Expert issues warning over draft changes to Media Law

The government has drawn up a bill aimed at helping it tighten its grip on the media, the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) warned on Monday.

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In an interview with BelaPAN, Andrey Bastunets said that the BAJ had obtained a copy of the 19-page draft amendments to the Media Law from a standing committee in the House of Representatives.

The bill would allow news websites to obtain registration as a media organization, according to the expert. "The draft amendments say that websites that don't have the status of media outlet are still subject to the Media Law," he said. "That means that they would still be required to perform the duties stated in the law and may be subjected to punitive measures and be blocked but would not have the media's rights."

To qualify for the status of media organization, news websites would be required to have a chief editor with five years' experience of working in a leading position with a media outlet, and have an office in non-residential premises, said Mr. Bastunets.

In accordance with the bill, websites that do not have the status of media outlet would not be able to have their staff accredited with government and other agencies, while their staff would not enjoy journalists' rights.

The bill declares the information ministry's right to block and unblock access to websites without a court decision, said Mr. Bastunets.

In a major change, the amendments would require the moderation of comments on news websites and ban anonymous posts in comments sections.

Mr. Bastunets warned that the bill provided for the possibility of blocking social media.
In other provisions, the bill would require at least 30 percent of Belarusian TV channels' content to be domestically produced.

The bill stipulates that a media organization may be given a fine of up to 500 times the Base Rate for distributing information that is banned by laws.

The lower parliamentary chamber's committee has invited the BAJ to submit its comments and proposals concerning the bill before April 9. None of the organization's previous proposals is reflected in the amendments, Mr. Bastunets stressed. "Further efforts to restrict the activity of the media are underway," he said. "Basically everything is aimed at tightening the government's grip on the media."