Belarusian authorities now stepping up criminal charges against journalists
After more than five months of systematic press freedom violations, the Belarusian authorities are now stepping up pressure on the media by bringing criminal prosecutions against journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) are referring arbitrary arrests to the United Nations.
The harassment of journalists that began after the fraudulent presidential election on 9 August 2020 has taken a more threatening turn since the start of 2021, with journalists facing trumped-up criminal charges that could lead to several years in prison.
Six of the ten journalists currently held in Belarus are the subject of criminal investigations – a disturbing situation that has led RSF and BAJ to refer a total of 15 serious cases of arbitrary arrests to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
Change of tactic
“The Belarusian authorities are pursuing a new tactic in which they permanently lock up journalists to prevent them from covering the protests, which have continued for more than five months despite the crackdown,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Those who were being fined and jailed for up to 15 days on ‘administrative’ charges are now facing the possibility of several years in prison. The ridiculously thin veneer of legality surrounding these criminal proceedings fails to conceal the reality, which is that Alexander Lukashenko is waging a terrible war against the media and free speech. Every possible pressure must be put on this regime to get it to free the journalists and end these abuses.”
Andrei Alyaksandrau, who was the deputy director of BelaPAN, the country's oldest independent news agency, from 2015 to 2018 and who is now a freelancer, was arrested on 12 January. The Investigative Committee accuses him of financing protests and has initiated proceedings under article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code. Alyaksandrau was not allowed to see his lawyer until two days after his arrest, allegedly because of the coronavirus pandemic. On 14 January, security forces spent three hours searching the editorial office of the news agency. They took away various documents as well as 12 hard drives, “paralyzing” the agency's work, according to its director.
Criminal proceedings under article 342 ("organization and preparation of acts grossly violating public order or active participation in them") were opened as well on 12 January against Belsat reporters Katsyarina Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova. Both have been in custody since mid-November.
Tut.by journalist Katsyarina Barysevich has been held in an intelligence agency prison for just as long. She had reported on the death of an opposition figure who was beaten to death under unexplained circumstances after his arrest. Barysevich quoted a doctor as saying that no alcohol had been detected in the 31-year-old's blood, contrary to what authorities claimed. She is now a suspect in the criminal case against the doctor.
Crackdown on Belarus Press Club
Six members of the independent Belarus Press Club were arrested on 21 December. They were founder and chairwoman Yulia Slutskaya, finance director Siarhei Alsheuski, academy director Siarhei Yakupau, programme director Alla Sharko, cameraman Petr Slutski, and TV journalist Ksenia Lutskina, who used to work for state television and wanted to set up an independent TV station together with the Press Club.
Several private apartments and the offices of the Press Club were searched. A case has been opened against Slutskaya for large-scale tax evasion, and the other detainees have been charged with aiding and abetting. Yakupau was released on 31 December and was deported to Russia. He has been banned from returning to Belarus for the next ten years.
Eight other journalists are currently the subject of criminal proceedings without being detained. They include Perchy Region website reporter Siarhei Gardzievich, who is under house arrest in the southwestern town of Drahichyn on a charge of “insulting the president.” Yury Dziashuk, a freelancer arrested on 20 January in the western city of Lida, was released after 72 hours but is being prosecuted on charge of disturbing public order.
The list of journalists being prosecuted is liable to get longer. In the southwestern city of Brest, the apartments of the publisher and editor of the online magazine Binokl and the magazine’s offices were “inspected” by the financial police yesterday on suspicion of “large-scale tax evasion.”
As well as these criminal prosecutions, a new “administrative code” is increasing the sentences and fines for “administrative” offences. The penalty for repeated participation in unauthorized demonstrations – a charge widely used against journalists covering protests – will increase from 15 to 30 days in prison on 1 March, while the fine for “disobeying the police” – another charge often brought against journalists – will also double.
Harassment of independent online media
Tut.by, the Belarusian news site with the widest reach, lost its status as a mass media outlet for good on 19 January. After the 9 August presidential election, the information ministry warned Tut.by several times for alleged violations of the media law. In early October, the minister responsible for the media withdrew the site's status as a mass medium for an initial three months (its editor-in-chief Maryna Zolotova describes the situation in this video). A court in Minsk upheld this decision on 3 December. An appeal by Tut.by against the ruling has now been rejected.
Internet portals in Belarus have had the option of registering as media since the media law was tightened in mid-2018. This gives their employees special rights – on paper, at least – when it comes to reporting demonstrations as well as protecting their sources. The portal Tut.by, which was founded in 2000, was registered as a mass media in January 2019 and intends to continue its work even without this status. But it could be censored, as the information minister threatened on 19 January.
Several Belarusian Internet service providers have meanwhile begun blocking the “mirror sites” that were created to circumvent the blocking of the Gazeta.by news website that began on 9 August.
Ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, who has managed to be reelected as president in the first round every five years, Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.