Belarus - Law on "extremism" criminalizes independent journalism

by Reporters Without Borders | Reporters Without Borders
Thursday, 14 November 2013 11:58 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reporters Without Borders is concerned about recent legislation's impact on freedom of information in Belarus. A law on "combatting extremism" that took effect in 2007 has opened the way to new forms of censorship and self-censorship that are restricting the media's already very limited freedom even more.

"Either by means of convictions or, more indirectly, by imposing a climate of mistrust leading to self-censorship, the Belarusian authorities are achieving their goal of suppressing critical journalists," Reporters Without Borders said.

"We point out that freedom of information is a fundamental right and that governments must guarantee it and ensure that it is respected. We urge the Belarusian authorities to reconsider their attitude towards independent media."

At the end of last month, the printing company Karandash refused an order from the local office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on the grounds that it was an "extremist" news organization, although there was nothing controversial about the subject of the order.

As part of the celebration of a national holiday, RFE/RL wanted Karandash to print maps of a Minsk cemetery showing the locations of the graves of leading figures in Belarusian history. Karandash nonetheless suspected that the maps were designed to promote anti-government unrest.

The case confirms the success of the measures taken by the government with the aim promoting mistrust and fear about independent journalism. The charge of extremism has often been used in recent years with serious consequences for media and publishing houses.

The conviction of the organizers of the Belarus Press Photo competition and the publisher of its books of photos is a particularly striking example. On 18 April, a district court in Ashmyany, in the western region of Hrodna, ruled that a book containing the 2011 prizewinning photos was "extremist."

As a result, the court ordered 41 copies of the book destroyed and imposed fines of 217,500 roubles (20 euros) on the competition's organizers – photographers Yulya Darashkevich and Vadim Zamirovski – and on the photographer who won the top prize, Alexander Vasyukovich.

And finally, the Lohvinau Publishing House, which produced the 2011 Belarus Press Photo book of photos, was stripped of its licence by the judicial authorities at the information ministry's request on October.

The law on "combatting extremism," which the House of Representatives passed on 14 December 2006 and President Alexander Lukashenko signed into law just three weeks later, on 4 January 2007, makes no bones about the fact that it is meant to be used for political and authoritarian ends.

Organizing, preparing and carrying out activities that belittle the country's honour and dignity, and activities inciting hooliganism and vandalism for political or ideological motives, are all defined as "extremist" by article 1 of the law.

Articles 11 and 12 empower the prosecutor general to suspend activities he regards as extremist and then ask the supreme court to recognize their extremist nature, ban them and close the offices of the organization responsible. Article 14 bans the media from disseminating extremist material and provides for its destruction.

All these articles have provided the authorities with a legislative weapon that they can use to pursue their goal of suppressing independent journalism with greater effect.

(Photo : Belarusian Association of Journalists)