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With attacks on independent media, the "thaw" in Belarus is over

The last few years have been viewed as a relative liberalisation in Belarusian public life. It seems this is coming to an end. 

Law enforcement search the offices of Tut.by, 7 August. Source: Tut.by. After the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014, Belarus gradually began to shed its image as the “last dictatorship of Europe”. The country’s relative liberalisation was expressed through a decreasing level of repression against activists and politicians.

For Belarus’ independent press, though, the rules of the game have only got worse. Media that didn’t profess a clear political position could rely on a relative level of freedom. But everything changed overnight on 7 and 8 August, when Belarusian law enforcement conducted searches at five editorial offices — including Tut.by and BelaPAN, two of the country’s biggest media resources.

In Belarus, a journalist’s work was always complicated by a range of legal restrictions. A favourite method of pressure is fining non-accredited journalists working for foreign media — any freelancer can fall foul of this. In this year alone, journalists working for Belsat TV channel, which broadcasts from Poland, have been fined in Belarusian courts 70 times at a cost of $25,000. Moreover, the homes of Belsat journalists are regularly searched by Belarusian law enforcement.

In parallel, the authorities have strengthened legislation governing the work of online media. A new packet of amendments on Belarus’ media law was accepted by parliament in the first reading in April 2018. In order to recognise a site as an online media, editorial offices now have undergo an official registration process, which includes a range of formalities — the editor should be a Belarusian citizen with five years of experience, the publication should have a separate legal entity and so on. Without registration, employees of an online media will not be treated as journalists — which means they cannot receive official accreditation, request officials for comment or cover mass public events.

It’s obvious that the authorities knew that these arrests would cause international concern — and that this contradicts their attempts to change the image of the country

These new legislative changes also propose introducing authentication measures for commentators on online forums. Media owners are now responsible if users post banned content — which is defined very vaguely — on sites under their control. Media experts agree that these amendments are designed to force commercial competitors out in favour of Belarusian state media. This is partially confirmed by President Lukashenka’s own words in February when he appointed new managers to the state broadcasting company and Soviet Belarus newspaper. 

Over the past year, two of Belarus’ biggest opposition websites have been blocked — Charter 97 and Belarusian Partisan. The Partisan website managed to re-open after changing its domain name, but Charter 97 remains inaccessible to the majority of residents of Belarus. Then, at the beginning of August, the authorities targeted Tut.by and BelaPAN.

An investigation into these media groups was triggered by a statement made by the director of the state news agency BelTA, whose clients were experiencing difficulties accessing a subscription newsletter. Ten people, including Deutsche Welle journalist Paulyuk Bykowski, were detained on the pretext that journalists at private media were accessing this resource via other people’s accounts. Five people were released as suspects, and five were detained for three days. Judging by investigation materials released by state media on the first day of arrests, this operation was prepared in advance.

In and of itself, journalists being detained in Belarus is nothing unusual. Employees of opposition and independent media are detained regularly at public protests. But there’s never been this kind of direct interference in editorial work before, and this latest incident is different for a number of reasons.

First, the media that have been targeted. Tut.by is the most popular news website in Belarus. It is still the number one resource, despite fierce competition from Russian media. The site has been criticised by Lukashenka on several occasions. Its editorial policy is neutral, though it regularly publishes texts with criticism of the actions of state institutions. Since the website was set up in 2000, there’s never been a single search by law enforcement.

The other media targeted, BelaPAN, is the oldest private news agency in Belarus. It is a classic professional media, which has a critical position on the authorities, but does not support any political movement.

Second, all previous instances of mass pressure on Belarusian media have been connected to protest waves and direct criticism of the president. These detentions took place against a calm political background: there’s no mass protests being held, nor are any planned. Likewise, neither Tut, nor BelaPan have published any articles that exceed the current status quo in public life.

It’s obvious that the authorities knew that these arrests would cause international concern — and that this contradicts their attempts to change the image of the country. Most likely, in order to calm the situation, Minsk will end up solving this problem which it has  created itself. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson has already stated that the situation “bears no relation to issues of freedom of speech”. The journalists will be released, and the criminal investigation will be stopped after damages have been awarded. But the security services, after analysing the contents of the journalists’ hard disks, will have new ways of pressuring editors’ further — and the already limited freedom that Belarusian journalists enjoy will be reduced.

One of the most likely versions of why this is happening proposes this is another attempt at establishing control over mass media before the Belarusian presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019-2020. But it could end up having the opposite effect. It’s unlikely state media can take the place of commercial operations, and competitors from Russia will come and occupy this newly liberated niche — and the Belarusian authorities don’t have much in the way of influencing these outlets.

 


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