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22 Dec

Tanya Korovenkova (Belarus)
Transitions Online, 16.12.2014

Accreditation Crunch

Technically, freelance journalists in Belarus are not allowed to work for foreign media without obtaining accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. Practically speaking, it has not been much of a problem: contributors to foreign outlets would be periodically summoned to a prosecutor’s office and warned about working without accreditation – and that was it. They would leave with a warning and go back to work.

But now authorities appear to be cracking down on some foreign media. Since April Belarusian courts have investigated more than a dozen such cases and imposed fines totaling 41.5 million Belarusian rubles (about $3,750). Some reporters have been targeted multiple times.

Maryna Malchanava holds a sign reading, "I was printed on foreign sites." She is one of several Belarusian journalists who have landed in legal hot water for contributing to news outlets from abroad. Photo: Belarusian Association of Journalists

Reporters and experts say the harder line presages more moves by authorities to intimidate independent journalists ahead of next year’s presidential vote. Criminal cases against reporters have become a regular feature of elections since 2001, and Andrey Bastunets, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said the “mounting pressure on independent journalists in the last few months is a very bad sign.”

Getting accreditation to begin with is no easy task. For example, websites are not considered media organizations by the government, so even their staff writers are not regarded as journalists under Belarusian law and can be denied access to information and press events. And not all foreign-based media outlets are credentialed. Belsat TV, a satellite channel run by Polish public television that beams into Belarus, has had multiple applications rejected by the Foreign Ministry in recent years.

Journalists who lack accreditation are now being charged with an administrative offense, illegal production and distribution of media products. In addition to 13 cases that have gone to trial since April, two more are scheduled to be adjudicated in the coming weeks, involving reporters from the Brest region in southwestern Belarus.

Andrey Myaleshka, a reporter for Radio Racyja in the western city of Hrodna, has been fined three times for pieces posted on the Poland-based station’s website and has paid nearly $1,500. (The average gross monthly wage in Belarus is about $575.) Ales Zaleuski of Belsat TV has been convicted twice, most recently on 11 December at a court in Slonim in the Hrodna region, which fined him $540.

 

Ales Zaleuski, a Belarusian reporter with Polish broadcaster Belsat, has been prosecuted twice for working for foreign media without accreditation. Photo: Nasha Niva, nn.by

“It’s hard to say why they harass me and other journalists,” Zaleuski said. “But in recent years the authorities have failed to reduce the independent media’s impact on Belarusian society. The problem has not been solved by government agencies, as their influence has been growing.”

The targeting began in Hrodna, a region on the border with Poland and Lithuania that has been the “epicenter of the confrontation between local authorities and journalists,” Zaleuski said. "I think the authorities selected Hrodna as a test ground to see how the journalistic community responds to persecution.”

Since spring the crackdown has expanded to other areas, in seemingly systematic fashion. A copy of Zaleuski’s case file turned up in documents submitted to judges before trials in the Homyel region in southeastern Belarus and the eastern region of Mahilyou, according to the journalists involved. Maryna Malchanava, a reporter with a newspaper in the central city of Babruysk, said that when she was prosecuted for an article she did for Belsat TV’s website, she found a copy of the ruling against Zaleuski in her own case file.

“Journalists are already scared,” Zaleuski said. “I know it not only from my experience but also from my colleagues who found themselves in similar situations. Their families wanted them to stop [working with foreign media] or find some way to solve the problem of penalties.”

Valyantsin Stefanovich, deputy chairman of the Minsk-based, officially banned Viasna Human Rights Center, said authorities are misapplying the law in order to silence freelance journalists. “Prosecuting for the illegal production of a media product is a far-fetched charge,” he said. “[Reporters] do not make any products. But the country does not have a law directly stipulating punishment for work without accreditation.”

Bastunets, of the journalists’ association, said he initially believed the cases against journalists were a phenomenon of Hrodna, where local officials are especially hostile to the independent press. As the trials spread to other regions, he concluded it was part of a broader campaign to clamp down on independent media in the run-up to the presidential election in August. 

Paulyuk Bykouski, a media analyst, agreed, noting that authorities have targeted television and radio stations from abroad that broadcast into Belarus to present an alternative to state-run and commercial media. (Journalists working for major international media are left alone, he said.) As the election nears, he predicted, the pressure could spread from freelancers cooperating with foreign outlets to journalists working for domestic independent media.

“If authorities are already starting preparations for next year’s elections and trying to weed out the media field, that will obviously continue through the elections and could affect [Belarusian] independent media,” Bykouski said. “The Belarusian press has lost ground with each presidential campaign.”

Belarusian officials have numerous tools to intimidate independent media, the simplest being official warnings to newsrooms, according to Bastunets. These can be issued "regardless of how serious irregularities are – almost for a grammatical error or the use of a wrong phrase,” he said. Two warnings within a year give authorities legal grounds to bring a court case aimed at closing down a media outlet.

Another sword of Damocles is the threat of defamation lawsuits filed by government officials. In the summer of 2006, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii paid 60 million rubles in damages for a caption error under a photograph of the head of the Belarusian Customs Committee. Authorities also have powers to block newspapers’ access to printing plants and official distribution networks, and force advertisers to shun critical publications.

In addition, Belarus has laws carrying prison sentences for journalists for defaming the president and discrediting the country. Andrzej Poczobut, a Hrodna-based journalist, was convicted of defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2011 in articles published on the website of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the independent Belarus Partisan website, and on his Live Journal blog. He was sentenced to three years with two years suspended. Though his conviction was upheld on appeal, he was ultimately spared jail time when a court ruled in September 2013 that he would not have to go to prison because he had not committed any violations in the previous two years.

In interviews and at press conferences, some officials have also raised the possibility of new regulations to tighten oversight of online media. One proposal under consideration would give popular websites status as media outlets, conferring on them some of the rights of print and broadcast entities but also enabling authorities to hold them accountable for violations of Belarus’ Media Law, thus making them more vulnerable to pressure tactics.

Such moves are directed against homegrown independent media, which “are easier to control,” Viasna’s Stefanovich said. “They are registered and can always be stripped of registration, which has happened often. Moreover, they can be kicked out of the state distribution system, something that also happened quite often. Or officials can think of something else.”

For now, he added, “the authorities will keep harassing the foreign media by attacking their correspondents and contributors who supply them with information. Apparently, from the standpoint of the Belarusian authorities, this is an effective method.”

Zaleuski, despite his two convictions, said he would continue working for Belsat TV.

“Journalists do not have an easy way out of the situation,” he said. “What they can do is to constantly bring up the issue, discuss the situation. The public does not worry much about journalists because it is preoccupied with economic problems. We can only rely on ourselves and get together to somehow defend ourselves.”

Tanya Korovenkova is a reporter for independent Belarusian news agency BelaPAN.

Originally published: http://www.tol.org/client/article/24613-accreditation-crunch.html