Here are some of the incidents recorded by Index on Censorship between February and July 2019.
Ales Lyauchuk and Milana Kharytonava
On 31 May, a judge in the Maskouski district of Brest fined journalists Ales Lyauchuk and Milana Kharytonava for “illegal production and distribution of media content”. They were contributing to Belsat TV, covering the ongoing protests against the construction and launch of the iPower battery plant in the city. They were tried in absentia, and learned about the fines only upon returning from their holiday. They had to pay 1,020 Belarusian rubles each (about $1,000 in total).
This wasn’t the first time Lyauchuk and Kharytonava got fined this year. On 21 March, a judge fined them 2,250 Belarusian rubles (about $1,100). The pair had been repeatedly spotted covering protests against the same factory near Brest and interviewing local people, and the trial was based on reports filed by police.
“The materials of the case did not include information about the exact time of our being in the square, no names of people whom we had interviewed; there were no witnesses but, still, we have got a fine of 2,550 rubles,” Lyauchuk told his colleagues at Belsat TV.
On 18 April, the journalists were fined 1,275 Belarusian rubles (about $600) each, also for co-operating with Belsat TV without accreditation. The story they filmed was about the forgotten village of Veluyn, cut off from Brest by a lack of roads and public transportation.
In all, they were fined six times in 2018.
On 15 May, the trial of independent journalists Alena Shabunia and Viachaslau Lazarau took place in Navapolatsk. A judge found both journalists guilty of “illegal production and distribution of media content” under Article 22.9 and fined them 637.5 Belarusian rubles (over $300) each. The case was built around a video of an accident at the Polimir Navapolatsk plant that was broadcast on Belsat TV – the team interviewed worker Andrei Shvilpo, who saved his colleagues but was later convicted of causing harm to production.
Viktar Stukau, head of the Polatsk-Navapolatsk BAJ branch, told online outlet Charter27: “What these journalists did was the usual work of journalists. Moreover, according to our constitution, any person can create such materials, since everyone has a camera in a pocket, and can send them to social networks or to some mass media, Belarusian or foreign. How is it possible to prohibit this?”
On 30 April, Andrei Tolchyn, a Homel-based freelance journalist, was taken to court in connection with four unpaid fines. He was informed that his bank account had been frozen and he would have 10 days to pay the fines to regain access. The hefty fines for “illegal production of media content” came as a result of his unaccredited work for Belsat. The fines totalled 3,200 Belarusian rubles ($1,523). Tolchyn’s account was unblocked after he paid the fines but, in May, he filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee.
Tolchyn used to work with Konstantin Zhukovsky, producing video stories and publishing them on YouTube. Their content was used by a variety of media outlets, including Belsat, so the courts applied Article 22.9 and the journalists were hit with mounting fines. As a result, Zhukovsky and his family left the country in January this year.
On 15 April, a freelance journalist from Hlybokaye, Zmitser Lupach, stood trial in the Sharkaushchyna district court for contributing to Belsat TV without accreditation. A judge imposed a fine of 892.5 Belarusian rubles (about $440) over a news story about the economic situation and low salaries in the district. This was the second time Lupach was fined in a month: on 11 April, the same court fined him 1,020 Belarusian rubles ($485).
He was tried under Article 22.9 (illegal production and/or distribution of media content) and Article 23.34 (violation of the procedure for organising or conducting mass events).
In the first case, the journalist was punished for his report aired on Belsat TV; in the second, for raising a white-red-white flag during Freedom Day, the anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic.
Lupach was also tried on 21 February for a story aired on Belsat TV about the monument erected in honour of the Komsomol in Hlybokaye. A judge fined him 892.5 Belarusian rubles (around $430). The previous year, Lupach was in court nine times on the same charges.
On 11 April, a judge in the Leninski district court of Mahiliou fined freelance journalist Alina Skrabunova 1,275 Belarusian rubles ($600). She was found guilty of “participation in the illegal production of media content”, as her video about the opening of an inclusive cafe operated by wheelchair-users had been broadcast on Belsat TV. The police documentation contained the wrong date for the alleged violation and a different charge. However, Skrabunova lost the case.
On 15 March, the Vitsebsk district court found journalist Vitaly Skryl guilty of illegal production and distribution of media content under Article 22.9. He was fined 637.5 Belarusian rubles (about $300) for his video on the closure of an enterprise which was broadcast on Belsat TV. Skryl told Radio Raciyja that he wasn’t surprised by the fine as he’d been fined on a similar charge the year before, for covering the unemployment situation in Orshy.
On 1 February, Ales Kirkevich and Ales Dzianisau were fined 765 Belarusian rubles (about $370) each in the Leninski district court of Hrodna. The charge followed their story titled Historians Exploring the Ancient Hrodna Cellars which was broadcast on Belsat TV. Both journalists were charged with Article 22.9 offences.
However, journalists collaborating with Belsat TV weren’t the only ones who got fined. Bloggers and freelance reporters whose work appeared in foreign or unaccredited media outlets met the same fate.
On 12 April, freelance journalist Yauhen Skrabets was fined 765 Belarusian rubles ($364) in Brest for “production of information content for a foreign media outlet that was not accredited in the Republic of Belarus”.
His article, entitled Activists and Independent Journalists Not Allowed Into the Press Conference at the I-Power Plant, had appeared on the website of Belarusian Radio Racyja, which is based in Poland. Like Belsat, the radio station had been previously denied accreditation by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Just a day before, the Leninski district court of Brest reviewed another case against the journalist on similar charges. The police report stated that he “interviewed without accreditation, thus violating the rights and obligations of a foreign media journalist”. As a result, a judge fined him 765 Belarusian rubles ($364). Skrabets insists that he never sent the article in question to Radio Racyja.
The judge assigned to the case, Aliaksandr Semianchuk, also handled the criminal case of the blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin, accused under Part 2 of Article 188 (“Slander”) and Part 2 of Article 189 (“Insult”) of the Criminal Code on 18 April. The criminal case was opened after a request by a police officer over a video on the blogger’s YouTube channel, Narodnyj Reportior, where people accused police officers of violence.
Piatrukhin was fined 9,180 Belarusian rubles ($4,590) and told to pay damages to the four police officers. The bill totalled $8,840, to be paid within a month, and the judge ordered him to pay the legal fees. The blogger also made a written undertaking not to leave the country, and his property was seized until his dues were paid.
But Piatrukhin remained defiant.
“I’m confident that if there wasn’t this case, there would be another one. They are demonstrating that, if they want, they would do anything,” he told Radio Svoboda. “To make me shut up they should at least shoot me. Whatever they do, they can’t hurt me any more. If they exile me, they’d make me a martyr, a star, draw attention to me. Look at how I live – I don’t have a car or anything. So they can go you-know-where with this fine and the compensation to the policemen. I’m not going to pay anything. Let them do whatever they want. Let them ban me from travelling abroad, I don’t care. This is my country, and I’ve never planned to leave it.”
Piatrukhin’s fundraising campaign, which he later launched on the MolaMola website in order to pay the fines, was suspended by the service provider on 5 May. It explained in a letter that “such activity could be seen as an attempt to evade criminal prosecution” and that it didn’t comply with the current Belarusian legislation. He was able to withdraw the money collected up until that date.
On 12 February, a judge in the Biaroza district court fined blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau 510 Belarusian rubles ($245) for failing to comply with the ruling of the Brest Economic Court. He was found guilty of damaging the reputation of a battery plant being built near Brest in his video published on YouTube. The court decided that Kabanau must remove the video – Lead Will End Up with Brest – from the platform, and publish an apology letter written on his behalf by the battery plant management. Kabanau refused to apologise, and the video has not been removed.