Belarus is purging the space for information, local journalists say, pointing to raids on independent media outlets, arrests including of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondents, and moves to shutter the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Journalists, members of the opposition and activists have been targeted for arrest or harassment since widespread protests erupted last August over contested presidential elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory as members of the opposition were jailed or forced to flee.
Most face charges of violating public order, damage to public property or accusations related to the country’s anti-terror laws.
The media environment has become so repressive that many journalists are working in underground conditions, says Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), who spoke to VOA’s Russian service earlier this month.
The Minsk-based organization documents arrests, attacks and raids on media in Belarus. Since August last year BAJ has documented at least 480 detentions and lists 33 journalists in custody.
On Friday, it was named as one of dozens of nongovernmental organizations that are being forced to close.
The day before, Lukashekno was reported as saying he planned to “cleanse” the country of nonprofits, which he described as “bandits and foreign agents.”
“It’s a total mopping-up operation. The Justice Ministry isn’t even trying to respect decorum,” Bastunets told The Associated Press. “Even though the situation seems desperate, we will defend BAJ by legal means.”
Belarus has said that those being detained are suspected of inciting hatred or mass disorder, or are being investigated for tax fraud or other crimes. When the BAJ offices were raided in a separate incident in February, Belarus said it was investigating people “participating in activities aimed at violating public order.”
Obstacles to reporting
As well as arrests, authorities have revoked media accreditation, including for the popular news portal Tut.by. In May, authorities blocked access to the outlet’s news website, claiming it was in violation of the country's mass media law.
“Tut.by journalists have lost their professional status, and the authorities are consistently forcing independent journalists out of the legal domain. The legal space is shrinking to such an extent that now there is only a sliver of it left,” Bastunets told VOA’s Russian service.
Some outlets were already denied the official accreditation permitting them to work in the country, but Bastunets said more have been denied permits since August.
“Reporters working for the Polish Belsat TV channel have long been denied accreditation; they have been both fined and detained. Last September, all foreign correspondents were stripped of their accreditation, and yet some of them continue working in semi-underground conditions,” Bastunets said.
He said the situation is getting worse, with changes in legislation that now prohibit the filming of protests.
Despite attempts to disrupt the flow of information, citizens are learning how to bypass blocks to reach independent news websites, and a group of Tut.by journalists has set up a new platform, Bastunets said.
“If journalists provide quality information, they are listened to by the public. We have always had journalists who risked their lives to stay in the country to obtain information,” he said.
Natalya Radina, editor-in-chief of Charter97, a news website that has been blocked since 2018, described the harassment as an attempt to “purge the information space” but says she believes Belarus media will survive.
“We have been through prisons — and the biggest tragedy for us was that the founder of the site was killed — but as long as there are journalists who want to tell the truth, it will be impossible to destroy freedom of speech,” said Radina.
Charter97’s founder and director Aleh Byabenin was found dead outside Minsk in 2010.
“I do certainly sympathize with the journalists who were put behind bars, because I’ve been there myself,” Radina said. “But I also know that if they have the strength and courage to continue their work, they will manage to do so.”
Radina was arrested in December 2010 on charges of mass disorder during post-election protests.
The journalist says independent reporters should have a backup plan and be ready to move out of the country if necessary to continue reporting.
“If we have chosen this profession, we need to follow it through, whatever the obstacles the authorities put in our way,” Radina said. “The most important thing is not to tell lies and not be afraid.”
Igor Ilyash, a political analyst and journalist with Belsat TV, said that colleagues in Russia should watch closely what is happening to Belarus media. “Sooner or later the leading Russian independent media will go through the same process.”
Russia is already labeling more journalists and publications as “foreign agents,” the journalist said, adding that he believes both countries want a “completely sterile society, where there is no place for dissent.”
Ilyash’s wife, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, who also works in journalism, has been imprisoned in Belarus since November. She was convicted of orchestrating protests against Lukashenko.
Like Radina, Ilyash said he believes Belarus is purging the information space.
“Today they came after (news website) Nasha Niva and the regional media and journalists. Who will it be tomorrow?” he asked. “Despite all our recent losses, there are still enough journalists and mass media in Belarus who are working and telling the truth about what is going on.”
The journalist said he believes the current wave of repression may be linked to sanctions imposed by the European Union.
The EU in June imposed wide-ranging sanctions, including on Belarus’ main export, potash, over Lukashenko’s suppression of opposition protests, jailing of political rivals and strangling of critical media, Reuters reported.
In an interview with VOA on July 16, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or “Helsinki Commission,” expressed shock and disappointment at the arrests and harassment of civil rights leaders and media.
“I can assure you we will express our outrage and demand that those that have been harassed, those who've been arrested, are released and allowed to perform their responsibilities,” the Democrat for Maryland said.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian service.