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IMC condemned crackdown on press freedom in Belarus

15.03.2021, 17:15

The Independent Media Council has condemned the harsh repression against freedom of speech and mass media freedom in Belarus. Such is the message in the statement of the Independent Media Council (IMC), published on its website.

The IMC calls on the President of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine:

-to publicly condemn the repression of journalists by the Belarusian authorities;
-to demand that the Belarusian authorities immediately stop persecuting journalists and other human rights violations;
-urgently consider imposing and / or strengthening Ukraine's sanctions against high-ranking Belarusian officials involved in human rights violations;
-to call on the governments of the partner countries to impose stricter sanctions against high-ranking Belarusian officials involved in human rights violations.

The full text of the statement follows:

The Independent Media Council strongly condemns the harsh repression against freedom of speech and mass media freedom in Belarus. After the contested presidential election, protest rallies continue in the country, and the protests are accompanied with attacks, mass arrests, detentions and even disappearances of journalists and media professionals only due to their professional activities. Such attitude undermines the foundations of a democratic system, where the media can freely provide honest and balanced reporting to citizens about social developments and, thus, ensure transparency and accountability of the authorities.

Violation of media freedom in Belarus
Since August 9, 2020, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has recorded more than 500 violations of media freedom committed by government officials, namely:

-more than 480 detentions of journalists;
-97 journalists served administrative arrests;
-62 journalists faced physical violance by law enforcement agencies;
-criminal proceedings have been instituted against 15 journalists;
-nine of them are in custody right now.

Among the detained are tut.by journalist Kateryna Borysevych, journalist Andriy Alexandrov, journalists of Belsat TV channel Kateryna Andreeva (Bakhvalova) and Daria Chultsova, employees of the Belarusian Press Club: founder Yulia Slutska, program director Alla Sharko, director Serhiy Olshevsky, cameraman Petro and former Belteleradiocompany journalist Ksenia Lutskina.

All this testifies to the large-scale repression of the Belarusian authorities against journalists for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Of particular concern is the ongoing repression, despite the condemnation of the international community and the imposition of sanctions by the EU Council against senior Belarusian officials responsible for the repression and intimidation of journalists.

Illegal court decision in the case "Zero permille"
On March 2, 2021, the Moscow District Court of Minsk convicted tut.by journalist Kateryna Borysevych to six months in prison for inciting to break medical secrecy (Part 3 of Article 178 and Part 5 of Article 16 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus).

The journalist covered the circumstances of the brutal torture and death of peaceful protester Roman Bondarenko, and in her article on November 13, 2020, she noted that there was no alcohol in his blood. Such information denied the official position of the authorities that Roman Bondarenko was intoxicated and provoked a fight, and, in fact, exposed the authorities' attempt to conceal human rights violations. On November 19, 2020, Kateryna Borysevych was detained, and Amnesty International called her a prisoner of conscience.

The Independent Media Council considers the court decision against Kateryna Borysevych illegal and strongly calls for a retrial.

Although Article 178 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus aims to protect the right to privacy, disclosure of medical information without the patient's consent is justified for a socially necessary purpose, including human rights, and when the public's right to know this information outweighs the potential harm. In addition, Roman Bondarenko's close relatives did not hide information about the victim's condition from journalists in any way. Thus, there is no corpus delicti in the case, ie criminal prosecution does not meet the requirement of legality. The court convicted Kateryna Borysevych for political reasons, only for exercising her right to freedom of expression.

Persecution of journalists for "organizing protests"
On January 12, 2021, Andriy Alexandrov and his girlfriend Iryna Zlobina were detained for organizing and preparing actions that grossly violated public order, or active participation in them (Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus).

The fact is that, in addition to journalistic work, Andriy Alexandrov, with the support of the By_Help Solidarity Fund, helped peaceful protesters: he paid fines to detainees during the protests and reimbursed the cost of their detention. According to law enforcement agencies, such actions are financing the protests.

Other media workers were detained under this article, and on February 18, 2021, the Frunzensky District Court of Minsk sentenced journalists of Belsat TV channel Kateryna Andreeva (Bakhvalova) and Daria Chultsova to two years in prison. Journalists broadcast a protest on November 15, 2020, during which Belarusians demanded a change of president and the responsibility of the authorities for the torture of protesters and the murder of Roman Bondarenko.

At the last court hearing, the lawyers filed an expert opinion with the international organization Article 19 , which said that bringing journalists to justice for "organizing a violation of public order" only because they did their job (collected and disseminated some important information about peaceful protests) , was a violation of international standards and contrary to common sense. Unfortunately, the court did not take into account this expert opinion and did not issue an acquittal in the case.

The Independent Media Council considers the prosecution of journalists for "organizing a violation of public order" illegal, and strongly calls for a review of the case against Belsat TV journalists and the closure of criminal proceedings against Andriy Alexandrov.

The journalists' reports did not constitute a crime "organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them." After all, numerous news in the media show that the protests on November 15, 2020 were peaceful and cannot be considered a violation of public order.

The court had no legal basis for criminal prosecution, nor a legitimate aim. After all, in order to restrict rights in order to protect public order, it is necessary to take into account the size and nature of protests, obstruction of passers-by, any work that the authorities intended to carry out, or traffic on neighboring streets, which the court did not do. The European Court of Human Rights noted this in its decision Shmorgunov and others against Ukraine during the analysis of Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-2014.

Prosecution for covering peaceful protests can in no way be necessary to protect public order. From this it can be concluded that the Belarusian court sought not to protect public order, but to suppress peaceful protests and intimidate journalists who cover such actions.

Persecution of the Belarusian Press Club
On December 22, 2020, employees of the Belarusian Press Club (Yulia Slutska, Alla Sharko, Serhiy Olshevsky, Petro Slutsky) and former Belteleradiocompany journalist Ksenia Lutskina, a member of the Press Club Academy, were detained for tax evasion in a particularly large amount (part 2, art 243 of CriminaCode of Republic of Belarus).

According to the investigation, the Press Club received large sums of money from abroad, in particular for the creation of public television , which allegedly wanted to create a former journalist of state television Ksenia Lutskina. At the same time, the detainees were not shown any documentary evidence of the amount of unpaid taxes.

It is worth noting that the Academy of the Press Club did hold a hackathon of media projects. Out of more than 30 applications, the jury selected seven media projects aimed at realizing freedom of speech, including a video project by Ksenia Lutskina. However, this project is in no way related to television. Belarusian human rights activists immediately recognized the five detainees as political prisoners and stressed that it was not the first time that the Belarusian authorities had used economic crimes to crack down on journalists.

The Independent Media Council believes that the journalists of the Press Club were detained for political reasons, only for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and strongly calls for the closure of criminal proceedings against them and their release from custody.

Position of the Independent Media Council
The right to freedom of expression, protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is a fundamental element of any democratic society. In accordance with General Comment 34 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the media ensure the right of the public to be informed and aware of events of public interest. In particular, the public has a right to be aware of peaceful protests in the country , including information on cases of ill-treatment and torture of peaceful protesters and other human rights violations by the authorities during such protests.

Any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be provided for by law, have a legitimate aim and be necessary in a democratic society. While criminal prosecutions of journalists in Belarus have no valid legal basis for suppressing protests and demands for a democratic change of government, they are excessive and clearly contrary to international human rights standards.

The situation with freedom of expression in Belarus is unacceptable and requires swift and decisive action to protect and ensure human and civil rights. After all, given the vital role of the media in disseminating information about social events, the constant persecution of journalists only for exercising their right to freedom of expression has a cooling effect and increases pressure on society as a whole.

The Independent Media Council condemns the unlawful interference with the freedom of expression in Belarus, including the illegal persecution and punishment of journalists, and calls on the Belarusian authorities to:
-immediately release all journalists imprisoned or detained for political reasons for exercising their right to freedom of expression;
-refrain from further persecution and similar accusations;
-stop all forms of persecution of journalists and media workers for exercising their right to freedom of expression;
-conduct an independent, prompt, thorough and effective investigation into cases of violence against journalists by law enforcement agencies and to bring those responsible to justice;
-respect the right of citizens to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The IMC appeals to the President of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine with an appeal :
-to publicly condemn the repression of journalists by the Belarusian authorities;
-to demand that the Belarusian authorities immediately stop persecuting journalists and other human rights violations;
-urgently consider imposing and / or strengthening Ukraine's sanctions against high-ranking Belarusian officials involved in human rights violations;
-to call on the governments of the partner countries to impose stricter sanctions against high-ranking Belarusian officials involved in human rights violations.

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