The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemns Belarusian authorities for designating the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) as an “extremist group”.

The declaration is the latest attack on the media association, which has been forced to operate in exile since the Supreme Court arbitrarily disbanded the organization in August 2021. The decision also comes after dozens of attacks against the free press, which have become especially harsh since the crackdown on the 2020 mass protest movement against President Alexander Lukashenko.

In a decision dated February 28 and published on March 7, the Belarusian KGB added BAJ to its list of “extremist” groups. This list already included over 100 media outlets and non-governmental organizations, nearly all of which took part in either organizing, in the case of NGOs, or reporting on, in the case of media, the broad civil society movement opposing Lukashenko following his reelection in 2020, which was internationally recognized as ‘falsified’ and ‘fraudulent’.

“Belarusian authorities continue their systematic effort to silence all independent voices they do not already directly control”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “Although the decision to declare BAJ an ‘extremist group’ is yet another in a long series of such attacks on media and civil society, the IPI global network strongly condemns this blatant act of repression.”

“IPI and our global network stand behind BAJ and all independent journalists inside and outside Belarus. The extremists in this situation are not BAJ, but the authoritarian president and his security services who arbitrarily criminalize and persecute journalists.”

Repression continues

In their decision, Belarusian security services – still known by their Soviet era initials – stated that a “group of citizens”, including BAJ president Andrey Bastunets and vice-president Barys Haretski, as well as six other BAJ members, were found to have “carried out extremist activities”. 

Authorities did not explain what they considered as ‘extremist’ in the association’s mandate, which mainly includes coordinating help for imprisoned journalists in Belarus and assisting those forced into exile, as well as communicating on these cases to the international community.

In 2021, Belarusian security officials searched BAJ’S offices in Minsk twice. In August of the same year, the Belarusian Supreme Court disbanded the organization, accusing it of delays in delivering documents and discrepancies in some lease documents.

BAJ continued its work from abroad after its leaders were forced to leave Belarus: “The Belarusian Association of Journalists is not an entry in a register of legal entities”, the organization wrote in a statement following its recognition as an ‘extremist group’. “[We are] a community of professionals and like-minded people who work towards a common goal – to create high-quality truthful media, provide society with objective information, and protect the right to free speech.”

“Unfortunately, such decisions make the work of independent journalists in Belarus even more difficult, because these decisions increase fear and danger for media workers”, BAJ vice-president Barys Haretski said in an interview with Warsaw-based Belarusian TV channel Belsat. “In these conditions, no one in Belarus should publicly claim to be a representative of BAJ”, he added, in reference to new possibilities for legal persecution linked to ‘extremist’ status. “The management of the organization is abroad and will continue its work for independent media, for those behind bars and for those who suffered from repression [by authorities]. Of course, this worsens the working conditions of Belarusian media workers, because it is an act of intimidation limiting [their] rights and opportunities”

Shadowed by Russia’s large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the Lukashenko regime in Belarus continues its tireless repression of journalists and activists. As of March 2023, 32 journalists remain behind bars in the country of nine million. While some such as Alexander Ivulin have completed their sentences and left prison, others continue to be hit by the brunt of repression and charged with baseless accusations, such as ‘incitement to social hatred’ or ‘discrediting Belarus’. Eminent activists are no less safe, illustrated by the example of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, who was recently sentenced to ten years of prison by a court in Minsk.

Belarus ended 2022 with the jailing of yet another media worker, Larysa Shchyrakova, and began 2023 with the opening of criminal proceedings against journalists from, Belarus’ most popular news site before its forced closure by authorities in 2021. As such, it maintained its position as one of the worst countries in the world for journalists to practice their profession.