Charter’97 Editor-in-Chief met with the representatives of the largest human rights organization in Sweden.
The Civil Rights Defenders wrote about the outcome of this meeting on their website.
The world marked the International Freedom of Press Day on May 3. Yet, all around the world, these freedoms are undermined, ignored and rejected. Journalists are targeted, harassed, jailed, and even murdered. As late as two weeks ago, new draconian draft amendments were introduced to the media law in Belarus, leaving journalists in an increasingly precarious situation.
The representatives of the largest human rights organization of Sweden Civil Rights Defenders met with Natallia Radzina – the Belarusian journalist who has seen first-hand what repressive media legislation can result in. Natallia is the chief editor of Charter’97 – one of the oldest and largest independent websites in Belarus. On 24 January this year, the website was blocked by the Belarusian government.
«Lukashenka has always been fighting independent journalists, and for years he has been demolishing freedom of speech and any manifestation of dissidence in Belarus. He is now trying to «mop-up» the Internet,» - Natallia says.
There is almost no remaining independent media in the country, and the authorities constantly undermine press freedoms and the right to freedom of expression. In the World Press Freedom Index 2018, Belarus was listed as 155 out of 180 countries.
The Charter’97 team has for a long time suffered a heavy prize for raising their voices to freely speak out about the situation in Belarus. Already back in 2010, before the presidential elections, the website became a target of president Lukashenka. At this time, Andrei Sannikov, one of the founders of Charter’97, was running against Lukashenka in the presidential elections.
«Lukashenka realized the significance of the Internet and decided to demolish freedom here as well. And he started with us, the most popular website. In 2010, founder of our website Aleh Biabenin was murdered; four criminal cases had been initiated against us; we suffered through multiple police searches and assaults on the editor office, when they confiscated all the equipment. During one of the police searches, I was beaten by the police officers in civilian clothes. Finally, on the election day of December 19, 2010 all the journalists of the editor’s office were detained, while I was arrested in the criminal case. However, we sustained, and continued working from abroad,» - Natallia says.
As a response to the human rights violations perpetrated by the Belarusian regime in 2010, the European Union decided to put up sanctions. However, two years ago, the sanctions were lifted without any systemic improvements to the human rights situation.
«Even in 2017, after the massive protests against the “parasite tax”, the West failed to provide any serious reaction. It seemed that the lack of response was possibly a way of justifying the lifted sanctions against the Lukashenka dictatorship. Apart from the mass arrests of the participants of peaceful demonstrations (about 1 000 people were arrested in Spring-2017), more than 100 journalists were subjected to repressions, freelancers were detained and fined, criminal cases were started against bloggers, and there are political prisoners in the country – still no reaction,» - says Natallia Radzina.
One year after the sanctions were lifted, Civil Rights Defenders released a report based on numerous interviews and surveys carried out with Belarusian human rights defenders. The data established that no fundamental progress had been made when it came to civil and political rights in Belarus.
«There should be a severe reaction, there should be protest statements against what is happening in Belarus. But first we need concrete actions – sanctions. They help, and political prisoners were released precisely because sanctions were implemented. As soon as the sanctions are suspended, the repressions become worse again,» - says Natallia.
Despite the crackdown on media freedoms over the last decade, online media has been one of few avenues for free speech in Belarus. In recent years, however, also this space has shrunk.New repressive provisions to the media law have been drafted, and independent media such as the Charter’97 website have been blocked by the authorities.
«The journalists live in a very difficult situation, under constant pressure from the authorities. One example is the journalists who contribute to foreign media, including Belarusian media working from abroad. They are all forced to work as freelancers as it is almost impossible to get accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a result, people who have been denied accreditation and work as freelancers are persecuted and detained at demonstrations,» - Natallia Radzina says.
With the newly drafted amendments to the media law on the table, journalists in Belarus risk being hit with new repressive legislation designed to further curtail freedom of expression and silence critical voices, in particular online.
«The amendments that the authorities are preparing will introduce even broader control over the Internet, and the comments of the readers and the online social media in particular,» - the Editor-in-Chief of Charter’97 says.