Belarus has never had a strong tradition for media freedom but a mass crackdown after contested elections last year has made an already repressive situation even more dire, local journalists say.
More than 500 journalists have been detained since August last year, when long-term leader President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory and the opposition leader was forced to flee.
Collectively, they have spent upwards of 1,200 days in jail, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). A further 60 journalists were injured as police violently shut down protests.
State-owned printers have refused to print at least five newspapers, one print run was confiscated, websites were blocked, and the largest web portal TUT.by was stripped of its media status, watchdogs have said.
“This is very sad both for journalists and for human rights activists. We are faced with a wave of repression unprecedented in the history of independent Belarus,” said Boris Goretsky, deputy chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
“If authorities think that our association or some human rights organization likes the fact that our country holds such a low place in the international rating of press freedom, then they are greatly mistaken,” Goretsky added.
The harsh response to coverage of the contested elections and protests resulted in a five-point decline for the country in the world press freedom index. It currently ranks 158 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, according to data published by media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF).
The arrests of journalists and repression of citizens in Belarus were also cited in a resolution adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives on April 21, which condemned the violent crackdown.
“The detentions of journalists are still happening, although not on such a massive scale as in the fall, because there are no protests now,” Goretsky said. “But on March 25, we had a small street rally, and the police detained all the participants, especially the journalists. These are the conditions that we now have to live and work in.”
Belarus has defended its response to protests. In an interview last month, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said actions by law enforcement were an “absolutely adequate and necessary” way to deal with protests, which he characterized as “non-peaceful” and an attempted coup.
Makei added that anyone detained unjustly had been released.
Two cases cited by the BAJ chair are the conviction of Belsat TV journalists Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva, who were sentenced to two years in prison on “organizing activities that violate public order,” and the case of Igor Losik, a blogger and consultant for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), who has spent more than 300 days in pre-trial detention.
Losik, who faces charges of participating in the organization of mass riots, went on a hunger strike for six weeks.
RFE/RL and VOA are both independent outlets funded by the U.S. Congress.
Iryna Khalip, a Minsk-based correspondent for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, says the situation for media is so abysmal that she is surprised Belarus featured in any press freedom index at all.
“Freedom of speech [in Belarus] has remained unchanged. Namely, the complete absence of this freedom,” Khalip told VOA.
She cited the arrests of journalists Dmitry Zavadsky and Pavel Sheremet in Belarus on criminal cases back in 1997. “However, for some reason back then, Belarus did not hold the “honorable” 158th place,” Khalip said.
Both Zavadsky and Sheremet were later killed: Zavadsky was kidnapped in Minsk in 2000 and his body was never recovered. Sheremet was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in 2016.
Khalip said the only difference from previous years is that mass protests have made repression more visible.
“If such protests had happened two or three years ago, everything would have been exactly the same,” Khalip said. “Belarusian journalists have always been powerless and defenseless. We are not dealing with a suddenly awakened government that has decided to completely destroy journalism. We are dealing with the usual attitude of this government toward journalists and the freedom of speech.”
Belarusian journalists will have to learn how to work in new conditions, Khalip said.
She compared the country to Russia, where authorities are ordering some outlets, including RFE/RL, to be labeled as “foreign agents.” In Belarus, journalists working for foreign outlets need accreditation from the Foreign Ministry — a measure that has been toughened in recent months.
“If such a journalist writes something that goes beyond the framework established by the authorities, then they will be deprived of accreditation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This means that they would no longer have the right to exercise their professional activity, because it violates the media regulations,” Khalip said.
The Polish satellite station Belsat, which has a Belarus audience, has been applying for accreditation for years, without success.
Without it, journalists are not able to access ministry news conferences or access official comments or interviews.
Igor Ilyash, a Belsat political analyst, shared a similar view about more long-standing pressures for media.
Ilyash, whose wife and fellow journalist Andreyeva is detained in Belarus, said media freedom has been difficult throughout Lukashenko's 27-year rule.
“Periods of repression were followed by periods of thawing,” Ilyash said. “The government itself divided publications into those that were suppressed with particular cruelty, and those that used less harsh rhetoric, and thus faced only general restrictions and were more or less allowed to work.”
He recalled times when Lukashenka gave interviews to RFE/RL, Euroradio and TUT.by.
lyash said the more confident the Lukashenka regime feels, however, and the stronger the power is, the lower the level of repression. And by contrast, the stronger the protests, the stronger the crackdown on journalists.
Nearly nine months after the first protests, journalists are still being arrested.
“During the latest rally, over 40 journalists were detained. Most were released the same evening, but it was a demonstrative exercise of a total cleanse of the information space,” Ilyash said. “Since September, such actions with subsequent administrative arrests for 15 days or more have become widespread. It has changed the way journalists work in Belarus.”
Ilyash was held under administrative arrest for 15 days in November.
Media are trying to be less visible at protest, which increases their chances of avoiding arrest, Ilyash said.
Despite the challenges and repressive conditions, Khalip of Novaya Gazetta, said she thinks journalists will persist and continue to thrive.
“A journalist is not a programmer. They grow into their environment and are just unable to tear themselves away,” Khalip said.