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By Andrei Aliaksandrau / 20 July 2012
A young Belarusian journalist has been arrested and detained – for taking photographs of teddy bears the government denies exist. Andrei Aliaksandru reports
Not for the first time, the authorities in Belarus have found someone to blame for something they say hasn’t happened. And not for the first time, the someone they have blamed is a journalist. Anton Suryapin, a young freelance photographer and journalism student, is being held behind bars as a suspect in a ludicrous case that no established democracy would take seriously.
Suryapin, 20, a student at the Belarus State University Institute of Journalism, posted pictures on his blog of teddy bears that had been dropped by parachute over Belarus by a Swedish public relations company in a protest against the absence of media freedom in the former Soviet republic.
He was arrested on 13 July and is currently detained at the KGB detention centre in the Belarus capital, Minsk. The authorities have until 23 July to charge him.
The teddy-bear stunt, organised by Studio Total, a radical Stockholm PR and marketing agency, involved a light aircraft flying on 3 July from Lithuania and parachuting 879 bears on to Belarus territory.
The bears carried miniature posters demanding freedom of expression in the country, including “We demand protection of human rights in Belarus!”, “We can’t be made silent!” and “Free speech now!”.
Bizarrely, the Belarus authorities deny that the protest happened: they are desperate to show that there was no intrusion into their airspace – even though there is a plenty of evidence of the flight on the Studio Total website (see photos here).
Suryapin had no contact with Studio Total — ““We said before the action we hadn’t had any contacts with any of the Belarusians. It is clear we did not have any contacts with Anton,” said Tomas Mazetti of Studio Total, who was on the plane.
Free-speech activists are rallying to Suryapin’s cause. Information on his plight is scarce, but there are worries that he will be charged with national-security-related crimes that carry a sentence of three to seven years. Several supporters have reproduced the teddy-bear pictures on their own blogs and websites, and campaigners have produced T-shirts with the slogan “No pictures — no problems?”.
Andrei Aliaksandrau is Index on Censorship’s Belarus and OSCE Programme OfficerBelarus | free speech | Lukashenko | Studio Total | teddy bears
Index on Censorship has dedicated its milestone 250th issue to exploring the increasing threats to reporters worldwide. Its special report, Truth in Danger, Danger in Truth: Journalists Under Fire and Under Pressure, is out soon. Highlights include Lindsey Hilsum, writing about her friend and colleague, the murdered war reporter Marie Colvin, and asking whether journalists should still be covering war zones. Stephen Grey looks at the difficulties of protecting sources in an era of mass surveillance.