Beatings, injuries, detentions. Searches, arrests, court hearings, prisons. Website blocks, refusal to print and distribute, revocation of credentials… Belarusian independent journalists and media are not protected by the law or Press vests or press cards.
Since August 2020, journalists, editors, photo correspondents have worked without proper rest, under constant stress and uncertainty. Nobody knows who will be the next for the security officers to come to, who will be the next to be detained. Yet despite all that Belarusian media carry on their work: they find and distribute information about what's happening in the country here and now.
Journalists during a rally, following which they were convicted for coordinating the protest march. Photo by TUT.BY
A group of journalists being detained before a rally starts to prevent coverage of events. PHOTO BY TUT.BY
The Press Under Pressure project was created by the Press Club Belarus team in the fall 2020 and still can't be deemed completed. The number of affected journalists keeps growing, stories added and continued.
Journalists are being detained and imprisoned for the second, the third time… Many were forced to flee Belarus due to security threats. The country's largest information portal TUT.BY was destroyed, 15 of its officers—including Director General and editor-in-chief—are kept at pre-trial detention facilities or under house arrest. The Press Club got under pressure too: the organisation's founder Yuliya Slutskaya, financial director Sergey Olshevski, programme director Alla Sharko and camera man Peter Slutsky have been imprisoned at the pre-trial detention center since 22 December 2020.
The statistics below refer to the period from August 9, 2020 to October 3, 2022. The numbers are constantly increasing and updating. Information from the operative spreadsheet of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
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Journalists are detained while working on the streets, ostensibly for document checks, but are then taken to police departments, cutting them off from events and denying them the chance to report from the ground. Correspondents and photographers are often detained both during livestreams and before events begin, being physically removed from the streets.
Such detentions can be especially widespread on some days, either on the eve or at the beginning of protests. During just one day, August 27, the security forces removed 47 journalists from the streets of the cities of Minsk and Brest.
Then security officers turned on independent media editorial offices and the journalists' and media managers' homes with sudden searches. In most cases these searches ended with detainment: people were taken to detention centers and then, possibly, to pre-trial detention facilities.
"Belarusian authorities have already crossed the Rubicon and they have no regard for the position of the USA, the European Union, other democratic and professional communities to current events. We anticipate even harsher measures soon."
"People in balaclavas started to break down our door. I decided to open it, but I was late – they cut the door with a specialised tool. They stormed into the flat where my wife and my 10-year-old child also were. They were brandishing a gun, put me down on my knees, and hit me over the head twice. After that, the FID inspector entered and said it was not a search, but an inspection and that they would confiscate all the electronic items."
“‘I am a journalist at Radio Liberty! I do not resist!’ That's all I had the time to say. I was professionally grappled, thrown on the tarmac, held down with a knee, and handcuffed. I kept repeating, ‘I do not resist.’ However, they still beat me on the head with their fists – for fun, I guess. Then they started pulling my stuff out of my pockets while hitting me on the back of the head, in the temple, in my eye.”
“We saw and heard people being beaten. There's such cruelty, about which a lot is said, at Okrestina Street. And because they were sure that there were no unnecessary witnesses, the cruelty was atrocious.”
Security officials warn photo journalists that they must not approach the crowd more closely. Photo by Pavel Krichko
Journalists gather in front of a police station in solidarity with their detained colleague holding posters "I DO NOT PROTEST, I WORK", "THIS IS MY DUTY", "FREEDOM TO JOURNALISTS". Photo by TUT.BY
media representatives have been accused in criminal cases
In August–October 2020, journalists were sentenced under the Administrative Code articles: first under article 23.34 "for participation in a rally", then article 23.4 "for disobeying an officer" was added which allowed the judges to rule longer terms of sentence, up to 30 days.
Conveyor court hearings producing identical sentences, witnesses in balaclavas under assumed names. Judges never let lawyers defend their clients, interrogate anonymous witnesses or establish their identities.
Since November 2020, journalists have been involved in criminal cases. 6 journalists have been accused under Article 342, part 1, of the Criminal Code "Violation of the procedure for organising or holding mass events". Another 2 journalists have been suspects in other criminal cases, such as "disclosure of medical secrecy with grave consequences" after a resonance publication or alleged libel against a high official.
On 22 December, Press Club Belarus got under the "criminal pressure" as well. And since January 2021, the number of criminal cases against journalists started growing exponentially. Journalists have been accused of "financing protest activities", "tax evasion", "insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus"...
On 18 February 2021, the first court judgement was made under one of such criminal cases: Belsat journalists Katerina Andreeva and Daria Chultsova were found guilty and sentenced to two years in a low security prison.
On 19 February, the court started hearing the case of TUT.BY journalist Katerina Borisevich. On 2 March she was sentenced to 6 months in a low security prison and a fine of 100 base units.
The next victim of the regime was Sergei Gordievich, journalist of The First Region publication. He was accused of affront and libel against the President and of affronting police officers in a chat which had already been deleted. The journalist was first subjected to house arrest and an undertaking not to leave. However, on 2 August, the court ruled a new sentence, imprisonment for one and a half years.
"It is hard to say why it was Katya's publication that triggered the reaction. Possible, because her text disagreed with the official position. It is odd, though, that the journalists are blamed. We have a saying, 'If planes crash, the journalists are to blame.' "
"Everyone involved in live streaming was hunted. Live streams had become a pressure point for the authorities; they took every effort to prevent the former. Belsat shooting teams had been followed already during the collection of signatures, election campaign meetings, rallies."
Despite the fact that journalists do not participate in rallies and wear special vests in order to remain visible at all times, they are still among those brutally beaten and detained. In the early days of the protests, the security forces beat and tortured detained journalists.
“A major used me as a table when questioning a guy next to me. He put a piece of paper on my back and wrote down the information. Later, he told me to crawl aside so that he could continue.”
On August 10, Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubnevskaya was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet while working at a protest in Minsk. Nasha Niva published a video where you can see the security forces officer fire at Natalia from close range.
A journalist injured by a baton round led by her colleagues. Photo by Uladz Hrydzin
“Most of us wore blue ‘Press’ vests, we all had special badges. It was clear we were not participating in the event. However, this did not save us, unfortunately. The shooter decided that it was okay to shoot at an unarmed person who was doing their job, did not threaten him in any way, and did not even see him.”
"They started firing at us. I looked back to make sure whether it was really us they were shooting at. And it was—several persons holding guns were after us. One of them was faster than the others and he opened heavy fire on us. And since I was the last one of our group, he hit me. At a certain point I felt pain in my coccyx or a bit lower. But I only groaned and kept on running: it did hurt, but not enough to make me stop. The only thing in my mind at that moment was to get away from there as soon as possible not to be shot again."
Detained, allegedly for checking documents. PHOTO BY TUT.BY
Journalists stage an all-night vigil in front of a police station where their colleagues are being held. Minsk residents brought warm beverages and food. Photo by TUT.BY
“Many of us had a witness in a balaclava named Kovalyov speaking at our trials. Despite the balaclava, it was obvious that all those Kovalyovs were different people. That Kovalyov saw three journalists from different media in different parts of the march and heard them coordinating students with the same phrase ‘keep going!’”
“Four hours later, I was taken to another court, to another judge. She was very surprised to hear that I had already had a trial. I had spent three days in the Okrestina Detention Center. Beaten, hungry, under moral pressure. I was tortured, but still have no documents certifying my detention.”
Belarusian legislation provides for a specific form of sanction against the media – written warnings issued by the Ministry of Information. A media organization can be closed by a court decision if it receives two or more warnings within a year.
TUT.BY received four warnings during August and September 2020. The Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit to close down the online platform TUT.BY. Its status as media were suspended for three months, from October 1 to December 30, 2020.
The economic court's decision of December 3, 2020, stripped TUT.BY of its media status, however, this does not mean that the portal will cease to operate. TUT.BY continues as an "Internet resource" and, according to the Law "On Media" (Article 301), an Internet resource can collect and distribute information.
The media status gives certain benefits, such as the right to be present in the zones of armed conflicts or emergency situations, at public events, in places where socially important events are held, and disseminate information from there.
This, however, didn't stop the repressions. The day 18 May 2021 was the black day in the history of the media. The authorities attacked TUT.BY: searches, employees and partners detained, equipment confiscated, accounts blocked and the Internet resource blocked completely. The director general of TUT.BY, Lyudmila Chekina, and the editor-in-chief, Marina Zolotova, are still in jail.
"When we chose journalism in Belarus as our job we generally understood the conditions we would be working under. A journalist's work was never easy in our country. For many years, it was connected with risks and obstacles from the authorities. In 2020 this problem has certainly gotten on a different scale. But we chose this profession because it is who we are, because we don't give up easily."
Chief Editor of TUT.BY greets journalists after several days in detention. Photo by Violeta Savchits
Protesters support media with "Hands Off TUT.BY" poster. PHOTO BY TUT.BY
independent media websites and political resources blocked
This is a quotation from the decision by the Interdepartmental Commission on Security in the Information Sphere under the Security Council: the decision to restrict access due to “inflicting damage on national interests" was only taken on August 21, while the resource had been offline since August 9.
The Ministry of Information in its letter attributes such measures to the fact that the blocked publications “describe the situation in Belarus following the end of the electoral campaign in a negative way and discredit the work of state bodies."
Foreign photographers and correspondents were deported from Belarus, sometimes after beating, some were kept at the detention facility in Akrestsina. Over 100 journalists from the international media were denied accreditation prior to the election. The majority of the international media still cannot receive accreditation to be freely present in Belarus to cover the events. International organisations issued a statement condemning this practice.
Journalists released after trials where witnesses wore balaclavas. The widely covered case features on a newspaper's front page. Photo by Violeta Savchits
A Skype trial of a journalist who reported from a rally. A witness testifies using an assumed name and wearing a balaclava. PHOTO BY TUT. BY
newspapers were denied printing and access to distribution
Newspapers represent a traditional source of information for older people. And those covering what is happening in the country in an unbiased manner are being denied access to printing presses and distribution among their readers.
After the 2020 election, four republican newspapers — Narodnaya Volya, Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus, Free News Plus, BelGazeta — were denied print and distribution. As a justification of multiple refusal to perform its obligations the state-owned House of Print stated "printing machine failure". At the same time, the state-owned newspapers were printed in the days of alleged failure.
On 1 January 2021, a local state-owned printing house refused to print Brestskaya Gazeta. Negotiations with other state-owned printing houses failed. And on 1 February, the weekly Novy Chas disappeared from the state-owned monopolist Belsoyuzpechat. On 7 Juny the newspaper was denied distribution, and on 12 August it was denied print. The Novy Chas is now available online only.
On 9 May (a state holiday and a non-working day — Ed.), the House of Print terminated the agreement with the regional newspaper Intex-press (Baranavičy) unilaterally by e-mail, without explaining the reasons for termination. A while earlier, at the end of April, Belpost also excluded the newspaper from its subscription catalogue for the second half of 2021. The publication is now issued in electronic form only. Its printed version has been issued for 26 years.
In June 2021, another two independent publications were forced to stop issuing: Regionalnaya Gazeta (Maladziečna) and Inform-progulka (Luniniec). Inform-progulka has been published since 1994, Regionalnaya Gazeta since 1995.
“They actually believe that if they close down all the (few) printed newspapers, they will only have state television, state radio, and their own newspapers left, and so people will have no other point of view…”
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