The International Press Institute (IPI) today demanded the immediate release of all the journalists and media workers remaining in custody in Belarus and called on the international community to condemn the Lukashenko regime for its brutal crackdown on media freedom and human rights.

IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, said that in the last couple of months Belarusian security forces’ tactics had shifted from the mass detentions of journalists covering protests to a more targeted campaign of administrative pressure and legal harassment against critical journalists and media organizations.

For more than two months now, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, reporters for Poland-based TV channel Belsat, have been held behind bars in pre-trial detention. Both are charged with violating the public order for their reporting on rallies in the capital Minsk and will face trial at the Frunzensky District Court of Minsk on February 9.

“The crackdown on press freedom in Belarus shows no signs of abating”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Since the beginning of a new year, at least five journalists and bloggers have been detained and ten remain in custody.

“Meanwhile, legal harassment of media organizations and associations is reaching unprecedented levels and arrests, and searches and confiscations of equipment on trumped-up charges have became a routine of Belarusian law enforcement agencies. Six months after the presidential election, Belarus’s vicious crackdown on press freedom continues, even as the world’s attention turns elsewhere. The international community must not abandon Belarus’s journalists. It must strongly denounce this assault on press freedom and take steps to hold those responsible to account.”

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

Recent developments

As nationwide protests swept across the country in August 2020 after the alleged fraud in presidential election victory of incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, police and other enforcement agencies have repeatedly violated press freedom.

Overall, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has documented 477 detentions of journalists in 2020. In total, 97 journalists were subjected to administrative arrests, 15 of whom were criminally charged.

IPI has repeatedly drawn attention to the cases of detention of both local and international journalists, deportation of foreign reporters, the revocation of accreditation and the blocking of opposition media websites. While detentions of journalists in neighbouring Russia have dominated headlines recently, the media freedom situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate.

On December 22, the founder of the Press Club Belarus, Yulia Slutskaya, was arrested along with her colleagues Alla Sharko, Siarhei Alsheuski, and Ksenia Lutskina. A few days later, on December 31, the Investigative Committee charged Slutskaya with tax evasion and others with complicity. All of the accused have been designated as political prisoners by Viasna human rights organization.

Another recognized political prisoner, Andrei Aliaksandrau, the chief editor of Belarusskiy Journal, was arrested on January 13 and charged by the Investigative Committee with “organizing or preparing activities that gravely breach public order”.

On January 26, the Department of Financial Investigations came with search warrants to the director, publisher and to the office of Brest-based Binokl news website, seizing documents and equipment.

On January 29, riot police searched the editorial house in Grodno shared by and news portals for committing an administrative offense of sharing in their Telegram channels the posts by NEXTA. The latter Telegram channel was previously banned for being “extremist”. As part of the administrative case, police seized computers, cameras, flash drives and drones.

The case of Andreyeva and Chultsova

On January 18, a court in Minsk extended the arrest of Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova for one month until February 20. Their first two-month arrest warrants were to expire on January 20.

On November 20, Andreyeva and Chultsova were charged under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus with “organizing or preparing activities that gravely breach public order”. The charges followed their week-long detention for covering the police’s dispersal of the rally in memory of Roman Bandarenko, an activist beaten to death by plainclothes police officers in Minsk.

The investigation claims that by filming they prevented the operation of public transport. The Viasna human rights organization has named the two journalists as political prisoners.