New wave of fines for Belarusian journalists

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a campaign of intimidation of independent journalists in Belarus, in which the victims are being fined for working for media outlets based outside the country, and calls on the government to put a stop to this judicial harassment.

The latest victims include Kastus Zhukouski, who was fined 1,150 roubles (510 euros) on 11 July on a charge of working for a foreign media outlet without accreditation with the ministry of foreign affairs.

This was the 26th fine to be imposed on a journalist since the start of the year under article 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which penalizes the “illegal production and/or distribution of media content.” Combined, the 26 fines amount to 19,849 roubles (9,000 euros).

The most frequent targets have been journalists working for Belsat TV, a satellite TV channel that covers Belarus from a base in neighbouring Poland. Zhukouski is one of 12 Belsat TV journalists who have been fined under this article since the start of the year.

Belsat TV has had to operate from outside the country since 2007. It has repeatedly tried with out success to open a bureau in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. As a result, its correspondents in Belarus have to work without accreditation.

“The sole aim of this new campaign of intimidation is to step up the existing pressure on independent journalists in Belarus,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“The European Union must remind President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime that respect for media freedom is an essential condition for rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels. Minsk must stop denying the facts. Its officials claim that the country enjoys media pluralism. It is time to turn this claim into reality.”

Crackdown despite official denials

In an opening address to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual session in Minsk on 5 July, President Lukashenko said, “Belarus' mass media space develops vigorously” and likened the “alleged infringement of mass media freedom in Belarus” to a “cliché from the old arsenal.”

The reality is very different. Amid major anti-government protests, the persecution of independent journalists and media has intensified in recent months, and more than 100 journalists and bloggers were arrested in March.

Police raided one of Belsat TV’s unofficial bureaux in Minsk on 31 March, seizing equipment. The TV station’s journalists thought the raid was designed above all to prevent coverage of the protests.

Economic pressure

This year’s wave of fines follows a relative let-up in 2016. In addition to the 26 fines for “working without accreditation,” there have been at least 13 other abusive fines on charges of “hooliganism,” “participating in an unauthorized demonstration” or “resisting the police.” In most cases, the size of the fine is more than the journalist’s monthly earnings.

So far this year, Belsat TV jounrnalists have accumulated nearly 7,900 euros in fines and more than 30 days in detention. This economic pressure is all the more worrying after the Polish government’s announcement in May that it plans to cut more than two-thirds of Belsat TV’s funding.

According to the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), an RSF partner, there have been at least 147 violations of journalists’ rights in Belarus since the start of the year. Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 14.07.2017