Friday, October 24, 2014

Belarus: Detained over "extremist" literature, interrogated for reporting: Free speech violations in Belarus


23 October 2014
Belarusian Association of Journalists 

The following summary of free expression cases, written and compiled by The Belarusian Association of Journalists, documents the period from 25 August - 21 September 2014.

Journalists penalized for cooperation with foreign media

Within the reporting period of 25 August - 21 September, authorities continued with the administrative prosecution of freelance journalists for cooperating with foreign mass media without accreditation. A blatant precedent occurred in Mahilow when law enforcement agencies searched a journalist's flat, as well as that of his parents, only on the basis of his online publications on a foreign mass media website.

On 26 August, the central district court of Homel was supposed to consider the appeal of Mikola Bianko, who had complained about a warning issued by the first prosecutor's deputy of the Homel region. The journalist was accused of violating the law by producing material for Poland-based Radio Racyja without accreditation.

The journalist argued that the official's actions violated his constitutional rights and lawful interests. The judge rejected the appeal, claiming that the one-month period for appealing the prosecutor's decision had expired. The warning was issued to Mikola Bianko and his wife Yuliya Sivets on 5 March. He first complained against the warning to the regional and the general prosecutor's office. The regional prosecutor's office replied on 25 March and the general prosecutor's office replied on 25 May; both appeals were dismissed. The appeal to court was filed on May 29, which was within appeal terms, says Leanid Sudalenka, the lawyer of BAJ from Homel. The judge did not seem friendly, as she refused to hold the hearing in the Belarusian language, what the plaintiff had motioned for, and forbade Leanid Sudalenka to speak on the journalist's behalf, although he is able to be a representative of a BAJ member by law. The judge also forbade taking pictures.

Restrictions on arts reporting

On 27 August, an employee of the ideological department of the Hlybokaye District Executive Committee prevented a local journalist, BAJ member Zmitser Lupach, from working at a festival of Christian movies, Magnificat. The journalist had requested and got accreditation from the organizer of the festival. However, he was not allowed to enter the journalists' bus heading for the venue; the official representative claimed than the journalist did not have accreditation and could not go along with the other journalists.

Censorship of "extremist" literature

On 29 August, an anarchist movement activist, Raman Khlalilau, was summoned by police, who presented an administrative report against, him according to article 17.1 of the Administrative Code – “production, distributions and (or) storing extremist materials”. On 27 August, the activist was released from the first 10 days of his initial arrest – for resisting police officers. The same day, police came to his dormitory and confiscated his books, newspapers and leaflets. On 29 August, judge Artiom Biaskishski considered the case and concluded that the print materials confiscated from the activist were extremist. He then sentenced Khlalilau to 10 days of administrative arrest.

“From all the materials confiscated, only one leaflet was attached to the case materials; as for the rest, only their titles were written in the report; there is literature which does not even relate to politics – history books etc. At the trial, all titles were read aloud, and the judge said all of them belonged to extremist materials. And I stored them for distribution, so to say, for which I was arrested,” says Raman Khalilau. “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism”, leaflets “Nuclear station: all truth about danger. Anti-atom resistance”, “How to make a strike”, “Aims of anarchism in strategic plan”, newspaper Nasha Prauda (Our Truth), the book “Chernobyl Lessons” - these are some of the “extremist materials” mentioned in the report. Also, there was “a leaflet in German”.

Lawyer Pavel Sapielka says that the Law on Counteracting Extremism definitely explains what extremism, extremist actions and materials mean, and stipulates the procedure for how to assess print materials in respect to extremist content. The lawyer claims that the judge violated national legislation. The judge claimed by himself that the confiscated materials were extremist only by reading out titles in a 20-minute trial. He unjustly rejected the motion where the defendant said he wasn't going to distribute the materials. Besides, the punishment was the harshest in this case, which testifies to the biased attitude of the judge. Lawyer Pavel Sapielka is filing the appeal and he is sure it will be upheld by the Minsk City Court.

Reporters detained for covering civil society initiative

On 3 September, a group of TV journalists were detained near a metro station in Minsk at around 6:30 pm. They were producing a TV episode about an action by the organizational committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party. The people were collecting signatures for a petition to stop Russian TV channels being broadcast in Belarus. The activists and the journalists were taken to the police department of the Frunzenski district. The journalists, among them freelancer Viachaslau Piashko, were set free after interrogation, approximately three hours later. No administrative reports were drawn up.

Accreditation denied

At the 111th session, held from 7-25 July, the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations considered the case of "Maryna Koktysh against Belarus" (№1985/2010) referring to the obstacles that journalist Maryna Koktysh, of the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya in getting accreditation to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly (lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament).

In the autumn of 2007, Maryna Koktysh, who had previously been accredited at the House of Representatives of the National Assembly, was denied accreditation for the first time. The refusal was explained by a decision of the Presidential Security Service. From then on, the newspaper and the journalist tried to appeal against the refusal in courts of different levels, but to no avail.

Considering this case, the Human Rights Committee concluded that – by creating obstacles to the journalist in obtaining information – the government violated Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the freedom to seek, receive and impart information).

Arrested for interviewing activist

On 16 September, BAJ members and freelancers Natallia Valakaida and Ales Barasenka, as well as BelaPAN correspondent Siarhei Satsiuk, were detained for three hours after conducting an interview with Homel activist Yury Rubtsow, before his administrative trial over insulting a judge. The detention was performed by plain-clothed police, according to one of the detainees. They wanted to verify if the journalists were accredited. The journalists were set free three hours later, without any protocols.

Search and seizure

On the morning of 16 September, police approached Aliaksandr Burakow, an independent journalist from Mahilow, and announced they were going to search his flat. Five police officers and two witnesses entered Burakow's flat without waiting for an invitation. The process lasted for around an hour and was recorded with a video camera. The searches were sanctioned by the prosecutor's office of Mahilow city. The searches followed three publications on the website authored by Aliaksandr Burakow. As a result, the police seized two laptops belonging to the journalist's wife and two flashcards, ignoring the argument that the computers were not used by the journalist. Aliaksandr Burakow refused to sign the search report.

On the same day, the journalist was questioned by police; the questioning lasted around an hour and a half and was recorded with a video camera. Burakow was accused of violating article 22.9 of the Administrative Code – unlawful production and distribution of mass media products, and of violating article 35, part 4 of the Law on Mass Media – working for foreign mass media without accreditation. The journalist filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office against the police, over the seizure of four computers (two from his flat and the other two from his parents' flat).