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Belarus25 June 2008

Media bill approved by lower house on second reading

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Reporters Without Borders condemns the haste with which the chamber of representatives has approved a new media bill. It was passed on second reading yesterday with three minor modifications. Media will no longer have to renew their registration with the authorities if they change address. The definition of “correspondent centre” has been modified and clause covering misrepresentation has been withdrawn.

“This is a repressive bill for independent media and for websites, which for the first time will be covered by a media law in Belarus,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Online media will now be subject to the same control as newspapers and radio and TV stations. The Internet has until now been one of the few spaces where Belarusians could express themselves freely. We fear that censorship will be stepped up.”

Natallya Pyatkevich, a member of the lower house and spokesperson for the presidential office, said in a TV interview on 23 June that it was technically impossible to “purge the Internet” of its content. The bill stipulates that website activity will henceforth be regulated by government decrees instead of laws.

Belarus Association of Journalists lawyer Mikhail Pastukhu said the government was trying to get the bill adopted as quickly as possible in order to avoid a public debate and criticism. It still has to be approved by the upper house and signed by the president before it takes effect.

19.06 - Lower house approves bill reinforcing government’s ability to censor media

Reporters Without Borders is worried by the adoption by the chamber of representatives on 17 June of a media bill that would reinforce media registration procedures and, for the first time, extend media regulation to the Internet. The Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ) had asked parliament’s human rights and media committee to examine whether articles 33 and 34 of the proposed new law violate the constitution, but the committee refused last August.

“This bill is yet another attack on media independence, which has undergone a disturbing decline in Belarus,” the press freedom organisation said. “It puts an end to any form of toleration for independent media that have managed to survive until now. By introducing legislation to control the Internet, until now one of the few areas of freedom for Belarusians, the authorities are showing they are determined to censor any dissident discourse. They have already demonstrated a readiness to hound the opposition press. Now they are legalising censorship.”

The bill would change all the registration procedures for the traditional media and extend them to online media as well. Media have been required under article 10 of the existing media law to register with local authorities, which for years have been using this requirement to block the dissident press. Under the new law, all the media would be required to register again within a year. And they would have to re-register whenever they changed address or suspended publication for six months (as against one year in the current law).

Instead of stipulating, as the existing law does, that “journalists have the right to obtain accreditation from state agencies,” the bill says “state agencies may provide accreditation.” News websites would still have to be registered with the information ministry but their activities would henceforth be regulated by government decrees instead of acts of parliament.

Journalists who are not accredited with the government would be banned from working for foreign news media. The BAJ said: “This means that a person who writes for a foreign publication will be regarded as one of its correspondents and could be prosecuted if they do not have accreditation.”

The bill would also ban Belarusian media from receiving financial or technical assistance from foreigners or foreign organisations unless they were cofounders of the media. At the moment, this practice is tolerated and enables many news media to survive. The authorities would also be empowered to close down a media after giving it two warnings in the space of year, without having to provide an explanation.

Belarus is one of the most repressive of the former Soviet republics as regards free expression. Press freedom has declined steadily since President Alexandre Lukashenko’s reelection in 2006. Issues of independent newspapers have often been seized in the past 18 months and journalists, like political activists, have often been arrested before opposition demonstrations.

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