Index relies entirely on the support of donors and readers to do its work.
Help us keep amplifying censored voices today.
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.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116804″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The diversion of a Ryanair plane to Minsk over the weekend on the orders of Belaruisan president Alexander Lukashenko and the subsequent detention of independent journalist Roman Protasevich is the latest incident in a clampdown on independent media in the country.
Protasevich, working for Telegram channel Belamova, has been living in exile in Poland and Lithuania since 2019 because of concerns for his safety. His name appears on the List of Organizations and Individuals Involved in Terrorist Activities published by the State Security Committee (KGB), an includion which led him to referring to himself as “the first ever terrorist journalist” on his Twitter account.
Belarusian citizens increasingly have to go to independent media outlets such as Belamova, Nexta, Tut.by and others to find out the truth about what is happening in their country.An opinion poll conducted by Chatham House and released in February 2021 found that independent were by far the most trusted media.
As a result, president Alexander Lukashenko wants them shut down.
It is clear from the actions against Protasevich and others that the Belarusian authorities are trying to silence dissenting voices, constantly increasing the level of pressure on independent press representatives and grossly violating the right of their citizens to information. In official discourse, there are constant references to the “information war” against the state.
This latest actions of the Lukashenko regime ramps up what was already unprecedented pressure on the country’s journalists. RSF’s World Press Freedom Index shows that Belarus is Europe’s most dangerous country for those working in the media.
According to data from the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), there were more than 480 arrests of journalists in 2020. In 62 of these cases, journalists said they were subject to violence, including some cases of torture. In Minsk, at least three journalists were injured by rubber bullets as a result of police using firearms against peaceful protesters. Since the beginning of 2021, there have been 64 arrests, 38 searches and 5 attacks.
These figures represent the industrial scale judicial prosecution of journalists producing independent coverage of post-election developments in Belarus. Many have been sentenced to short jail terms or have been fined, some of them several times.
In 2020, Belarusian judges sentenced journalists in 97 cases to short jail terms (so-called ‘administrative arrests’), ranging from three to fifteen days. They are typically charged with alleged ‘participation in an unsanctioned demonstration or disobeying police’. Journalists report that the conditions of detention are inhumane – it is very cold, the lights are constantly left switched on, there is a lack of bed linen and hygiene items; many have to sleep on the floor.
A number of journalists are being held under more serious criminal charges simply for doing their job: three journalists have already been convicted.
The journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, of influential online outlet Tut.by, was tried along with whistleblower doctor Artsyom Sarokin. Sarokin was given a fine and a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment. Barysevich was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. In Barysevich’s case, the reason given was alleged ‘disclosure of confidential medical information causing grave consequences’ under the criminal code. She had published an exposé into a cover-up of the death of peaceful protester Raman Bandarenka.
The other two journalists, Belsat TV journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova, have been sentenced to two years in prison for supposedly ‘organising actions that grossly violate public order’. Andreyeva and Chultsova conducted a live broadcast of the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters paying tribute to Bandarenka in his neighbourhood.
On 16 February this year, the police raided the apartments of BAJ deputy chairs Aleh Aheyeu and Barys Haretski, along with at least six more BAJ members in different cities. They were investigating a criminal offence of ‘organising and preparing activities that grossly violate public order, or actively participating in them’. The BAJ office was searched and then closed by the police for almost a month.
As I write, there are 34 journalists and media workers behind bars being prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Of that number, 15 were detained by the Belarusian authorities after they began an unprecedented attack on Tut.by, Belarus’ most influential independent news website, on 18 May. The Belarusian Financial Investigation Department (DFR) launched a criminal case against Tut.by staff members for “large-scale tax evasion”, sending its agents to search the Tut.by editorial office in Minsk and its regional branches. The offices of related companies Hoster.by, Av.by, and Rabota.by in Minsk have been also raided. Investigators have also targeted the homes of a number of Tut.by journalists who work for the website and other staff members interrogated.
On the same day, the Ministry of Information of the Republic of Belarus blocked Tut.by and its mirror sites. The decision was taken on the basis of a notification from the General Prosecutor’s Office, which had established ‘numerous facts of violations of the Law on Mass Media’ and, specifically, the publication of materials coming from the Bysol Foundation, an unregistered fundraising initiative in support of victims of political repression in Belarus. Belarusian legislation prohibits the media from disseminating materials on behalf of unregistered organisations.
On 21 May, during an online press conference, Tut.by co-founder Kirill Voloshin, said: “At the moment we cannot restore the portal in the form of a mirror. The reason is that employees and owners do not have access to servers; there are no backups.”
Tut.by is one of more than 80 independent information websites blocked by the Ministry of Information since August 2020. Despite this, most of them continue to play a role in informing Belarusian citizens. Tut.by continues its work on social media and through two Telegram channels.
A number of journalists have been forced to flee Belarus but continue to work from abroad. Freelance journalist Anton Surapin is among them, who was recognised by Amnesty International as the “most absurd political prisoner” in the world in 2012 for his part in the so-called “teddy bears case” – a publicity stunt which saw stuffed bears dropped from a plane to draw attention to freedom of expression restrictions in the country.
When asked about the reasons for his departure, Surapin said: “I believe that now in Belarus there is a simply catastrophic situation in the field of human rights in general, and for journalists in particular. My colleagues are shot at, they are hunted by the security forces, they are imprisoned and deprived of their constitutional right to carry out professional activities.”
The barely credible seizure of Protasevich is not just about silencing him as a journalist – it is a message from Lukashenko that all dissenting voices in the independent media are fair game.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”172″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
“I am a journalist!” This is a phrase that is officially regarded as obscene by the authorities of Belarus today.
Aliaksandr Barazenka, a cameraman for Belsat TV, a Poland-based Belarusian language media outlet, was sentenced to 15 days arrest in Minsk on Monday 27 March. He was detained while filming a live stream from a peaceful protest in the centre of the Belarusian capital on 25 March. Witnesses say Barazenka was with a camera and other journalistic equipment that made it obvious he was not a protester. To prove it to the riot police, who had begun detaining people on the street, Aliaksandr kept shouting: “I am a journalist! I am a journalist!”
Police officers testified in court on Monday that Barazenka was swearing in public, “waved his hands and showed disrespect to public order”.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that more than 50 journalists were detained in the country during protests on 25 and 26 March 2017. Most of the journalists were released after short detentions, but at least six journalists and bloggers have been sentenced to administrative arrests of 10 to 15 days. Thirty-six journalists were detained on Freedom Day, 25 March.
The demonstrations erupted after the implementation of Presidential Decree No.3, which fines people (about 150-200 GBP annually) who are unable to prove an official workplace or income. Calling these individuals “social parasites”, authorities said they have to pay a share of state social expenditure.
A large number of Belarusians consider this attitude disrespectful. Coupled with economic problems that are felt by ordinary people the decree sparked protests across the country bringing thousands of people into the streets of Belarusian cities.
President Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, ordered law enforcement to end the protests. Police responded with heavy-handed tactis that included reported assaults on demonstrators. Hundreds of people were detained just before or during the events of 25 March, celebrated unofficially by the country’s political opposition as Freedom Day, which commemorates the founding of the first independent Belarusian state in 1918.
The detainees are now are being prosecuted, fined and sentenced to administrative arrests. Fifty-seven human rights activists were detained in an office of Viasna Human Rights Centre, an organization lead by the Nobel Prize and Index Award nominee and a former political prisoner Alies Bialiatski.
“The authorities fail to preserve a social contract with the population of the country. Now the regime tries to prevent a social protest to get political claims, and try to frighten the society like they used to do before”, says Uladzimir Matskevich, a philosopher and a leader of the Agency of Humanitarian Technologies, an independent Belarusain think tank. “There is a need for united response from the civil society; we need to come up with a real and united opposition force in Belarus”.
[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1490630698283-d066c6e3-2c4d-5″ taxonomies=”172″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Belarusian authorities were busy in 2015: the government introduced new laws aimed at restricting media outlets and distributors; freelance journalists contributing to foreign media outlets found themselves facing prosecution; and websites publishing material that “may harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus” were extrajudicially blocked.
President Aleksandr Lukashenko may have won his fifth consecutive election on 11 October, but this also raised concerns. Observers noted the electoral process failed to meet certain international standards, including equal media access for candidates, highlighting the pressure media workers find themselves under to comply with tightening government control.
Andrei Bastunets, chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, spoke to Mapping Media Freedom Volha Siakhovich about the country’s freedom of expression climate.
Volha Siakhovich: How would you describe the situation with media freedom in Belarus in 2015?
Andrei Bastunets: Press freedom has never been easy in Belarus. The country has been ranked 157th out in 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders for some years, which is the worst position among all European countries. We can also see the deterioration of the situation with press freedom and freedom of expression as a whole at the systemic level, with the further tightening of the legal framework for activities of the media set forth by new amendments to the Law on Mass Media came into force from the beginning of 2015. They had been adopted by the Belarusian parliament unexpectedly in December 2014 without any public discussion.
Why were the amendments made?
Andrei Bastunets: The Belarusian authorities are always in keeping with the trend of stifling freedom of speech through legal restrictions. The current authorities’ actions against the media are related to the 2015 presidential election campaign and economic crises in Belarus. These circumstances have provoked the tightening of state control over the media field. It affected traditional media, the web and the distribution of print outlets. Before the election, all media had been subjected to more strict limitations.
What problems are associated with state control over the distribution of media?
Andrei Bastunets: In accordance with new legal provisions all media outlets distributors (except for editorial boards) have been obliged to submit to the ministry of information the required information for their incorporation into the State Register until 1 July 2015. Any non-registered distributors’ activity is considered illegal. The ministry of information has various penalty tools that can be applied in relation to media distributors, including the banning of their activity. The distributors are now in fact forced to monitor the content of the distributed media under threat of sanctions. That may lead to the hidden censorship.
Several independent outlets that used to sell the major part of their print-runs through different trade companies and entrepreneurs have faced a reduction in sales since a significant part of press distributors have not agreed to apply to the ministry of information of Belarus for a special permit. At the same time, the “Belposhta” and “Sayuzdruk — state-owned monopolist press distributors — continue to discriminate against Belarusian independent media refusing to co-operate with them.
What negative consequences have followed the changes to the legal regulation regarding the web?
Andrei Bastunets: There is an active interference by the ministry of information of Belarus into the web, which has remained the freest segment in the Belarusian media space. According to the adopted amendments to the Law on Mass Media and provisions of presidential decree No.6 of 28 December 2014 On Urgent Actions to Counteract Illegal Drug Trafficking, which came into force at the beginning of 2015, the ministry of information was authorised to block access to websites extrajudicially for publishing information prohibited by law. It particularly includes the information, which ‘may harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus’. Now owners of websites are obliged to monitor their web contents including comments of users.
Any state agency can contribute to the formation of a “black list” of websites. It is enough to inform the ministry of information that, in its opinion, a website violates the law. It is important to note that the process has been completely removed from the judicial sphere and has been assigned to the state agencies and the ministry of information. A procedure for judicial review of such decisions is not provided.
Not only are websites to be blocked, but blogs as well. It is a mechanism of a manifestly repressive character and it does not agree with the principles of freedom of expression. In addition, this mechanism is in the hands of the authorities who do not respect these basic principles. Now it is clear that there are no possibilities to appeal against their decisions in fact besides applications to the authorities themselves.
On 18 June 2015, the ministry of information used its power and blocked access to the website KYKY.org. As it was stated in the ministerial report, some KYKY online publications “contained derogatory statements concerning the Belarusian Victory Day public holiday, as well as the citizens of the country who celebrated it, thus… calling in question the significance of this event for the state and distorting the historical truth about the Great Patriotic War”. The editorial staff had to remove all publications that the ministerial officers disliked in order to get back online.
What were the main restrictions to media freedom facing Belarusian journalists last year?
Andrei Bastunets: We witnessed intensified persecution of freelance journalists contributing for foreign media, detentions of journalists by police, interference of the ministry of information in the work of media and the blocking of access to information for journalists. The situation remained highly unfavorable, and the intensification of pressure on journalists and media was recorded during in the course of the presidential election in Belarus in October 2015.
Although no new criminal cases were brought against journalist in 2015, Belarusian journalist Aliaksandr Alesin remains a suspect in an espionage case which has been going on since 25 November 2014, when he was first detained. Alesin is a military expert and a columnist of the weekly Belarusians and Market. At first, the journalist was charged with treason and co-operation with foreign secret services or intelligence agencies. The charge of treason was withdrawn and he was freed, but he still stands accused of co-operation with foreign intelligence services.
The reduction in the detention of journalists is a welcome trend. In 2014, 29 journalists were detained and 10 legal cases were brought under the Code of Administrative Offences. In 2015, the number of detentions dropped to 13, while 28 cases were brought under the code.
In your opinion, why do the Belarusian authorities chase freelancers co-operating with foreign media?
Andrei Bastunets: Prosecution of freelance journalists cooperating with foreign media started in 2014 was continuing in 2015. During 2015, Belarusian freelance journalists have been fined 28 times under Art. 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offences for “illegal making and distributing mass media productions”. As before, the authorities repressed the independent media workers for the mere fact of publication of their pieces in foreign media. I believe, this is explained by the desire of the Belarusian authorities to restrict the influence of foreign media as the important independent sources of information in the conditions of the lack of independent audiovisual media in Belarus. All the fined freelance journalists worked for foreign radios or TV channels broadcasting for Belarus in Belarusian of Russian languages. As the Belarusian authorities are not able to control these media, they aim to control Belarusian citizens contributing to them.
The prosecution of freelance journalists dramatically intensified at the beginning of summer 2015. At the beginning of August 2015, after the president’s promise to look into the problem during his interview to journalists of independent media, initiating such cases was stopped. However, there were no legal guarantees that the situation would not repeat after the presidential election. And in December policemen in the Gomel region drew up three reports for cooperation with foreign media. Now we are expecting that the reports will be sent to the court.
What are the current main challenges with the Belarusian Association of Journalists?
Andrei Bastunets: As always, the challenges of Belarusian Association of Journalists are the protection of journalistic freedom and free speech values through interaction with state bodies, legal assistance and international advocacy.