Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s high-level talks at the White House on July 19th coincided with yet another wave of brutal repressions on civil society in her home country, where independent media has now almost been extinguished.
The West must now put media freedoms first on their list in negotiations with the Belarusian authorities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Restoring the work of independent media should be a precondition at least equal to the release of political prisoners.
Images of Belarusians peacefully and courageously demanding a free and fair process in the August 2020 election were watched across the world.
Unfortunately, so was the subsequent falsification of the results and ongoing brutal reprisal against protesters by government security forces.
Nearly a year after losing an election, Lukashenko is still in office and thousands have been arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. There appears to be no limit to the terror that can be waged against his enemies. And we know all of this because of brave journalists on the ground, documenting their own persecution.
Last week, police stormed into the offices of more than forty non-profit organisations and media outlets, interrogating employees, and confiscating equipment.
What the government has grimly described as a ‘cleansing’ operation is clearly an act of retaliation against participants of last year’s mass protests but also against sanctions imposed by the West.
In May, the US and EU blacklisted regime officials after journalist Roman Pratasevich was taken off the Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk under the pretext of a bomb and was put under arrest. Though the EU and US ordered its aircraft to avoid Belarusian airspace, Lukashenko’s point to challengers was made: you are not safe anywhere.
Operating as a journalist in Belarus has always carried risk, but no more so than now. The authorities have given up even pretending to accommodate a few independent outlets after they live-streamed protests, mass arrests, and assaults by police forces that followed a disputed election in August 2020.
It’s not surprising that the media were one of the first victims of post-election repression. Pratasevich previously co-managed the dissident Telegram channel Nexta, which published thousands of news stories about protests to more than a million subscribers. The government has labelled this channel “extremist”.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Belarus is the worst place in Europe to be a journalist. At the latest count, more than thirty Belarusian media workers are currently behind bars including editors, journalists, photographers, camera operators and stringers. Websites are routinely blocked. Fines and prison sentences for trumped-up charges are growing.
In the two months after Pratasevich’s arrest, the threats to independent media in Belarus have escalated. Hundreds continue to be forced into exile after spurious criminal cases are opened against them. Those who stay are charged with extremism and inciting hatred, threatened into informing on their colleagues or forced into making bogus confessions broadcast on state TV. Pro-regime newspapers, reporters and social media accounts also smear the names of those detained, accusing them of Nazism or being Western puppets.
The lack of focus on the erosion of the independent media sector in Belarus is dangerous as it creates an informational vacuum on the borders of the EU. If the democratic international community wants to help independent media and wider civil society in Belarus, they must insist on press freedom as a prerequisite for relaxing sanctions including the removal of website blocks and the release of all journalists from jail.
They must also lead by example. Only in the last week, there has been a spate of assaults on the media across Europe. The Georgian cameraman Alexander Lachkarava was beaten to death by a group of far-right thugs in Tbilisi while fifty of his colleagues were also assaulted. The Dutch investigative journalist Peter De Vries was shot to death in broad daylight on the streets of Amsterdam after leaving the filming of a talk show. In Poland, the government is unhappy over its critical coverage under the pretext of countering malign foreign influence. And journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and politicians across the world are allegedly being targeted by authoritarian regimes using a cyber-surveillance weapon Pegasus, a hacking spyware initially intended for use against criminals and terrorists. How can Europe take a stand on the safety of journalists and press freedom abroad when its own neighbourhood is in such disarray?
Pressure must be kept on the regime, but opportunities also created for Belarusians. With the seemingly unconditional backing of Moscow, we can no longer rely on economic sanctions to change Lukashenko’s behaviour. The EU appears currently obsessed over a small rise in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers crossing through Belarus and into the bloc.
Tomorrow will it be Belarusians themselves climbing the barbed wire?
Europe and the West should create favourable working conditions for exiled journalists and media outlets that are forced to leave Belarus, providing them with urgent visas and speeding up their legal status allowing them to expand media hubs. The people of Belarus deserve to know that the doors of other European countries and the US are open to them.
Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach is a Belarusian journalist and team leader for Europe and Central Asia at Free Press Unlimited.