Belarusian authorities turn their sights on press freedom defenders
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns yesterday’s orchestrated offensive against press freedom defenders in Belarus, consisting of police raids on the premises of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), RSF’s partner organization, and the homes of several BAJ members and journalists.
This large-scale operation began on the morning of 16 February when police searched BAJ headquarters in the capital, Minsk, and then placed a seal on its entrance. Searches were also carried out on the homes of three BAJ representatives and six journalists in Minsk, Homyel, Rechytsa and Mahilyow.
In Minsk, police searched the home of BAJ vice-president and spokesperson Barys Haretski from top to bottom. When BAJ president Andrei Bastunets received a visit from the police shortly thereafter, he was arrested and taken to BAJ headquarters before being released. The police also entered the apartment of another BAJ vice-president, Aleh Aleyeu, where they seized computer equipment after a thorough search.
“The Belarusian authorities have taken their coercive strategy to a new level and are now targeting press freedom defenders,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “RSF condemns these attacks on its local partner and calls on the UN’s special rapporteurs, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, and European Union institutions to react to this wave of arbitrary searches and to implement RSF’s recommendations for ending the spiralling repression.”
In the eastern city of Homyel, the police seized all of the computers and phones of freelance journalist Yauhen Merkis’s family during a search of his father’s home. In a search of freelance reporter Larysa Shchyrakova’s home that lasted more than three hours, the police confiscated equipment and material and questioned her about videos, photos, the contents of her storage devices and her financial resources.
The human rights group Viasna and two representatives of the Radio and Electronic Industries Union (REP) were also targeted during yesterday’s raids. Belarus’s Investigative Committee said the operation was carried out as part of a preliminary investigation into “funding or organizing actions posing a serious threat to public order” (article 342 of the penal code).
As yesterday’s searches were taking place, a second hearing was held in the trial of Daria Chultsova and Katsyarina Andreyeva, two journalists working for Belsat, the Belarusian exile TV channel based in neighbouring Poland, who are charged under article 342.
Ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.