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Freedom of expression stifled in Belarus, in media and on Internet, UN rights expert warns

GENEVA (6 November 2015) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus has called on the country to start reforming its laws and practices that have for two decades stifled its citizens' right to freedom of expression.

In his report to the General Assembly, Special Rapporteur Miklos Haraszti found that Belarusians’ rights to freedom of expression, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was being seriously curtailed. He congratulated the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature, Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, but regretted that her work has not been published in her country, illustrating how thoroughly freedom of opinion and information are suppressed by a barrage of punitive laws, administrative regulations, and governmental institutions.

“Critical opinion and fact-finding are curtailed by the criminalization of content that is deemed 'harmful for the State'; by criminal defamation and insult laws that protect public officials and the President in particular from public scrutiny; and by 'extremism' laws that ban reporting on political or societal conflicts," Haraszti said.

"Media pluralism is absent. Belarus is the only country in Europe with no privately owned nationwide broadcasting outlets. Media independence is rendered impossible through a permission-based system of registration and arbitrary rules regarding the revoking of licenses," he continued.

The Special Rapporteur said that until last year, Belarusians had benefited from a space of free expression on the Internet. However, amendments to the law on mass media, adopted in December 2014, have put practically all Internet-based forms of expression under direct government control, and authorized a long list of authorities to order Internet providers to block unwanted content.

The system-wide violations of the right to freedom of expression are further aggravated by the systematic harassment of journalists who challenge the denial of their rights. Short-term detention of reporters covering unauthorized events on the Internet is adding to the level of intimidation and self-censorship.

While commending the fact that the October 11 presidential election took place without violence, he deplored that the voters were deprived of the benefits of diverse media, which is crucial for an informed, free and fair competition.

"The road to free elections goes through pluralism, and the right to speak and to know,” the Special Rapporteur said.

"Belarus needs to engage in a broad reform of its oppressive media governance, in consultation with all media and civil society actors," Haraszti concluded. "An important part of compliance with its international human rights obligations is the need to change the laws on foreign media support and accreditation, which today obstruct and punish interaction,” he pointed out.

ENDS

To read the Special Rapporteur’s report, please visit: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/70/313

Mr. Miklós Haraszti (Hungary) was designated as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. In the 70s, Mr. Haraszti was a founder of Hungary’s human rights and free press movement, and in the 1990s he was a Member of the Hungarian Parliament. From 2004 to 2010, he served as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Since 2010, he has been a Professor at several universities teaching media democratisation. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/CountriesMandates/BY/Pages/SRBelarus.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Belarus: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/BYIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Alexandra Swetzer (+41 22 917 9401 / aswetzer@ohchr.org) or write to sr-belarus@ohchr.org.

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