oDR: Feature

How Lukashenka declared war on Belarusian journalists

Since last year’s disputed elections, and the protests that followed, media workers have become targets for prosecution – or worse

Igor Ilyash
23 March 2021, 12.50pm
Rally in support of detained journalists, Minsk, September 2020
(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Independent media outlets in Belarus have been through a lot during the past 27 years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s dictatorship. Newspapers have been closed down and websites blocked, while journalists have faced civil and criminal prosecution, beatings. Several have even been murdered.

Yet Lukashenka’s relationship with the country’s media has varied over time. Frosty periods have been followed by short-term thaws, and vice versa. Before August 2020 – when thousands of people came out in protest at falsified elections and the police violence that followed – 2011 was one of the most difficult periods. That year, amid anti-government protests, there were several criminal investigations of journalists, 167 instances of short-term detention and seven cases of physical violence. By contrast, in 2015 – another election year in Belarus – there were almost nine times fewer short-term detentions and no cases of criminal prosecution or physical violence against journalists.

These kinds of fluctuations are far from accidental. The level of repression wielded against the free press is directly proportional to the level of protest activity in society. In 2015, against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, president Lukashenka had a high approval rating, his opponents could not even dream of mass protests, and so the authorities could afford a short-term thaw. Lukashenka even agreed to give an exclusive interview to three outlets: TUT.by, Euroradio and the US-funded Radio Liberty. This was an important political gesture, one which suggested that Lukashenka did not perceive independent media as a threat.

Some four years later, the Belarusian regime faced an electoral revolt, with unprecedented protests across the country that are still ongoing. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Belarusian authorities have decided that journalists are the instigators of this “uprising”.

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A declaration of war

“At first I didn’t even feel the blow. I just realised that my hands were already handcuffed behind my back, and blood was pouring out of my nose. I was pushed into a minivan with a shout: ‘On your knees!’”

This is how Anton Trafimovich, a correspondent for Radio Liberty, described being attacked by Belarusian law enforcement in Minsk on 15 July 2020 – three weeks before the presidential election on 9 August.

This kind of attack, a demonstration of intent, was not accidental. A few weeks earlier, the then-minister of internal affairs Yuri Karaev had stated that recent protests in Belarus were “well organised”, managed in part by a Radio Liberty livestream. Karaev suggested that journalists, by covering a protest, were in fact responsible for organising it. Soon after, the Belarusian authorities began equating protests and “mass riots”, which journalists were again accused of inciting.

The "unofficial" white-red-white Belarusian flag has become an important protest symbol
(c) STR/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A week after Trofimovich was assaulted, Lukashenka lashed out at Belarusian independent media, complaining that they did not want to write about the “struggle for the harvest” and calling for foreign media to be denied accreditation. “What is this attitude towards our country? The BBC, Radio Liberty, Free Europe and so on, these streams... I’m not even talking about tendentious coverage, they are calling for riots. Why do you tolerate this?” he said.

Four months later, allegations of “organising” and “managing” protests are exactly what lead to the detention of Katsyaryna Andreeva and Darya Chultsova, journalists with the Poland-based Belsat TV, who are now serving two-year prison sentences for livestreaming from a protest. Yet in summer 2020, the Belarusian authorities had not yet resorted to full repression. The methods were still limited to the familiar tactics of Lukashenka’s security services: short-term detention of journalists during protest actions.

But in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, everything changed.

Firing on the square

On 9-12 August, in Minsk and dozens of Belarusian cities, mass protests were held against the rigging of the country’s presidential elections, which were suppressed with unprecedented brutality by the security forces. At least three demonstrators were killed, 6,700 people were detained, and hundreds, if not thousands of people were deliberately tortured.

In the course of these dramatic events, dozens of journalists, both Belarusian and foreign, suffered at the hands of law enforcement. Many were beaten or received concussions as a result of the indiscriminate use of stun grenades. The detained journalists went through the same bullying and torture as others prisoners at the now-infamous detention centre on Akrestsina Street in Minsk.

For example, investigative journalist Stanislav Ivashkevich ended up in a three-person cell with 13 other people, who were kept there for several days with almost no food. The detainees were taken out into the courtyard and subjected to a brutal hazing, including running through a line of police officers wielding riot sticks.

Akrestsina detention centre in Minsk, one of the main sites of violence against people detained during Belarus' pro-democracy protests
(c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

At least three journalists were wounded by rubber bullets. The most shocking incident happened to Natalya Lubnevskaya, a photographer for the newspaper Nasha Niva. A riot police officer shot Lubnevskaya in the leg from several metres away, for no reason, despite the fact that she was wearing a clearly-marked press jacket. The journalist’s hospital treatment took over a month. Although Lubnevskaya’s shooting was captured on video, law enforcement did not open a criminal investigation. Moreover, Nasha Niva was threatened with a fine “for untimely notification of state bodies about the incident”.

Yet the aftermath of the presidential election should not be considered a targeted campaign against journalists. The Belarusian security forces detained, beat and shot reporters not because of their media affiliation, but because they had carte blanche from their leadership to carry out unlimited violence.

As Maxim Solopov, a correspondent with the Riga-based Russian media outlet Meduza, put it (after he received a head injury while covering the protests): “A military operation was in force, and they acted without considering whether you were a journalist or not.”

Total war

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Belarusian security services simply did not have enough resources to persecute journalists: all their efforts were thrown into suppressing the protests, which surprised the government by their scale. But as August 2020 wore on, the authorities began to make a systematic attack on the media, and repression increased.

On 27 August, in Minsk, the security forces carried out their first “show operation”: roughly 50 correspondents who planned to cover a protest action were detained before the start of the event. Most of them were released towards midnight, but charges were brought against four of them, allegedly for participating in an unsanctioned rally. They were detained in police cells overnight and prosecuted the next day.

Last year, journalists in Belarus spent a total of 1,200 days behind bars

On that occasion, law enforcement was merely testing a new method for suppressing independent media: the court rejected the charge sheets, and the journalists themselves were released. But a week later, on 4 September, six journalists covering a student protest were found guilty of “coordinating an unauthorised march” and sentenced to three days’ detention. From that day on, fabricated accusations against media workers became a mass phenomenon in Belarus.

Journalistic work was treated as a civil rather than criminal matter, via the administrative offences of “participating in an unsanctioned rally” and “disobeying the police”. In 2020, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), there were 477 cases where journalists were detained, 97 of which ended in administrative arrest. Last year, journalists in Belarus spent a total of 1,200 days behind bars.

Protest in Minsk, 13 September 2020
CC BY-SA 3.0 Homoatrox / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

A press jacket not only makes you vulnerable to prosecution: it now turns you into a target. During protests, media workers have been repeatedly targeted on purpose, whether livestreaming or reporting. Journalists now try to draw as little attention as possible to themselves. But even if they manage to avoid the security forces while covering a public action, then police can still turn up at their homes, or detain them while they’re in a cafe or simply walking along the street.

Two years per livestream

“I am 27 years old. Six of them I have devoted to my favorite profession: journalism. Last summer I became a livestream reporter. Every time I went to work, I risked not only my freedom, but also my health and life. For my family, this meant that I might not return home one day. And nevertheless, I went into the thick of it, to show how things are without embellishment,” said Katsyaryna Andreeva, a journalist for Belsat, during her trial in February.

The next day, a Minsk district court sentenced both Andreeva – who happens to be my wife – and her camera operator Daria Chultsova to two years in prison for their online reporting. Unlike previous prosecutions of journalists, they faced criminal charges, and received the harshest sentences handed down to journalists in all 27 years of Lukashenka’s dictatorship.

The livestream that landed these two journalists in prison was a unique event. Since summer 2020, the Belarusian security services have put all their effort into ending livestreams: mobile internet has been blocked during street marches, and journalists who stream have been detained. This denied the media most opportunities to conduct fully-fledged online reporting. The alternatives were to shoot a short video or to make a “recorded stream”, broadcast one or two hours later.

On 15 November, Andreeva and Chultsova attended a protest at Minsk’s so-called “Change Square”, unofficially renamed in memory of protester Raman Bandarenka, a 31-year-old artist who security officials beat to death for trying to protect the white-red-white flags – an alternative national symbol used by protesters – hung outside his apartment building. The death of Bandarenka caused a national outcry, which was only made worse after Lukashenka himself endorsed the official version of events: Bandarenka, he said, had been drunk, and had started a fight with “indifferent citizens”, i.e. supporters of the government.

Memorial to Raman Bandarenka
(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Andreeva and Chultsova managed to get access to an apartment opposite the location of the protest, and filmed the hours-long confrontation between the security services and peaceful demonstrators from the 14th floor. Eventually, law enforcement broke down the door and detained them. “You will never run your livestreams again!” Andreeva was told. Five days later, the journalists were charged with “organising a public event that violates public order”.

The investigation did not hide the fact that Katsyaryna and Daria were being persecuted precisely for livestreaming. The indictment stated that the journalists’ alleged crime of “broadcasting information” had been committed with the help of a video camera, a microphone and a press jacket. The court ruled that Katsyaryna directed the protests, on the basis of 12 extracts of her reporting. In fact, in these fragments, the journalist simply talked about what was happening: what the security forces and protesters were doing. But judge Natalya Buguk decided that phrases like “we see that some of the people have blocked the road” had criminal intent.

Katsyaryna Andreeva and Darya Chultsova in court
Image: YouTube

In this case, what’s notable is that the authorities did not even try to create the appearance that their actions were lawful. There was no evidence against Andreeva or Chultsova, even in a falsified form – absolutely nothing indicated their guilt. It’s just that the investigation and the court decided to consider reporting a “socially dangerous act”, which is why these journalists now have to spend two years in a prison colony.

“Why didn’t you give us 25 years?” Andreeva asked after hearing the verdict.

The case of "zero ppm"

The aftermath of Raman Bandarenka’s death cost another journalist her freedom. On 13 November 2020, Katsyaryna Barysevich published an article in which she showed via medical documents that there was no alcohol in Bandarenka’s blood at the time of his death. These documents were provided to her by a doctor, Artsyom Sarokin, and they were published with the permission of the Bandarenka family.

On 19 November, Sarokin and Barysevich were detained and sent to pre-trial detention, accused of divulging medical secrets. According to deputy prosecutor general Henadz Dysko, Barysevich’s actions led to “an active discussion and another conflict in society aimed at undermining citizens’ trust in official information and in law enforcement and government bodies.” Again, this was treated as a criminal rather than administrative matter.

No one was investigated for Bandarenka’s death until three months later, when a criminal case was opened on the eve of Barysevich’s trial. This had little to do with finding his Bandarenka’s killers – the general prosecutor’s office immediately emphasised that the security forces had nothing to do with his death – but the active investigation allowed judges to hold the trial of Saorokin and Barysevich in camera. On 3 March, Barysevich was sentenced to six months in prison, and Sarokin to two years.

Rally against persecution of journalists, Minsk, September 2020
(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The cases of Barysevich, Andreeva and Chultsova have become symbols of a new stage in the Belarusian state’s campaign against journalists. At the end of December, five employees of Press Club, a project that organises media trainings and lectures by renowned reporters and media managers, were arrested. Yulia Slutskaya, Alla Sharko, Siarhei Olshevsky, Siarhei Yakupov, and Pyotr Slutsky were all accused of tax evasion and sent to pre-trial detention.

In January 2021, the security services arrested Andrei Aleksandrov, a journalist and media manager who worked for the BelaPAN news agency. Aleksandrov was accused of paying the fines of civic activists. As in the case against Belsat journalists, the investigation against Aleksandrov qualified his actions as “strongly violating the civic order”.

In February, the security services conducted dozens of searches in the apartments of BAJ representatives, as well as the association’s Minsk offices. According to the ministry of internal affairs, the BAJ is suspected of organising and financing the protests.

Outlawed media

Belarusian officials and state propaganda outlets like to claim that journalists who are currently being persecuted are not really journalists. This kind of absurd proposition is connected to another part of the state’s strategy: deliberately pushing independent media out of the country’s legal framework.

Belsat TV, for example, has never been officially accredited in Belarus: the authorities simply ignore all requests without explanation. For journalists, the lack of accreditation means restricted access to official information, the possibility of being detained, having their equipment confiscated and the imposition of huge fines for violating media law.

In early October 2020, all foreign media found themselves in Belsat’s position: the foreign ministry cancelled their accreditation en masse. New accreditation was only issued to Russian state media. At the same time, the authorities revoked the status of TUT.by, the largest information portal in the country. This kind of manipulation allows the Lukashenka regime to publicly declare that there is no persecution of the media in Belarus.

Another form of pressure involves blocking websites, as well as the obstruction of the printing and distribution of newspapers. In August 2020 alone, the ministry of information restricted access to more than 70 internet resources, which were allegedly “used to coordinate actions to organise mass disobedience by representatives of the authorities.” The blacklist included a huge number of media outlets: the websites of Belsat, Radio Liberty, naviny.by, Euroradio, sports publication Tribuna and others.

Central Minsk cordoned off by barbed wire
(c) gidenoia / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

While blocking is relatively easy to overcome with VPNs or mirror sites, restrictions on print are a greater challenge. Since late August, the authorities have banned printing companies from producing non-state-approved newspapers. This includes People’s Will, Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus, Svobodnye Novosti and Belgazeta. After some switched to printers outside Belarus, the state distribution networks Belpochta and Belsayuzdruk refused to sell these newspapers through either their kiosks or subscription services. As a result, while not officially banned, independent newspapers have been deprived of the opportunity to be printed and distributed.

Pending arrest

Six months on, the persecution of journalists in Belarus has become pervasive. It does not matter which non-state publication a media worker represents or what their job is, whether they’re a photographer, cameraman or reporter. Before the election, Lukashenka’s anger was directed primarily at foreign media and livestreamers. Now anyone who refuses to fall in line with official propaganda is targeted.

In January 2021, Nadzeya Kalinina, a TUT.by journalist, was detained for 72 hours in Minsk, and then fined for trying to report on a conference held by the opposition All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. In February, Belsat journalists Lyubov Luneva and Dzmitry Soltan received 10 and 15 days of administrative detention, respectively, for trying to collect vox pops from the streets of Minsk. It suggests that virtually any editorial assignment can land a Belarusian journalist working for an independent outlet in prison.

“For the last six months, the Belarusian authorities have been carrying out a total reprisal against independent journalists and media,” said the BAJ in a public appeal to international colleagues last month.

Scale and brutality distinguish the current repression from what journalists in Belarus have faced before. Today, many independent journalists carry an emergency bag, a backpack with a change of clothes, a toothbrush and so on – everything one might need in case of arrest. Everyone has an arrangement with a lawyer, in case they are detained. And few have avoided personally facing repression.

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