Authorities in Belarus must immediately release Belsat TV journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva and camerawoman Darya Chultsova and end the brutal crackdown on media reporting on anti-government protests, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

On Thursday February 18, a judge delivered a guilty verdict against the two media workers and sentenced them to two years of imprisonment in a minimum-security penal colony.

The pair were found guilty of “organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order” (Art. 342 of the Criminal Code) by livestreaming a demonstration in the Belarusian capital in November. The trial took place over three days at the Frundenski district court in Minsk.

Prosecutors had claimed that the two journalists had “coordinated protesters and called for further actions” – accusations rubbished by defence lawyers, Belarusian human rights organizations and international press freedom groups.

“Today’s conviction is a damning indictment of the Belarusian justice system and yet another glaring illustration of the vicious crackdown on journalists by the government of Alexander Lukashenko”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova are political prisoners who will now serve time for nothing else than doing their jobs. The Belarusian authorities must release them and all other arbitrarily detained journalists and media workers who remain behind bars.

“The international community must act. We reiterate our call to European Union institutions to immediately adopt new economic sanctions on those responsible for orchestrating the crackdown and freeze all disbursement of financial assistance to the government of Belarus under the European Neighbourhood Instrument until these shameful violations of international human rights law and freedom of the media end.”

Andreyeva and Chultsova were arrested on November 15 while covering a rally in Minsk commemorating Raman Bandarenka, a protester who died from injuries sustained during a beating by a group of masked individuals believed to have been linked to the security forces.

The fatal attack took place on one of the consecutive weekends of protests against the fraudulent presidential election victory of authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko, which have seen millions of people demonstrate peacefully across the country.

The two journalists from Belsat, a Poland-based satellite TV channel which covers Belarus, had attended the rally in a purely professional capacity to report from the scene and document events. The TV station’s critical coverage has seen its journalists among the most aggressively targeted and sanctioned by the regime in recent months.

Since protests erupted on 9 August, monitoring groups have documented more than 400 cases of journalists being arrested just for doing their job.

In December, IPI published a full-page ad in The Washington Post calling on the international community to defend press freedom in Belarus.