Belarus has been flying under the radar lately, but reforms are not standing still. Following a secret ballot, the parliament passed a new legislation in the first reading that will give the goverment greater control over media.
Civil society has several issues with the law as its been written up, but primarily it is that the law gives the government the right to shut down a media outlet after the first warning – one mistake and your are out!
Others have complained that the law would also apply to online media – and the Internet is the only place in Belarus where alternative voices are heard. The explanation is simple
However, Liliya Ananich, first deputy information minister, said in May that her ministry favored a registration requirement for online media outlets, as “there is a problem of disinformation flows” from abroad. According to Ananich, such a problem has been successfully tackled by China, “which has cut off access to its territory for such sites.”
The law also gives the government a right to punish those media outlets that distribute false information that causes damage to the public. This is something the government has already addressed in the past (for example by passing a law that includes criminal prosecution of discrediting the country).
The problem of course is that in a weak rule of law climate who is to say what is a false piece of information and how can you dispute accusations?
In many emerging markets, new rules to control the media are sometimes well-reasoned, but the implementation of those laws more often than not has a political context (i.e. punishing the opposition rather than ensuring freedom of information). Figuring out how to beef up voluntary ethical standards within media may be an alternative to restricting laws and regulations. An alternative that I doubt the government of Belarus will consider…