2010 15/07

The Belarusian authorities must bring the defamation articles of the Penal Code in line with the international standards of press freedom and freedom of expression. The appeal by human rights defenders was made today at the roundtable “The situation in the media space of Belarus on the eve of the presidential campaign: Realities and Prospects”.

Famous Belarusian journalists, human rights activists and politicians gathered to agree on an overall strategy of interaction during the elections.

Speaking of the role of the media during election campaigns, the BAJ chair Zhanna Litvina noted that in such a situation the media should provide the people with comprehensive information. However, the policies of the government prevent journalists from fulfilling their duties: private editions are denied the possibility of being sold through the state-run system of newsstands, journalist’s access to information is complicated, stringent conditions for media accreditation are imposed. The leader of the Belarusian Association of Journalists stressed that independent media simply lack strength and resources.

During his speech, the BHC head Aleh Hulak said that by restraining the freedom of speech and applying repressive mechanisms the power creates an atmosphere, when one is afraid to be independent and active. The human rights activist named the presidential decree number 60 as one of the last obstacles to free elections.

Continuing the theme, the HRC Viasna’s representative Siarhei Sys reminded the audience about the use of defamation articles and laws, especially activate on the eve of the presidential campaign.

“The Penal Code of the Republic of Belarus provides for criminal liability for insulting and defaming the president, government officials, judges, for discrediting the Republic of Belarus. These are so-called defamation articles. These articles have been repeatedly applied in practice. And sometimes quite effectively. Naturally, this worries us now, before the elections,” noted the human rights activist.

In a few recent months alone, the articles have been used to prosecute a public activist from Astravets Ivan Kruk and the publisher of the independent newsletter Boiki Kletsk Siarhei Panamarou. Apart from that, the prosecuting authorities charged the www.charter97.org site with insult and libel.

Human rights activists have repeatedly said that the articles of the Criminal Code – 367 “Defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus”, 368 “Insult of the President of the Republic of Belarus”, 369 “Insulting an Authority”, 369-1 “Discredit of the Republic of Belarus” – and the practice of their application run contrary to the provisions of Paragraph 1 of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The state’s using of defamation articles as a mechanism for repressions in reality does not contribute to the rule of law and protecting the dignity of officials, but promotes the destruction and suppression of the independent press, state the human rights activists.

In his speech, Siarhei Sys also referred to the Law “On Countering Extremism”, adopted in 2007:

“According to human rights activists, the law provides sufficient negative impact on the situation with freedom of speech in Belarus. Since the very definitions of “extremism” and “extremist activity” in the law are rather vague and blurred, which allows their abuse in practice. Intelligence agencies have already initiated several lawsuits against publications referring to the law “On Countering Extremism”. Under public pressure, these lawsuits have been terminated.

In September 2008 Iuye district court found August issue of “Svaboda” (№ 127) extremist, the case was instituted on the basis of a statement by the Chief of Hrodna region KGB department. In February 2009, № 7-8 (2008) of the magazine ARCHE was found extremist by the court in Brest.

Human rights activists say that every attempt to exert brutal pressure on independent media, including the prosecution under defamatory articles, will be considered in the context of political persecution and pressure on journalists during the preparation and conduct of the election campaign. Harassment of independent media in this period can be interpreted as part of the electoral strategy of the ruling power.

It is only a denser consolidation of efforts for the protection of democratic media space that may provide some protection to freedom of speech and the public’s right to unbiased and comprehensive information. Representatives of the Belarusian human rights community are also expected to work together with their foreign partners for the protection of freedom of expression and independent media. Besides, the human rights defenders believe a professional and timely assistance to victims of criminal and administrative prosecution is vital in such conditions.

Source: www.spring96.org

Prepared by Ales Leta,

Belarusian legal Portal,

by.prava-by.info

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