Updated at 18:07,08-09-2017

Problems remain for independent journalism in Belarus

By IPI Contributor Çağla Zimmermann

Despite raised hopes, a full turn toward Europe seems unlikely

Do recent events indicate that Belarus could fully turn towards Europe and pull away from Russia politically? In the last few months, a number of developments have excited observers in international media and revitalised old debates about the former Soviet countrys future. But despite positive indications, a broader view suggests that this prediction may be overly optimistic.

In the judgment of most media freedom or democracy indexes, the Eastern European country is labelled as one of the worst in Europe and in recent years Belarus has shown no tangible progress towards establishing a free media atmosphere.

One of the most important recent events was certainly the Oct. 11 presidential election, which was broadly perceived as neither free nor fair. Belarus leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, is often called Europes last dictator by critics. It was, therefore, not surprising that he was re-elected for a fifth term in office with a landslide 83.5 percent of the vote.

According to a report on media coverage of the recent elections prepared by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), state-owned media only served Lukashenko and gave no voice to opponents. Further, it presented the countrys current situation as being extremely successful. Although independent media outlets had a more balanced coverage, they were unable to have an impact throughout the country, because they were given limited space in which they could operate.

The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, criticised the situation and the fact that audiovisual media is owned and controlled by the state, with the result that the public did not have a democratic chance to inform itself about other political parties.

The election process was orchestrated, and the result was pre-ordained, Haraszti said in a statement. It could not be otherwise, given the 20 years of continuous suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, which are the preconditions for any credible competition.

Another recent event that raised hopes for Belarus was the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Despite the countrys unfree media atmosphere and the overall lack of independent journalism, Alexievich whose work during the course of her career included interviews with the survivors of conflicts and disasters, such as the Chernobyl disaster, during the Soviet period became the 14th woman to win the 8 million kroner (approximately 860,000) prize and the first journalist to do so.

Her win had a tremendous impact, not only because she has been persecuted by the current regime and was formerly forbidden from making public appearances, but also because of her stance towards the Belarusian government.

Recent statements that she has given in the media reveal that she is extremely critical of Lukashenko and Russia. In one of her first public comments after winning the award, Alexievich said she would not vote in the elections "because we know who will win". One day before the elections, she told reporters in Berlin that "it plays absolutely no role how we will vote" and she continued to criticise the electoral process as being entirely under the control of the president.

International observers and Belarusians alike have expressed great happiness and hope at her success. Catherine Taylor, the deputy director of English PEN, said that she hoped the award "will further highlight the civil and political injustices in Belarus and go some way to bringing about the restitution of free speech and freedom of expression for all Belarusians".

The final important event in recent months was the EUs suspension of sanctions against Belarus, which included an arms embargo, a trade ban on arms-related services, financial restrictions, travel bans and asset freezes. The sanctions, tightened most recently following the governments crackdown on anti-regime demonstrators in Minsk in 2010, targeted Lukashenko and some 200 other individuals and 18 entities.

However, the recent move relaxed sanctions against 170 individuals, including Lukashenko, and three companies. It followed the release of political prisoners in Belarus, the countrys hosting of the Ukraine peace talks and the non-violent atmosphere that accompanied the elections.

According to EU diplomats, the suspension can be seen as a reward for Belarus perceived opening up to Europe. They say it also signals a new strategy by the EU to engage, rather than isolate, Eastern European countries. The suspension process began at the end of October and is expected to last until February, but could be terminated should new human rights abuses occur.

Artyom Shraibman a political correspondent and editor for major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk and a former political correspondent at leading independent Belarusian news agency BelaPAN told IPI in an interview that he agrees with the EUs approach.

If we look back in history, the worst human rights record was seen in the country exactly in the times when the country was isolated from the West by the war sanction...., he said. The country needs to be europeanised in a way, and this cant happen if it is focused only on the eastern vector of its foreign policy.

Nonetheless, the question whether the aim of the sanctions was reached has always been controversial. Some observers say they believe that the impact of the sanctions has not been as strong as expected, given that there are alternative trade routes between Belarus and Russia. Therefore, since the overall effect has not led to any revision of the policies in Belarus, let alone regime change, the sanctions should not be considered as overly important.

Moreover, one of the reasons for lifting the sanctions, the non-violent electoral atmosphere, has been widely criticised, as there is effectively no opposition in the country given the very deep crisis it is currently experiencing. While Lukashenkos suppression was effective, the opposition itself also could not find a common leader and gain peoples confidence, aggravating the situation.

Ales Antsipenka, head of BAJs media monitoring group, told reporters late last month that the election was such a quiet affair because of the lack of real competition or public discussion of serious economic problems, the marginalisation of opposition forces, and state media censorship, which left out voters critical remarks about Lukashenko.


What are the current major pressure points on independent journalism in Belarus?

According to information shared by BAJ, the key issues in Belarus are that media freedom remains limited, independent newspapers suffer from uneven competition with state-run press, and some newspapers cannot obtain the right to be distributed through the networks of state monopolies, such as press distributor Belsayuzdruk and postal service Belposhta. There is no independent radio only Poland-based Radio Racyja, which is available across most of Belarus, but only online and the only TV channel with alternative views is Belsat, which is also based in Poland.

Shraibman also pointed to Internet freedom as a major problem.

On January 1, 2015, the amendments to the media legislation were enacted and they provided that now all the Internet resources that distribute news are considered media, and can be shut down basically without a judicial decision, he said. So, the Ministry of Information can on its own decide some sites can be blocked on the basis of each information and, quote, being harmful to national interests.

Shraibman added that he believed that, with this quite-broad description, authorities might use the legislation whenever it suits them. He said that, if not a trend, this possibility presented at least the most urgent and recent challenge to media freedom in the country.

He also emphasised the challenging situation of freelance journalists who work for media registered abroad.

If the foreign media is not registered in Belarus, it doesnt have its offices registered in Belarus, working for them is punishable by a fine and several of my colleagues have received those fines, Shraibman recounted. It is not enormous sums of money, but still unpleasant to work like this sometimes on a regular basis. This happened to my colleagues working for TV channels or radio stations operated from Poland.

From Shraibmans point of view, the recent events of the presidential elections, the lifting of EU sanctions and the success of Alexievich, although increasing hopes, does not seem to have had any lasting effect.

I think as long as the sanctions are being suspended only for four months, the government will generally tend to refrain from using excessive force and excessive suppression, both to political activists and to journalists of the independent or oppositional media, he said. So, I think generally as long as the political system is unchanged, the situation of the press freedom will also hardly undergo any significant changes, [at least not] any visible [from a foreign standpoint] for example.

Accordingly, it appears that Belarus still has a long way to go in order to solve its many challenges to media freedom, which also include denial of accreditation to media representatives, bureaucratic methods to deny information, impunity for crimes against journalists and limited access to information. Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely that Belarus will turn fully towards Europe as long as Lukashenko continues to lead the country.