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Belarus Blocks Scores of News Sites Amid Protest, International Outcry

Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 22, 2020.
Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 22, 2020.

A Minsk-based journalism trade group is calling on the Belarusian Information Ministry to immediately unblock more 50 news media websites in what they're describing as a virtual blackout of reporting on protests over authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's bid to extend his 26 years in power.

Analyst Franak Viačorka first reported the shutdowns late Friday, which included sites for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, a USAGM-run sister agency of VOA, Polish-funded satellite TV channel Belsat, Minsk-based EuroRadio, Belarusian sports news outlet Tribuna, and many others.

The blockade came just hours after state-run publishing house Vysheysha Shkola stopped printing prominent independent newspapers Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing malfunctioning press equipment. It was the third time Komsomolskaya Pravda’s press run was disrupted since the August 9 presidential election.

Protests unprecedented in Belarus for their size and duration broke out after the vote in which election officials say Lukashenko won a sixth term in a landslide. Protesters call the results fraudulent and are demanding his resignation.

Immediately after the election, various protest groups said they suddenly faced limited access to the Telegram messaging service they use to coordinate anti-government action. They also described an internet shutdown that they blamed on the authorities.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists, whose own website has been blocked domestically since August 9, links the mass blackout of websites, along with rolling internet service outages and the print media disruptions, with what it calls "government attempts to block information about post-election protests in the country and severe violence against their participants."

The Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s emails requesting comment.

"We consider such actions indirect censorship and obstruction of the legitimate activities of media in Belarus," the journalists’ association said in an open letter to the Information Ministry.

"These actions not only violate the rights of journalists and the media, but also restrict the constitutional right of citizens to receive complete, reliable and timely information," the letter said.

BAJ, it said, "demands that the country's authorities immediately stop pressure on the press, ensure uninterrupted publication of printed publications, and unblock access to the blocked websites."

International reaction

The group also called on international organizations to support their statement.

The International Press Institute and more than a dozen other press watchdogs, including PEN America, the European Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the U.N.-run Internews, recently issued an open letter demanding protection for reporters.

The European Federation of Journalists on Friday castigated Belarusian customs officials for denying entry to 17 foreign journalists at Minsk’s airport August 20.

"Journalists from Estonia, Poland, Serbia, Germany and Georgia were not allowed to enter," said the organization’s statement, which cites Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry officials who say they refused entry to journalists whose accreditation forms hadn't yet been fully processed.

The latest restrictions come days after at least six on-air presenters resigned from state broadcasting company Belarus One. Some 300 of the national channel's 2,000 employees also went on strike that day, saying they refused to disseminate state propaganda that plays down the magnitude of street clashes or vilifies protesters.

“People feel that if we can’t do honest journalism, then we won’t work,” Kseniya Lutskina, a Belarus One documentarian, told The Guardian.

The walkouts are significant since state TV dominates Belarusian broadcasting for news and entertainment programming, and it is a primary source of news for a large majority of Belarusians.

In leaving their jobs, members of the media joined growing ranks of police, security officers, and factory workers who are also quitting.

Lukashenko on Saturday addressed a rally of several thousand supporters in the city of Grodno, where he threatened to close factories that are on strike as of Monday. Strikes have hit some of the country's major companies, including vehicle and fertilizer manufacturers, a potential blow to the largely state-controlled economy.

Lukashenko alleges that the protests are inspired by Western forces including the United States, and that NATO is deploying forces near Belarus' western border. The alliance firmly denies that claim.

Widespread crackdown

Physical attacks, arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions, fines and deportations have been widely reported for months. The Belarusian Association of Journalists has documented more than 130 serious violations of journalists’ rights between the beginning of the presidential campaign May 8 and August 11, 48 hours after the election.

Several foreign correspondents, such as BBC cameraman Abdujalil Abdurasulov and Associated Press photographer Mstyslav Chernov, have described being briefly detained and beaten.

Independent Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta recently published an article stating that Belarus riot police have been particularly targeting Russian correspondents.

"Crowds of journalists with a variety of IDs and passports, from Great Britain to Japan, are wandering around Minsk these days. But only Russians are beaten, deported, intimidated, arrested," the article said, citing an August 7 incident in which a Russian language film crew of one Russian and two Ukrainian nationals were detained and then deported to Odessa.

Other Russian nationals detained while reporting from Minsk since August 9 include Meduza correspondent Maxim Solopov, Daily Storm correspondents Anton Starkov and Dmitriy Lasenko, and Russia Today correspondent Konstantin Pridybaylo.

The European Federation of Journalists reported August 12 that both of Belarusian journalist Rasl Kulevich’s arms were broken after he was arrested for covering a street demonstration in Rodno for a local publication.

Johan Bihr of Reporters Without Borders recently told VOA he believes instructions to crack down on reporters appear to be coming from the top.

“Over the past few days and weeks, President Lukashenko has repeatedly warned and threatened independent media. He scolded the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for accrediting Radio Liberty,” Bihr told VOA on Aug. 14. “He threatened the journalists of (website) and (television channel) Belsat, accusing them of instigating a revolution. In this way, he very openly and clearly empowered the state apparatus to crack down on independent journalists and arrange an information blackout in the country."

Reporters Without Borders, whose World Press Freedom Index ranks Belarus 153rd out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, has called on the European Union to sanction Belarus over the crackdown.

Some information is from AP, Reuters, and RFE/RL.

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