Belarus: Crackdown on Independent Journalism
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.
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.”
See detailed accounts on HRW's website