On January 22, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of editors-in-chief of leading media outlets and leaders of journalistic organizations in Belarus. The topic of discussion was the situation with the deterioration of conditions for the media

On January 22, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of editors-in-chief of leading media outlets and leaders of journalistic organizations in Belarus. The topic of discussion was the situation with the deterioration of conditions for the media

The situation with freedom of speech in Belarus is critical: pressure on independent media in Belarus only grows

On January 22, a virtual “round table” was held with the participation of the chief editors of the leading media outlets and leaders of journalistic organizations in Belarus, organized by the Information Bureau “Belarus in Focus” and the Press Club Belarus. The topic of the forum was the situation with the deterioration of the conditions for the work of independent media because the situation with freedom of speech in Belarus began to acquire a critical character.

Economic articles are used for political purposes

Nadzeya Belahvostik (Media IQ website) emphasized that a month has passed since the arrest of several activists of the Press Club Belarus. All five were recognized as political prisoners. The sixth, Russian citizen Sergei Yakupov, was also brutally detained and subsequently deported from Belarus with a ban on entry for 10 years. The details of the charges are unclear, the advocates also cannot tell about the situation due to a non-disclosure agreement, although investigative actions are not being carried out in relation to the detainees, but this is by no means the first time in Belarus when the economic articles of the Criminal Code are used for political purposes.

Despite the December arrests of a number of activists, the organization is working to promote the ideals of true journalism and shed light on state propaganda, Natasha Belikova (Press Club Belarus) said. With the aim of building up efforts in both directions, an English version of the press club’s website was recently launched to inform foreign audiences about cases of pressure on the media in Belarus too.

Leading Belarusian website TUT.BY has experienced all the variety of repressions

Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief of the TUT.BY portal. The first arrests of journalists of TUT.BY and other media began in May 2020. For example, on August 27 alone, 47 journalists (30 of them in Minsk) were taken to District Interior Departments. At first, people were locked up for several hours, then they began to be imprisoned for dozens of days. Up to 50 TUT.BY journalists have been subjected to that, and some of them were detained many times. Two journalists have been beaten. In September, the Ministry of Information issued a number of warnings to the site, which subsequently allowed the portal to be deprived of its media status. The lodged appeal on that was dismissed in January 2021.

No one was detained on the fact of the murder of activist Raman Bandarenka, but a doctor and journalists who shed light on the circumstances of the death were arrested

The situation with the detention of Katsyaryna Barysevich, TUT.BY journalist, is the most outrageous. The journalists conducted an investigation, found out who was at the Square of Changes, and beat Raman Bandarenka, who died of injuries the next day. There was no alcohol in Raman Bandarenka’s blood. But this statement contradicted the words of Alexander Lukashenko and the version of the Investigative Committee, so Katsyaryna Barysevich has been in jail for 3 months. Not all letters reach her, but we need to write to the journalist: a young daughter is waiting for her mother at large. Belsat TV journalists Katerina Andreeva and Darya Chultsova, who covered the events in the courtyard of Raman Bandarenka’s house, were arrested in November too.

Independent information is in demand in the regions of Belarus

Sviatlana Harda, editor-in-chief of the regional publication Media Polesie. The fairly popular regional site (up to 150,000 unique visitors per day, despite the fact that only 300,000 people live in Polesie) has recently received warnings for creating “threats to the national security of Belarus” twice. Multiple attempts to apply for the media status had always been turning out to be a refusal until the site was registered retroactively in order to levy a huge fine on it as a media outlet. So, for the story on the situation with the COVID-19 epidemic in Belarus, a fine of 120 BU (~ 1200 euros) was imposed. The second time a fine was given for an article about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s visit to her homeland, for the words in the text that “she is married like a Decembrist.” This fine was twice as large (200 BU), and its appeal did not bear fruit, even though the advocate found a lot of violations in the complaint. The authorities hate the popular site in Polesie and constantly threaten to close it: journalists were expelled from polling stations during elections, one correspondent was brutally detained and beaten so that scars of injuries remained for life. Nevertheless, the site continues to cover criminal cases on protests, writes to prisoners, although it is difficult to work in the region.

Unprecedented numbers of violations of journalists’ rights in 2020

Aleh Aheyev, Deputy Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), specified the number of violations of the rights of journalists. They are unprecedented. Over the entire period of monitoring the state of freedom of speech in Belarus, there have never been such massive cases of violations, 9 journalists are behind bars. Another journalist has been detained, but he is still not charged yet. According to the BAJ, in 2020, there were 477 detentions of journalists in Belarus, 97 arrests, which resulted in a total of more than 1,200 days behind bars, at least 62 cases of violence against journalists, including gunshot wounds, beatings, torture, and bullying… 15 criminal cases were opened against journalists. The total amount of fines for journalists was at least 60,000 BYN (~ 26,000 euros), and this does not include fines for the media themselves. In August, about 70 popular websites were blocked, access to most of them is still not open. At least 4 newspapers were forced to stop publishing.

Starting 2021, Belarusian printing houses refuse to print Brestskaya Gazeta. The popular regional publication suffered the fate of BelGazeta, Narodnaya Volya, Svobodnye Novosti Plus, and Komsomolskaya Pravda, which were stopped to be published in August 2020

Foreign journalists also found themselves under pressure: they were not given accreditation to cover the presidential elections (their applications were simply not considered), and those who did come were deported. Tortures also took place. Now many foreign media outlets have no journalists in Belarus. 9 journalists were recognized as political prisoners. The BAJ demands their release, because they used freedom of expression, while the arrested activists of the Press Club were just exercising their right to freedom of association. The BAJ also requires respect for the rights of journalists and the exercise of freedom of speech in general.

Situation with freedom of speech in Belarus is critical

“The authorities do not care about everything, and the image does not matter anymore,” Maryna Zolatava summed up. The reputation of the Belarusian authorities is already tarnished, so there is nothing to lose. They don’t give a damn about international pressure, although it is impossible to hide information in 2021. Even if all independent sites are closed, Telegram channels will remain. Against the backdrop of blocking media sites, the emphasis is being placed on social networks, for example, TUT.BY had 50,000 subscribers to its Telegram channel in May 2020, but after just a couple of months, it topped 400,000.

Sviatlana Harda emphasized that it is even more difficult to work in regions because everyone knows each other and settles scores. “See you in court” is a typical reaction of officials to critical articles about their activities.

The BAJ experts also drew attention to the increased aggressiveness and clumsiness of state propaganda, some of the manifestations of which may serve to incite social discord.

How to help? How can I help?

All the participants of the meeting acknowledged that it is very important to keep the Belarusian topic in the focus of attention of the world media even against the background of other important events in the world and Europe. You should also ask the politicians of your countries to demand from Belarus as an OSCE member to fulfill the recommendations of the Moscow Mechanism. Financial assistance is also needed because the services of advocates are not cheap. Psychological assistance is equally important, because in the first days after arrests, the condition of the relatives of the detainees is the most difficult.

Although it is extremely hard to deliver unbiased and truthful information to people in Belarus, it is very much needed, as the demand for it by ordinary Belarusians shows, and all the journalists and media who took part in the round table, despite the enormous difficulties, promised to continue working.

P.S. The standard salary in Belarus is 150 euros (200 euros is considered a good salary), the standard pension is 100 euros a month, so the fines are pretty big.

Pavel Pernikau, member of the board, head of the press center of the Belarusian section of the ISHR