14-year sentence for Andrei Aliaksandrau “a damning indictment of Lukashenka’s Belarus”

Index on Censorship and ARTICLE 19 are appalled by the prison sentences given to the current and former staff members of BelaPAN, including our former colleague, Andrei Aliaksandrau and his wife, Irina Zlobina. The ongoing clampdown on civic space in Belarus, including a near total restriction on independent media, is an attack on democracy and fundamental human rights. The extent of this attack on free expression is exemplified by this decision.

Andrei and Irina were detained on 12 January 2021 – over 620 days ago – and initially charged with the “organisation and preparation of actions, grossly violating public order, or active participation in them, as well as funding and other material support for such activities.” Subsequently, Andrei and Irina were also charged with “high treason”. On 6 October 2022, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced Andrei to 14 years in prison, with Irina sentenced to 9 years. Also sentenced were two of Andrei’s colleagues, including the current editor-in-chief of BelaPAN, Irina Leushina and the former director, Dzmitry Navazhylau. In addition, Aliaksandrau, Leushina and Navazhylau were sentenced for the “establishment of an extremist formation”. According to Viasna, they are also prohibited from holding certain positions for five years. 

Index on Censorship and ARTICLE 19 have always assessed the charges against them to be baseless and politically motivated. Nothing about this sentence changes that fact. In fact, the manner by which this sentencing occurred, with the court closed to the public and only pro-regime journalists present, reinforces this belief. That BelaPAN has been recognised as an ‘extremist formation’, alongside a number of other independent outlets, testifies to the scale of the erosion of free expression and democracy in Belarus.

“We are devastated that our dear friend and former colleague Andrei has been sentenced by the Belarusian regime. Like his wife Irina, his only “crime” has been to steadfastly support fellow citizens defending Belarusian democracy. Yesterday’s verdict is a damning indictment of Lukashenka’s Belarus, and one of most chilling demonstrations to date of his determination to crush freedom of expression. Index will continue to expose the rank criminality of the Lukashenka regime, and to shine a constant light on Andrei, Irina and the countless others like them imprisoned and persecuted for speaking out,” said Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship.

“When I see a rare photo from the courtroom where Irina smiles, probably looking at her family for the first time in two years, and when I see Andrei standing so noble in front of such cruelty  – it all becomes so clear. Pure evil on one side, and – I ask myself – what will be on the other side. It depends on us. The moment we are silent is the moment when Lukashenka wins. So I’m sure that by giving support to political prisoners, by putting them in the spotlight, we win. We help them now and bring the moment of their release closer. All of them are innocent. Each and every person deserves to be released,” said Inna Kavalionak, Director of Politzek.

At the end of September 2021, Andrei wrote a letter to his friend Tania while in pre-trial detention. In it he stated: “Thanks to you, and other good people, my conscience is clear.” The same cannot be said of Lukashenka’s regime and the courts that give cover to his unrelenting attack on democracy. We reiterate our calls for Andrei and Irina, as well as all other political prisoners, to be freed without delay.

Belarus: Government uses accreditation to silence independent press

Belarus MMF

Despite repeated calls by international organisations for reform, Belarus’ regime for press accreditation continues to help the government maintain its monopoly on information in one of the world’s most restrictive environments for media freedom.

The government of president Aleksandr Lukashenko uses the Law on Mass Media to control who reports and on what in an arbitrary procedure that is open to manipulation. While Article 35 sets out journalists’ rights to accreditation, Article 1 of the law defines the process as: “The confirmation of the right of a mass medium’s journalists to cover events organised by state bodies, political parties, other public associations, other legal persons as well as other events taking place in the territory of the Republic of Belarus and outside it.”

By outlining credentialing as a system providing privileges for journalists, Belarus’ accreditation structure is contrary to international standards. The law allows public authorities to choose who covers them by approving or refusing accreditation. It also denies accreditation to journalists who do not work for recognised media outlets. Even journalists who report for foreign outlets must be full-time employees to be able to be accredited by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In practice, the law blocks freelance journalists or independent media outlets from covering the activities of the government and makes accreditation a requisite for a career in journalism. Only journalists who work for state-run outlets are accredited to report on state ministries, parliament or local governments.

Though refusing accreditation does not mean a total ban on a journalist’s professional activities, it creates obstacles to access to information. This discriminatory structure is especially acute for freelance journalists and those who work for independent media outlets.

In May 2016, the local government of Baranavichy district, in the Brest region, refused to accredit Julia Ivashka, a reporter for independent newspaper Intex-press. An official letter said the local government does not intend to expand the list of media outlets which are permitted to cover its sessions. The three currently accredited are state-run.

Under the mass media law, freelance journalists who do not have a contract with an outlet have no legal right to ask for accreditation. At the same time these independent reporters do not enjoy the same rights as journalists who work for accredited media outlets, they can also be targeted by the police, who use the lack of accreditation as a pretext to block freelancers from exercising their professional duties.

On 24 June 2016, police officers prevented independent journalists Yuliya Labanava and Ales Lyubyanchuk from filming a public discussion on the planned construction of a new Minsk shopping mall. Police officers then threatened to remove them from the room altogether if they asked any questions.

On 13 May 2016, the ministry of information refused to accredit а correspondent and cameraperson working for BelaPAN – the main independent news agency in the country – at the XI Belarusian International Media Forum in Minsk. This decision prevented BelaPAN from covering the event. The Ministry of Information did not comment on the reasons for the rejection.

Since April 2015, when Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project began monitoring threats to media freedom in the country, there have been 28 verified incidents involving blocked access that took place in Belarus. Most of these reports involved freelance or full-time journalists working for independent news outlets, who lack accreditation.

“Belarus’ strictly controlled media environment is part of the government’s overall control of the press and information. The number of reported incidents seems low until you consider that Belarus is one of the most restricted countries in Europe, as it’s considered the continent’s ‘last dictatorship’. This arbitrary and capricious accreditation system must be reformed,” Hannah Machlin, Mapping Media Freedom project officer at Index, said.

In 2014 OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović called on Belarusian authorities to repeal accreditation requirements for foreign and national journalists. “Accreditation should not be a license to work and the lack of it should not restrict journalists in their ability to work and express themselves freely,” Mijatović said.

In the same year the UN Human Rights Committee considered the case of Maryna Koktysh, a journalist working for the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya. Koktysh was denied accreditation to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament. The UN concluded that by creating obstacles to obtaining information, the government violated Koktysh’s right to free expression and recommended a review of Belarusian legislation to prevent similar violations in the future.

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at https://mappingmediafreedom.org/

Belarus: Media violations recorded during last month’s election

Belarus map

On 11 October, Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko won his fifth consecutive election. Whether it was a free and fair election is up for debate.

Belarusian observers, particularly Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, note the electoral process did not meet a number of core international standards. Claims include that candidates did not receive equal media access, there was a lack of impartiality among election commissions and administrative resources were used in favor of the incumbent. While ballots were cast, political prisoners were held in penitentiaries and there were reports of journalists being harassed.

Even the record share of 36 per cent for early votes need not signal enthusiasm from the electorate. In fact, the early casting of ballots raises concerns of electoral fraud. On 6 October, the deputy dean of the Brest State Technical University, Sviatlana Coogan, stopped two freelance journalists, Aliaxander Liauchuk and Milana Harytonava, from recording interviews with students at a polling station, who said they were forced to participate in early voting by a university representative.

Observers could not visibly ensure the safety of ballots after 7pm and a number of journalists were blocked from working at polling stations during early voting.

Arciom Lyava, a correspondent for the independent newspaper Novy Chas, was forced by clerks to stop photographing a polling station in the Leninski district of Minsk. “As set forth by law, I was taking photos,” he said. This angered Alena Pazenka, headmaster of the school where the station was located. “She stated I was hindering the electoral process. Poll clerks then drew up a statement in relation to me and turned me out from the polling station.”

On election day, at least three other journalists were blocked from documenting events at polling stations. A correspondent for the Polish website Eastbook.eu was blocked from filming the vote count by clerks of a local electoral commission in the Pervomaisky district of Minsk. The chairperson of the commission, Natalia Kunouskaya, threatened to call the police and clerks had fenced off the counting area with chairs so observers couldn’t get close.

As state-run media dominates the landscape in Belarus, the internet is a very important alternative source of information. However, online freedoms were also curbed during the election. During the presidential campaigns, two websites of the privately-owned press agency BelaPAN, were temporarily inaccessible. Sources at the press agency said cyber attacks were launched after they published a critical article about a multi-religious ceremony attended by Lukashenko. The piece featured interviews with students who say they were ordered to attend the event and meet the president. The Belarusian Association of Journalists has expressed concern about the attack, especially in the midst of the electoral campaign.

Blocking access to information about the work of electoral commissions is a common practice for the Belarusian authorities. The independent newspaper Nasha Niva claims that results at some polling stations were re-written after counts were finalised. The data publicised upon completion of vote counting at district electoral commissions did not always coincide with respective results announced at territorial electoral commissions, she says. Niva requested an opportunity to see the results of all polling stations in Minsk from Lidziya Yarmoshyna, chairperson of the Central Electoral Commission. The reply said that the commission did not have the documents, which were at the Minsk City Commission. The city commission did not respond to the request.

The election was followed by an attack on prominent blogger Viktar Nikitsenka who contributed to Radio Liberty Moscow, the radio station Echo Moskvy and korrespondent.net, influential Ukrainian news website. On 13 October 2015, Nikitsenka protested in Minsk’s Independence Square to make his disapproval of the election result known. Friends photographed him outside government buildings holding a sign that read “Lukashenka On Trial”.

Several men in civilian clothes watched from nearby. One of them later approached Nikitsenka and demanded to see his ID and notebook. Half an hour later, when the blogger was leaving the square with his friends, a group of alleged plain-clothes officers seized him in an underpass and dragged him onto a bus. While he was detained, Nikitsenka said was insulted, intimidated and beaten. All his equipment was stolen and data was deleted from his phone and camera. He was taken to the police station, where he was held for approximately two hours before being found guilty of holding an unsanctioned picket, disobeying police officers and insulting a judge at the Maskouski district court. He was fined $492.68 (£319.87).

Nikitsenka later filed a complaint against the officers for unlawful use of force, threats and insults, but it was rejected by the Chyhunachny police department.


Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at https://mappingmediafreedom.org/