In Belarus, discussions about the upcoming referendum in 2022, the purpose of which will be to bring amendments to the current Constitution of the Republic of Belarus to a general vote, are not subsiding. The united democratic forces have developed their own strategy, according to which Belarusians are being asked to come to the polling station and spoil their ballots.
Concurrently with preparations for the referendum, the authorities continue repressions against representatives of the media and civil society. In democracies, both these groups play a huge role in informing people about upcoming election and voting campaigns during referendums. Of particular importance are the following functions of the media during a referendum voting campaign:
- inform the public about the subject of the referendum, thereby providing information to voters and allowing them to participate in public debate and make informed choices during voting
- provide an equal opportunity for both supporters and opponents (representatives of political forces and civil society) to speak on issues raised in the referendum, i.e., those who are «for» and those who are «against»
- freely conduct their work as journalists, which allows them to conduct public opinion polls and communicate with authorities and citizens
To what extent are these basic functions realizable given the current political situation in Belarus?
Public access to information
To date, about 20 large Belarusian and international media resources are recognized as extremist in Belarus and blocked in country. About 300 more information channels operating in social networks were also recognized as extremist. In practice, this means that any repost of materials from these channels, «liking» or forwarding material from such resources, even among readers, can involve tough sanctions, up to and including arrest, as in the case of a married couple who served 111 days, after which they fled the country for safety.
Against the backdrop of a rapidly shrinking media space, the liquidation at the end of August 2021 of the leading independent journalist organization – the Belarusian Association of Journalists – put at risk the remaining independent media resources, which essentially would have nowhere to turn for help if pressure began to be exerted on them.
Most editorial offices are currently working either out of sight or have gone abroad. The remaining units are subject to constant repression. As of December 9, 2021, 32 media representatives are behind bars, and this figure does not include bloggers and internet activists, some of whom, like Alexander Kabanov and Sergei Petrukhin, have already been convicted, and others, like Sergei Tikhanovsky, Eduard Palchis, Igor Losik, Roman Protasevich, and Vladimir Tsyganovich, are awaiting the court’s verdict, which, most likely, will be very harsh.
Freedom of expression
After the Belarusian authorities adopted amendments to the Law on Countering Extremism in May 2021 and the new Law on Preventing the Rehabilitation of Nazism, the opportunity for Belarusians to speak out became significantly limited. Together with the new Law on Mass Media and the Law on Mass Events, the space for freedom and the rights of Belarusian citizens has decreased even more, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted in its analysis of the new laws.
As of December 9, 2021, 909 people were officially recognized as political prisoners in Belarus. Many of these are civil activists and journalists. There is potentially a similar number of prisoners imprisoned on political charges, but for some reason are not recognized as political prisoners. Often the relatives of detainees prevent this because they believe that they can help their loved ones to avoid more severe punishment if they do not attract wide public attention. Political prisoners ended up in jail because they did not agree with the current government.
According to the Viasna human rights center, the main team of which is now in prison, for the 2020-2021 period, 103 people were charged with insulting the authorities only as of March 26, 2021. Several other cases also concerned the restriction of freedom of expression. Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus on incitement of social hatred was widely imputed when the accused spoke negatively about law enforcement agencies, and for this they were detained.
Also, the same Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus has begun to be applied to those whose vision of the history of Belarus – especially the period of the Second World War and anti-Soviet resistance – contradicts official historiography, which largely echoes the Soviet narrative. On such charges, the leaders of the Polish minority in Belarus, Angelica Boris and Andrzej Poczobut, and the well-known artist Ales Pushkin are now in prison.
The unimpeded work of journalists
Back in June 2020, at the height of the presidential campaign, Belarusian publications were prohibited from conducting online public opinion polls on political preferences, equating them with «public opinion polls on the socio-political situation,» which, since 2012, can be conducted in Belarus only if there is special accreditation. This norm was enshrined in the new version of the Media Law in 2021. Since independent sociology has also been essentially destroyed in Belarus, Belarusians have nowhere to get information about the political preferences of their fellow citizens on the eve of the referendum.
Most of the representative offices of foreign media were deprived of their accreditation in Belarus in the fall of 2020. In the updated Law on the Media, foreign influence «will be minimized,» since media founders can no longer be foreign legal entities, foreign citizens or stateless persons or legal entities with a foreign stake. Given the total crackdown on the Belarusian media and information channels on social networks, there are no other options for journalists for work except for state or Russian media or working abroad in countries to where many editorial offices have been relocated.
On the eve of the upcoming constitutional referendum in 2022, Belarusians are deprived of the most important tools that the media and journalists can provide in democratic countries. Holding a referendum under these conditions contradicts the basic norms and rules adopted by international organizations, including the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, and developed in democratic countries.
The article was prepared by a participant of the SlovakAid scholarship program.
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