Belarus media purge now reaching into propaganda apparatus
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a new escalation in Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s frenetic persecution of the media ever since his fraudulent election three years ago, an escalation in which even journalists working for the state media or media that usually toe the government line are now being targeted.
Yulia Davletova, a journalist with Ranak, a local TV channel in the small town of Svietlahorsk, surrendered to the police outside the door of her apartment on 3 August so that her children would not be shocked. She was released later the same day after being made to record a video repenting for her “errors” – a humiliating practice that the Belarusian police routinely use with journalists.
A prudent media outlet that had never directly contradicted the government’s version of events, Ranak had nonetheless been labelled as “extremist” and then closed a few weeks before as a result of its coverage of a fatal industrial accident in June, and some of its staff had spent a few days in prison.
“Three years after Lukashenko's fraudulent reelection in Belarus and his brutal crackdown on criticism, independent media like Ranak are now in the process of disappearing. Ranak was suddenly and summarily eliminated despite its use of a degree of self-censorship, which failed to protect it. As the government continues to step up its censorship, it is now carrying out a purge within its own media of those who fall under the slightest suspicion of a lack of loyalty. RSF denounces this latest round of destructive and authoritarian decisions by a regime that seems increasingly desperate.
In the state media, all it takes is a “bad” source or a wrong word to incur the government’s wrath, so they are short of (servile) staff. “There is a real need to replenish staff in the state media,” the dean of the state university’s journalism faculty told the state-owned TV channel BeITa on 4 August.
In the big southeastern city of Homiel, for example, the broadcaster Homiel and Radio Homiel FM are trying to recruit many people after two internal purges in November 2022 and May 2023. The reason given for one of the waves of firings was the broadcasting of a story based on a source listed by the authorities as “extremist.” This list, which gets longer by the day, has thousands of names and runs to more than 800 pages. They now include Vecherniy Brest, a moderately liberal newspaper, which joined the ranks of “extremist material” overnight without any explanation.
Andrei Pinchuk, the producer of many state TV programmes, was summoned and questioned by the police in early 2023. In the wake of this “preventive interview,” he was fired on suspicion of having criticised the authorities behind the scenes. This accusation is indicative of the climate of fear and constant surveillance prevailing within the media.
The punishment is much more terrible for those who openly stray from the official line. Three former state media employees who began freelancing or working for independent media – Kseniya Lutskina, Dzmitry Luksha and Dzmitry Semchanka – are now in prison. Their desertion from the ranks of government “spokespersons” was immediately punished.
Olga Gladka was a state TV manager who decided to work in a different sector just before the big street protests in August 2020. As a result of her bad timing, she was sentenced on 3 May 2023 to three years of house arrest.
In the summer of 2020, a wave of resignations drove the Belarusian propaganda TV outlets to appeal to their Russia allies for help. Those who responded included staff from the Russian state broadcaster RT, who filled the gaps left by employees who had left the Belarusian state TV and radio broadcaster BT.
In the months that followed, many of Belarus’ independent journalists fled the country because of the terrible crackdown. Nearly 500 Belarusian journalists are now living in exile, while 35 are being held in the regime’s prisons.
Three years after the crackdown began, Belarus is one of the world’s most hostile countries for journalists and is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.