Journalists who fled Belarus feel safer in Ukraine than at home
“Stay or flee?” Forced to flee Belarus by the Lukashenko regime’s crackdown on independent media, Belarusian journalists who sought refuge in Ukraine are again asking this question. After interviewing four of them, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on European countries to grant asylum to those seeking it, and calls on the Ukrainian authorities to ensure those who stay are protected.
What with bureaucratic traps and blocked bank accounts, in addition to the threats and bombardments, Belarusian journalists who fled to Ukraine to escape persecution in their own country are now facing new problems linked to the sanctions that Ukraine has imposed on Belarus as a Russian ally.
“Between staying in Ukraine, where they are exposed to the full impact of the war and the economic sanctions imposed on their country of origin, and starting over again by seeking refuge in another country with no certainty of obtaining a residence permit, the situation of Belarusian journalists is extremely precarious,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call on European leaders to adopt measures so that these journalists can find a refuge in their countries without risk of being sent back to Belarus. In addition, the Ukrainian authorities must put exceptional mechanisms in place to exclude these journalists from the economic sanctions imposed on Belarusian citizens in Ukraine.”
“I have no choice but to seek asylum”
As well as the difficult working conditions inherent to the war that all journalists in Ukraine must endure, their Belarusian colleagues face obstacles linked to their status as foreign citizens from a country allied with Russia.
“The problem for people like me who come from Ukraine but do not have its nationality is that we find ourselves in a legal vacuum,” RSF was told by Hleb Liapeika, a journalist with the Mediazona news site. He arrived in Lviv at the beginning of February after six months in Lithuania, and had planned to settle in the city until the war upset all of his plans. He is currently based in the Polish city of Krakow.
“On the day of the Russian invasion, 24 February, I didn't want to leave because the city of Lviv is far from the Russian border and I didn't have a visa to be able to leave Ukraine,” he told RSF. “But the next day, I changed my mind on the recommendation of colleagues. As the Polish border guards gave me a permit to enter Poland without asking me about my Belarusian nationality, I now have no choice but to apply for asylum.”
However, the procedures for applying for asylum or obtaining a long-term visa for a European Union country often prove to be long and the outcome is uncertain. This is why many Belarusian journalists choose to remain in Ukraine, where Belarusian citizens do not need a visa. As a result of the war, and the suspension of air traffic between the two countries, a specific reason must be given in order to be allowed to travel. Only Georgia and Armenia are also accessible without a visa for Belarusian journalists fleeing their country.
“All the money I had left to live on is blocked”
Belarusian journalists who have fled to Ukraine are also the collateral victims of the sanctions that the Ukrainian authorities have imposed on Belarus, a Moscow ally. All four journalists contacted by RSF confirmed that the Ukrainian central bank has blocked all bank accounts and bank cards held by Belarusian citizens, as it has with those held by Russian citizens.
“For my move to Ukraine, I transferred all the money I had left to live on into Ukrainian accounts,” said Ales Piletski, a photo-journalist who worked for Tut.by, the leading independent Belarusian media outlet. “Now everything is blocked. When I connect to my bank's app, my account no longer even appears.”
“Cash is the only possible form of payment, even for those who have a residence permit,” said Aliaksandr Mikruku, a photo-journalist still based in Kyiv as a correspondent for Belsat TV, a Belarusian TV news channel run by Belarusian exile journalists from a base in Poland. “Fortunately, colleagues and friends can help me.”
The journalist and blogger Sergei Prokhorov has also chosen to stay and keep working in Ukraine in order to cover the situation there, despite financial difficulties and complicated working conditions.
“The danger doesn’t come from the Ukrainians, even if there’s sometimes some mistrust towards Russian or Belarusian refugees like me, but from the bombardments and threats from the Russian occupation forces,” Prokhorov told RSF. “Although work opportunities are limited, I plan to stay in Ukraine and help as a journalist and as a civilian, maybe even participate in defence activity. I hope to be able to obtain Ukrainian citizenship after the war.”
“Despite the war, I feel safer here than in my native country”
None of the four journalists plans to return to Belarus. “Despite the war, I feel safer in Ukraine than in my native country,” Mikruku said. “Here, we can report what is happening without any problem, we can tell the truth. Our TV channel has an official local branch in Ukraine [unlike in Belarus, where it is banned]. If something similar to the Russian invasion had happened in Belarus, we would have had to hide from both the occupiers and our government. Here the Russians are waging a war against Ukraine. In my country, it is the authorities who are waging a ‘war’ against us, the journalists.”
Piletski was one of the victims of that violent and systematic crackdown. “In Belarus, I was constantly prevented from working by the authorities, who arrested me without reason, threatened me with imprisonment, or tried to confiscate my equipment. On 24 June 2020, masked people abducted me from the street, throttled me, put me in a van and beat me up before handing me over to the police, who asked me to surrender the photos I had taken during a demonstration.”
The situation of journalists in Belarus has worsened steadily ever since President Lukashenko’s disputed reelection in August 2020, and independent media are persecuted relentlessly by the authorities, as RSF documented in a report published jointly with the World Organisation Against Torture last year. A total of 34 media workers are currently detained arbitrarily in Belarus, almost all independent media outlets are banned, and circulating their “extremist” content is punishable by imprisonment.
Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, while Belarus is ranked 158th.