Belarus sinks to worst rating in new global report on civic rights8 December, 2021
- Belarus downgraded from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ in civic rights rankings
- Attacks, harassment and imprisonment of government critics led to downgrade
- Media freedoms and civil society face persistent threats
Belarus has been downgraded from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ in a new report by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. According to the report, People Power Under Attack 2021, the pervasive silencing of government critics and protesters following mass protests around the disputed August 2020 presidential elections led to the downgrade.
‘Closed’ is the worst rating a country can receive by the CIVICUS Monitor. In reality, it means that an atmosphere of fear and violence prevails in Belarus, where people are routinely imprisoned and attacked for exercising their civic rights of association, free assembly and expression. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria are also rated closed.
Belarus has been a country of concern for some time; in February 2021 it was added to the CIVICUS Monitor ‘Watchlist’, a collection of countries where there has been a recent and rapid deterioration in civic freedoms. Belarus’ persistent failure to address these civic rights violations prompted the downgrade.
The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about ongoing reprisals against anti-government protesters who took to the streets last year when authoritarian President Lukashenko won a disputed sixth term. 35,000 protesters, activists and journalists were rounded up and arrested and there are currently nearly 900 political prisoners in Belarus. Few detainees have been released, and some have been sentenced to years behind bars, including well-known protest leader and opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova, recently sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Freedom of association barely exists in Belarus, and many opposition activists and government critics have been forced to leave the country to avoid persecution and even death. Belarusian exile and political activist Vitaly Shishov was found dead in a Ukrainian park in August; Shishov had helped other activists flee persecution and had previously received death threats. Initial investigations suggest Belarusian authorities were behind his homicide.
There is simply no space for dissenting voices during Lukashenko’s regime, and freedom of expression is vehemently suppressed. In June 2021, former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in a high-security penal colony. Barbaryka was found guilty of money-laundering and receiving bribes; he was also fined the equivalent of US$57,000 and ordered to pay more than US$18 million as compensation for the damage caused.
“These trumped-up, politically-motivated charges against an opposition candidate highlight the extreme lows to which the Belarusian regime will stoop, to stamp out free speech and extinguish dissent. The space to exercise human rights in Belarus has all but disappeared in recent years; the systemic harassment and intimidation of those who dare to speak out against Lukashenko highlights the bleak picture of civic rights in the country,” said Sylvia Mbataru, Eastern Europe Civic Space Researcher for CIVICUS.
The CIVICUS Monitor is also concerned that media freedoms are under threat in Belarus. In July, several journalists were detained and some news sites blocked, including the website Nasha Niva, one of the country's oldest independent newspapers. Four high-level editors from the outlet were arrested and the editor, Yegor Martinovich, sustained a head injury while being detained by police.
Earlier in the year, the president approved amendments to the laws on mass media and public events, prohibiting journalists from covering any protests that haven’t been sanctioned by the government. The media are also banned from publishing opinion polls "conducted without obtaining the necessary accreditation”.
In Belarus there has also been a sustained crackdown on freedom of association, with further assaults on civil society organisations. A so-called ‘Black Week’ of raids in July resulted in the shut-down of at least 40 rights groups, media organisations, NGOs and charities. Alexander Lukashenko apparently referred to the raid as a “mopping-up” operation against “bandits” and “foreign agents.”
“The sustained crackdown on civil society and the annihilation of press freedoms show why Belarus has sunk to the lowest level in the CIVICUS Monitor’s global ratings. With hundreds of political prisoners detained after anti-government elections, and death threats and risk of injury facing activists on a daily basis, the state of civic rights in Belarus is dismal,” said Mbataru.
This concerning picture in Belarus is mirrored across the world; CIVICUS Monitor data shows that year after year, there is significantly less space for people to exercise fundamental freedoms: only 3.1 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries rated as ‘open’.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Belarus is now rated ‘closed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 24 other countries that have this rating (see all). Visit Belarus’ homepage on the CIVICUS Monitor for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates.
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