This summer, 29-year-old Olga Alkhimenka was one of the last independent journalists to leave Belarus. It came as the authorities launched a hunt for the remaining unaccredited reporters still in the country.
Alkhimenka was heading an investigative unit contributing to the Polish channel Belsat TV. On Friday, July 16 she heard that Belarusian police had started arresting her colleagues.
What was supposed to be a normal day, turned out to be her last in Belarus. At 7 am, she woke up to reports that her team members were being detained around the capital Minsk after several attempts to intimidate and arrest them.
“One colleague was taken immediately, and others tried to block their doors,” Alkhimenka explained to Euronews.
"They took all phones and computers, so, of course, I knew that they would see all messages and would come for me. It would be extremely dangerous to stay. It would only be a matter of time before they would come and arrest me."
Alkhimenka grabbed her stuff and her eight-year-old daughter and took a taxi away from the safe house outside Minsk, where she had been staying due to the crackdowns.
"As I left the village in a taxi, police cars passed by us," says Alkhimenka, who now lives in Poland. "I think that if I had waited another five minutes, they would have arrested me."
"I hoped that I only had to flee for a month and that I could come back, but now I see that this is not possible as long as the government continues these crackdowns," she explains.
'More and more dangerous'
Alkhimenka says that the situation in Belarus became increasingly dangerous since longstanding leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won the presidential election in 2020 with 80 per cent of the vote.
The election plunged the country into crisis as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the vote they claimed had been rigged.
More than 30,000 people have since been detained, and the Belarusian authorities have been scaling up their efforts to shut down critical voices, such as independent media, ever since.
"The situation in Belarus has got worse, step by step. Before the elections, everything was quieter. We could even ask the government for quotes and be invited into their offices, but that all changed after the elections last year," she says, "Since the spring especially, we have seen the situation getting worse and worse and worse."
"In the spring, they began surveillance of each of our team members, trying to follow us via our phones and find out where we lived," says Alkhimenka, explaining that the increased crackdowns were the reason she left Minsk and moved to a safe house.
The crackdowns intensified after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, with journalist and activist Roman Protasevich on board, was diverted to the Belarusian capital in May. Upon landing in Minsk, Protasevich was arrested. Amid an international outcry, it was decried as state-sponsored air piracy.
The same month, the Belarusian authorities searched Belsat TV's offices in Minsk, seized equipment, and arrested a cameraman. In June and July, several journalists were detained when more media offices were raided.
Belsat TV pulls journalists out
Another journalist who left Belarus in the summer is Stanislav Ivashkevich, who also works with Alkhimenka and is a producer of investigative and analytical programmes for Belsat TV. He left Belarus in July for a business trip and could not return due to the wave of arrests.
He argues that the situation in Belarus is so dangerous now that "any independent journalist signing his or her name is either abroad, inactive on in jail".
"The few independent journalists who remain are always in danger of being arrested," he says, adding that all the reporters from his investigative unit have left Belarus.
Belsat TV's Deputy General Director, Alexy Dzikavicki, told Euronews that the channel decided to pull most of its reporters out of Belarus this summer as it had become too perilous to remain.
"When we saw that it was too dangerous for them to stay, we had to remove most of our reporters to avoid them going to prison," he said. "Belarus is trying to destroy all independent media, but we will continue to cover the country the best we can."
Dzikavicki described how Belsat TV also had to evacuate some reporters via illegal border crossings, travelling through grasslands and crossing rivers — because the Belarusian government had closed its borders to anyone leaving without permission.
The station had been reporting from Belarus for years without accreditation, as applications had always been denied by the Belarusian government.
Few free media outlets remain
After Alkhimenka left Belarus, the authorities continued their crackdown on the few independent media outlets remaining. Recently, they detained and interrogated reporters from the independent weekly newspaper Novy Chas and branded the Polish-based Belsat TV "extremist".
"If Belarus before the 2020 election was somewhere near Russia (in terms of press freedom) — how much could be published inside the country, how many independent or critical media existed — since then, the situation has become much worse than in Russia. It is even worse than in countries such as in Uzbekistan and even Azerbaijan," says Artyom Shraibman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"You have dozens of journalists in jail. You have virtually all independent media shut down or blocked. You see only a very small room for foreign reporting because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has revoked a lot of accreditations, if not all of them, for the non-Russian foreign media in the country. Coverage of street protests have been basically criminalised,” he told Euronews.
Shraibman refers to how two Belsat TV reporters, Katerina Andreyeva, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, were jailed in February and sentenced to two years in prison for live-streaming a protest from an apartment, which the government had not approved.
"What we see currently is basically a domestic occupation, but the security apparatus is still supporting Lukashenko, and it's strong — and with the opposition being weak, there are no signs of any cracks within their lead and no immediate danger to Lukashenko’s rule."
Euronews reached out to the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It had not responded by the time of publication.
'Why should Lukashenko stop?'
According to Reporters Without Borders, Belarus is one of the worst places for journalists globally and is ranked 158 out of 180 countries on its list. Artyom Shraibman says the current situation only seems to be getting worse.
"Why should Lukashenko stop? Western sanctions are not that painful for him to stop the crackdown that he thinks is necessary to eliminate any chances for protests in the future," he argues. "And for the security officials and security agencies, they enjoy the new attention from the government. They enjoy the budgets, and they enjoy their new status."
"So, everything indicates that we will continue to see repressions against independent media and the opposition. There is no resistance from society apart from some incidents like a recent shootout in Minsk, where a KGB (intelligence service) officer was shot. There is no resistance at the moment forcing Lukashenko to stop," he says.
"The Belarusian opposition is very weak and limited in what it can do because it has been the victim of a year-long crackdown, a very intense crackdown. So it's tough to imagine a lot of opposition in Belarus right now," says Shraibman, adding that various opinion polls estimate Lukashenko's support in the country to be only 25 to 35 per cent.
Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, also sees no real reason for things to get better in Belarus.
"We see how Lukashenko continues to crack down on the opposition and even try to pressure his immediate neighbours such as Poland and Lithuania," he says, referring to the arrival of thousands of migrants at their borders with Belarus in recent months. Lukashenko is accused by the European Union and the West of orchestrating the influx to destabilise the EU.
"I find it hard to believe that the relationship with the West can improve. It is hard for the EU to tell the public that Lukashenko — who has been in power since 1994 in Belarus and has been all over the news for crackdowns and is holding almost nine million people hostage in his country — is willing to change. I do not see that happening," Rojansky told Euronews.
'I hope to return at some point'
Alkhimenka is now working for Belsat TV in Poland, where she continues to cover Belarus the best she can from outside the country. She says that she keeps herself busy.
"Back then, I had to evaluate the risk for my child and me," she says. "And I knew that if I stayed in Belarus, I would be arrested and couldn’t do anything good from a prison cell."
"Now, I try to be useful in supporting Belarus and its people," Alkhimenka adds. "I hope to come back to Belarus at some point, but it will have to be after some kind of change of power."
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