Belarus was the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists in 2020, data from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows.
Reporters were caught up in the mass arrests that followed the disputed reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko.
There were around 370 journalists arrested in the country since August 9, with eight still being held.
Data collected by RSF and the Belarusian Association of Journalists shows police deliberately used violence against reporters covering demonstrations “with the clear aim of gagging the media and making protests ‘disappear’”, the report states.
Worldwide, 61% of imprisoned journalists are being held in just five countries: China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Syria.
According to another RSF report, there were 50 journalists killed worldwide in 2020. But none of the fatalities were in Europe.
COVID-19 measures used to interfere in reporters’ work in Europe
Meanwhile, countries in central and eastern Europe are accused of using measures imposed to control the spread of coronavirus to impede journalists’ work.
“Arbitrary legislation on spreading false information and accusations of violating social distancing regulations have provided excellent grounds for arresting journalists and stifling independent media,” RSF said.
It highlights the case of Tatiana Voltskaya, a reporter for a news website affiliated to US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who was charged by police in Russia with “false information” after publishing an interview with a doctor about the lack of ventilators in hospitals.
Another journalist, Sergei Satsuk, was arrested in Belarus accused of “receiving a bribe” after raising questions about the country’s COVID-19 figures, the report states. He was released after international pressure but could still face a 10-year jail sentence.
RSF also points to arrests of critical journalists in Serbia, Kosovo, Poland and “draconian laws” passed in Hungary and Serbia.
50 journalists killed in 2020
Despite the pandemic resulting in much fewer journalists working out in the field, RSF says 50 have been killed between the start of the year and December 15, just three fewer than in 2019.
Seven out of ten of those victims were killed in countries that are not at war, and 84% of those killed were deliberately targeted.
RSF points to the particularly gruesome killings of reporters in Mexico and India, where they have been beheaded, hacked to pieces or killed with machetes.
Mexico is named as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, following the killing of eight journalists this year.
For the last five years, the country has seen an average of eight to ten murders of reporters each year.
One reporter for the daily newspaper El Mundo, Julio Valdivia Rodríguez, was found beheaded in Veracruz, while Víctor Fernando Álvarez Chávez, the editor of the local news website Punto x Punto Noticias, was cut to pieces in Acapulco.
"They publish reports, investigations that are disturbing, and because they spread this information that embarrasses certain governments, they are deliberately targeted and eliminated," said Pauline Adès-Mevel is Editor-in-Chief and spokesperson for RSF.
It's not only investigative journalists who are being targeted. Some covering demonstrations such as Black Lives Matter rallies in the United States have been deliberately injured. The report claims journalists suffer from intimidation and violence across the world and its authors say they want countries that can to become more proactive in protecting reporters.
“The world’s violence continues to be visited upon journalists,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
“Some may think that journalists are just the victims of the risks of their profession, but journalists are increasingly targeted when they investigate or cover sensitive subjects. What is being attacked is the right to be informed, which is everyone’s right.”