For months, the Belarusian Association of Journalists has documented unprecedented attacks and arrests of reporters covering unrest since last year’s election. But now, the Minsk-based organization has found itself the subject of an investigation.
The Ministry of Justice has ordered the BAJ to hand over thousands of documents as part of a government investigation into the organization. A letter received on June 21 gave the BAJ just two days to provide copies of its minutes from meetings, incoming and outgoing messages, membership lists and other documents dating back to 2018.
The official inspection of BAJ’s activities has been criticized by rights groups as further harassment of the media. The order comes amid a wider crackdown on media since mass protests over the contested August 2020 presidential elections. Longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory, and some opposition members were jailed or forced to flee.
During this time, the BAJ documented 480 detentions of journalists in 2020 and, since the start of this year, over 130 arrests or attacks on media. At least 25 journalists are currently detained, it says.
Authorities have said those arrested are inciting hatred or organizing mass disorder, or that it is investigating allegations of tax fraud and other crimes at some of the targeted groups. It earlier described a separate raid at the BAJ offices and homes of two staff in February as an investigation into people “participating in activities aimed at violating public order.”
The Belarus Embassy in Washington and consulate in New York did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
With media under fire, this latest investigation of the BAJ does not come as a shock, the association and rights groups say.
“The events that have been developing since 2020 showed that the authorities will look for methods to attack human rights organizations,” Volha Khvoin, of BAJ, told VOA. “Perhaps this may be the basis to deprive the organization of state registration.”
Founded in 1995 to support independent journalism, and with over 1,300 registered members, the BAJ has been monitoring conditions for the media for years, but that work ramped up after the elections.
“The authorities have never been loyal to journalists in Belarus. But last summer they began a real hunt for media workers,” Khvoin said. “I would like to stress the consistency, severity and duration of the authorities' repression in the media sphere.”
Khvoin added that she does not think the investigation will put members at risk.
Even before the August 2020 election, the government restricted the press, according to Gulnoza Said, the head of the Europe and Central Asia program at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. But the persecution since August 2020 is the most severe yet.
A trial began this week of Ihar Losik, a social media consultant for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Losik, who was arrested in June 2020, faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted.
As well as the arrests and the government’s diverting of a plane to arrest dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich, authorities blocked access to Tut.by, one of the largest Belarusian news websites, claiming it was in violation of the mass media law, and in mid-June filed a request with the courts that the site’s social media content be labeled “extremist” and access to it be blocked.
A final decision is still pending in that case.
“What's happening to the BAJ, what’s happening to Tut.by and all other media outlets and media organizations like the Press Club — it's all separate incidents of one large campaign aimed at purging the media space,” Said told VOA, referring to tax fraud charges against members of the Press Club Belarus. “We can see that the authorities are trying to just kill off the media outlets.”
Attacks on the independent press will have wide-ranging consequences, said Natalia Belikova, head of international projects at Press Club Belarus. Four leaders at the network that promotes journalism are currently detained.
The pressure on independent media “will have a tremendous impact on Belarusian national information security, because this opens doors for more content from Russia,” Belikova said. “If you're a propagandist, then you're okay. If you're a journalist, you're not okay.”
Fearing arrest or harassment, many journalists have fled Belarus. Those who remain have adopted a mindset in which they expect that they will be arrested at some point, according to CPJ’s Said.
“As one journalist told me, when they are leaving their apartment in the morning, they don't know where they are going to end up during the day. And sometimes some of them would go to the airport just to check whether it's still possible to take a flight quickly,” Said told VOA. “Every journalist in Belarus — every independent journalist — lives under risk of arrest. That's absolutely clear.”
The Belarusian government does not view organizations like BAJ and the Press Club as important, according to Belikova, and refers to them as a “fifth column” — a Russian term for a collective seeking to undermine a larger group.
She said that the government also views civil society organizations as agents of the West, and that the Ministry of Justice order sent to BAJ may be in retaliation to sanctions imposed by the EU and the U.S. over the arrest of Pratasevich.
For now, the BAJ has filed a complaint with the ministry saying the deadline to provide its documents is unreasonable and says it will continue trying to keep the world informed of events in Belarus.
“It is important to keep the topic of Belarus high on the agenda,” Khvoin said. “I understand (the world is) tired of this. But we are more tired. There is no other way. What can we do here? Show solidarity and support each other. It is very important.”