Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- Reporters were able to cover the 2016 parliamentary elections with significantly less interference than during previous elections, which have often featured violent crackdowns by the state.
- In October, a Minsk court convicted blogger Eduard Palchys of inciting hatred and distributing pornographic materials, but delivered a suspended sentence and released him. The charges were tied to Palchys’s criticism of Russian foreign policy.
- State agencies issued warnings to several outlets over coverage that criticized or “discredited” the Belarusian state, its policies, or its allies.
- The authorities continued to penalize the “illegal production and distribution of mass media products,” a charge that includes unauthorized cooperation with foreign media, and maintained their policy of denying accreditation to reporters who work with outlets that are based abroad.
The government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has held the presidency since 1994, dominates Belarus’s print and broadcast sectors and exercises control over private media through restrictive laws and regulations. The authorities have often subjected journalists to violence, arbitrary detention, and politically motivated prosecution, although in recent years such cases have been less egregious and fewer in number. Conditions for online media are less repressive than for print and broadcast outlets, featuring fewer regulations and lower levels of censorship.
In a positive break from past behavior, the state allowed media coverage of the September 2016 parliamentary elections to proceed without violent obstruction or interference by security forces. Nevertheless, authorities continued to use the country’s restrictive legal framework to penalize critical reporting during the year, prosecuting a number of media workers on charges including defamation, incitement, extremism, and illegal production of content.
Prior to his release in October, Eduard Palchys—editor of the blog 1863x—was detained for 10 months over his criticism of Russian foreign policy: first in Russia, where he was arrested in January, and then in Belarus, following his extradition in May. Many local human rights groups recognized him as a political prisoner. Sensitivities about Belarusian-Russian relations also played a role in the arrests of three bloggers for incitement in December, after they published content expressing controversial pro-Russian views. Separately, freelancer Kanstantsin Zhukowski faced several heavy fines for the “illegal production and distribution of mass media products” due to his work with Belsat, a Belarusian-language web and satellite channel based in Warsaw. Authorities often harass foreign-based outlets that target Belarusian audiences, and the Information Ministry continued to deny accreditation to local journalists working with such outlets.
As internet penetration has grown, online newspapers, websites, and blogs have become increasingly popular with news consumers. The Information Ministry is authorized to issue warnings to websites, block their content, and initiate proceedings for their closure, but despite verbal warnings and legal harassment, private online outlets continued to operate with relative freedom in 2016.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom of the Press 2017. For background information on press freedom in Belarus, see Freedom of the Press 2016.