Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarus continues its persecution of independent media outlets and their reporters.
Belarus’ media have never been more repressed by the authorities than since the controversial reelection of Alexander Lukashenko as head of state in August 2020. The most popular news website, Tut.by, had its media status withdrawn and was blocked, raided and searched. It was also subjected to criminal proceedings, before being labelled as “extremist” and de facto banned. Most independent media outlets have suffered similar fates. Some continue to publish from abroad. Only the state broadcaster BTRC continues to operate normally, pumping out the regime’s propaganda.
To silence independent journalists, the authorities have used censorship, violence and mass arrests, they have conducted coordinated raids on homes and media offices, and they disbanded the Association of Belarusian Journalists (BAJ). They even resorted to hijacking a passenger jet in May 2021 in order to arrest opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and force him to make a “confession” on state TV.
The Belarusian authorities have developed laws to provide a legal veneer to their attacks on press freedom. The justice system, under complete government control, has begun equating independent journalism with “extremism”, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Most independent media outlets and the BAJ have been officially declared “extremist”.
The vast majority of Belarusian independent media outlets are now either operating from outside the county or have been forced to cease publishing. They are now mainly financed by external grants. Before 2020, they also benefited from advertising revenue.
Belarus is the world’s fifth biggest jailer of journalists, and it stands out for having a high number of female journalists behind bars. They include Katsiaryna Andreyeva who was initially sentenced to two years in prison in February 2021 for filming an unauthorised demonstration and then again in 2022 to eight years on a charge of “high treason”, as well as Maryna Zolatava, the editor of the leading independent media outlet, Tut.by. This readiness to jail women marks the end of a somewhat traditional patriarchal indulgence by the authorities, who were surprised by the prominent role of women in the post-election protests.
According to the BAJ, some 400 journalists have been forced to flee the country, and most of those who have stayed work clandestinely. Targeted by the Belarusian authorities, they are arrested, searched, sometimes assaulted, and mistreated in prison. This systematic harassment leaves deep psychological scars.