This article is the fourth of a series based on the Index on Censorship report Belarus: Time for media reform.
One of the greatest chills on the freedom of expression in Belarus is the disappearance, murder, suspicious suicide and impunity against media workers that has demonstrated the very real physical risks that those who practice independent journalism in Belarus face. Since the beginning of Alexander Lukashenko’s presidency, a number of journalists have been murdered or died in suspicious circumstances to considerable international condemnation. Journalists today inside Belarus still face physical violence and threats. A number of high profile journalists have fled the country to protect their personal safety.
No progress has been made on investigations of the deaths of the journalists Dzmitry Zavadski (disappeared on 7 July 2000), Veranika Charkasava (brutally murdered on 20 October 2004), Vasil Hrodnikau (found dead on 18 October 2005), Aleh Biabenin (found dead on 3 September 2010). The public still has no clear answers over the circumstances of their deaths, nor have any of the perpetrators of these crimes been brought to justice. Zavadski’s body has never been found and instigators of his murder has never been identified and tried; Charkasava’s murderer has never been found and the investigation into the case was suspended; details of Hrodnikau’s and Biabenin’s cases have led their family and colleagues to question official results of the investigations. The European Parliament has called for a full investigation into Biabenin’s death.
“As long as even one journalist is prosecuted or intimidated for critical speech, the whole media community feels threatened and the chilling effect remains,” said the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, during her official visit to Minsk in June 2013. Unfortunately, physical violence against journalists and preventing them from conducting of their professional duties have become one of the major concerns over the past several years in Belarus.
Detentions of journalists
The constitution of Belarus grants any citizen the right to gather and impart information. Moreover, Article 34 of the Law “On Mass Media” provides for the right of a journalist to be present “in the area of armed conflicts or emergencies, mass actions, in places of other socially important events and transmit information from there.”
Despite of these legal provisions, the arbitrary detention of journalists and the interference into their professional activities continues unabated, especially during street actions by civil society and the opposition. For instance, at least 24 journalists were detained and at least 21 were attacked and injured by the riot police on 19 December 2010 in Minsk while they covered a major rally by the opposition in Independence Square that protested against the results of the presidential election.
Monitoring by the Belarusian Association of Journalists noted at least 265 cases of the detention of journalists in Belarus in 2011-2013.
In 2011 there were 160 of such cases, and at least seven instances of use of physical violence by the police against journalists. The most significant number of detentions happened during the summer of 2011, during peaceful street actions organised by the Revolution Through Social Networks movement. At least 103 instances of detentions of journalists across the country were noted. The arrests were brutal; the police prevented reporters from filming the rallies, in some cases by using excessive force and damaging journalists’ professional equipment. At least 22 journalists who were detained while covering the actions were summoned to courts for alleged “participation in unsanctioned actions”, 13 of them served actual administrative arrests, and the rest were sentenced to fines.
In 2012, 60 cases of detention of journalists, distributors of non-state press and social media activists were noted. In most cases the detentions lasted for 2-3 hours, but in several cases they led to fines and detention for up to 15 days. At least 13 journalists received official warnings of prosecutors’ offices in 2012; most of them were warned for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation. At least four journalists were summoned for interrogation by the KGB.
In 2013 45 instances of journalists’ detentions have been noted as of November. Four of them led to administrative arrests of 3 to 12 days each. Prosecutors’ offices issues at least eight official warnings to journalists for their activities.
Leaders of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Zhanna Litvina and Andrei Bastunets, met the head of Minsk city police Aliaksandr Barsukou on 23 October 2013 to discuss the issue of the police interference in journalists’ professional activities. During the meeting Barsukou noted the number of detentions of journalists decreased in comparison with 2011-2012. Just a week after the meeting, seven journalists were detained by the police in Minsk while covering the Mourning Marathon, an event to commemorate victims of Stalin’s repressions.
Several journalists and media experts were banned for travelling abroad by the authorities of the country in 2012. It became a new form of pressure on independent media community.
Zhanna Litvina, the chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Andrei Dynko, the editor of Nasha Niva newspaper, and Mihas Yanchuk, a representative of Belsat TV channel, were denied the right to leave the country. Litvina was not allowed out at the Minsk National Airport; Dynko and Yanchuk were forced to leave trains on the borders with Lithuania and Poland respectively by Belarusian border guards. No legal grounds for such restrictions were provided; the ban was lifted only in September after appeals of the persons affected to courts. Officers of the department of citizenship and migration explained the situation as a software glitch. It is noteworthy that the alleged bug disproportionately affected independent journalists, opposition leaders and civil society activists.
Restrictions of activities of foreign correspondents
The authorities use different methods to restrict the distribution of information about Belarus’ internal situation abroad. Reporters for Belsat TV channel and Radio Racyja, a media operator based in Poland that broadcasts in the Belarusian language, have both been refused official accreditation to operate within Belarus. European broadcasters have also been affected. In March 2012 camera crews of SVT (Sweden) and TV3 (Estonia) television channels were detained in Minsk, despite both having being officially accredited in Belarus.
Several foreign journalists faced obstacles during the September 2012 parliamentary elections. Three hundred fifty foreign reporters were officially accredited to cover the elections, but four journalists from Germany and Sweden were denied entry visas. Two more Swedish journalists, Erik Von Platen and Gustaff Andresson, had to spend 16 hours at the Minsk International Airport before their accreditation was confirmed and their visas were issued. It is unclear what criteria the authorities apply to issue visas for foreign correspondents.
On the same day, 21 September 2012, Amos Roberts, Australian SBS TV journalist, was searched at the customs of the Minsk airport as he was trying to leave Belarus after a week of legitimate work in the country. His professional equipment was confiscated; the procedures of a search and confiscation were not followed. The journalist was allowed to leave the country the following day, but his equipment was not returned to him until one year later, in October 2013.
Physical safety of journalists and impunity remain serious problems that have a chilling effect of media freedom in Belarus. The most acute issue is police interference with journalistic activities and arbitrary detentions of reporters that cover mass street actions. At least 265 cases of the detention of journalists in Belarus in 2011-2013 are noted. The police chiefs are reluctant to recognise and address the problem, despite constant calls from Belarusian and international organisations.
Physical violence against journalists: Recommendations
The practice of arbitrary detention of journalists, including those that cover street actions, should be immediately stopped.
All cases of interference of the police and other state officials into legitimate journalistic activity should be investigated, and those responsible should be brought to account.
Part 1 Belarus: Europe’s most hostile media environment | Part 2 Belarus: A distorted media market strangles independent voices | Part 3 Belarus: Legal frameworks and regulations stifle new competitors | Part 4 Belarus: Violence and intimidation of journalists unchecked | Part 5 Belarus must reform its approach to media freedom
A full report in PDF is available here