Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an end to all harassment of the media in Belarus after more than 60 journalists were arrested in the past few days and 19 were stripped of their accreditation. RSF regards these measures as an unwarranted attempt to intimidate journalists and gag the media.
On the eve of a major demonstration on 30 August calling for new elections, the foreign ministry withdrew the press accreditations of 19 journalists working for foreign media outlets including Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, the German public broadcaster ARD and Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Two days before that, the police in Minsk arrested around 50 journalists in the space of a few hours on the evening of 27 August. A first wave of arrests came at around 6 p.m. in Svoboda Square, where reporters had gathered ahead of a demonstration. Around 20 were picked up and taken to a police station. Less than two hours later, another ten or so journalists in Independence Square were made to board a bus and turn off their phones.
BelaPan journalist Tatsiana Karavenkova had to be rushed to hospital after suffering a hypertensive attack in the police station. At least five journalists working for the Warsaw-based Belarusian exile TV channel Belsat were arrested, including Maksim Harchanok, who was held overnight. In the southwestern city of Brest, Stanislau Korshunum, a journalist with the independent media outlet Tut.by, was arrested while doing a report on a petition for a parliamentarian’s removal.
The foreign media were not spared. In Minsk, Swedish ambassador Christina Johannesson went in person to Oktyabrskiy district police station to inquire about Paul Hansen, a Swedish journalist who won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 2012. Hansen was released but had to leave Belarus and is now banned from returning for the next five years.
These arrested also included several journalists working for the BBC, Radio Svaboda and RFE/RL’s Belarusian service, as well as Agence France-Presse journalist Sergei Gapon and a two-member crew working for the German TV channel ZDF – producer Yuri Rylov and cameraman Sergei Tkachenko.
Most of the detained journalists were released as soon as their papers had been checked. But many of them had their material seized.
Those who refused to hand over their cameras or phones were kept in detention. They included Belsat’s Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Maksim Harchanok, the photographer Aliaksandr Vasiukovich, and Andrei Yarashevich of Nastoyashee Vremia, a Russian-language TV broadcaster operated jointly by RFE/RL and Voice of America. After a court postponed examination of their cases, they were finally released on the afternoon of 28 August.
Another 11 journalists were arrested on 29 and 30 August, but most were quickly released.
“Preventing foreign media from working and intimidating journalists by means of arbitrary and widespread arrests will not resolve the current political crisis,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call on the Belarusian authorities, who are trying to create an information vacuum, to stop the judicial proceedings against journalists, to immediately return all confiscated material and to respect article 198 of the penal code, which penalizes obstructing the work of journalists.”
After just a week’s respite, arrests had resumed on 21 and 22 August with the detention of two journalists covering protests and the deportation of two reporters for RFE/RL’s Russian service.
Ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been reelected in the first round every five years, Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.