Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned a major crackdown on reporters in Belarus – where at least 49 journalists and bloggers were arrested while covering nationwide protests last weekend and at least five have been given jail sentences – and urges the international community to hold the government to account.
The arrests on 25 and 26 March have brought the total number of arrests of reporters to around 100 since 10 March, in what is a sharp increase in the scale of the repressive methods being deployed by the authorities in response to a massive wave of anti-government protests.
Five journalists were given prison sentences yesterday on charges of hooliganism and participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Like the protests themselves, the crackdown has had no precedent since 2011.
“This brutal and systematic police harassment constitutes a blatant violation of media freedom and the Belarusian public’s right to information,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“We urge the international community to put pressure on the government to immediately release these journalists, who have been arrested just for doing their job, to drop all charges against them and to respect media freedom. These massive abuses underscore the urgent need to strictly condition any rapprochement with Belarus on respect for human rights.”
Last Saturday will be remembered as a black day for media freedom in Belarus. The demonstration that the Belarusian opposition traditionally holds every year on 25 March, the anniversary of the country’s independence in 1918, gained special significance this year because of the current wave of protests.
The police used force to disperse the protests throughout the country and arrested hundreds of demonstrators. The Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), an RSF partner, said at least 26 journalists were arrested in Minsk, four in the southeastern city of Homyel and three in the northeastern city of Vitsebsk
Volha Davydava, Ihar Ilyashyn, Katsiaryna Bakhvalava, Volha Morva and British reporter Filip Warwick were beaten by police while covering the demonstration in Minsk.
More arrests took place during the next day’s smaller demonstrations. At least 16 journalists were arrested Minsk, Vitsebsk, Babruysk, Brest, Homyel and Orsha.
Jailed for doing their job
A court in Minsk yesterday sentenced Alyaksandr Barazenka – a reporter for Belsat TV, a Belarusian exile TV station based in neighbouring Poland – to 15 days in prison on a charge of hooliganism.
The court accepted the testimony of a policeman, although video filmed by Barazenka at the time of his arrest on 25 March while covering a demonstration clearly showed that he was just doing his job and that he had identified himself as a journalist.
After spending the weekend in police custody, Dzianis Ivashyn, the editor of the InformNapalm news website, was sentenced yesterday to five days in prison for “participating in an unauthorized demonstration.”
BAJ members Kanstantsin Mardvintsau and Leanid Svetsik were sentenced in Vitsebsk yesterday to 15 days in prison for “participating in an unauthorized demonstration,” while Artsyom Sizintsau, the local correspondent for Radio Racyja, was sentenced to ten days in prison on the same charge.
The unusually large demonstrations have been taking place in Belarus since late February in protest against a new tax on “social parasitism” applicable to anyone working for less than six months a year.
President Lukashenko suspended the tax on 9 March but ordered the interior ministry to take “extremely severe measures” against the protest movement’s “instigators” and to restore “perfect order.” The police immediately began dispersing the protests with much more force and the authorities are now accusing “foreign secret services” of trying to destabilize the government.
Belarus is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.