Belarus: Crackdown on Independent Journalism

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Katsiaryna Barysevich, a journalist for the independent TUT.BY news website enters a court room during a trial in Minsk on 19 February, 2021.
© 2021 RAMIL NASIBULIN/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

(Moscow) – Belarusian authorities have escalated repression against independent journalists in the past five months, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have arbitrarily detained and beaten journalists, imposed fines and prison sentences on politically motivated charges, revoked their media credentials, and raided their homes and offices.

The crackdown on journalists is part of the government’s efforts to silence media reporting on human rights violations and peaceful, countrywide protests. Protesters have been demanding fair elections and justice for abuses since August 9, 2020, when the official results of the presidential election were announced.

“Instead of ensuring justice for sweeping police brutality and other abuses, Belarusian authorities are prosecuting journalists reporting on sensitive issues,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should guarantee that all journalists in Belarus are able to carry out their work without fear of reprisals and without abusive restrictions.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 independent journalists reporting on Belarus, their lawyers, and relatives.

Reporters without Borders, an independent media rights group, has called Belarus Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists due to the government repression against independent journalists peacefully doing their legitimate work.

Several journalists told Human Rights Watch that “press” vests felt like a target on their backs rather than a symbol of protection.

Witness: Journalists Wait for Justice in Belarus

Personal stories told by the families of independent journalists arrested in retaliation for their peaceful legitimate work.

Read

Between late September and March, Belarusian authorities opened at least 18 criminal cases against journalists, apparently in reprisal for their work. Three journalists – Katsiaryna Barysevich, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), and Darya Chultsova – were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years. Seven journalists – Andrei Aliaksandrau, Yulia Slutskaya, Siarhei Alsheuski, Ala Sharko, Piotr Slutsky, Kseniya Lutskina, and Dzianis Ivashyn – are awaiting trial behind bars on criminal charges of violating public order, tax evasion, and interfering with police work. One journalist is under house arrest, accused of insulting the president.

The authorities coerced lawyers representing many of these journalists into signing vaguely worded non-disclosure agreements, barring them from sharing any information about their clients’ cases. Several lawyers who in similar cases refused to sign have faced disbarment.

Belarusian authorities should immediately and unconditionally free Andreyeva, Chultsova, and Barysevich, and quash the verdicts against them, and free Slutskaya, Slutsky, Sharko, Alsheuski, Lutskina, Aliaksandrou and Ivashyn and drop all charges against them.

In some criminal cases involving bogus charges, the authorities have designated journalists as witnesses and then proceeded to subject them to police and judicial harassment. The journalists reported being summoned for police questioning, threatened with criminal charges, and subjected to home and office searches and seizure of their equipment. At least one newspaper had to temporarily close due to a threat of criminal prosecution, raids, and confiscated equipment.

On February 16, law enforcement officials carried out a nationwide wave of raids, targeting human rights groups and at least five journalists and seizing their devices. Officials said the raids were part of a criminal investigation into unsanctioned protests and appear to equate providing legal assistance to detained protesters with organizing protests.

The raids also targeted the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a human rights organization providing assistance to journalists in Belarus. In March, the authorities questioned the group’s leader, Andrey Bastunets, and its deputy director, Barys Haretski, as witnesses in a case. Bastunets had previously been questioned as a witness in December in relation to another investigation into alleged calls for action aimed at damaging the national security of Belarus. There are serious and credible concerns that the February raids foreshadow potential new bogus criminal charges against journalists.

Belarusian authorities wrongly equate reporting on unauthorized demonstrations with participation in them, particularly if the reporter works for an outlet that the authorities refuse to grant accreditation, Human Rights Watch said. In December, Information Minister Igor Lutskiy went so far as to claim that Belarus is fighting an information war aimed at destroying the state, smearing independent media working in the country.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that between August 2020 and March 2021, the authorities detained about 400 journalists on administrative charges. At least 100 were given short administrative jail terms between December and March, while others were fined on administrative charges of “violating the rules on mass gatherings,” “disobeying the police,” and “violating the laws on mass media.”

At least four journalists told Human Rights Watch that they were ill-treated during and after detention. They were brutally beaten, denied medical assistance, and held in poor detention conditions. Some said their equipment was destroyed.

In recent months, Belarusian authorities deported at least two journalists with Russian citizenship, apparently in retaliation for their work in Belarus.

The authorities threatened to deprive at least three journalists of custody of their children. All three fled Belarus with their families.

The authorities also warned media outlets about alleged mistakes in their reporting and criticism of the government. At least one media outlet was unjustly stripped of its media credentials for violating the media law.

Belarusian state-owned printing houses refused to print at least five independent newspapers. At least one newspaper that switched to printing on its own said that on one occasion, law enforcement confiscated an entire print run without any legal documents sanctioning such action.

On October 2, the Foreign Affairs Ministry adopted new rules on foreign media accreditation in Belarus, canceling all existing accreditations and making the accreditation process significantly more complicated.

On March 24, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the “arbitrary arrests and detention of opposition members, journalists and media workers,” and the “prison sentences handed down to media workers for performing their professional duties” and calling for the immediate release of “all political prisoners, journalists and other media workers.” Belarus’ international partners should continue to press the government to end threats, attacks, and reprisals against journalists and should call for those responsible for grave violations, including torture and ill-treatment, to be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said. They should also continue to protect journalists, including by providing greater assistance to journalists under threat.

The Belarusian authorities should respect freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Belarus has an obligation under international law not to unduly prevent journalists from doing their job, including reporting on unsanctioned protests.

“Belarusian authorities should stop pretending that freedom of expression is a threat to national security,” Williamson said. “They should drop bogus criminal charges and immediately free those behind bars. They should stop prosecuting, harassing, and otherwise pressuring journalists who are carrying out their work.”

For detailed accounts, please see below.

Criminal Charges

Breaching Medical Confidentiality (Article 178)

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Belarusian journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, right, and Dr. Artsiom Sorokin attend a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, 19 February, 2021.
© 2021 Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA pool photo via AP

On November 19, the Prosecutor General’s office opened a criminal case against a TUT.BY journalist, Katsiaryna Barysevich, and Artsiom Sorokin, a doctor, who spoke up about Raman Bandarenka, a protest activist beaten to death in November in Minsk, allegedly by plainclothes police officers. After his killing sparked nationwide protests, Belarus’ chief investigative agency claimed the police had found Bandarenka drunk and already beaten. Medical documents leaked to TUT.BY, a major independent news outlet, proved he had not been intoxicated, and videos shot the day of Bandarenka’s killing showed men chasing and beating Bandarenka and bundling him into a van.

On November 29, Barysevich and Sorokin were indicted for “breaching medical confidentiality that led to grave consequences.”

Bandarenka’s sister said that during the trial, which was closed, relatives testified that they had given Barysevich permission to publish the medical data. But on March 2, the Moscow District Court sentenced Barysevich to six months in prison and a fine and handed Sorokin a two-year suspended sentence and a fine.

Organizing Activities Violating Public Order (Article 342)

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Journalists Ekaterina Andreyeva (Bakhvalova), right, and Daria Chultsova embrace inside the defendants’ cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, February 9, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo

On November 15, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), a journalist with the Poland-based broadcaster Belsat, and her colleague and camerawoman, Darya Chultsova, livestreamed a protest in Minsk demanding an investigation into Bandarenka’s death. They ran the livestream from an apartment with the owners’ permission. Two days later, a court sentenced them to seven days in detention on administrative charges of “participating in an unsanctioned mass gathering” because they livestreamed the gathering. On November 20, the authorities opened a criminal investigation against them on charges of coordinating “activities violating public order,” and the women remain in custody.

On February 19, a court sentenced Andreyeva and Chultsova to two years in prison.

On January 12, police searched the house of Andrei Aliaksandrau, a journalist and media manager, confiscated equipment and money, and arrested him and his partner, Irina Zlobina, on criminal charges of “organizing activities violating public order.” On January 14, investigators also searched the office of BelaPAN, the outlet where Aliaksandrau worked as a consultant, seizing equipment.

On January 15,  First Deputy Interior Minister Gennady Kazakevich claimed that Aliaksandrau and Zlobina had been financing protesters by paying their fines with money from BYHELP, a fund established to assist victims of repression in Belarus.

On January 21, the investigative committee indicted Aliaksandrau and Zlobina. The couple remains in custody pending the investigation. If convicted, they face a maximum three-year prison sentence.

Tax Evasion (Article 243)

On December 22, police detained five employees of the Belarus Press Club, an independent organization working to protect press freedoms, in relation to a criminal tax evasion investigation. The authorities searched and seized computers and phones from the group’s office and homes of its founder, Yulia Slutskaya; its financial director, Siarhei Alsheuski; and two program directors, Sergei Yakupov and Ala Sharko.

On December 31, Slutskaya, Alsheuski, Sharko, and cameraman Piotr Slutsky were charged with “grand tax evasion,” and they remain in pretrial custody. Yakupov, a Russian citizen, was deported to Russia that day and forbidden entry to Belarus for 10 years.

Also on December 31, mass media reported that the authorities indicted Kseniya Lutskina, a journalist, on charges of aiding tax evasion. A week earlier, police had searched her home, seized her electronic devices, and detained her. She remains in custody.

Lutskina worked at Belarus One, the state television channel, but quit in August and joined the Coordination Council, the political opposition body. Lutskina helped the Press Club create an online alternative to state television. The project was scheduled to begin operating in January, but it did not.

Insulting the President of Belarus (Article 368)
On December 22, law enforcement officers detained Siarhei Hardziyevich, a journalist with 1reg.by, an independent outlet that covers news in the Brest region. They searched his home and confiscated all devices for allegedly insulting the president in a message to a public Viber group with 5,000 members. On December 25, the police placed him under house arrest. On December 31, he was indicted. If convicted, Hardziyevich faces a maximum two-year prison sentence.

The authorities summoned the editor of 1reg.by, Pavel Daylid, on December 24 for questioning about the case, which 1reg.by had covered. After Daylid left the police station, he realized that the Viber group he administered, where Hardziyevich had allegedly posted the insult, had been deleted from his smartphone, which had been in a locker at the police station during the interrogation. In March, the investigative committee refused to investigate the incident. On December 29 police searched the home and seized the laptop of Piotr Huzayeuski, chief editor of 1reg.by and “Hantsavitsky chas” newspaper, as well as the office these two media outlets share. In January, police searched the homes of two more 1reg.by journalists in connection with the case.

Libel (Article 188)
On September 23, law enforcement officers searched the apartment of Yahor Martsinovich, chief editor of the longstanding weekly newspaper Nasha Niva, seizing his laptop, phone, and memory sticks. Martsinovich told Human Rights Watch that the police questioned him and transferred to Okrestina detention center and released him on September 26. The police notified him he was a suspect in connection with a criminal libel case.

The investigation springs from an interview in Nasha Niva with Vlad Sokolovsky, one of two DJs prosecuted for playing the song “We Want a Change!” at a public event before the August 9 election. In the interview, Sokolovsky alleged that the first deputy interior minister, Aleksander Barsukov, had punched him twice when he was in detention. In early September, investigators summoned Martsinovich for questioning, demanding that he reveal the author of the article. He has refused.

Grave Hooliganism (Article 339)
On 20 January, Yury Dziashuk, a freelance journalist, was detained for 72 hours in Lida and charged with “disturbing public order” for allegedly shouting in a courtroom. Two days earlier, Dziashuk was filming at the trial of an activist, Vitold Ashurko, when spectators started shouting “Shame!” in response to Ashurko’s sentence. A video clip from the courtroom captured Dziashuk filming the room, and when his face is visible he is not shouting. Several observers were detained for shouting, but Human Rights Watch does not have information as to whether they face criminal charges.

Interference with the Work of a Law Enforcement Officer (Article 365)
On March 12, law enforcement officers detained Dzianis Ivashyn, an investigative journalist working with Navy Chas newspaper, and searched his apartment, seizing all his devices. The police also searched the homes of his mother and grandmother. Ivashyn’s wife told Belarusian Association of Journalists that the search warrant was issued on allegations of spreading an officer’s personal data. Although no one could confirm the basis for the charge, it is possibly connected to Ivashyn’s last published article about former Ukrainian “Berkut” (riot police) officers working in Belarusian law enforcement. On March 19, Ivashyn was indicted and will be held for at least two months in pretrial detention.

Beatings and Ill-Treatment in Detention

On October 9, law enforcement officers detained a REFORM.by journalist, Evgeniya Dolgaya, next to her house, in front of her eight-year-old daughter. She said that the police questioned Dolgaya about her work as a journalist, threatened her with criminal charges, and issued her a citation for allegedly participating in two unsanctioned mass protests, one of which she was reporting on. Dolgaya said she spent at least two days in a cold cell, awaiting trial. She was not given a mattress, pillow, or a blanket until the following evening:

The nurse checked my blood pressure in the neighboring empty cell that was packed with mattresses, pillows, and blankets. And I was told, “You are not allowed [to have them].”

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Journalist Evgeniya Dolgaya holds a poster “hands off pandas” in support of the defendants in the so-called PandaDoc case. The court’s ruling says Dolgaya “called for fair elections while wearing a panda costume.” August 29, 2020.
© Private

While she was in detention, an unidentified official questioning Dolgaya accused her of being a bad mother and threatened that her daughter would be sent to an orphanage. On October 12, after she was fined, a court released her and Dolgaya fled Belarus fearing criminal prosecution in retaliation for her work.

On November 1, a Novy Chas photographer, Dmitry Dmitriyev, was reporting on a peaceful Sunday protest in Minsk when officers in civilian clothes, military vests, and helmets brutally detained him, pushing him to the ground. They took Dmitriyev to a police vehicle, where riot police officers beat and kicked him. He said he was later diagnosed with a perforated eardrum and a severe ear infection that resulted from it:

The entire time I had my “press” badge dangling around my neck, and I kept showing it to them, but they reacted with a fair amount of profanity. They said they did not care, to put it mildly.

When police took Dmitriyev to the station, he reiterated that he was a journalist and asked to notify the Central Internal Affairs Department’s press service about his detention. The police claimed the department’s response was that they should prosecute him.

Later that day, the investigator notified Dmitriyev that he was a suspect in a criminal case on violating public order charges in relation to the protest he was reporting on. On November 2, he was sentenced to 10 days in detention for violating administrative rules on mass gatherings and disobeying the police. A few days after his release, police searched his apartment in relation to the criminal case. On March 4, the investigator questioned him again. The investigation is pending.

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Dmitry Soltan shows bruises still visible on his stomach sustained during his 15 days in detention. Soltan says he was beaten on the stomach and lower back with a truncheon by a guard at the detention facility Okrestina.
© 2021Mariya Artsybasheva for Belsat

On November 1, a Belsat cameraman, Dmitry Soltan, was reporting on the same protest, wearing a press vest, when the police knocked him down, kicking and beating him with truncheons while the camera continued recording. The officers destroyed the camera and confiscated the memory card. Soltan was later diagnosed with a dislocated clavicle, torn ligaments in the left shoulder, and bruises on the head.

On November 2, a court in Minsk sentenced Soltan to 13 days in detention for violating rules on mass gatherings and disobeying the police for reporting on the November 1 protest. He was also notified that he was a suspect in a criminal case on charges of organizing activities violating public order.

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Liubov Luniova.
© Private/Facebook

On February 8, the police again detained Soltan, together with a Belsat journalist, Liubov Luniova, when they were interviewing passers-by in Minsk. Both were charged with hooliganism and sentenced to 15 and 10 days in detention, respectively, for allegedly insulting officers at the station.

While serving his sentence at Okrestina, Soltan was taken for a “preventive conversation” with a prison official. During this conversation, a guard beat Dmitry with a truncheon on his lower back and stomach. The official blamed Soltan for allegedly provoking the guard.

Luniova, a journalist with 25 years of experience, was previously arrested by riot police on December 7 while reporting on a protest in Minsk. She felt unwell after she was taken to Okrestina. But the staff only called an ambulance after Luniova’s cellmates pressed the emergency button more than five times:

Women were saying, “We have a journalist, she feels unwell. Call the ambulance.” And the guard replied, “Yeah, but she was not feeling bad when going to the [protest on the] square? So just let her croak.”

When she finally was taken to a hospital, Luniova was diagnosed with a hypertensive crisis. On December 28, after two weeks of treatment, a court sentenced her to a fine for “violating the rules on public gatherings.”

Judicial and Police Harassment

On November 9, a Slonim investigator notified Anna Volodashchuk, chief editor of Slonimskaya newspaper, that she was a witness in a criminal case on insulting a public official on a Telegram channel. Investigators searched her apartment, seizing laptops and memory sticks, she said. Law enforcement officials also raided the newspaper’s office that day, seized all the equipment, and froze its bank accounts. Volodashchuk said she did not know what the alleged insult was. She temporarily fled Belarus, fearing prosecution.

In November, the newspaper announced it was closing temporarily after 24 years of work due to pressure from the authorities. The newspaper’s staff continues to publish online, without receiving salaries, Volodashchuk said:

[After the death of] the chief editor, publisher, and my husband Viktor Volodashchuk, my son and I have been leading this business together – our newspaper, our brainchild… which was taken from us in one day. Readers keep calling us, saying they really miss the newspaper.

On November 24, Belarusian migration police deported a Russian citizen, Roman Popkov, a MBKh Media journalist, “in the interests of public security.” On November 7, law enforcement had detained Popkov while he was reporting on a women’s protest in Minsk. He was later sentenced to 15 days of detention for alleged participation in an unsanctioned mass gathering that he had filmed as a journalist on October 11. His wife, Elena Borovskaya, also a journalist, left Belarus, fearing prosecution.

In October, the Department of Financial Investigations opened a tax evasion investigation against the owner of the Orsha.eu website, Ihar Kazmerchak, in relation to a shop he owns. They searched Kazmerchak’s shop and apartment. On December 30, they closed the case. But on January 29, the department summoned for questioning three people who were working for Orsha.eu in relation to a criminal investigation. According to Orsha.eu, they were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Stripping Accreditation or Registration

From August to September, the Information Ministry issued four warnings to TUT.BY for “spreading false information” over its reporting on such issues as election fraud and a police raid at the apartment of TUT.BY’s editor. Under the Belarus’s Law on Mass Media, after two warnings in one year, a court can strip a media outlet of its accreditation. On October 1, the Information Ministry suspended TUT.BY’s accreditation. Court hearings started in November and were suspended pending TUT.BY’s appeals about the warnings. After TUT.BY lost these appeals, hearings resumed. On December 3, a court stripped TUT.BY of its media credentials.

On January 19, Information Minister Igor Lutsky said that the authorities continue monitoring TUT.BY’s website and warned that it could be blocked if it violates media or other laws.

On October 2, the Foreign Ministry adopted new rules on foreign mass media accreditation in Belarus and annulled all previously issued accreditations. Under the new regulations, foreign journalists can work in Belarus, even on short reporting trips, only if they are newly accredited. Accreditation is available only to journalists who are on staff at a foreign media outlet, making it very difficult for freelance journalists to work in Belarus. Foreign reporters must be citizens of the country where their media employer is registered, posing challenges for some international media outlets.

All journalists without media credentials in Belarus risk administrative and criminal prosecution for organizing or participating in mass gatherings on which they are in fact reporting and risk prosecution for “illegal production and distribution of mass media products.” Media outlets without accreditation are also banned from covering state-organized events.

Print and Post Subscription Refusals

In October, Belarusian Post, the country’s postal service, refused to include in 2021 subscription packets the independent news outlets BelGazeta, Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, Narodnaya Volya, and Svobodniye Novosti Plius. Postal subscriptions are a prime source of income for print media in Belarus. In August, the state-owned Belarusian Print House refused to print these outlets, allegedly due to technical issues.

On November 13, the deputy chief editor of Narodnaya Volya stated that riot police confiscated all print copies of the newspaper. In December, Belarusian Post sued Narodnaya Volya for failing to supply the printed issues since the end of August, when the printing house refused to print the newspaper, despite the Narodnaya Volya offered to supply their issues printed by a private printing house.

On November 11, the Brest printing house stated that it would refuse to print Brestskaya Gazeta starting January 1 after 18 years of cooperation, allegedly for technical reasons. All other Belarusian printing houses, the vast majority of which are state-owned, also refused to print the newspaper. This forced the outlet to switch to online reporting, causing it to lose 70 percent of its income. Since the presidential election, Brestskaya Gazeta’s employees also faced arbitrary detentions, online threats, and police harassment:

Even now people keep calling us, asking whether the newspaper will get printed. They say, “We are worried about you, hold on there. We are waiting for you.

Read more: hrw.org

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