Rights groups have called on the international community to defend Belarus's leading journalists' association as the regime of authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko seeks to close it down amid an intensifying crackdown on independent media and civil society.
Belarus's Justice Ministry has asked the Supreme Court to close the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh) for "repeated violations of the law," while the authorities have frozen all BAZh bank accounts following police raids on its offices last week.
The ministry alleged that BAZh failed to comply with requirements to submit certain documents, mostly related to lease agreements at some of its offices. The association said it was given only a few days to submit the documents and couldn't respond to the ministry because its offices had been sealed off following the police raids.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) accused Lukashenko of using the moves as a "pretext" to "the dismantling of the only professional organization defending ethical, free, and independent journalism in Belarus."
"This is an ambush! A real trap is closing in on BAJ," EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregard said in a statement.
The independent media association was founded 25 years ago and has 1,300 members.
The BAZh is a member of the EFJ, which called on its affiliates to mobilize by alerting their governments about BAZh's fate, and urged international organizations, the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to "react vigorously."
"It is obvious that this is a brutal reprisal campaign against the organization," BAZh Deputy Chairman Barys Haretski said, adding that they will fight to maintain the association's legal status.
The Justice Ministry alleges the BAZh failed to comply with requirements to submit certain documents, mostly related to lease agreements at some of the association's offices. The BAZh said it was given only a few days to submit the documents but couldn't respond to the ministry because their offices had been sealed off following the police raids.
The association was founded 25 years ago and has 1,300 members. It is the largest media association in Belarus, and a member of the International Federation of Journalists.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders denounced "the absurdity of this harassment" against BAZh.
#Belarus: Min. of Justice @PressMinyust wants to liquidate @baj_by! It filed a complaint for "repeated violations of the law" after demanding docs while the offices, searched several times, have been under seal since 7/14. @RSF_inter denounces the absurdity of this harassment. pic.twitter.com/GRbqs6Nugw— RSF in English (@RSF_en) July 21, 2021
As Belarusian authorities ramped up their campaign against independent media, BAZh said that in recent weeks the authorities had conducted 66 searches at media offices and journalists' homes, while 32 journalists were in custody either awaiting trial or serving prison sentences.
Earlier this week, the authorities also froze the bank accounts of the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Prize laureate for literature and member of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition.
The authorities have also relentlessly pursued nongovernmental and human rights groups, including raids this month against a top human rights watchdog, Vyasna, and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
The sweeping actions suggest that Lukashenka intends to further ramp up his crackdown on dissent, after the country was rocked by protests following an August 2020 presidential election that gave him a disputed sixth term in office.
The opposition and West say the election was won by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in Washington this week for meetings with Biden administration officials and U.S. lawmakers to drum up support for the pro-democracy movement.
"We had talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and discussed how important it is to support Belarusian journalists and human rights activists now," Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. "The people of Belarus expect a resolute U.S. action. The stronger the measures to pressure the regime will be, the faster they will achieve their goal."
Lukashenko has responded to the challenge to his rule by jailing thousands of people and forcing most opposition leaders who haven't been imprisoned to leave the country.
The West, which has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenko to be the country's legitimate leader, has imposed several rounds of sanctions against the regime.