President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime dissolved Belarus’s only independent journalists’ association on 27 August. Constantly harassed by the authorities, the BAJ had been the target of a major investigation since 9 June. It was denied access to its headquarters, its bank account was frozen and it was subjected to searches and seizures carried out in the absence of any BAJ representative and without being told anything about the searches.
Rejecting the BAJ’s arguments that there were no legal grounds for its dissolution, the Supreme Court simply stated that it had “misunderstood the law.” RSF had submitted an amicus brief to the court challenging the proposed dissolution, regarding it as designed solely to prevent the NGO from continuing to defend journalistic freedom, pluralism and independence in Belarus.
“The BAJ, our partner, has been promoting press freedom for more than 25 years in very trying circumstances but it never had to face a crackdown of this scale,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Its dissolution on spurious grounds will not undermine the determination of independent journalists to keep covering the reality in Belarus. We call on the international community to vigorously support their resistance and to continue offering a refuge to journalists who are forced to flee the persecution.”
The BAJ’s 1,500 members are “united by the awareness of their mission: to expand the space of freedom of speech in Belarus,” BAJ president Andrei Bastunets said in a statement. “We will continue to do our work regardless of the decisions of courts and administrative bodies, by all legal means," the statement added.
The authorities have already disbanded other organisations such as PEN Belarus, which defended writers’ rights and freedom of expression, and the Belarus Press Club. Six of the Press Club’s members were arrested in December in a tax fraud investigation that was finally closed yesterday.
One of these Press Club members, Ksenia Lutskina, is still detained on the basis of new (secret) criminal proceedings, and has become a symbol of the way journalists are persecuted by a regime that has done everything possible to terrorise them for more than a year. Unlike her Press Club colleagues, she refused to sign a request to Lukashenko for a presidential pardon.
Lutskina resigned from her job with Belarusian state television and was planning to create an independent TV channel. Her health has deteriorated dramatically since her arrest eight months ago and she is suffering from severe headaches caused by a brain tumour that has developed since her arrest after previously being in remission.
Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists, Belarus fell five places in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 158th out of 180 countries.