Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sounds the alarm about the oppressive climate for media freedom in Belarus just days ahead of its presidential election on 9 August and condemns the systematic arrests of journalists covering demonstrations during the campaign – harassment that the prosecutor-general is refusing to investigate.
Although more than 40 journalists have been arrested during the past two and a half months of election campaigning, the prosecutor-general announced on 24 July that he would not investigate the way their reporting had been obstructed. This “falls under the exclusive competence of the authorities responsible for the initial investigation,” he said.
His statement came three days after more than 200 journalists addressed an open letter to him, the interior minister, the information minister and the president of the Council of the Republic calling for an end to the persecution to which they have been subjected in recent weeks.
“The aim of this extraordinary harassment has been to prevent journalists from covering the unprecedented campaigns against President Alexander Lukashenko’s reelection,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“The events of the past few months have shown the authorities ready to do anything to gag independent media. We call for impartial investigations with the aim of prosecuting those guilty of the crime of obstructing the work of journalists, which is penalized by article 198 of the Belarusian criminal code.”
Cavelier added: “The authorities also have a duty to guarantee the media landscape’s pluralism and the right of independent and foreign media to report and express their views with complete safety during the election period, in accordance with Belarus’ international obligations as a member of the OSCE.”
On 23 July, President Lukashenko urged the foreign ministry to rescind foreign media accreditation without waiting until the end of the campaign. The next day, the electoral commission announced that only state media would have access to Government House, the seat of the Belarusian parliament, to cover the election on 9 August.
The reporting environment for journalists working for independent media, which are constantly targeted by the authorities, has deteriorated steadily as rallies kept on being held in support of opposition candidates.
An initial wave of arrests took place at the start of May, during demonstrations organized in Minsk and provincial cities by Siarhei Tikhanouski, an outspoken blogger who was subsequently prevented from being a candidate. Four reporters were sentenced to between 10 and 21 days in prison for “participating in an unauthorized demonstration.”
A second wave of arrests came on 19 and 20 June, just after the deadline for would-be presidential candidates to collect the necessary signatures. The police arrested freelancers and reporters for independent and foreign media including Reuters, Radio Svaboda (RFE/RL’s Belarusian service), the Belarusian exile radio station Euroradio, the news sites Tut.by and Onliner.by and the local newspaper Hantsavichy Chas.
The aggressiveness towards journalists peaked in mid-July, during spontaneous demonstrations in support of two would-be opposition presidential candidates who had just been barred from running by the electoral commission. Sixteen reporters were summarily arrested and one, a reporter for Radio Svaboda, had his nose broken.
Ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, who until now 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.