It has become extremely difficult for journalists to operate in Belarus in the past year in the face of the constantly escalating persecution, which has included censorship, fines, threats, arbitrary detention and even torture.
A month ago, on 8 and 9 July, the police carried out nearly 70 raids on media outlets and journalists’ homes, arresting at least 15 of the journalists, including four who are now being prosecuted on terrorism charges. These figures are just one instance of what the independent media have endured during the past year of harassment, which has also had no precedent since Belarus became independent in 1991. The report by RSF and the OMCT describes the system of repression that has been imposed with the aim of silencing journalists.
Twenty nine journalists and media workers are currently in prison. The Belarusian Association of Journalists, RSF’s partner organisation, has tallied nearly 500 arrests and detentions of journalists in the past year. After initially inflicting short administrative prison sentences on those detained, the authorities began giving them longer sentences on criminal charges in the autumn of 2020. Belsat TV journalists Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva were the first victims of the new policy. They were sentenced to two years in prison for filming demonstrations.
The criminal prosecutions on spurious charges are characterised by prolonged provisional detention with no basis, the absence of any investigation, and the violation of basic safeguards guaranteeing due process. They form part of the government’s arsenal of weapons for silencing journalists, as does the institutional harassment of media outlets, whose victims have included the most popular news website TUT.BY. This site has been blocked and several members of its staff including editor in chief Marina Zolotova are being prosecuted on trumped-up tax evasion charges. And the famous Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), partner of RSF, of the OMCT and winner of the 2004 Sakharov Prize, learned on July 21 via social media that the Ministry of Justice had initiated proceedings aimed at his liquidation. On July 30, BAJ was summoned to appear before the Supreme Court called to rule on the merits. The Supreme Court hearing has been set for August 11.
Nearly 70 journalists have also been subjected to serious violence by the security forces. The report includes details, and the accounts, of some of its victims, such as Natalia Lubneuskaya of the Nasha Niva news site, who sustained a knee injury when a rubber bullet was deliberately fired at her, and Hrodna.life reporter Ruslan Kulevich, who was held for two days although baton blows had fractured both of his hands at the time of his arrest. Prison conditions are often appalling. Belsat TV reporter Alena Dubovik, for example, was jammed with 50 other women detainees into a cell meant for four people, was beaten while half naked and was denied food for 24 hours.
Alexander Lukashenko, the newly-listed press freedom predator who orchestrated his reelection as president and now terrorises his people, especially journalists, went so far as to hijack a civilian flight in order to arrest one of the passengers, the blogger and journalist Raman Pratasevich. His system of repression is described in detail in the report, which has appendixes listing state bodies, state organisations and individual officials allegedly involved in the various forms of persecution of journalists.
“A free and independent press, the pillar of democracy, is Alexander Lukashenko’s main enemy in his desire to submit the Belarusian people to his authority,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.“Journalists battling to inform their fellow citizens and the rest of the world about events in Belarus have been hounded for the past year, as have their families, and have been subjected to relentless physical, psychological, judicial and economic persecution. The report published by RSF and the OMCT describes the unprecedented determination displayed by the authorities in their drive to eradicate all independent media. RSF calls on the international community to make every effort to stop this persecution at Europe’s gates and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.”
Since the hijacking of RyanAir flight RF 4978, the system of terror established by Lukashenko has been the subject of an unprecedented investigation opened by the Public Prosecutor of Lithuania on the basis of his universal jurisdiction, for “hijacking of plane with terrorist intent ”, in line with the complaint lodged in its hands by RSF on May 25.
Belarus fell five places in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 158th out of 180 countries.
Read the report here.