What has happened to the Belarusian media and journalists since the day of the presidential elections — from 9 August 2020 until today — is an unprecedented case of the eradication of independent journalism in a single country, in the centre of Europe, in the 21st century.
Despite the measures taken by the authorities, we can say that independent Belarusian media continue their work, even in exile. But a high price is paid for it: the journalists are in jail, some have already served their time and been released, and some are sentenced to new terms. Many editorial boards have left Belarus in order to provide independent coverage of Belarusian and world events. Those who stayed were forced to avoid the socio-political agenda.
For the last three years, the wheel of repression has only gained momentum, and lives and destinies have been broken. The stories of journalists and editors are compiled in this project. There are more and more of them, and they find their follow-up.
The “Press Under Pressure” project was created by the Press Club Belarus team in the autumn of 2020. We really would like to complete this project, but it is still impossible. It is important to record what is happening to Belarusian journalism.
This is a story of the incredible resilience of the independent media in Belarus, which continues to fulfil its mission: to inform the people against all odds, despite hardship and obstacles. After all, without independent media, the millions of Belarusian men and women who came out to protest in 2020 would be left voiceless.
Many more films, both feature films and documentaries, will be made based on the events of 2020-2023. For the time being, we are keeping a record of what is happening, in the hope that there will be an end to the repression and that the guilty will be punished.
Detentions, searches, and seizures of equipment. The journalists were detained while working in the streets, supposedly for their ID checks, and taken to the district police department, cutting them off from the events and preventing their audience from being able to get information on the spot. Their equipment and information carriers were seized and destroyed. Reporters and photographers were physically removed from the streets and detained both during the broadcasts and before the rallies.
Law enforcers began searching the offices of independent media outlets and the homes of journalists and media managers. As a rule, the search ends with detentions and seizure of equipment.
Physical violence and injuries. Although journalists were not protesters and wore special vests, they were among those detained and brutally beaten. From August 9, 2020, to the end of 2020, there were at least 62 cases of physical violence against journalists.
Three cases of injuries were also registered. On August 10, 2020, Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubnevskaya was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet while she was covering a protest rally in Minsk. The video published by Nasha Niva clearly shows the journalist being shot at close range by a man in uniform.
Administrative courts. First, there were administrative cases. Journalists were sentenced to 10-15 days in prison for “participating in the rally”. Then the charge of “disobeying an official” was added, which allowed for 30-day administrative detention.
With identical verdicts and witnesses wearing balaclavas and using false names, so-called “conveyor trials” were held. The judges did not allow the lawyers to defend their defendants, question anonymous witnesses, and establish their identities. The decision to hold court hearings in an online format was explained by the epidemiological situation. At the time, the authorities were actively denying that there was a COVID epidemic in the country.
Start of the criminal prosecution. Journalists become the subjects of criminal cases. In 2020, six of them were charged with “organising and preparing activities that grossly violate public order” for their coverage of protests, “disclosing medical secrets” after a high-profile story was published, and “defaming” an official.
On December 22, 2020, part of the Press Club Belarus team also fell under “criminal case pressure”. Founder Yuliya Slutskaya, financial director Sergey Olshevski, program director Alla Sharko, and cameraman Peter Slutsky were kept in a pre-trial detention facility for eight months, accused of tax evasion. They were recognised as political prisoners. The criminal case was closed in 2021. At the same time, Press Club Belarus was liquidated in the country, along with hundreds of other Belarusian NGOs.
Persecution of journalists who quit the state media after the events of August 2020. The hunt was on for workers who spoke out publicly against violence and lawlessness, took part in protests or simply quit their jobs. For example, in September 2020, state television anchors Denis Dudinsky and Dzmitry Kakhno were each sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest for participation in a rally.
In December 2020, former Belarusian TV and Radio Company journalist Kseniya Lutskina was detained in the “Press Club case” for allegedly failing to pay taxes to an organisation she did not even work for. She spent two years in the pre-trial detention facility and was eventually sentenced to eight years in a low-security prison, but this time on another charge: “conspiracy or other actions committed with the purpose of seizing state power”.
The criminal prosecution of journalists who quit their government-run media outlets — as an act of revenge against recently loyal “voices” of the authorities — will continue in the future. Thus, in 2023, a former correspondent and presenter of the state television, Dmitry Semchenko, who had resigned in August 2020, was sentenced to three years in a low-security prison for “incitement to hatred”. This is how the court interpreted Semchenko’s three posts on VKontakte [one of the most popular social networks in Belarus and Russia] and Instagram.
Blocking of websites. As many as ninety-two independent media and political websites were blocked by the Belarusian Security Council on the grounds of “harming national interests”. The decision was taken on 21 August 2020. However, all resources have been inaccessible since 9 August 2020. The justification for the measures was that the blocked outlets were “negatively portraying the situation in Belarus after the end of the election campaign and discrediting the work of state bodies”. The blocking of the independent media is set to continue in the future.
Prohibition to print and distribute printed media. The authorities do not allow newspapers, which give an unbiased account of what is happening in the country and are a familiar form of dissemination for older people, to be printed and delivered into the hands of their readers. Following the August 2020 elections, four national newspapers — Narodnaya Volia, Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus, Svobodnye Novosti Plus, and BelGazeta — were banned from printing and distributing. The reason given by the State Press Committee was “a broken printing press”. At the same time, the state-owned newspapers were printed during the days of the above-mentioned breakdown.
Deprivation of mass media status. The Belarusian legislation provides for a specific form of sanctions against the media: written warnings that are issued by the Ministry of Information. If a media outlet receives two or more warnings within a year, it can be closed by court order.
For example, the country’s largest news portal, TUT.BY, received four warnings in August and September 2020. The Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit in court to suspend the online edition of TUT.BY. The mass media status was suspended and in December 2020, the Economic Court revoked the media status of TUT.BY. However, as an Internet resource that is legally allowed to collect and disseminate information, the media continued to function.
In 2021, the authorities physically destroyed TUT.BY, but the editorial board managed to escape, retain part of the team and continue working for its audience already under the name Zerkalo.
In 2020, the independent Belarusian media sector played a significant role in the democratic movement, and in 2021, it was the target of an unprecedented purge by the authorities.
Criminal prosecutions were getting tougher. Since January 2021, criminal cases against journalists have increased exponentially. Media workers were suspected of “providing financial support to protests”, “evading taxes” and “insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus.”
Criminal sentences for journalists have begun to be handed down. For instance, on February 18, 2021, Belsat journalists Katerina Andreeva and Darya Chultsova were each sentenced to two years in low-security prison for live-streaming a protest rally in memory of killed Minsk citizen Raman Bandarenka. [In November 2020, Bandarenka was beaten to death in the Square of Change, one of the most famous protest sites in Minsk.]
In September 2022, Darya was released and left Belarus. Katerina faced another criminal trial and was sentenced to eight years and three months in prison.
The longest sentence — 15 years in a colony of the enhanced regime — was handed down to Ihar Losik, a media consultant and blogger.
Raids, searches and arrests of newsrooms. On May 18, 2021, the independent media in Belarus faced “black days”. On that day, the authorities attacked TUT.BY: they carried out searches, confiscated equipment, blocked accounts, and completely shut down the Internet resource. Fifteen people were immediately detained. Criminal charges have been filed.
On July 8, 2021, Nasha Niva‘s editorial office and staff homes were raided by law enforcement officials. Four people were detained. The equipment was seized. Criminal cases have been brought against the managers of the media, Andrei Skurko and Yahor Martsinovich.
On July 16, 2021, raids were carried out in seven towns across the country, targeting 17 journalists working with RFE/RL and Belsat. Six people were subsequently detained.
On August 18, 2021, the staff of BelaPAN, the only non-state news agency in the country, were searched. The searches and seizure of documents were part of the criminal case against the agency’s former deputy director, journalist Andrei Aliaksandrau. He was charged in January of the same year with “organising or participating in activities that seriously undermine public order”. Criminal cases have been filed against BelaPAN editor-in-chief and director Iryna Leushina and ex-director Dzmitry Navazhylau.
In 2021, 146 searches of journalists’ homes and editorial offices were recorded.
In 2021, 146 searches of journalists’ homes and editorial offices were recorded.
Repression against non-state journalists and media outlets has been systematic and aimed at virtually destroying the independent media sector in the country. Belarusian media professionals have been outlawed and forced to move abroad on a massive scale.
Newsrooms have started to leave Belarus. Attacks on independent media led to emergency relocations to Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Lithuania, and other countries.
The process of relocation is still ongoing. Despite the fact that the media are working in exile, they continue to retain their audience and work for Belarusians.
The publications and the media themselves are increasingly being recognised as “extremist”. The media continue to be stripped of their media status. Instead, they are given another status — that of an extremist group. This allows law enforcement agencies to arrest media workers and charge them with “participation in an extremist group”.
Criminalisation of media consumption. There are additional risks for audiences of “extremist” media. Liking, subscribing, commenting, reposting, and sharing information with the editorial team can result in both administrative and criminal charges.
Commenting on high-profile cases online becomes dangerous for Belarusians. For example, in the “Zeltser Case”*, at least 124 people have been detained for comments, reposts, leaks of data from security officials, and publications on social networks. By 2023, 99 people had been sentenced to prison. This is one of the most serious cases in Belarus, according to human rights activists.
* In the year 2021, two people, the KGB officer Dmitry Fedosyuk and the IT specialist Andrei Zeltser, were killed in a shoot-out in an apartment in Minsk. There was a wave of detentions of those who spoke out on social networks and condemned the law enforcement officers.
The pressure on the print media continued. Many newspapers were excluded from the state-monopolised print distribution system and denied the possibility of printing in the country. For instance, the printing house refused to print Brestskaya Gazeta. The weekly Novy Chas disappeared from the kiosks of the state monopoly Belsayuzdruk. The State House of Press unilaterally terminated its contract with the regional non-state newspaper Intex-press (Baranavichy), and Belposhta removed the newspaper from the subscription catalogue. The Regional Gazeta (Maladechna) and Inform-progulka (Luninets) were forced to cease publication of their print versions.
The pressure continues in 2022-2023. There are no print versions of the independent media to find out what is happening in the country. Some newsrooms have relocated, some have gone online, some have closed, and some have refused to cover socio-political issues.
Detentions and searches of journalists continued.
Criminal persecution of journalists continued. Closed court hearings were held and media workers were given long prison sentences. Belsat journalist Katerina Andreeva was tried for the second time while serving a two-year prison sentence. Six months before her release, Katerina was retried for “treason against the state” and sentenced to eight years and three months in a medium-security penal colony.
Former Belteleradiocompany journalist Ksenia Lutskina, who was suffering from worsening cancer in custody, was sentenced to eight years in a low-security prison.
The verdict in the “BelaPAN case” has been delivered. Andrei Aliaksandrau was sentenced to 14 years in a medium-security penal colony, Iryna Zlobina to 9 years in a low-security prison, former news agency director Dzmitry Navazhylau to 6 years in a medium-security penal colony, and BelaPAN editor-in-chief and director Iryna Leushina to 4 years in a low-security prison.
Andrei Aliaksandrau, Iryna Leushina, and Dzmitry Navazhylau were accused of founding and leading an extremist group. Aliaksandrau and Navazhylau were also charged with tax evasion. All were recognised as political prisoners.
Nasha Niva media managers Andrei Skurko and Yahor Martsinovich were put on trial. They were accused of paying utility bills as individuals, not as legal entities. Despite paying compensation and withdrawing the case, they were sentenced to two and a half years in a low-security prison.
The media continued to assign the status of “extremist groups and organizations”. Apart from “extremists”, “terrorists” also appear in the media. For instance, TUT.BY journalists Volha Loika, Alena Taukachova, editor-in-chief Maryna Zolatava and CEO Liudmila Chekina were declared “persons involved in terrorist activities” by the KGB during the investigation of their criminal case.
Criminalisation of media consumption. The heroes of the independent media materials are in danger. Military analyst Yahor Lebiadok was sentenced to five years in a medium-security prison after having commented in one of the “extremist” media. The wife of political prisoner Ihar Losik, Darya Losik, was arrested after giving an interview to the Belsat TV channel and sentenced to two years in a low-security prison in 2023.
Audiences take risks by sending content to independent media. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, readers send the media photos and other information about the movement of Russian troops on Belarusian territory. Some of them have been prosecuted for “promoting extremist activities”. They are still being punished for reposting, commenting, subscribing and liking.
Newsrooms are now thinking not only about their security, but also about the security of their audiences. They are finding technological solutions to enable their readers to safely share and consume information (using chatbots, introducing anonymous comments). But the very fact that readers continue to send information to independent media and share their opinions indicates a high level of trust from their audiences.
Internet censorship is in place. In 2022, the state fully or partially restricted access to more than 3,000 Internet resources — independent media sites, Telegram channels, and chat rooms.
Access to the content of Internet resources has been simplified for special services. According to Lukashenka’s decree, telecommunications service providers and owners of Internet resources have three months to register in a special information system for electronic interaction with special services and prepare their resources for unhindered online access by security services.
In 2022, Russian authorities began blocking Russian users’ access to Belarusian independent media due to their coverage of the military conflict in Ukraine.
Detentions of journalists continue. From the beginning of the year until May 2023, 16 journalists have already been detained. During the four months of 2023, criminal cases were filed against two media professionals.
Prosecutions have not been stopped. Trials are held behind closed doors. In the “TUT.BY case”, Liudmila Chekina, CEO of TUT BY MEDIA, and Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief of TUT.BY, were sentenced to 12 years in a low-security prison on charges of “tax evasion”, “inciting racial, national, religious or other social hatred” and “calling for actions aimed at harming national security”.
The designation of media outlets as “extremist groups and organisations” continues. As of May 2023, 14 media outlets and one media organisation (the Belarusian Association of Journalists) have been assigned “extremist” status of various kinds.
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Beatings, injuries, detentions. Searches, arrests, court hearings, prisons. Website blocks, refusal to print and distribute, revocation of credentials…Read more