[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]In the months since the disputed re-election of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, the freedom of the press in Belarus has come under increasing attack.
The country’s journalism union, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (Baj.by), has documented more than 500 detentions, hundreds of arrests and fines, and dozens of criminal cases and prison sentences directed against reporters, editors and media managers, including our former colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau.
Almost every independent news and socio-political outlet from the local to the national level has experienced police pressure, searches and confiscations of their professional equipment. Many have been forced to stop publishing or to flee the country in order to work from exile.
In July 2021, the state launched a new wave of repression against independent media outlets and organisations.
Over ten days, security forces carried out more than 70 searches of editorial offices and private homes of employees of national and regional media. As a result, dozens more journalists, editors and media managers joined their colleagues already in custody.
Now BAJ itself is in Lukashenko’s sights.
BAJ is a voluntary, nongovernmental, nonpartisan association that includes more than 1,300 media professionals from across the country. It assists members in realising and developing their professional journalistic activities. Throughout its 25 years of existence, BAJ has also been a leader in promoting freedom of expression and defending media rights.
The organisation has been internationally recognised for its work. In 2004, the European Parliament awarded BAJ with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the EU’s highest human rights tribute. In 2011, it received the Atlantic Council’s Freedom Award. In 2020, the organisation was the first recipient of the Canada-UK Media Freedom Award, which recognises individuals and organisations advocating for media freedom.
Over the past year, BAJ has focused on defending and assisting its members whose professional and human rights have been violated by the state’s searches, detentions, beatings, legal and criminal persecution, arrests and prison terms. So it is not surprising that the authorities have launched a repressive campaign targeting BAJ itself.
In June, BAJ was forced to hand over thousands of documents about its activities.
The following month, authorities conducted another search of the office even without the presence of the association’s representatives. It is unknown in respect of which criminal case it was searched nor what was taken from there. They have also sealed the office, meaning employees cannot work there anymore and there is no access to statutory documents.
Now the country’s Supreme Court issued an order for the organisation to be liquidated. This is the same situation which almost 50 other public organisations of Belarus have faced, which have been of benefit for decades to Belarusian society, journalism, the writing community and many other areas.
BAJ’s closure – if the courts agree to the liquidation – will cause serious damage to the Belarusian journalistic community.
Firstly, there will be no legal organisation left in the country that can protect the rights of journalists.
Secondly, the association’s educational hub for journalists will disappear, and many BAJ educational programmes will have to be closed.
Finally, the only legal and recognised institution of journalistic ethical self-government will be destroyed – the BAJ Ethics Commission. In recent years, this was the only body in Belarus that effectively considered issues related to ethics in the media.
Yet even if BAJ is forced to close, it will not disappear.
The support of the international community for BAJ is strong. Journalists and numerous human rights organisations around the world have offered their support to BAJ and its members at this difficult time. BAJ also has outstanding support from the International and European Federation of Journalists, who oppose the liquidation, and have said that if it is closed, the association will remain a member of their organisations.
If the liquidation of the BAJ legal entity is confirmed, the headquarters will make a final decision on how it will work in the future. If it is impossible to continue in Belarus, BAJ will consider working abroad.
BAJ continues the fight. It has already appealed the Ministry of Justice’s liquidation order and the court will consider this on the morning of 11 August.
However, the justice system no longer works properly any more in Belarus. In any other democratic country, the court’s decision would be in favour of the BAJ.
The most important thing, according to BAJ chairman Andrei Bastunec, is that the organisation will continue its work.
“BAJ is not only a legal entity, but an association of like-minded people who see their mission as expanding the space of freedom of speech in Belarus,” he said.
Bastunec says the official registration of the organisation provided, by and large, one advantage: it simplified communication with government agencies. But when the authorities announced its ‘sweep’, advance communication was reduced to zero.
“As strange as it may sound, the deprivation of the BAJ’s legal status by the court will have almost no effect on Belarusian journalism and journalists. Many of them have been forced to go abroad, but continue to work there successfully. The BAJ will continue its work regardless of the court verdict,” he said.
Despite the threat to its existence in Belarus, active members of BAJ are defiant. Many say they will continue working in Belarus as long as possible until the authorities force them to leave the country.
“There is an administrative, bureaucratic reality from which the BAJ can be erased, but there is also a life where the organisation will continue to carry out its mission. The biggest threat to Belarusian journalism is not the deprivation of BAJ registration, but the wave of repression.”
Bastunec says the BAJ team welcomes the solidarity offered by those in the country and abroad.
“It must be understood that the Belarusian authorities today have entered into a fierce confrontation with the ‘collective West’, as they now call the democratic world.”
Yet even if forced to work outside Belarus, BAJ and its members may not be safe. The recent suspicious death of Vitaly Shishov in Ukraine and the attempt to force Belarusian athlete Krystina Timanovskaya to return home after speaking out against her coaches at the Olympics show that Lukahsenko’s tentacles have a very long reach.
Chronology of the repressive campaign against BAJ
9 June The Ministry of Justice launches a major audit of BAJ’s activities.
21 June BAJ receives an official request requiring the organisation to provide thousands of administrative and financial documents on its activities, including lists of its members, covering the last three years. The documents were demanded the same day but the Ministry of Justice later extended the deadline to 1 July. Despite the short time frame, BAJ submitted all the requested documents, with the exception of those seized from the BAJ office during a search by security forces in February 2021.
14 July In the absence of BAJ representatives, security forces raided, searched and sealed BAJ’s office.
15 July BAJ receives an official warning from the Ministry of Justice on the grounds that its regional branches in Brest and Maladzechna had allegedly carried out their activities without having legal addresses. However, this is not true. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Justice considered the failure of BAJ to submit all of the required audit documents, as well as the absence of legal addresses of the regional branches, to be a violation of the country’s legislation and BAJ’s charter. The Ministry demanded that the alleged violations be rectified by the next day.
16 July BAJ informs the Ministry of Justice that the organisation’s office had been sealed by the state and that its representatives had no access to its documents. BAJ therefore requested more time to fulfill the Ministry’s demands after gaining access to its premises.
21July The Ministry of Justice reports via its social networks that it had already submitted a claim for the liquidation of BAJ to the Supreme Court, allegedly due to the organisation’s failure to rectify the violations and the official warning for repeated violations of the law.
9 August Conversation of the parties in the civil case brought by the Supreme Court on the BAJ appeal against the written warning issued by the Ministry of Justice on 15 July.
11 August Supreme Court will hear the liquidation order against BAJ.[/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]
The lighting rig which proudly illuminated one less Olympic ring than it should have caused considerable embarrassment for the Russian organisers of the opening ceremony, as Sochi 2014 opened its gates to the athletes. Known as the “stubborn snowflake” Russian viewers at home were greeted with footage from the Opening Ceremony rehearsal, so they were none the wiser. The Russians later showed their funny side by only featuring four rings in the Closing Ceremony performance.
Footage showed Cossack security staff whipping band members, pulling off their ski masks, and throwing them to the ground.
Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak dismissed the attacks: “The girls came here specifically to provoke this conflict,” he explained. “They had been searching for it for some time and finally they had this conflict with local inhabitants.”
While the international media covered the face-whipping incident in fairly minute detail, Russian press clippings about the arrest are hard to come by. Pussy Riot’s previous stunt in Moscow’s main cathedral, which landed them with a jail sentences and heavy fines, have already been scrubbed from the internet.
3. Justin Kripps’ website
Russian fans hoping to keep updated by the Canadian bobsleigher’s website were disappointed, as Russian censorship authorities blocked access to it. It’s still unclear why, but it may be linked to a risque photo Kripps tweeted a month prior to the Games. The snap featured his burly four-man bobsled team in their underwear at a weigh in. The photo went viral, in particular within the gay community.
4. Almost every story about corruption, gay-bashing, forcible evictions and the environment
(Image: Heather Blockey/Demotix)
While the run-up to Sochi might have been dominated by negative stories in the Western media, with tales of homophobia,corruption and environmental destruction, local journalists had to be a lot more cautious when reporting the “true” face of Sochi. Strict surveillance measures were imposed on all journalists’ emails, social media and internet use – to keep any negative stories from breaking.
“It seems to me that some of these surveillance measures were conscientiously made public … to send a message,” commented investigative journalist and security services expert Andrei Soldatov while at the Games.
BONUS: And…Russians accuse US of censorship and malicious media bias
Censorship during NBC’s coverage of the Opening Ceremony included missing out a live performance by girlband t.A.T.u, omitting a Russian police choir performing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” deleting Communist-themed vignettes, and failing to air a congratulatory speech by IOC chief Thomas Bach, praising the Russians. Russian media whooped with glee when the hashtag #NBCFail started trending on Twitter in response to the censorship.
American magazine The Nation published a rare honest analysis of the American media’s vitriol against Russia, noting that even before the Games began, the Washington Times had written off the venues as a “Soviet-style dystopia” and warned in a headline, “TERRORISM AND TENSION, NOT SPORTS AND JOY.”
Provocative BuzzFeed headlines like “Photographic Proof That Sochi Is A Godforsaken Hellscape Right Now” and the Twitter account @SochiProblems, provoked outrage in Russia. One Russian netizen took such offence with @SochiProblems that he travelled to London and created his own photo tour of the city “in Sochi style”. “The Other Side of London, where the guided tours don’t go” is a depressing trip through some of London’s worst outer districts. The results (translated from Russian) make for sombre viewing, tinged with humour.
The Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony is taking place today, and organisers have declared that a record 65 world leaders are attending. But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. As it turns out, some of the biggest names in global politics will not be in the stands cheer on their athletes as the games are officially kick off. Indeed, quite a few won’t be taking the trip to Sochi at all. Barack Obama is sending a delegation including openly gay figure skater Brian Boitano in his place, and Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Francois Hollande are also staying away.
But while the International Olympic Committee’s Thomas Bach was less than impressed by the apparent boycott, labelling it an “ostentatious gesture” that “costs nothing but makes international headlines”, the absence of the big guns does give the lesser-known world leaders a chance to shine. Not all guests have been confirmed, but we’ve got the low-down on some of the the leaders the cameras might pan to during today’s festivities, or who could be spotted in the slopes over the coming weeks.
The Turkish president made global headlines last summer, over his regime’s violent crackdown on the peaceful Gezi park demonstrations. Rather than accepting the protests were a manifestation of genuine grievances by his people, he blamed “foreign hands” and their “domestic collaborators” like many a less-than-democratic leader before him. His government was recently implicated in a big corruption scandal, and only yesterday, parliament approved controversial amendments to the country’s internet law. The new law, opposed by civil society, the opposition and international organisations alike, gives the government wide-reaching powers over the internet, effectively allowing them to block websites without court rulings, and gives them access to user data.
(Image: Oleksandr Nazarov/Demotix)
The Ukrainian president’s failure to sign a treaty securing closer ties with the EU in November, sparked the country’s ongoing Euromaidan protests. The authorities response was heavy handed — police clashed with demonstrators and journalist were targeted, leading to international condemnation. They authorities even briefly implemented a highly repressive new law, among other things allowing security services to monitor the internet, and defining NGOs receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents”. The law was, however, scrapped only days later following outrage from civil society. Meanwhile,Ukraine’s Prime Minister and government also stepped down, while Yanukovych took four days off ill. He’s back in the office now — just in time head to Sochi for a much-hyped meeting with Putin.
(Image: Vladimir Tretyakov/Demotix)
Kazakhstan’s president has been in power since 1991, and during that time, allegations of human rights abuses, including attacks on demonstrators and independent media, as well as widespread corruption have been regularly levelled at him. In 2012, following clashed between the police and striking workers, the president, who already effectively controls the legislature and the judiciary, further extended his emergency powers. But Putin wouldn’t even be his only high-flying friend. In September, Kanye West performed at his grandson’s wedding. The reported price tag? $3 million. Did I mention the accusations of corruption? Meanwhile, former British prime minister Tony Blair spent two years advising Nazarbayev and his government on democracy and good governance — a deal which “produced no change for the better or advance of democratic rights in the authoritarian nation”.
”We will give the background of the Rule 50, explaining the interpretation of the Rule 50 to make the athletes aware and to assure them that the athletes will be protected,” said IOC President Thomas Bach in an interview earlier this week. Rule 50 stipulates that ”No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Failure to comply could, at worst, mean expulsion for the athlete in question.
Political expression is certainly a hot topic at Sochi 2014. The games continue to be marred by widespread, international criticism of Russia’s human — and particularly LGBT– rights record. The outrage has especially been directed at the country’s recently implemented, draconian anti-gay law. Put place to “protect children”, it bans “gay propaganda”. This vague terminology could technically include anything from a ten meter rainbow flag to a tiny rainbow pin, and there have already been arrests under the new legislation.
On top of this, the IOC also recently announced that there will be designated “protest zones” in Sochi, for “people who want to express their opinion or want to demonstrate for or against something,” according to Bach. Where these would be located, or exactly how they would work, was not explained.
But while the legal situation in Russia adds another level of uncertainty and confusion regarding free, political expression for athletes, rule 50 has banned it for years. And for years, athletes have taken a stand anyway.
By far the most famous example came during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the podium, black gloved fists raised in solidarity with the ongoing American civil rights movement. The third man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, showed his support by wearing a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. All three men faced criticism at the time, but the image today stands out as one of the most iconic and powerful pieces of Olympic history.
However, the history of Olympians and political protest goes further back than that. An early example is the refusal of American shotputter Ralph Rose to dip the flag to King Edward VII at the 1908 games in London. It us unknown exactly why he did it, but one theory is that it was an act of solidarity for Irish athletes who had to compete under the British flag, as Rose and others on his team were of Irish descent.
The Cold War years unsurprisingly proved to be a popular time for athletes to put their political views across. When China withdrew from the 1960 Olympics in protest at Taiwan, then recognised by the west as the legitimate China, taking part. The IOC then asked Taiwan not to march under the name ‘Republic of China’. While considering boycotting the games, the Taiwanese delegation instead decided to march into the opening ceremony with a sign reading “under protest”.
But there are also more recent examples. At Athens 2004, Iranian flyweight judo champion Arash Miresmaeili reportedly ate his way out of his weight category the day before he was set to fight Israeli Ehud Vaks. “Although I have trained for months and was in good shape, I refused to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathise with the suffering of the people of Palestine” he said. A member of the South Korean football team which beat Japan to win bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, celebrated with a flag carrying a slogan supporting South Korean sovereignty over territory Japan also claims.
When the debate on political expression comes up, the argument of “where do we draw the line” often follows. If the IOC is to allow messages of solidarity with Russia’s LGBT population, should they allow, say, a Serbian athlete speak out against Kosovan independence? Or any number of similar, controversial political issues? Is it not easier to simply have a blanket band, and leave it at that?
The problem with this is, as much as the IOC and many other would like it, the Olympics, with all their inherent symbolism, simply cannot be divorced from wider society or politics. The examples above show this. With regards to Sochi in particular, the issue is pretty straightforward — gay are human rights. Some have argued we should boycott a Olympics in a country that doesn’t respect the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, or indeed the Olympic Charter. This is not happening, so the very least we can is use the Olympics to shine a light on gay rights in Russia. At its core, the Olympics are about the athletes — they are the most visible and important people there. It remains to be seen whether any of them will take a stand for gay rights, outside cordoned-off protest areas, in the slopes and on the rink, where the spotlight shines the brightest. And if they do, they should have our full support.