How Freedom House Got Media Freedom in Belarus Wrong
American human rights watchdog Freedom House in its most recent global report has ranked Belarus in the bottom ten countries in the world in terms of media freedom. Scoring more poorly than some of the world's worst dictatorships in this survey seems unjust and harms the country’s already poor image.
Indeed, Belarus provides complicated conditions for journalists’ work, but journalism in Belarus remains a far less dangerous job than in many of the countries ranked more favourably in the report.
Unlike many Asian and African dictatorships, the Belarusian authorities refrain from regular physical harassment or criminal persecution of journalists, outright censorship, punishment for criticism or political dissent. Despite some legal and political restrictions, many printed and online independent media outlets continue their work Belarus.
Belarusian Experts Disagree
In the 2016 Freedom House report, Belarus's ranking improved from 194th to 192nd place compared to 2015, but remained in the “worst of the worst” category. Only five countries scored worse: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Crimea (singled out) and Eritrea. Authors ranked Cuba and Equatorial Guinea the same as Belarus.
According to Freedom House, Belarusian journalists enjoy less freedom than their colleagues in countries such as China, Syria, Zimbabwe, Iran, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the same survey indicated multiple cases of reporters and bloggers in these countries being imprisoned, physically harassed, forced to apologise on air, punished by lashes for criticising religion, shot, hacked and beaten to death. Governments in many of these and other states harshly censure the internet and other media.
Ranking Belarus lower than such autocracies seemed dubious to Belarusian independent media experts.
The Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (uniting reporters from non-governmental media) Andrei Bastunets admitted there were many problems with press freedom in the country, but still disagreed with Freedom House ranking Belarus as low as it did.
Aliaksandr Klaskouski, prominent journalist at Belapan news agency and an outspoken critic of the government, expressed the same doubts. He contrasted press freedom in Belarus to that of Kazakhstan. “There, even in independent media you can hardly criticise the leader of the country as harshly as we do in Belarus”, –- Klaskouski argued.
The owner of the most popular Belarusian independent web portal TUT.BY Jury Zisser said Belarus should not be ranked worse than other post-Soviet autocracies like Russia or Azerbaijan. “We have nothing to be proud of, but such reports make us look like North Korea to foreigners”, – he commented on Facebook.
How Free is Belarusian Media?
The situation with media freedom in Belarus remains complex, but it can hardly qualify as the “worst of the worst” in the world.
Free TV or FM radio stations do not operate in the country. The government denies registration to Belsat – an independent TV channel established in Poland and forced to operate from there. Its reporters in Belarus, together with their colleagues from other “foreign” media have trouble acquiring accreditation. Working without it occasionally leads to being fined. Still, most of them work in the country without suffering persecution.
Several oppositional and independent print newspapers like Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya are regularly published. People legally obtain these papers throughout the country, but they face circulation limits and, sometimes, administrative obstacles with distribution. Legal procedures for closing down the newspaper and, especially, blocking the website remain easy for the authorities.
Getting information from the government is difficult. Some topics – like corruption among top officials, the arms trade or the personal life of Lukashenka and his family – sometimes appear risky to investigate.
nobody is banned from or punished for criticising the government or Lukashenka on almost any issue
However, nobody is banned from or punished for criticising the government or Lukashenka on almost any issue: mistakes in managing the economy, foreign and domestic policy, electoral fraud etc. The media remain free to cover opposition activities and political prisoners, when we have them.
Reporter Dmitry Zavadski was kidnapped in 2000 and the government has not properly investigated his case. Nothing of this kind has happened since then. Journalists have been imprisoned in exceptional cases only in Belarusian contemporary history.
In January 2016 police officers beat up Pavel Dabravolski from TUT.BY portal after he used his smartphone to shoot them arresting protesters in the court building. Still, it would be fair to note that such cases happen rarely. The authorities try not to get embroiled in scandals with journalists to avoid unnecessary fuss.
Occasionally the authorities block some independent websites. It happens once every several years, most recently in December 2014 during the panic on the currency market. Usually it lasts from a couple of hours to several days. Except for that, the Internet remains relatively free. Six out of the 9.5 million Belarusians in the country use the Internet, where they can access uncensored news and pluralistic opinions.
Generally speaking, the government refrains from interfering in the work of independent media in the overwhelming majority of instances. Freedom of press in Belarus remains limited, but not absent. Journalism is challenging, but not existentially a dangerous job.
Methodology Changes Needed
The preparation of Freedom House reports starts with a journalist who is a resident of the country drafting the first version. Then the report goes through peer review by Freedom House internal and external experts. This approach requires improvement.
Obviously, a journalist who has, for example, suffered from an authoritarian regime, might not assess the wider situation in the country objectively or accurately. Freedom House could add a second national expert as a reviewer. That would help to avoid subjectivity from the author of the initial draft and to counter-balance his or her potential bias.
Other problems concern the scoring process. The more points the country receives in the three realms of press freedom – political, legal and economic – the worse. Belarus, for instance, scored 91 out of 100. Each of three areas splits into tens of detailed questions for the report author.
Most of them are of the following type: “does the country have problem A?”, “do journalists suffer from problem B?”. However, many aspects of media freedom – existence of self-censorship among journalists or plurality of opinions in state outlets – cannot be properly assessed in binary yes-or-no style. The degree of every problem differs from country to country. In many specific questions, the Freedom House methodology seems not to consider this.
Engaging more Belarusian experts and revising the questionnaire will help Freedom House fight stereotypes rather than spread them.