Mr. Chairperson, Excellences, ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour to address the Arria Formula meeting of the UN Security Council on the critical issue of media freedom in Belarus.
Freedom of opinion and expression enables the enjoyment of many other human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association and participation. The enjoyment of these rights is critical to democracy, peace and security.
At the heart of freedom of expression is the right to seek, receive and share information and ideas of all kinds, by all means and across borders. It is an individual’s right and also a collective right of society.
Free, uncensored and unhindered media is an essential part of that collective and individual right. Media freedom is a public good. Independent journalists provide a service to society and deserve to be protected – not targeted.
The safety of journalists is a good barometer by which to measure the health of human rights in a country. An attack on media freedom is a strong indicator that other political and civil rights are also being violated and that dissenting voices are being throttled. Neither human rights nor peace and security can thrive when journalists live in fear of imprisonment or retaliation for just doing their job.
Media restrictions in Belarus are not a new phenomenon. However, since the massive protests following the contested Presidential election in August last year, independent media has been under severe attack.
As noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than four hundred journalists were arrested last year, many of them violently attacked, mistreated, harassed or placed in administrative detention. All for simply doing their job as journalists - reporting about peaceful demonstrations for democracy.
In August last year, the internet was shut down and access to social media disrupted, depriving people of their right to access information. Twenty international media correspondents were stripped of their accreditation, and independent media outlets and websites blocked. Our communication to the Government at that time was blunt and clear: such actions are incompatible with its human rights obligations under international law.
In recent months, there are reports of an emerging pattern of targeted and more severe attacks against independent media. Journalists, bloggers and other media workers continue to be arrested, convicted, fined and imprisoned. Some are released hours later, others are detained for longer periods, or confronted subsequently with severe additional charges, including organizing or participating in unsanctioned events. One journalist is reportedly being held in pre-trial detention for “disclosure of confidential medical information” and “false information” when in effect she was investigating the violent death of a peaceful protestor.
Journalism is being criminalized. On the one hand, no attack on a journalist has been investigated or prosecuted. On the other hand, the full force of criminal law is being brought to bear on journalists and media outlets - punishing those who dare to report and chilling others into silence.
I am concerned that vague laws and a weak justice system are being used to muzzle media that defy the official line. A recent example is of five Press Club journalists who have been detained and charged for alleged tax evasion. Another is the Minsk court decision last December to revoke the media license of the online channel and website Tut.BY.
Meanwhile there are reports that the print media is being driven out of business by the refusal of state printing houses and the postal system to serve them.
Around the world, journalists play a critical role around the world in exposing violations and promoting accountability. Silencing them entrenches impunity, encourages more human rights violations and risks a downward spiral.
I urge the Government of Belarus to uphold its international obligations and release all journalists and others who are being detained unlawfully for exercising their right to freedom of expression, assembly and participation, and to remove the restrictions on independent media. I encourage the Government to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus and myself to visit the country.
Let me conclude by recalling UN Security Council Resolution 2222 (2015) which affirms a free, independent and impartial media as one of the essential foundations of a democratic society.
Protecting free media is a pre-condition for democracy and enjoyment of human rights. It is essential for the pursuit of peace and security. The people of Belarus demand and deserve no less.