Belarus: New Attacks on Media Freedom as Elections Approach.

by Volha Birukova

Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe sees possible breach of Universal human rights standards in recent regulation, imposed by justice ministry of Belarus towards Belarus Association of Journalists . PACE asks Venice Commission, internationally recognized legal think-tank, analyze the document and give its conclusion.

13 January Belarus Ministry of Justice sent out official warning to Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ) and urged them withdraw 1.200 membership cards with heading "PRESS", issued since 1995.

Ministry of Justice said to be breach of national Media Law

the fact that BAJ, being NGO, but not media, have issued press-cards, which journalists can use as their main ID, for daily work or even during mass protests and street actions to secure themselves.

The Ministry claims to find other violations "beyond the organization's Charter". By Belarus legislation such warnings can lead to total ban of any media.

BAJ denies any wrong doing as Media Law doesn't govern activity of NGO's. Association is ready to appeal the decision in a month term and says this is one more attempt to scare and silence Belarus journalists as elections approach.

"I think they test us in this way. And this is directly connected with the upcoming elections in local councils and the preparation for presidential elections. We must pass this test," BAJ Chair Zhanna Litvina said.

Nongovernmental Belarus Association of Journalists operates in the country since 1995, provides journalists, including some working for State media, with legal aid, trainings and information support. The association is affiliated to major International media organizations.

Local election campaign has already started in the country, president elections are due to be in 2011. Current president, often described as last Europe's dictator, is likely to run for his 4-th term.

PACE expressed its concern with this situation in Recommendation 1897 (2010), published on their site 27 January. "As Belarus is an associate member of the Venice Commission, the Assembly furthermore asks the Venice Commission to analyze the compatibility of such warning by the justice ministry of Belarus with universal human rights standards" -- document said.

Venice Commission or the European Commission for Democracy through Law is the Council of Europe's advisory body. Established in 1990 as a tool for emergency constitutional engineering, the commission has become an internationally recognized independent legal think-tank by now.

Belarus Media Law, introduced just year ago, considers as journalist only a person,who has written contract with media officially registered in the country. The law gives no legal basis for freelancers, for correspondents of private Internet media, for those who works for foreign media, without proper accreditation from Foreign Affairs Ministry. Severe delays and denials with such accreditation -- is one more tool, used by Belarus officials do not let information out.

Given to serious press-freedom problems in the country, it means the discussion is not only about the form of membership card, but about who is allowed to be a journalist at all.

International Federation of Journalists, European Association of Journalists and UK-based Exiled Journalists Network have already protested against the warning and its possible implications. EJN encourages all interested to write petitions to justice ministry of Belarus (

Reporters Sans Frontiers ( ranks Belarus by Press Freedom Index at 151 place in the list of 175 countries. It is marginally better than Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but worse than Sudan, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

1 February 2010 Belarus president signed a decree, creating Chinese style Internet control.

3 February militsiamen in plain clothes, showing no documents tried to get entry to flat, rented by journalist of independent Belarus-Polish TV channel BelSAT, and switched off the electricity in the flat.

During similar search 2 years earlier militsia confiscafted PCs and other necessary equipment for no reason. This time BelSAT peoples simply didn't open the door, until other colleagues with cameras and tape-recorders arrived ready to report the incident. Militsiamen arrested for 10 days the journalist, who warned colleagues about coming intrusion.


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