Two-year jail terms signal bid to crush all independent journalism in Belarus
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the two-year jail terms that two Belarusian journalists received yesterday on a trumped-up charge of organizing a protest they simply filmed. Passed at the end of a sham trial, these sentences constitute a disturbing escalation in the crackdown on independent journalism in Belarus, RSF said.
During the past six months of protests and repression in Belarus, around 100 “administrative” prison sentences of never more than a month in duration have been passed on media personnel. This is the first time journalists have been convicted on criminal charges linked to the protests with much longer jail terms.
President Lukashenko’s government has crossed a new threshold in the trial of Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva (real surname Bakhvalova). These two reporters for Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel based in Poland, were sentenced yesterday to two years in a prison camp for “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order.”
They were accused of providing live coverage of an unauthorized demonstration on 15 November “with the help of mobile phones, cameras, a tripod and press vests” from the apartment in Minsk where they were arrested by ten policemen.
They had been filming a demonstration, held in what is known as Minsk’s “Square of Changes,” to pay tribute to Raman Bandarenka, an opposition activist who had died in unexplained circumstances after his arrest three days before.
Chultsova and Andreyeva were initially given seven-day “administrative” prison sentences on a charge of “participating” in this demonstration. But the police later opened a criminal investigation after searching the apartments of the two reporters and their relatives.
“The verdict and sentences issued at the end of this sham trial confirm that the government is criminalizing the work of reporters and trying to crush all independent journalism in Belarus,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We remind the authorities of their international obligations, including article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and we urge them to drop all charges against these journalists, immediately release those still in prison and end the persecution.”
At least seven other reporters are currently in prison awaiting trial on trumped-up criminal charges. Katsyarina Barysevich, a veteran reporter for the Tut.by news website, is facing a possible three-year sentence in a trial due to open today. She is charged with “divulging medical secrets” in her investigative reporting on the circumstances of Bandarenka’s death.
Ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.