Authorities in Belarus should immediately release four journalists jailed for reporting on opposition rallies and must stop using the current health crisis to silence critical reporting on the government, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

Over the course of two days on May 8 and 9, four different journalists were arrested and charged with “participating in an unauthorized demonstration”.

All four had reported on rallies held in support of a detained vlogger and opposition candidate who recently announced he will run against long-serving president Alexander Lukashenko in elections this summer.

During brief hearings held on May 11 and 12, all four were found guilty in two separate courts, fined and jailed for 10 days, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Those detained were BelaPAN news agency reporter Ales Asiptsou, freelance reporter Zmitser Lupach, freelance cameraman Mikhail Arshynski, and freelancer Alyaksandr Burakou. A fifth journalist, Alyaksandr Barazenka, was briefly detained on May 9 but released shortly after.

“Intimidation and detentions of journalists are nothing new in Belarus; but this move to jail media workers reporting on opposition figures ahead of an approaching presidential election is beyond cynical”, Scott Griffen, IPI deputy director, said. “For simply doing their job, these journalists have been thrown behind bars and put at great risk of infection. We call on authorities in Minsk release them immediately.”

He added that the arrests mirrored tactics seen elsewhere in countries such as Azerbaijan, where journalists reporting on opposition leaders or criticizing the government during the pandemic have been selectively detained and jailed.

Four arrests in two days

On May 8, Mahiliou-based freelance cameraman and Mikhail Arshynski was arrested after documenting a news story for Belsat TV about the demonstration organized by the YouTube vlogger and government critic Siarhei Tikhanouski. He was also fined 540 Belarusian rubles (€200). He was detained alongside another freelance journalist, Alyaksandr Burakou, who was also given a 10-day sentence.

Zmitser Lupach, another freelance journalist covering the rally, was fined and sentenced to a 10-day jail term. He was reportedly held for days in a windowless cell and required hospital treatment after his hearing.

On May 9, BelaPAN news agency reporter Ales Asiptsou was detained in the eastern city of Babruysk after covering another event organized by Tikhanouski as an alternative to the government’s own military parade celebrating the victory over Nazism.

Also on May 9, Alyaksandr Barazenka, a reporter for Belsat TV who has previously been jailed for reporting on opposition figures, was detained by police as he was on his way to cover the same event. He was stopped by traffic officers over an alleged number plate offence and detained for three hours at a police station.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said: “Prosecution of colleagues for performance of their professional duties draws a strong protest in the journalists’ community. We believe the use of administrative arrest as a penalty during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially cynical as it puts the health of the journalists at serious risk.”

The vlogger, Tikhanouski, had been arrested on May 6 and sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention, sparking further demonstrations and arrests of his supporters.

Press freedom violations linked to COVID-19

The spate of detentions come after on May 7, the Belarusian authorities stripped two Russian media workers of their press accreditation after they reported about increasing coronavirus death rates in the country.

No clarification was given by the Foreign Ministry in Minsk as to why journalist Aleksei Kruchinin and cameraman Sergei Panasyuk, of Channel One TV, had their accreditation cancelled.

It followed a report from the country’s state television channel which rebutted Channel One’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Belarus. The reporters were accused of spreading false information about the situation.

In March, police from the State Control Committee detained journalist Siarhei Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, on bribery charges. Belarussian media reported the arrest followed reporting by Yezhednevnik which strongly criticized the government’s handling of Covid-19.

At the start of the crisis, President Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, publicly declared not a single person in the country would die of the disease and refused to implement social distancing measures.

On May 9, the president again rejected calls for lockdown measures to tackle the spread of the virus and went ahead with the country’s parade to mark the victory of the Soviet Union in WWII.

State media has been accused of playing down the seriousness of the pandemic and underreporting fatalities. There have been reports in independent media that authorities have leaned on hospitals to register deaths from COVID-19 as cases of pneumonia or heart failure.