June 27, 2008
Belarusian Law Clamps Down on Media, Watchdog Says
Lawyers from the Belarusian Association of Journalists say a new law on mass media clamps down on freedom of speech, a website has reported. The author said the new law strengthens control over mass media by redefining regulations for re-registration and financing. The author said accreditation will be more strict under the new law especially as it allows bureaucrats to decide whom to accredit and to whom to deny accreditation and added it will be easier to close media for "disseminating untrue information which could harm state or public interests". The following is the text of the unattributed article, entitled "The new law on mass media is far more severe than the previous one", posted on the Belarusian human rights group Charter-97 website on 23 June, subheadings have been inserted editorially:
Financing and re-registrationThe law "On mass media", passed in the first reading of the House of Representatives [lower house], makes the conditions under which independent media operate far more strict.
Lawyers from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Mikhail Pastukhov and Yuryy Toporashev, say that in this case we are not talking about changes to the law on the press, but about a completely new law regulating the activity of mass media.
While mostly keeping the construction of the current law on the press, this bill introduces significant new ideas in the legal regulation of press activity, which, should they be passed, could be lethal to the development of independent journalism in the Republic of Belarus.
The first and most important new idea is the legal framework of the global computer network, the Internet, as mass media. The regulations here will not only be carried out on the level of the law, but in by-laws and regulations.
The bill includes Article 8 - Financing mass media. Pursuant to it, some media may be financed from the republican or local budgets or other sources, while others will be banned from receiving monetary funds or other property from foreign legal entities or anonymous sources.
The bill retains the request-permission order for registering media. It fully covers internet media as well, with the addition that this will be determined by the government.
One must keep in mind that the bill makes the order of re- registering media more strict. Specifically, if a media has not been published for more than six months (not a year, as is now the case), then re-registration is obligatory.
Article 17 of the bill reads that media products may only be distributed by legal entities holding the function of editorial boards at media, or which have contracts with them to distribute media. This article also notes that distribution of internet media will be regulated by government acts.
Another new addition to the bill is setting up a Public Coordinating Council in the sphere of mass information. Its composition and manner of acting will be determined by the Information Ministry.
Accreditation and accountability
Significant changes are made to accreditation. Article 1 of the bill defines accreditation as "presenting a journalist from the mass media the right to report on events organized by state entities...[ellipsis as published]". Article 35 specifies the rules of accreditation. Part 2 reads that the manner of accrediting journalists is determined by state bodies. That is, the issue of whom to accredit and whom not to accredit will not be decided by the law, but by a bureaucrat. Clause 4 of the article contains the categorical remark that journalists from foreign media may not carry out their professional functions in the Republic of Belarus without accreditation.
Article 37, Information of limited access, may be considered one of the bill's odious articles. It provides a list of information which ends with an allusion to other information which may be reviewed in "legal acts of the Republic of Belarus.
In addition to this, Article 38 of the bill defines a list of information items which the media is not allowed to disseminate.
The pinnacle of the bill is in Chapter 9, which envisions accountability for violating the law on mass media. Pursuant to it, a written warning to the media's editorial board is the initial form of accountability and it can be given for various reasons including for "disseminating untrue information which could harm state or public interests", "disseminating information which is not true and which discredits the honour, dignity or business reputation of natural persons or the business reputation of legal entities or individual entrepreneurs" (Article 49). Written warnings are given either by the Information Ministry or a prosecutor on any level.
The second measure of accountability is stopping the activities of mass media for a period of up to three months, based on a decision from the Information Ministry covering a wide range of violations (Article 50).
And finally, the most severe measure is to stop publication of the media. A decision on this is taken by a court based on a suit filed by the Information Ministry or a prosecutor under the condition that the media outlet or its founder (founders) received two or more written warnings in the course of a year.
Significant amendments were made to Article 47 of the current law on the press which envisions freeing media of accountability if they have reprinted information and in other cases. In the bill (Article 52), mass media and journalists are deprived of this "privilege" in cases when information is distributed which discredits the Republic of Belarus and also information which is untrue or which discredits the honour, dignity or business reputation of natural persons or the business reputation of legal entities or individual entrepreneurs.
Originally published by Charter-97 website, Minsk, in Russian 23 Jun 08.
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