Belarus: Europe’s Most Dangerous Country for Journalists

Media workers warn that the regime is systematically trying to silence them.

Belarus: Europe’s Most Dangerous Country for Journalists

Media workers warn that the regime is systematically trying to silence them.

Policemen detain journalists covering the protest in Minsk on 27 August, 2020.
Policemen detain journalists covering the protest in Minsk on 27 August, 2020. © Vadim Zamirovkski, TUT.BY
Thursday, 11 March, 2021

On November 15, 2020 television reporter Katsiaryna Bakhvalava live-streamed the ongoing protests in Minsk together with her colleague at the independent channel Belsat, Daria Chultsova.

Hours later, police broke into their apartments and arrested them. After three months in pre-trial detention, a court found Bakhvalava and Chultsova guilty of organising group protests that “grossly violated” public order and sentenced them to two years in prison.

Bakhvalava’s husband Ihar Ilyash, who is also a journalist, fully expects his own arrest to come any day now. Each morning when he leaves the house, he packs a rucksack with personal items that he might need in prison.

He said that the authorities “have been treating the journalists of independent media outlets as their enemies.

“For the authorities the journalists doing their job are the same as organisers of the protests. Journalism in Belarus is now a criminal offence.”

Large-scale repression against the independent media has made Belarus the most dangerous country for journalists in Europe, according to the latest report from Reporters Without Borders.

Protests swept Minsk on August 9 after disputed presidential elections claimed by Belarus’ ruler autocratic ruler Alesander Lukashenko. Over the next two days, more than 50 journalists were detained, with many of them beaten.

Others were injured as they tried to cover the uprising. One journalist, Natallia Lubneuskaya, was so badly wounded by a rubber bullet that she spent more than a month in hospital. Another reporter, Iryna Arakhouskaya, was saved from serious injury by her bulletproof vest.

Overall, 477 journalists were detained in Belarus in 2020, with 97 going on to serve administrative sentences. It is believed that at least ten media workers remain under arrest on criminal charges.

Barys Haretski, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said that such large-scale repressions had never been used against the media in Belarus before.

For comparison, despite previous protests in 2011 and 2017, there were no more than 100-150 arrests in each of those entire years.

“Totalitarian regimes do not like independent journalists,” Haretski said. “In their understanding, the media is fuelling protests with information, and therefore they are getting rid of journalists.”

He described how police had raided his own home early one morning, when he was getting his children ready for school.

“Nobody feels safe,” Haretski continued. “We were supporting the journalists who were detained, and now they have come to us. This is a politically motivated case,”

Prior to the 2020 protests, police had allowed journalists to operate freely if they wore brightly coloured Press Vests.

But after the elections, everything changed.

Ruslan Kulevich, who covered the protests in the city of Grodno in western Belarus, believes that he was actively targeted for his reporting.

“The riot policeman asked my name. When I told him, he said, ‘So, I got you. The war broke out because of journalists like you. If it was up to me, I would shoot you all’,” Kulevich said.

He was beaten by policemen during his arrest, and spent a night in a squalid prison cell. After his release doctors found that Kulevich had suffered two broken arms and a concussion.

“I wrote a book about Soviet prisoners arrested by communists in 1939 and Gestapo prisoners in the time of occupation. What happened to me was similar to their stories; how innocent people were detained, how they were beaten for nothing, in what conditions they were kept,” said Kulevich, who left Belarus in September 2020 and now lives in Latvia.

The Belarusian authorities are quite open about their persecution of journalists. Lukashenko has publicly demanded the expulsion of BBC and Radio Liberty journalists for allegedly organising protests.

“They call for massive riots. Expel them from Belarus, if they do not obey our laws and continue to call people to the Maidan [square],” Lukashenko said.

On October 2, 2020, the ministry of foreign affairs introduced new rules under which all international journalists were stripped of their accreditation. Although they promised to issue new accreditations within 30 days, months later many international outlets are still unable to legally work in Belarus.

Addressing journalism students late last year, Natallia Kachanava, chair of the upper house of parliament, said that covering protests equaled participation in them.

She said that if a rally was not coordinated with the local authorities, everyone who attended could be detained, including media workers.  

“Tell me, why is it necessary to cover these protests?” she asked the students.

The government’s tactics appear to be effective.

“Intimidation works. Now, if a journalist is detained on the street, he may even face criminal charges. The journalists avoid working on the streets, due to fear and caution,” said Haretski.

Media expert Paulyuk Bykowski said that citizen journalism and user generated content was to some extent compensating for the absence of journalists on the streets.

“It is now the most important way of reporting about street protests for both Belarusian and foreign journalists,” Bykowsky said.

And since the protests began, four Belarussian newspapers have been forced to shut down following raids on their offices.

Hanna Valadashchuk, the owner and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Slonimskaya, was summoned to the police as a witness in a criminal case. On the same day, the police seized all the computers from the office. With no equipment, the newspaper had to stop publishing for the first time in 23 years, and Valadashchuk fled Belarus for Poland.

Valadashchuk said that had she stayed in Belarus, a criminal case would have been fabricated against her and she would have been sent to prison.

“It is very dangerous to work in Belarus now,” she continued. “It is like walking through a minefield. You can be arrested for doing your job, for reporting objectively. Can it happen anywhere else in Europe?”

Haretski agreed that far from easing up on the media, the government was taking ever harsher legal measures against them.

“The situation with the rights of journalists is only getting worse,” he continued. “It all started with detentions and administrative arrests, but now, criminal cases are very common,”

This has been the experience of Ilyash, who was held in administrative detention for 15 days last November, the same month his wife was arrested. Later, his apartment was searched.

He refuses to follow the example of many other journalists and leave the country for his own safety.

“I am receiving signals that a criminal case may be launched against me,” he said. “But I will not leave the country without my wife.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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