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Belarus: Journalists harassed for having work published by foreign media

The Belarusian Association of Journalists declares it unlawful to prosecute reporters whose names and materials appear in foreign mass media. Pressure on these journalists bears clear characteristics of threat and blackmailing, and contradicts national legislative norms as well as to obligations of the Republic of Belarus to ensure freedom of information under international agreements.

On September 25, the Babruysk district court fined Maryna Malchanava, a journalist of the non-state newpaper Bobruyskij Courier, for 32 basic amounts (4 800 000 rubles). She was found guilty of violating p. 2 of art. 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Violations, for "illegal production and distribution of mass media products". According to the police report compiled by lieutenant colonel Siarhei Rudzko, the journalist "performed interviewing of a citizen..." "without the appropriate accreditation to perform professional activities for journalists of foreign mass media". The case stemmed from a material authored by Maryna Malchanava on Belsat TV channel.

Peculiarities of the case revealed on September 23 raise more concerns: the journalist saw that materials of her administrative case included copies of materials from another analogical case where the journalist was found guilty. (She has photocopies of the materials.) It deals with the case in May when an anchorman of Belsat TV Ales Zaleuski was fined for 30 basic amounts under the same charges. It looks that his case materials were copied and sent by the Karelichy district court. Maryna Malchanava considers that such actions may exert pressure on the judge, and lodged a motion to the Ministry of Justice. However, she failed to get postponement of the proceedings until the Ministry gives a reply.

Several days before, on September 16, officers of the Lenin district police department searched the flat of journalist Aliaksandr Burakow, as well as his parents' flat. The searches were sanctioned by the prosecutor's office of Mahilow city. They seized computer equipment belonging to the whole family.

The reason for the searches were three publications on the website www.dw.de authored by Aliaksandr Burakow. The police assured that there were no claims against the contents of the articles; however, the very fact of publishing an article on the Deutsche Welle website (the Russian version of which is only online) gives grounds for administrative prosecution. By publishing the article, the journalist, in their view, violated the legislation on mass media as he had not got accreditation from the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Belarus. The journalist has another summons to the police department for September 30.

BAJ draws attention that it is not the first time that provisions of art.22.9 of the Code on Administrative Violations are misused against journalists who send their materials to foreign media. Such legal practice violates national legislation of Belarus as well as obligations of our state in the sphere of freedom of expression under internatioal agreements.

Art. 22.9 of the CoAV, to which law enforcement agencies refer, DOES NOT PROVIDE for liability for work without accreditation. Equating "work without accreditation" to illegal production and distribution of mass media products is wrong at least because mass media products are produced by an editorial office of a mass medium, and not by a journalist alone; and again, it is the editorial office who distributes the product, but not the author alone. It clearly stems from article 1 of the Law on Mass Media (points 6, 7, 12).

Moreover, the demand for Belarusian citizens to have accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus to seek and distribute information violates the Constitution and international legal obligations of Belarus.

Article 34 of the Constitution guarantees for citizens of Belarus the right to seek, store and impart full, accurate and timely information about activities of state bodies, public associations, political, economic, cultural and foreign life, and about the environment.

The same right is ensured by article 19 of the ICCPR ratified by Belarus. According to part 2 of article 19, every person has the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

According to the Constitution, information can be restricted only to defend honor, dignity, personal and family life of citizens for full enjoyment of their rights.

Actions of freelance journalists (that is those who are not employed in any staff of a mass medium and who offer their materials to different mass media, both Belarusian and foreign ones) do not fall within any acceptable grounds to restrict the right to seek, store and impart information. Moreover, prosecution of journalists for professional activities and of citizens for exercise of their rights violates provisions of the Main Law of the state, and international obligations, which undermines the image of Belarus.

It should be noted that the searches of Burakow's flat coincided with the visit of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to Minsk. Dunija Mijatovic raised the issues of accreditation and of interaction between journalists and law enforcement agencies when meeting Belarusian officials. However, it has not anyhow prevent further violations of rights of journalists.

BAJ stronly objects to administrative prosecution of journalists who publish their materials in foreign mass media.

We demand that:

- law enforcement agencies, employees of other state bodies stop administrative prosecution of freelance journalists and stop pressurizing them if they publish their materials in foreign mass media;

- the authorized officials bring protests against the judicial decisions delivered against journalists under part 2 of art. 22.9 of the CoAV;

- legislators of Belarus bring legal acts related to the sphere of free expression in compliance with the Constitution and the ICCPR.

Adopted by the Board of BAJ
September 26, 2014
Administrative prosecution and warnings to journalists for 22.9

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