In a bid to loosen Russia’s grip on Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko is trying to ingratiate himself with the international community but, aside from the release of leading political prisoners, the human rights situation in his country is still as disastrous as ever.
The authorities continue to trample on media freedom in particular, and Belarus is still ranked no better than 157th out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
“Now that the Belarusian government is trying to cosy up to Brussels and woo the IMF, its interlocutors must remind it that media freedom is one of the conditions for full reintegration into the international community,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Independent journalists must cease at once to be the targets of judicial harassment and police brutality. And major reforms are essential in order to promote pluralism and remove the shackles that restrain independent media.”
Journalist beaten by police
In one of the latest examples of police brutality, Tut.by website reporter Pavel Dabravolski was beaten by police while covering the arrest of two peaceful protesters during a trial in Minsk on 25 January.
“They snatched my camera and press card and started beating,” he told Tut.by. “They kicked me dozens of times. As I tried to protect my face (...) they twisted my arms behind my back and one of the policemen planted his boot on my head.”
After being forced to lie face down on the ground for 20 minutes, Dabravolski and the two demonstrators were marched into a courtroom and tried on charges of resisting the authorities and contempt of court. Dabravolski was fined 9.45 million rubles (412 euros) on the evidence of one of the policemen who beat him. He later had his injuries examined in a hospital with a view to filing a complaint.
New wave of fines
After a let-up of several months, the authorities resumed harassing journalists who work for foreign-based media. Since the start of 2016, three journalists have been convicted of “illegal production of media content” under article 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offences.
These prosecutions are the result of a classic Belarusian set-up. On the one hand, the leading independent broadcasters are banned, and thereby forced to broadcast from outside the country. On the other, their reporters inside Belarus are systematically denied accreditation, thereby allowing the authorities to charge them with “illegal production of media content.”
No fewer then 28 fines were imposed on these grounds in 2015, prior to the 11 October president election. The slew of convictions halted in the last quarter but resumed in January.
The latest victims include Kastus Zhukouski, who was given fines on 14 and 20 January totalling 13.65 million rubles (612 euros), and Larysa Shchyrakova, who was fined 4.62 million rubles (221 euros) on 13 January. Based in the southeastern city of Homyel, they both do reporting for Belsat TV, a TV channel that has been broadcasting from a base in Poland since 2007. It has made at least three unsuccessful attempts to open a bureau in Minsk.
Zhukouski told the court he did not need accreditation because he had formed his own company, and it was this company that sold his reports to Belsat TV. “Judges just rubberstamp rulings against freelance journalists,” he said, insisting that he has never been fairly convicted.
“They target me in particular because I expose social issues,” he told RSF. “We travel to places where media people never go. Our reports are like mosquito bites, but officials still consider them dangerous.”
(Photo : Radio Svaboda - RFE/RL)