ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Three months after disputed elections in Belarus, protesters and journalists continue to be arrested, beaten and harassed. On Sunday, police detained over 1,000 people at protests in cities across the Eastern European nation.
The arrests were the highest number since protests calling for President Alexander Lukashenko to step down began in August.
Weekly rallies have been held since the presidential elections on Aug. 9 in which long-term leader Lukashenko retained power in a vote seen by international observers as not fair or transparent and in which key opposition were detained or forced to flee.
"Since the end of August, the situation has worsened again, and journalists have been disappearing again,” Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), told VOA.
In that period, the association has documented at least 60 cases of journalists being arrested, including 16 who are still in custody, and several who say they were beaten. In addition, the government has revoked accreditation to international journalists, and fined or filed legal action against local and foreign media, and access to internet has been blocked.
Charges against the media include unlawful disobedience or taking part in an “unsanctioned event.”
The international community has called on Belarus to hold new elections and a report by the international Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which in September invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” allowing it to send in experts, said it found evidence of “massive and systematic” rights abuses.
The Belarus Foreign Ministry has dismissed international criticism and the OSCE decision to invoke the Moscow Mechanism. An official was cited in news reports as having told the OSCE in Vienna, “Authorities are simply forced to take tough steps, that are often ambiguously perceived, to maintain the social, economic and political stability in the country and ensure national security.”
Journalists, including from the Associated Press and BBC, have said they were detained and beaten while covering the protests.
"In the first days of the protests, the police didn't really look at whether you were a journalist or not. Our colleagues were treated very harshly, and many of them were taken to a temporary detention center, where they went through the same torture as civil activists and protesters," Bastunets said.
At first, he added, news outlets were still able to call the Interior Ministry press service or city officials to request that detained colleagues be freed. Bastunets says he believes that may have been thanks to statements by then Interior Minister Yuri Karayev, who said journalists should not be detained because, like police, they are performing their duties.
"Afterwards, Karaev was removed from his post, though not for these words," said Bastunets, citing several cases where journalists, clearly identified as press, had gathered to cover protests, only to be detained.
“They stood aside from the protesters,” Bastunets said. “But police buses rolled in, the journalists were crammed into them. They were taken, supposedly, to check documents, but from police stations they were sent to detention centers. And lately it started to happen at every rally."
The Belarusian response to protests has been shocking, Aleksandr Klaskovsky, head of analytical projects at the independent news agency BelaPAN, said.
“Terrible things were happening, I mean the brutality of the security forces, which beat people caught in the streets,” Klaskovsky told VOA. “We learned many shocking details later."
Klaskovsky said that immediately after the Aug. 9 vote, internet access was shut off for three days. Access is also cut during protests and authorities have threatened to block or suspend several popular news websites including Tut.by, which is often described as one of Belarus’s leading news sites.
As authorities worked to prevent access, Belarusians found ways to bypass the blocks.
“Many Belarusians have mastered different ways of bypassing blocks,” Bastunets from the journalist association said, adding that Telegram channels, “have become the main source of information and communication."
Irina Khalip, Belarus correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian outlet known for its investigative reporting, agreed. "Without question, Telegram channels and independent sites” are the main source of information, she said.
“Even social networks have largely taken on the function of mass information,” Khalip said, adding that through these platforms Belarusians can clarify what happened or get information on who has been arrested or released.
International journalists have also been restricted, after the Foreign Ministry in August revoked accreditations under what it described as a “change in rules.”
“The new accreditations are carefully parceled out, and, as far as I can tell, ahead of anyone else they go to the Russian media reporters. They are now more loyal, obviously, given the political situation and the fact that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin supported Alexander Lukashenko," said Klaskovsky.
"The authorities push journalists into an illegal space, and now it is better to go to the action just in a column of demonstrators than to go out with a badge and a vest stenciled ‘Press’,” Klaskovsky said, adding that it lessened the risk of jail.
Khalip of Novaya Gazeta said accreditation has never been a guarantee of safety.
“I never understood the point of hunting for accreditation in the sincere conviction that this piece of paper will help you in some way," she said. "In fact, these papers have not saved anyone from arrests, beatings, or fines."
Even state-run media has publicly objected to the crackdown. In August, around 300 Belarusian state TV channel employees went on strike over what they called an official ban on reporting harsh crackdowns on protesters.
They were replaced by employees sent to Belarus by the Russian-funded channel RT.
No guarantee of safety
Klaskovsky, from BelaPan, likened the challenges for media in the past three months to being "on the front line.”
“We can say that the authorities have started a war against the part of society that demands changes, against the non-government press,” Klaskovsky said. “For them, journalists are enemies, because the purpose of the authorities is to suppress the civil resistance, and since journalists honestly do their job, cover everything that is happening, all the facets of the current deep political crisis in Belarus, [the media] get in the middle of it.”
Khalip agreed, saying said that in today's Belarus, journalists are forced to work "in a situation of war" where nothing guarantees safety.
"I always knew that among the journalists I knew there were many brave, fearless and heroic people,” Khalip said. “And now they are demonstrating all this every day, when they get into the heat of action, go to the marches, lock hands shoulder-to-shoulder with the protesters. It's beautiful, and this is how it should be.”
Klaskovsky also praised the media’s refusal to be silenced.
“Journalists have brought the truth about the first terrible days after the elections to their readers and to the world community. And so, I believe, have fulfilled their historical task,” said Klaskovsky. “Today there is no question as to whether independent journalism exists in Belarus.”
This story originated in VOA’s Russia service.