Preventing protest coverage: How Belarus controls what the public knows

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Belarus Free Theatre's Siarhai Kvachonok being arrested

Belarusian police detain Belarus Free Theatre’s Siarhai Kvachonok on Saturday March 25 2017 during protests against Presidential Decree No 3, which imposes a tax on unemployed people. (Photo:

“Europe’s last dictatorship” doesn’t tolerate dissent. The country’s constitution claims to protect freedom of the press, but many laws seem to contradict this.

Independent outlets are constrained by laws in favor of state-run media. Most frequently targeted are Belarus’s independent journalists and Belsat TV, alternatives to the heavily censored state-run Belarusian news. These targeted journalists often fall victim to Belarus’ restrictive regime for press accreditation, a system used by the government to “maintain its monopoly on information in one of the world’s most restrictive environments for media freedom”, according to a report by Index.

“An openly critical stance of the [Belsat TV] towards the authorities of Belarus results in the situation when it is not officially registered in the country and its journalists are pushed beyond the legal system through rules that neither grant them official accreditation, nor recognise freelancers as journalists”, said Andrei Aliaksandrau, deputy director of BelaPAN and editor of the Belarus Journal. “Reporters are subject to administrative prosecution, arrests and fines on ridiculous charges of ‘illegal production of mass media materials’”.

In order to stifle awareness of the public’s unhappiness with the current political climate, the government targets journalists covering protests before, during and after the demonstrations. Index’s Mapping Media Freedom has documented as many as 22 cases since 2015.

“For the past 20 years the authorities in Belarus have been known for their harsh police violence against street protests, including against journalists … After 2011 street protests and mass opposition rallies became rare in Belarus, right until early 2017 when people returned to the streets of Belarusian cities to protest against deterioration of economic situation. The police used brutal force again; and journalists were among those detained”, said Aliaksandrau.

With tactics ranging from detention to assault, Belarusian law enforcement specifically go after independent reporters in an effort to prevent the public from knowing the full extent of protests.


Between March and May of 2017, MMF documented five cases of journalists detained before they were scheduled to cover protests.

Two Belsat TV journalists and one independent journalist were detained twice in one day on their way to cover protests on 18 March 2017. The journalists were first accused of a traffic violation, then later of stealing a car and robbing a bank, according to MMF. The journalists were going to cover one protest in a series nationwide called  against a proposed tax.

That same day, four different groups of Belsat journalists were detained in different cities to prevent coverage of demonstrations.

Also on the same day, two Belsat TV journalists were detained during a live broadcast. They were reporting on a possible protest when two police officers arrived. The two were detained without explanation and released hours later.


Since 2015 there are 11 documented cases on MMF of journalists being targeted while on site of a protest.

On 25 March 2017, Freedom Day in Belarus, 39 journalists across the country were detained, totalling around 90 detentions alone in the month of March, according to the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). MMF reports seven of the 30 detained were beaten by police.

After the mass detentions on Freedom Day, 16 journalists were detained the next day during solidarity rallies across the country. Of those detained between both days, some were charged with “hooliganism” and sentenced from five to fifteen days in prison.

In 2015, as independent blogger Viktar Nikitsenka was leaving a demonstration, plain-clothed police officers seized him and dragged him into a bus where he was reportedly beaten. Information and materials were deleted from his phone and camera and his equipment was stolen. He was fined 450 euros.

When Nikitsenka filed a complaint against the officers for unlawful use of force, it was rejected.


On 18 March 2017, four Belsat TV crews intending to report on protests were detained in different cities. In one incident, Belsat TV journalist Ales Lyauchuk reported that he and a colleague were stopped by traffic police after covering a protest, then “dragged out of the car [and] brutally assaulted”. The two were reportedly stopped without explanation and held at the station for three hours, their equipment damaged and seized.

“They said that if this goes on, they will shoot us”, Lyauchuk said.

Five days before, video blogger Maksim Filipovich received three separate prison sentences for participating in “illegal” protests. Riot police arrested him at his parents flat, which he livestreamed.

“Targeting journalists who are trying to report on protests is misuse of official powers and it shows how little media freedom there is in Belarus”, said Joy Hyvarinen, Head of Advocacy.

As coverage of protests is censored by targeted the journalists who cover them, freedom of expression both in the form of journalism but also protest is being stifled. Instead of immediately targeting protests, the Belarusian government diminishes the purpose of a protest, since the cause can’t gain attention.

In countries like Belarus where press freedom is protected by the constitution, rulers ignore the law to advance a political agenda.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row content_placement=”top”][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”What price protest?” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]Through a range of in-depth reporting, interviews and illustrations, the summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores the 50th anniversary of 1968, the year the world took to the streets, to look at all aspects related to protest.

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Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified more than 3,700 violations against journalists and media outlets.

Index campaigns to protect journalists and media freedom. You can help us by submitting reports to Mapping Media Freedom.

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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 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, 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

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