Authorities seek to eradicate independent journalism; BAJ under attack
According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), on 22 March, the supreme court rejected BAJ's appeal against an interior ministry order to ban the use of BAJ membership cards with the word "press." BAJ was urged to collect all existing membership cards and terminate its legal assistance unit. Officials claim that BAJ press cards are illegal since BAJ is not a media outlet. BAJ's 2009 report, "Mass Media in Belarus", says existing media laws make any journalistic activity illegal without press credentials.
The ministry of justice initially issued the warning to BAJ on 13 January to target any information or support given to Belarusian journalists. Authorities claim that pro bono legal work done in support of independent journalists does not comply with BAJ's mandate; as a result, BAJ has been told to re-write the goals on its website. BAJ intends to appeal the recent court decision. But its hands are tied. If it receives a second warning, it can be shut down; and if the organisation does not comply with the demands of the first warning, it faces a six-month suspension.
RSF says the ruling also means freelance journalists and journalists working for foreign media that have been denied official accreditation will not be able to differentiate themselves from ordinary citizens when they are reporting on issues of public interest. This will discourage independent media coverage of possible protests in the run-up to elections at the end of April, and presidential elections in 2011, said BAJ. In 2009, a reporter for Belsat TV was arrested and released after showing police his BAJ card, says RSF.
"The ruling sets a dangerous precedent in effectively allowing the government to define who in Belarus is a journalist and who is not," said BAJ.
Several journalists have been harassed in recent weeks. On 16 March Minsk police raided the offices of the independent news website Charter 97, independent newspaper "Narodnaya Vola", and the homes of three journalists, confiscating computers, equipment and electronic documents as part of a criminal defamation investigation. Charter 97 editor Natallia Radzina was hit in the face during the raid at her office. The raids are linked to independent coverage of the prosecution of three police officers and abuses by the head of the interior ministry's anti-corruption and organised crime department. Police also attempted to raid the homes of BAJ members.
The 2009 BAJ report describes the deterioration of press freedom: journalists harassed with legal sanctions, websites blocked, editorial interference and censorship of FM radio stations, and regular raids on journalists' homes. Independent "socio-political media outlets" are denied registration certificates while state-owned broadcasting companies dominate the media environment. Belarusian state enterprises refuse to distribute half of the officially registered independent social and political periodicals.