Journalism rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has accused Belarus' government of “waging a terrible war” against journalists and freedom of speech, as it lodged an official complaint with the United Nations.
In recent months, amid crackdowns on the frequent protests that have been ongoing following the disputed reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, journalists have been arrested by police and charged with alleged criminal acts.
Rights groups say this is to stop the coverage of the protests, which have seen unprecedented numbers of people take the streets week after week, calling for free and fair elections and the end of Lukashenko’s rule.
RSF, along with the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), are referring arbitrary arrests of media workers to the UN.
RSF data shows Belarus was the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists in 2020 - but the organisations say harassment of journalists has “taken a more threatening turn” in 2021, with a number facing “trumped-up criminal charges” that could lead to lengthy prison sentences.
“The Belarusian authorities are pursuing a new tactic in which they permanently lock up journalists to prevent them from covering the protests, which have continued for more than five months despite the crackdown,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Those who were being fined and jailed for up to 15 days on ‘administrative’ charges are now facing the possibility of several years in prison. The ridiculously thin veneer of legality surrounding these criminal proceedings fails to conceal the reality, which is that Alexander Lukashenko is waging a terrible war against the media and free speech,” she said.
“Every possible pressure must be put on this regime to get it to free the journalists and end these abuses.”
RSF says six out of the ten journalists currently in detention in the country are facing criminal investigations.
Along with BAJ, RSF has referred a total of 15 cases of what it calls arbitrary arrests to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
One of the most high profile arrests was of Andrei Alyaksandrau, an experienced journalist in the country who went missing on January 12.
An independent news agency, BelaPAN, who he works for tracked him down to a police station, where he was being held, along with his partner, for “organising and preparing activities that breach public order or active participation in them", his lawyer told BelaPAN.
RSF says he was not allowed to see his lawyer until two days after his arrest, allegedly because of the coronavirus pandemic. On 14 January, security forces spent three hours searching the editorial office of the news agency. They took away various documents as well as 12 hard drives, “paralysing” the agency's work, according to its director.
Reporters for Belsat, Katsyarina Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, have been in custody since mid-November, and are facing criminal charges over the “organisation and preparation of acts grossly violating public order or active participation in them”, according to article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code.
Six members of the independent Belarus Press Club were arrested on 21 December, and one of them, founder and chairwoman Yulia Slutskaya, is facing charges of tax evasion.
Eight others are currently facing criminal proceedings, but are not being held, with charges including “insulting the president “ and “disturbing public order” according to RSF.
RSF data shows Belarus was the most dangerous country in Europe for reporters in 2020, with around 370 journalists arrested that year following the August 9 election.
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 RSF report stated.