Belarus, the country where journalists are terrorists

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.

Seeking the real story of Prigozhin’s challenge to Putin

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.

Celebrating the work of investigative journalists

Yesterday I met with a close friend who happens to be a journalist. In the way that friends do, we were talking about our families, work and what we were going to do over the summer.

We both have lives that are ludicrously busy but as she was talking about the stories she has had to cover over the last two weeks I was struck by not just the importance of her journalism but the demands we place on individual journalists as the vital storytellers of the news we consume every day.

Our world can be a scary and complex place. Every week it feels as though we have had an excess of news stories and little time to absorb one story before the world throws something else at us. And that just refers to the news we manage to hear and read. We are completely dependent on incredible journalists who ensure that the most challenging of stores are comprehensible for the rest of us. Highlighting the key issues that we need to be worried about.

It’s easy for all of us to listen to the news and then move on with our days. After all, we each have our own dramas, our own worries and our own concerns. But we get on with our lives reassured that someone is always shining a spotlight on the things that we need to know about. That teams of dedicated investigative journalists are working day in and day out to hold power accountable. Demanding answers from those who have power and exposing where we as citizens have been let down.

So this blog is a celebration of investigative journalists. Brave, dedicated, professional, honest and incredibly determined people. Who in the last week have ensured that Stephen Lawrence’s family know the name of another suspect – thank you Daniel de Simone.

Journalists who have proved that the Wagner Group is still recruiting in Russia and Belarus – thank you Sarah Rainsford and BBC Verify.

Journalists who proved beyond doubt that Christmas parties happened at the Conservative Party HQ during the Covid lockdown – thank you John Stevens and Mikey Smith.

Each of these stories represent dozens more covered this week in every country that is lucky enough to have a free media.

We shouldn’t just seek to protect our hard-won rights to media freedom, every so often we need to celebrate the journalists who strive to uncover the truth every day and that’s what I’m doing today.


Coronation crackdown: It couldn’t happen here…could it?

The heavy-handed treatment of anti-monarchy protesters at King Charles III’s ceremony is ominous

We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail. 

This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go. 

Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here. 

‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’

I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state? 

As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…

Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.

Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus

‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’

After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.

When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.

The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.

 Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong 

‘Continue standing up for your voice’

Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.

Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.

The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.

The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.

Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.

“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away. 

Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary