What's In Blue

Arria-formula Meeting on Media Freedom in Belarus

Tomorrow (22 January), there will be an Arria-formula meeting, held via videoconference, on media freedom in Belarus. The meeting is being organised by Council members Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US, and co-sponsored by non-Council members Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, Urmas Reinsalu, will chair the meeting. The keynote speech will be delivered by Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition presidential candidate, will deliver introductory remarks. Expected briefers include: Pavel Latushko, a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council Presidium and the Head of the National Anti-Crisis Management (one of whose goals is the “stabilization of the country’s governance system after the transfer of power to the people”); Gareth Browne, a journalist from The Times (UK); and a journalist from an independent Belarusian media outlet.

Following interventions by Council members, other UN member states will be able to make statements, time permitting. The meeting will be live-streamed on the YouTube channel of the Estonian Mission to the UN at 9 am EST.

According to the concept note prepared by the co-organisers, the core objective of the meeting is to provide participants with first-hand accounts of the violations of media freedom in Belarus, with a focus on human rights violations.

Belarus is still dealing with the fallout of the 9 August 2020 presidential elections in which the incumbent president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, claimed victory.  Tsikhanouskaya, who was the main opposition candidate, rejected the election results, maintaining that they were fraudulent. Since then, opposition supporters have been organising regular peaceful demonstrations in the capital (Minsk) and other cities. Government security forces have at times cracked down violently on the protests, with numerous reports of imprisonment and torture of demonstrators, as well as of members of the media.

To address the political crisis, Lukashenko has promised constitutional reforms to be decided in a referendum by the end of this year. He had earlier indicated that he would step down after a new constitution is approved. The opposition continues to demand Lukashenko’s immediate resignation and views reform proposals by the government as a stalling tactic. Russia has openly advocated for constitutional reforms in Belarus, but it has stressed the need to achieve this without outside interference in the internal affairs of the country. The US, UK and EU have imposed a series of sanctions targeting government officials and other entities in connection with the violent repression of protesters in Belarus. These countries have not recognised the results of the 2020 presidential elections due to serious irregularities and fraud in the process.

The concept note cites the recent report by Reporters Without Borders, which characterised Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, more than 360 journalists have been detained since 9 August. In addition to cracking down on local journalists, the Belarusian authorities have revoked the press accreditation of journalists working for foreign media organisations in the country.

Tsikhanouskaya has indicated in a media release that she will speak to Council members about several prominent ongoing cases of incarcerated journalists and other jailed members of the opposition. She is expected to advocate for an international investigation into crimes committed by the Lukashenko regime and call for a formal meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Belarus. (The Arria-formula is an informal meeting format). Some members might be interested to hear more from Tsikhanouskaya on what role the Council could play in the current situation in Belarus.

The meeting is envisioned as a follow up to the 4 September Arria-formula meeting on the human rights situation in Belarus. Tomorrow the briefers are likely to maintain a focus on human rights violations against the protesters and members of the media. They are expected to draw attention to the large number of protesters and journalists that have been detained, as well as those who are still missing amid the crackdown by the Belarusian security forces.

To date, discussions of the situation in Belarus among Council members have been limited to informal meetings. In addition to the September 2020 Arria-formula meeting, Council members have discussed this issue under “any other business” on two occasions, in August and again in November.

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