Beatings, arrests, court cases, internet blocks and revocation of press credentials — being an accredited journalist is no longer a guarantee of protection for independent media in Belarus.
Four members of Press Club Belarus, a network that focuses on journalism, have been in pre-trial detention since December 22, when club founder Yulia Slutskaya, program director Ala Sharko, financial director Sergei Olszewski and operator Pyatro Slutski, Yulia’s son, were arrested on accusations of large-scale tax fraud.
Two others linked to the club are also in custody: Ksenia Lutskina and Siarhei Yakupau.
Lutskina is one of several journalists who resigned from state media in protest at the August 2020 contested presidential election in Belarus, when President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a vote opposition politicians say was flawed. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who campaigned after her husband was jailed for his election bid, remains in exile, and security forces responded to weeks of street protests with sometimes deadly violence.
Statistics by Press Under Pressure, a project run by the press club, say journalists have been detained almost 400 times since the election. Figures show 81 journalists arrested and 15 facing criminal cases.
Human rights activists have rejected the line from Belarusian officials that members of the press club were involved in wrongdoing, calling the charges retaliatory.
On January 13, a joint statement by human rights organizations in Belarus called Slutskaya, Sharko, Olszewski, Slutski and Lutskina political prisoners.
The use of economic-related charges against human rights and political prisoners is a tactic that was used regularly during the Soviet era.
The arrests at Press Club Belarus came one day after the Prosecutor General's Office of Belarus opened criminal cases against opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya and members of the opposition Coordinating Council, accusing them of "creating an extremist formation" and conducting "activities with the aim of seizing state power unconstitutionally."
Meanwhile, prosecutors said they would prosecute all those who "contributed to the extremist formation."
Nadezhda Belokhvostik, editor in chief of press club-linked Media-IQ magazine, said members were shocked by the arrests.
"We didn't expect all this. We were preparing for the New Year. We had to have a holiday, Belokhvostik told VOA’s Russian Service. “Yulia Slutskaya was returning that day from vacation with her daughter and grandchildren. I was in the office and left maybe half an hour before the search and detention, when Sergei Olszewski and Pyatro Slutski were detained.”
Her colleagues' whereabouts were unknown for hours, said Belokhvostik, who learned of their detention only when state-run Belta News Agency reported the press club members were suspected of tax evasion.
“Lawyers who were admitted more than 24 hours later were forced to sign for nondisclosure agreements,” Belokhvostik added. “This is a typical practice in Belarus to prevent lawyers from saying anything."
The duty officer at the Belarus Embassy in Washington referred VOA to the Foreign Ministry in Belarus. The ministry did not respond to VOA's email requesting comment.
'It makes you a target’
Natalia Belikova, manager of the press club's international projects, called the tax charges and detentions a direct result of the organization's mission to serve as a platform for professional development of independent media and journalists.
"The press club has always supported its journalism colleagues, has always been in solidarity with colleagues," Belikova said. "Since August, pressure on independent media in Belarus has increased very much, and we have recorded it.
"Journalists are detained. Some are deprived of press credentials," she added. "I think that the attack on the press club, among other things, is connected with the fact that we were in solidarity with all those journalists who are now working in desperate conditions."
Belikova also said authorities were irritated by the international resonance of their reporting and have responded with increasingly repressive tactics.
"The work of journalists who have been deprived of press accreditation is by and large outlawed," she said, explaining that they can't cover protests without risking arrest for participating in illegal or unauthorized events.
Belokhvostik, of Media-IQ, said the repression “is monstrous.”
Belokhvostik said journalists who covered rallies have been detained for up to 25 days. She also highlighted that Katerina Borisevich, who reported for Tut.by on the fatal beating of a 31-year-old artist and teacher by plainclothes police, was being held in the same detention center as those detained from the press club.
“The same 'press' vest, which all accredited journalists are obliged to wear in Belarus, doesn't save anyone," she told VOA. "On the contrary, it makes you a target."
Despite the crackdown, Belikova said, sound reporting in Belarus continues.
"There are editorial offices that have moved their main offices abroad in order to be able to continue working in Belarus," she told VOA. "Their teams of journalists are in Belarus — let's just say the head organizations have moved."
Public support for journalists is on the uptick.
In early October, when reporters for the Minsk-based Tut.by faced a three-month suspension of press accreditation for covering anti-government protests, demonstrators shouted words of praise and support while marching past its offices. Others sent in information over apps like Telegram to help the news site stay updated.
But working in the face of persecution comes at a cost.
"To some extent, there's some sense of unity in adversity, that people feel they're all in it together,” said Belikova. “But at the same time, it is necessary to remember that the government doesn't stop repression, which is only increasing. The cost of participation in actions related to your civic stance increases every day."
This story originated in VOA's Russian Service.