Authorities in Belarus must immediately drop all charges against journalists detained during recent police crackdowns, stop cancelling accreditation for foreign journalists and immediately halt interference with state-owned publishing houses, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, also joined other NGOs in urging the U.N. Human Rights Council to urgently convene a special session to address the human rights crisis in Belarus.

It comes as police yesterday detained around 50 different local and international journalists and media workers for document checks as they were preparing to cover anti-government protests in Minsk and Brest, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Four were held in pre-trial detention overnight, one was hospitalized, and one foreign photographer was deported.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said the first wave of police repression and brutality had now morphed into a second wave of judicial persecution in the country’s courts, as dozens of journalists faced charges for participating in “unauthorized rallies” or working without accreditation during their coverage of nationwide protests.

“The Belarusian Law on Mass Media clearly stipulates that journalists and media professionals are exempt from Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative offences regarding attendance at rallies”, he said. “Yet many reporters who braved tear gas and rubber bullets to report in the public interest and document the violent police crackdown now find themselves dragged before the courts on politically motivated charges.

“It’s clear these charges – and wider attempts to stifle critical reporting and shut down the access to media websites – are part of new tactics by the government to suppress coverage of rights abuses and dial up pressure on independent media. We call on authorities to uphold their obligations to protect press freedom and immediately drop all charges against all those journalists rounded up by security forces.

“These widespread violations of freedom of speech and freedom of the press must also be discussed at the U.N. Human Rights Council. We call on the current chair of the Council, Austrian diplomat Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, to help initiate an emergency meeting to discuss these and many other rights abuses committed on Lukashenko’s watch.”

Judicial repression follows police violence

In the weeks following the elections, the BAJ has documented more than 120 different instances of journalists being beaten or detained in the capital Minsk and other cities. Many reporters suffered serious injuries while being held in detention centres. While many were released from pre-trial detention, others have been since summoned under new charges.

Among those in the dock in recent days include Belsat journalist Ekaterina Andreeva, who faced trial in Minsk on Thursday under Article 23.34 for covering a protest rally on July 14. Belsat journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva and cameraman Maksim Kalitouski were among those arrested on Thursday and are expected to face trial today. Belsat is the only major Belarusian-language satellite channel not supportive of the government.

“At first it was charges of attending an unsanctioned rally. Now the courts are using any other protocols possible to summon and charge people”, Barys Haretski, deputy chairman at BAJ, told IPI. He added that journalists found guilty can face up to 15 days in jail or a fine of €420, a sum equivalent to one month’s salary for many Belarusian media workers.

Deportations and blocking access to printing presses

In the fallout from the crackdown, the Belarusian government has also moved to stem its loss of public support by interfering with media coverage and blocking critical reporting.

Among the first targeted here were foreign journalists with revocable press accreditation. On August 21, two reporters with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian-language service, Andrei Kiselyov and Yulia Vishnevetskaya, were ordered to be deported and banned from entering Belarus for five years. One of those detained on Thursday, Swedish photographer Paul Hansen, was also ordered to leave the country and issued a travel ban.

Several other journalists working for foreign outlets, such as DW’s Alexander Burakov, and Russian independent TV broadcaster Dozhd’s Vasily Polonsky, Vladimir Romensky and Nikolai Antipov have also been targeted and in some cases ordered to leave the country.

During the past two weeks, the state-owned Belarusian Printing House in Minsk said it was unable to publish at least four well-known newspapers due to multiple malfunctions in the printing presses. Journalists have accused the publisher of trying to suppress reporting. One of those papers, the Belarusian edition of daily Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, has had the release of its paper disrupted three times during the presidential election, according to the BAJ.

It comes amidst internet blackouts and blocks on websites and social media channels such as Telegram. Haretski said the Ministry of Information had restricted access to 73 different websites including several media channels including Radio Svaboda, Belsat TV, Euroradio and Solidarity newspaper. The BAJ website itself was blocked for internet users within the country for 18 days.

Calls for investigations

The nationwide demonstrations were the largest in Belarus’ history and saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest alleged election fraud by long-serving authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Thousands were detained and hundreds injured as police used tear gas, flash grenades and beatings to disperse crowds.

Journalists were among those injured. Video footage shows Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubnevskaya being deliberately shot with a rubber bullet by riot police as she documented officers moving against peaceful protesters. She is clearly identifiable as a member of the press at the time and remains in hospital after having surgery.

Griffen said IPI supported her employer’s call to the Investigative Committee, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other law-enforcement agencies to act on evidence provided to them and identify the officer responsible to ensure they face professional sanctions and prosecution.

Belarusian journalist Iryna Arahouskaya and Dutch journalist Emilie van Outeren were also wounded by an unknown projectile while covering events in Minsk, according to media reports and the BAJ. Ukrainian Associated Press journalist Mstyslav Chernov was left with a concussion after being severely beaten. Many others were beaten in police custody.

Serious lack of press freedom

Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, has been in power for 26 years. Under his rule the country has long muzzled free speech. Independent media face major economic and legal pressure. Already one of the worst performing countries in Europe on press freedom, the situation continued to worsen over the last few years, according to a recent IPI report.

In June, IPI documented the detentions of at least 14 journalists and called for them to be released immediately. Four journalists were jailed for reporting on opposition rallies, while several violations linked to COVID-19 have also been monitored.

Earlier this month, IPI wrote to Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg urging him to push for a united EU condemnation of violence against journalists covering the ongoing protests in Belarus.