The head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has condemned the sentencing of a journalist who works for the independent network.
The news network learned on Tuesday that Andrey Kuznechyk had been tried and convicted of petty hooliganism one day after his arrest, RFE/RL told VOA.
Four men in plain clothing detained the journalist outside his Minsk apartment on November 25. The men, believed to be Belarusian security agents, searched the journalist’s home and took him away, along with electronic devices belonging to Kuznechyk and his wife, according to RFE/RL.
When his wife called the local prison to see if Kuznechyk was being held there, she said officials denied the journalist was there.
Kuznechyk, who denies wrongdoing, was sentenced to 10 days in prison.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said Belarus should immediately release the journalist.
“The regime of Alexander Lukashenka continues its effort to crush all independent media in Belarus. Andrey was kidnapped by agents of the regime for nothing more than being a journalist,” Fly said in a statement.
RFE/RL and VOA are both independent news networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Media in Belarus have come under increasing pressure since Lukashenko claimed victory in contested elections in August 2020.
At least 480 journalists were detained in 2020 and a further 245 violations against the media, including arrests, fines and attacks, were recorded in 2021 by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
Authorities have raided newsrooms and journalists’ homes, stripped correspondents of accreditation, blocked access to news websites for local and foreign media, including RFE/RL, Tut.by and Deutsche Welle (DW), and applied legal pressures to civil society, including the BAJ and PEN Belarus.
The Belarusian embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
The country’s Information Ministry in October said it had blocked websites that were spreading extremist content.
But DW’s director general, Peter Limbourg, said the accusations were “ridiculous.”
"The heavy use of independent news outlets clearly shows that people in Belarus no longer trust the government-controlled media," Limbourg said in a statement at the time. "We protest against the suspension of our offering because the people there have a right to objective information on the situation in their country."
Kuznechyk is not the first RFE/RL journalist to be detained in Belarus since the contested elections.
Six of the network’s journalists were detained for 15 days while covering protests in August 2020, and a further six were briefly jailed in November 2020. In July, authorities raided the outlet’s Minsk bureau and searched the homes of some of its journalists.
While most are detained for relatively brief periods, Ihar Losik, a blogger and consultant for the media outlet, has been in prison for more than 520 days.
Losik is on trial with five others on accusations of using social media to “disrupt social order.”
A verdict is expected in the closed-door trial on December 14, according to a Facebook post by one of the defendant’s relatives.
The journalist has been allowed to see his wife only once since being detained and has been prevented from seeing his young daughter or parents, RFE/RL said.
Separately, independent blogger Raman Pratasevich is awaiting the outcome in his case as well.
Pratasevich was arrested in May after Belarus diverted a passenger jet carrying him.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in late November that Pratasevich is under house arrest at an undisclosed location.
“The physical and psychological pressure to which Raman Pratasevich has been subjected for the past six months constitutes inhuman treatment and even torture,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement.
The watchdog has referred his case to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Pratasevich is editor of the Telegram channel Nexta, which Belarus declared “extremist” in October 2020. News websites, including the popular Tut.by, have similarly been labeled extremist by authorities.
Journalists who work for such sites and their audiences risk criminal prosecution for sharing what authorities deem as extremist content, a charge which can carry a prison term of up to seven years, RSF reported.