After more than five months of systematic restrictions on press freedom, the Belarusian authorities are stepping up their crackdown on the media by now prosecuting journalists under criminal law. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) have lodged a referral to the UN for cases of arbitrary arrests.
At the start of 2021, the hunt for journalists undertaken by the Belarusian authorities since the fraudulent presidential election of August 9, 2020 has taken a more threatening turn: media professionals are now facing an increase in criminal offenses mounted by all parts, for which they risk several years in prison.
Of the ten journalists currently behind bars, nine are suspected of being involved in criminal cases. A situation which led RSF and its local partner, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), to seize, on January 20, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression of the United Nations on about fifteen cases serious arbitrary arrests.
Change of tactics
This is a new tactic of the Belarusian authorities: they permanently lock up journalists to prevent them from covering the protest movements, which have lasted for more than five months despite the repression , denounces the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia office. from RSF, Jeanne Cavelier. Those who received fines and up to fifteen days in administrative detention now risk spending several years in prison. The thin and ridiculous veneer of legality of the criminal proceedings instituted in no way conceals the reality, namely a terrible war waged by Alexander Lukashenko against the media and freedom of expression. All possible pressure on the regime must be exerted to release the journalists and stop these abuses. ”
The deputy director of BelaPAN , the country’s oldest press agency, from 2015 to 2018, and who still works there as a freelance journalist, Andreï Aliaksandrau, was arrested on January 12. The investigative committee accuses him of funding anti-Lukashenko protests and has initiated prosecutions under article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code. Andrei Aliaksandrau was only allowed to see his lawyer 48 hours after his arrest, allegedly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Security forces spent three hours on January 14 raiding the press agency’s premises. They left with various documents and with 12 hard disks, which,according to its director , contributed to “paralyze” the functioning of the agency.
Prosecutions under article 342 (“organization and preparation of serious acts of violation of public order or active participation in such acts”) were also launched against the journalists of the Belarusian channel in exile Belsat, Katsiarina Andreyeva and Daria Tchoultsova. Both have been in detention since mid-November 2020 .
Journalist from online media Tut.by Katsiarina Barysevich has been held in an intelligence prison since the same period. She had investigated the death of an opposition figure who was beaten to death in unexplained circumstances after his arrest. Katsiarina Barysevich had quoted a doctor who told her that no trace of alcohol had been detected in the blood of the 31-year-old man, contrary to what the authorities claimed. The journalist is today indicted in the criminal case against this doctor.
Crackdown on the Press Club
Six members of the Belarusian Press Club, an independent organization, were also arrested on December 21. They are founder and director Yulia Slutskaya , financial director Siarhei Alcheuski , academy director Siarhei Yakoupau, director of programs Alla Charko , cameraman Petr Slutsky and journalist Ksenia Lutskina who worked for the television of ‘State and which had the project to launch an independent channel in partnership with the Press Club.
Several private apartments and the premises of the Press Club were searched. Yulia Slutskaya has been prosecuted for large-scale tax evasion, while the other detainees have been accused of assisting and complicity. Siarhei Yakoupau, released on December 31, was deported to Russia, banned from returning to Belarus for ten years.
Eight other journalists are being prosecuted, but not held in prison. Among them, the correspondent of the Perchy Region news site Siarhei Gardzievitch , accused of “insulting the president”, is under house arrest in Drahitchyn (south-west). Independent journalist Yuri Dziachouk , arrested on January 20 in Lida (west), was released after 72 hours of detention, but remains prosecuted in a case of disturbing public order.
The list of journalists prosecuted is still likely to grow. On January 26, in Brest, in the southwest of the country, the apartments of the publisher, the director and the offices of the online magazine Binokl were “checked” by the financial police for suspicion of “tax fraud in large scale”.
Beyond these criminal proceedings, a new administrative code increases the penalties and fines. From March 1, repeated participation in unauthorized demonstrations, widely used against journalists who cover them, will be punishable by 30 days in prison compared to the current 15. Another example also used: the maximum amount of the fine for “disobedience to the police” will double.
Harassment of independent news sites
In addition, Tut.by, the information site with the largest audience in the country, is officially no longer a media since January 19. After the controversial presidential election on August 9, the Minister of Information issued several warnings against him for alleged violations of media law. At the beginning of October, the minister in charge of the media had withdrawn her media status for a preliminary period of three months, as evidenced by the editor of the site, Maryna Zolotova in a video . This decision was confirmed by a court in Minsk on December 3. Tut.by appealed, without success.
Since the strengthening of the media law in mid-2018, internet portals have been able to register as media, which gives their employees special rights – in theory at least – in terms of protest coverage. and protection of their sources. Recorded as media in January 2019, Tut.by , founded in 2000, expresses its intention to continue working despite the loss of this status. But it is not immune to censorship, a threat brandished by the Minister of Information on January 19. Several Belarusian ISPs have also started to block the “mirror sites” of the online media Gazeta.by., created to bypass the censorship to which it has been subject since August 9.
Led by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, who holds his re-election every five years from the first round, Belarus occupies 153rd place out of 180 countries in the RSF World Press Freedom Index .
Copyright ©2016, Reporters Without Borders. Used with the permission of Reporters Without Borders(RSF), CS 90247 75083 Paris Cedex 02 https://rsf.org
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