December, several non-governmental informational resources were blocked. It is precisely such ad hoc solutions to economic turbulence that the amendments to the media law facilitate.

Yet today it is Russian state media, which propagates the idea of Belarus's belonging in the Russian world, that presents a more immediate challenge to Lukashenka's rule. Restricting Belarusian independent media in the current geopolitical circumstances may thus inadvertently strengthen the increasingly aggressive Russian influence.

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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