Glafira Zhuk’s belongings fit into one small piece of luggage. The Narodnaya Volya journalist left her home country of Belarus last month after spending 30 days in prison for her reporting earlier this year.
“I left the country because I want to be a journalist, and I want to write about my country,” Zhuk told VOA from Kyiv. “I understood that I can't do it in Belarus because I can immediately be arrested.”
Zhuk spent 30 days in prison in May over her coverage of a court case that involved student activists. She was later expelled from the state university’s school of journalism for missing her exams, which took place while she was in prison.
The reporter is one of hundreds to be detained in Belarus since the contested reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020. Journalists working for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, are among those affected.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), of which Zhuk is a member, reported 480 detentions in 2020 alone. The nongovernmental media association continues to track cases despite the country’s Supreme Court legally dissolving it in August 2021.
Suppression of the media has been a regular occurrence during Lukashenko’s 26-year presidency, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). But it ramped up in the past 18 months.
“Belarus has never been free,” Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at CPJ, told VOA. “It's quite a phenomenon that Belarusian journalists managed to develop media outlets and continue reporting despite all the restrictions that the authorities had in place.”
It’s common for journalists in Belarus to be detained for short periods of time — a few days or a few hours — to prevent them from reporting on specific projects, according to Said. But after the recent election, journalists have faced longer prison sentences.
For instance, two Belsat TV journalists — Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova — marked one year in prison on Monday. They were arrested while covering the March of Brave People, a Minsk protest sparked by the death of an anti-government activist.
Similarly, independent journalist Ksenia Lutskina has been in prison for 11 months. She was arrested along with five members of Press Club Belarus on allegations of tax evasion.
Lutskina’s situation is especially troubling, says Said, because the journalist has a brain tumor for which she is not receiving medical treatment.
“We’re concerned about the plight of many jailed journalists because we hear about them having COVID in jail or heart attacks in jail and not getting to see doctors or not getting medicine they need,” she told VOA. “Sometimes they are in prison cells with 12 or 15 other people when some of them are sick.”
Zhuk has previously described how she was kept in a crowded cell without bed linens and was not allowed to shower for the duration of her 30-day detention.
The Belarus Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Letters from prison
To raise awareness about the hundreds of political prisoners, including journalists, in Belarus, four rights organizations created the “Letters from Lukashenka’s Prisoners” project.
The online project — organized by Index on Censorship, Belarus Free Theatre, Human Rights House Foundation and Politzek.me — publishes letters from prisoners in Belarus. A letter from journalist Andreyeva was among the first.
“We really wanted political prisoners to be more than a number. We wanted them to have a voice,” Jessica Ní Mhainín, policy and campaigns manager at Index on Censorship, told VOA.
“We wanted to show the human side of the crisis and the unnecessary suffering and the fact that they’re being targeted for what we really take for granted: for human rights and freedom of expression, and demonstrating, and freedom of assembly,” she said.
Gathering the letters has not been easy, Ní Mhainín said, since censorship in the country has been so strong.
Said faces a similar challenge in collecting information about imprisoned journalists in Belarus. Lawyers who defend journalists in Belarus are forced to sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from sharing information, even with family members of those in prison.
“Those lawyers who tried to voice any disagreement with this policy, they were stripped of their license,” Said told VOA.
Detention of journalists, lengthy prison terms, the closure of media outlets and the removal of independent news websites are just some of the tactics used by authorities under Lukashenko’s control, according to CPJ.
Zhuk dreams of one day returning to Belarus, something she believes is not possible as long as Lukashenko is in power.
“I know that my country is not free because Lukashenko made such conditions,” Zhuk told VOA. “It's really hard to live inside such conditions and to understand that you can't be free and you can't remain safe.”
But she hopes that situation will change.
“That is why I do not buy anything in Kyiv, because I hope that one day I will go home with my little luggage to my flat and live,” Zhuk told VOA.