The International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest journalists' organisation representing more than 450,000 members worldwide, today protested against attempts to curb access to information and freedom of expression in Belarus.
The IFJ warns that the Draft law On Information Security is a confused and complex regulation that will diminish people's rights to know and amounts to a new assault on media freedom.
"The law says very little about the citizen's right to access to information but makes detailed and complex provisions on how to control information in all forms of media," according to IFJ Director of Projects, Bettina Peters.
"Reviewing the details of the law one cannot avoid the impression that the intent is to further control information," she said.
The IFJ says that the draft should be withdrawn and the Belarus government should aim to create conditions for open and transparent government. The IFJ member organisation in Belarus, the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), has strongly opposed the law.
The problem for the IFJ and Belarus journalists is that while the draft law in Clause 2.2 states that citizens have the right to access to information, subsequent clauses limit this right considerably. In particular, there is a plan to establish special authorities with the power to deal with so-called "harmful information".
The definition of what constitutes "harmful information" is vague and could be used to stifle legitimate media criticism of the authorities and others. The definition includes "lowering a person's mind to a more primitive level through information", information from "religious destructive organisations" or stereotypes. In addition, state authorities would have power to "detect and counteract" so called "information attacks" on "critical information facilities in the sphere of state administration, military (…) and other vital spheres (…)".
There is no independent structure to which journalists threatened with the new law could appeal. Nor does the law foresee an independent authority to verify the classification of "harmful information" or "critical information facilities". This power rests with the President of the Republic.
"The draft law is a confused, complex and incoherent and constitutes a further attack on media freedom and moves towards state control of information in Belarus," says the IFJ. "It goes against the movement world-wide towards more open government and we call on the Belarus government to withdraw it."
The IFJ and its regional group the European Federation of Journalists have been campaigning vigorously for freedom of information for a number of years. Its protests over the new draft law are also being made to the OSCE and the Council of Europe.
The IFJ says that Belarus should join other European countries in opening up the process of government to public scrutiny. A statement adopted at a European journalists' conference in Dublin five years ago set out the following principles on access to information:
Everyone has the right to obtain information from public authorities.
The state must designate in law clearly and narrowly defined categories of information that it is necessary to withhold in order to protect public security and welfare or in equally well defined personal areas to protect the sanctity of private life.
In all laws and decisions concerning the right to obtain information, the public interest in knowing the information shall be a primary consideration.
Appropriate measures to give effect to the right to obtain information. These measures shall require the authorities, if they deny a request for information, to specify their reasons for doing so in writing and as soon as reasonably possible, and shall provide for a right of review of the merits and the validity of the denial by an independent authority, including some form of judicial review.
No official may be prosecuted, reprimanded or suffer any loss of status for giving information to the public or to media, when such information is given in the public interest.
Information that is directly available must be given immediately, all other information as soon as possible.
Once information has been made public, even through illegal means, any justification for trying to stop further publication will be overridden by the public's right to know.
"These are the principles that Belarus must follow if it wants to create a society that is open and democratic," said Bettina Peters