It is important the international community pays close attention to the scale of politically motivated persecutions in Belarus, a panel discussion organised by the media organisation Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recently said.
It was after Zmitser Dashkevich, a well-known Belarusian activist originally charged with extremism, had his sentence extended by a year after being charged with “blatantly disobeying penitentiary guards“. His sentenced was due to end in July. Journalist Andrei Aliaksandrau, a former employee of Index, recently spent his 1000th night behind bars after being imprisoned for 14 years in October 2022 for “extremist activities” against the state.
Anastasiia Kruope, assistant researcher for the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said there has been a large increase in human rights abuses and politically motivated persecutions in Belarus following Aleksandr Lukashenka’s heavily contested presidential election win in 2020.
“An atmosphere of fear and intimidation for journalists and human rights defenders was created,” she added.
“The way these people are treated in prisons and labelled extremist, along with the silencing of family members outside, means some of these cases may amount to crimes against humanity according to the UN.”
Aleh Hruzdzilovich was one such prisoner. A journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he spent nine months in prison and was released in September 2022. After covering the protests following Lukaskenka’s re-election for his job, he was arrested and charged with actively taking part in them.
“From the very first day, people like me recorded as extremists are punished more and have a stigma in prison,” Hruzdzilovich explained.
“It means we’re put in punishment cells and solitary confinement more often. When I was tortured, I was told to sleep on the wooden floor. If I simply sat down or stopped walking around the cell in the daytime, I was reported and given more time in the punishment cell.”
Hruzdzilovich described seeing a prisoner wet himself through fear of being sent to a punishment cell.
Pavel Sapelko is a lawyer based at the Viasna Human Rights Centre in Minsk, Belarus. He said there is an absolute power of prison authorities over prisoners in Belarus, which is affecting their human rights, and seemingly makes people “disappear”.
“The prisoners are simply incommunicado. The authorities can shut down visits and calls from families, and even then can only get help from a lawyer after their sentences are passed by law.”
Speaking of the legal system in Belarus, Sapelko described the debilitating change that has occurred over the past three years.
“We’ve lost more than 300 defence lawyers, with 100 of them being disbarred. Licences have been revoked, and six defence lawyers are actually behind bars, now prison inmates themselves,” he explained.
“This massively affects a lawyer willing to take on your case, especially for those charged with being extremists.”
Ending with another reason why the international community should support those journalists and human rights defenders still in Belarus with things such as legal help and visas, Kruope had one eye on the future.
“They have the connections to document these abuses. The powerful tool we have is accountability, and it may take many years for abusers to face justice. We can focus on preserving the evidence against these abuses and document them for the future.”
Please read about Letters from Lukashenka’s Prisoners here, which is a collaborative project by Index on Censorship in partnership with Belarus Free Theatre, Human Rights House Foundation and Politzek.me.
It is hard to imagine something more damning as an indicator of press freedom than a leader banning the country’s journalism union and threatening penalties and jail for anyone who has dealings with it.
Yet this is what has been done by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus, fast becoming a model for media repression. In February, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) was designated by the authorities in the country as an “extremist formation”.
The authorities also identified eight people, including BAJ chair Andrey Bastunets, who now face up to ten years in prison for "establishing or participating” in the organisation. Others who have financed or “abetted” BAJ could also face jail time, arbitrary detentions, interrogations, and searches.
While another 20 media companies, most of the mainstream, independent Belarusian media, have also been given a similar label, this is the first human rights organisation to be designated thus.
Now the Belarusian authorities have gone a step further and BAJ’s website, social media accounts and logo have now been designated as “extremist materials”. Anyone disseminating the association’s content or merely liking an article on its social feeds could mean a 15 day stay in jail.
The situation is like Britain’s government putting the National Union of Journalists in the same category as Al Qaeda.
Journalists in Belarus, at least those who report critically about Lukashenka’s activities, are now under threat. Some are in jail - 34 media workers at the end of June) – despite Lukashenka this week telling the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg that there are no political prisoners in the country.
Other journalists have left the profession while others have fled abroad.
In spite of these attacks, Bastunets, speaking to Index about the challenges facing journalists, says the independent media of Belarus is far from dead.
“Those journalists who left the country face different challenges than their colleagues in Belarus,” he says, with particular problems in obtaining legal residency in host countries, the high cost of living and renting accommodation even though many of them have their own, now empty, apartments in Belarus.
“There is also the different legal environment, language problems, the sometimes discriminatory attitude to Belarusians as co-aggressors, …and, for some, psychological burn-out.”
Many of those who left Belarus expected to return in a month or two, he says.
“Repression has been going on for almost three years and it is not clear when it might stop. And if media outlets have mostly coped with relocation, survival, and the arrangement of their activities, new challenges await us if current trends persist. One of them is the necessity of accepting the fact that we are in exile for a long time.”
But rumours about the death of the independent media in Belarus are “exaggerated”, he says.
“Several influential media outlets are still working in the country. But, of course, their working conditions are extremely unfavourable. Journalists live under constant threat of raids, detentions, interrogations, and criminal prosecution.”
As a result, media organisations that still operate in Belarus have reinforced safety measures for their journalists as well as using even more secure communications protocols.
They are also self-censoring to some extent.
“Editorial boards have to take extra care when publishing pierces on sensitive issues - on government activities, on opposition, on the war in Ukraine, etc. – in order to minimise the risks,” says Bastunets.
In addition to media outlets with editorial offices in Belarus, there is also a large number of freelance journalists who continue to operate in the country but contribute, usually anonymously, to editors in exile.
This carries grave risks. On 30 June, cameraman Pavel Padabed was sentenced to four years in prison after being accused of cooperation with the Polish TV channel Belsat, which has also been recognised as an extremist formation.
There is plenty to report on.
The news two weekends ago that Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose legitimacy as the leader of Belarus is contested, had acted as a “peacemaker” between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin provided an interesting story for Belarusian media, both in and outside the country.
Lukashenka promised Prigozhin that could come to Belarus as part of a deal he claimed to have brokered to reduce the tension. Confusingly, he has since announced that Prigozhin is not in Belarus but in St Petersburg (or Moscow).
Most independent media actively covered the actions of Prigozhin and Wagner against the Russian Defence Ministry, with editors and commentators using a variety of terms - military uprising, putsch, coup attempt, march of justice, conflict – to describe it.
“State-run media outlets focused on ‘praising’ Lukashenka's role in settlement of the conflict, which is questioned by many independent experts,” says Bastunets. “It is unknown whether Prigozhin and Wagner Group mercenaries are now in Belarus and whether they were or will be here at all. But there is a feeling that the Wagner mercenaries will not be welcome guests.”
If Prigozhin does turn out to be in Belarus, the country's independent media are still there to report on it.
Last week’s mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, provided a challenge to established western media outlets, such was the speed of the advance by the man known as Putin’s chef towards Moscow and the lack of verifiable information coming out of Russia. The subsequent accommodation between Prigozhin and Putin, apparently brokered by the Belarus leader Alyaksandr Lukashenska, has left even the most seasoned neo-Kremlinologists scratching their heads.
Step forward the Russian dissidents and independent news services. Index has been privileged to work with the opposition to Putin since long before the war in Ukraine and it was good to see them coming into their own last week. Here are some of our recommendations for those who want to stay abreast of the fast-moving and often baffling developments in Russia. Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock), the managing editor of the English-language version of the independent online site Meduza, kept his Twitter feed consistently updated during the coup-that-never-was. Where others were breathless and over-excited, Rothrock was calm and measured. His colleague Lilya Yapparova (@lilia_yapparova) provided detailed analysis on the future of Prigozhin from sources inside the Russian military and the Wagner Group itself. Yapparova’s far-reaching investigation looks into what Wagner forces might contribute to Belarusian military capacity and the organisation’s operations in Africa and Syria. She also looks into Wagner’s finances in Russia, its continued recruitment for the war in Ukraine and internet trolling operations. Yapporova quotes the work of Dossier Center, a media outlet connected to the British-based Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsksy, which tracks criminals associated with the Russian president. Khodorkovsky himself was active on his Telegram channel throughout the mutiny and accessible to non-Russian speakers through the messaging app’s translate function. Controversially he urged Russians to support Prigozhin's coup. His view was that anything would be better than Putin. The Russian billionaire later concluded that the outcome of Prigozhin’s operation was not important. “The very fact that this happened is a powerful blow to Putin after which he will be perceived differently by millions.”
Doxa, the publication founded by students opposed by Putin and now outlawed by the regime, continues to do a good job of aggregating news from reliable sources. This week it included a report from The Bell, founded by Russian financial journalist Elizaveta Osetinskaya, suggesting that Prigozhin’s troll factory companies have been paralysed following raids after the uprising and were looking for a new owner. Osetinskaya, a former editor of Russian Forbes magazine, was declared a foreign agent after condemning the invasion of Ukraine.
In a new development this week, Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian news outlet whose editor Dmitry Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, was put on the Kremlin’s list of “undesirable” organisations. This makes it a crime for the publication, now based in Latvia, to operate in Russia. It is also now illegal for Russians to engage with the publication or share its content online.
OVD-Info, the human rights project which won the 2022 Index on Censorship campaigning award, decided not to provide a running commentary of events and stuck to its mission of reporting on arrests of regime opponents. In his weekly newsletter Dan Storyev, English editor of OVD-Info, wrote: “Russia has had a busy few days as I am sure we all know. This newsletter is not for military analysis so I won’t cover Prigozhin’s manoeuvres here — but it’s important to remember, that in the end, it is going to be ordinary Russians, Russian civil society who would bear the brunt of any violence that a coup, or a paranoid preventive crackdown could unleash.”
If there is one thing that unites all the outlets mentioned here (beyond their undoubted courage), it is the care they take in the sourcing of all information they publish. In the post-truth world of Putin’s Russia, facts are precious commodities.