One step forward, two steps back. This is probably the best way to describe the relations that Belarus and the West have for decades. This time a new round of doubts in Belarus’ genuine desire to change was caused by the latest media crackdown.
Foreign Policy reviews the latest events in the country, including the strained relations with Russia, the arrests of journalists and subsequent trial of the editor in chief of the country’s most widely read news site, giving a potential scenario of how it may play out in the end.
“As relations with Russia sour, neighboring Belarus has been extending olive branches to the West in a bid to seek alternatives to Moscow’s iron embrace.
But an ongoing criminal case against the editor in chief of the country’s most widely read news site has called into question whether Minsk is committed to reforms that are more than just cosmetic.”
The American news website refers to the Belarusian Association of Journalists that described 2018 as one of the worst years for independent media in Belarus.
This is mostly due to the consequences of the BelTA case – the prosecution against editors and journalists of several independent media accused of unauthorized access to the paid section of the state news agency.
Despite the fact most of the charges were later dropped, the criminal case against Marina Zolotova, the editor in chief of TUT.BY has escalated.
The charges – as with those of the other journalists accused earlier – are widely seen as being politically motivated,” Amy Mackinnon, the author of the article, notes.
She also stresses that if Marina Zolotova were to be imprisoned, it would likely be a setback in the relationship between Belarus and the West.
Playing the good guy
Thus, “they try to make what they did look less damaging in the eyes of the West, so it’s now not 15 journalists that are charged but only one, so it’s not a mass clampdown on journalism.”
As a result, the tactic of punishing changed from traditional “putting people in prison and creating icons for politicians in Europe” to short-term arrests and financial fines.
“They understand that it is a red line, so they play in a more subtle way,” said Ulad Vialichka, the chairman of the international consortium EuroBelarus.
In this regard the article can’t but recall Belarus’ dependency on Russian energy resources and its shift from close interstate friendship to a more neutral position right after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“Since then, Belarus, once a pariah state, has taken a number of steps to woo the West. Peaceful if uncompetitive elections and the release of political prisoners in 2015 prompted the European Union and the United States to lift sanctions.
Foreign journalists and tourists from dozens of countries no longer need to apply for a visa to visit, and last month it was announced that Belarus would lift a longstanding cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed to serve in the country.”
Tightening the screws
“Despite Belarus’s cautious opening up, power ultimately remains in the same hands as before, and the country’s politics remain unchanged,” Ulad Vialichka, the chairman of the international consortium EuroBelarus, explains.
The latest laws aimed at controlling the media by have not passed unnoticed too.
“Print and broadcast media are tightly controlled by the state, while the internet has remained largely free, but a spate of new laws passed last year look set to change that.
New legislation now requires online media entities to register with the state – as is required of print and broadcast outlets. Another law passed last summer allows for the criminal prosecution of those who spread fake news online.”
Failure to register means news outlets won’t be able to get comment from state agencies and protect their sources. Besides, when reporting on protests, unregisteres journalists can be treated as demonstrators, arrested and fined.
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Trying to find a reason for ‘tightening the screws’ the magazine recalls the oncoming parliamentary and presidential election in Belarus in 2019-2021.
“State media perform poorly online compared to their independent counterparts, and one possibility is that the authorities are looking to improve the standing of the state-run outlets ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.”
In a comment to Foreign Policy Zolotova said: “If independent media is vacated, that space will not be filled by government publications. Or if it is, they will be from a different government.”
Zolotova notes that not only does the attack on independent media undermine Minsk’s courtship of the West, but it also leaves Belarus more susceptible to propaganda from Moscow.
Recall that Marina Zolotova’s trial will start on Tuesday, 12 February. BelarusFeed is a project of TUT.BY.