Yuliya Slutskaya, the founder and chairperson of Press Club Belarus and an unswerving beacon of quality, independent journalism in the repressive former Soviet republic, is the International Press Institute (IPI)‘s 72nd World Press Freedom Hero.

The World Press Freedom Hero award honours journalists who have made significant contributions to the promotion of press freedom, particularly in the face of great personal risk. For the past six years, the award has been conferred in partnership with Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS). Past recipients include Lydia Cacho, Mazen Darwish, and Anna Politkovskaya.

Slutskaya and several members of her staff were jailed on trumped-up tax evasion charges as part of the Lukashenko regime’s crackdown on press freedom and freedom of expression. She and four colleagues were released after eight months of pre-trial detention in August.

The IPI-IMS Hero award will be presented together with the IPI-IMS Free Media Pioneer award during a special ceremony on September 16, 2021, in Vienna, Austria, as part of IPI’s annual World Congress. Indian news site The Wire was announced as the 2021 Free Media Pioneer last week.

Career dedicated to promoting independent, quality journalism

Slutskaya’s distinguished career as a journalist, editor, and media manager spans nearly 30 years. A graduate of Belarusian State University, she was the editor-in-chief of the independent daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi from 1995 to 2006. From 2007 to 2010 she served as editor-in-chief of the independent broadcaster European Radio for Belarus. Following a wave of repression resulting from the 2010 Belarusian presidential elections, she left Belarus for Warsaw to found the Belarus in Focus Information Office, which provides analysis and expert commentary on social and political developments in Belarus.

In 2011, she established the Belarus Press Club while living in exile in Warsaw. After conditions improved in Belarus, Slutskaya was able to move the Press Club’s operations to Minsk in late 2015. A “crucible for professional journalism”, the Press Club became a central meeting place for Belarusian and international journalists, dedicated to promoting high journalistic standards and incubating media innovation through events, networking, training, masterclasses, media monitoring, and dialogue. “One of our core objectives is to be a platform open for all. A meeting place where we, in line with our mission, aspire to facilitate communication and build trust”, Slutskaya said in 2019.

Mass protests against the fraudulent “re-election” of long-time dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 unleashed a new wave of state terror against Belarusian dissidents and journalists. Nearly 500 journalists and media workers have been victims of state repression, with 28 still behind bars as of September 7, 2021. The repression has accelerated throughout the past year as authorities have raided journalists‘ homes and offices and shuttered independent media outlets.

The Belarus Press Club has not been spared. On December 22, Slutskaya was arrested at Minsk airport. Police seized her mobile phone and laptop and raided the Press Club’s offices. She was placed in pre-trial detention and charged with tax evasion according to Art. 243 of the Belarusian Criminal Code. Four other Press Club employees – finance director Syarhei Alsheuski, programming director Ala Sharko and videographers Pyotr Slutski (Slutskaya’s son) and Dzianis Sakalousky – were also jailed. Kseniya Lutskina, a former state TV journalist who left her job at state TV in August 2020, was also taken into custody in connection with the case. On August 19, Slutskaya, Alsheuski, Sharko, and Slutsky were released and charges against them dropped following a request for an “act of pardon” according to the Belarusian Criminal Code. Sakalousky was released on August 22. Lutskina remains behind bars. In July, Minsk city authorities officially dissolved the Belarus Press Club.

Slutskaya faced up to seven years in prison in connection with the tax charges. Her jailing prompted outrage and an outpouring of support in and outside Belarus, underscoring the immense respect Slutskaya enjoys as an editor, media manager, and principled defender of quality journalism.

Belarus must free all jailed journalists

Slutskaya said of the IPI World Press Freedom Hero award: “I am very grateful that you appreciate my contribution to upholding the values of freedom of speech. I ask you to remember that this is only possible due to the dedicated work of the entire Press Club team and the hundreds of Belarusian journalists who remain faithful to their values in highly challenging conditions.

“I would also like to thank you for keeping Belarus in the focus of the world media. This in itself gives me hope that I will soon be able to embrace all my currently imprisoned colleagues.

IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said Slutskaya embodied the values that the Hero award represents.

“Over the course of her career, Yuliya Slutskaya – despite working in one of the world’s most repressive media environments and at the expense of her own freedom – has steadfastly defended the value of quality, independent journalism. We are proud to recognize Yuliya’s bravery and her immense contributions to the journalistic profession in Belarus. IPI members around the world stand in solidarity with Yuliya and her colleagues at the Press Club Belarus, and with all other journalists in the country targeted by the regime. We repeat our demand for the release of all jailed journalists in Belarus and an immediate end to the crackdown.”

IMS Executive Director Jesper Højberg added:

“Yuliya Slutskaya has fearlessly defended the right of journalists to practice and the right of citizens to have access to reliable information in Belarus. Yuliya has led Belarus Press Club to openly support the media community in the country, promoting higher standards of journalism and providing a platform for discussion and debate in the most difficult of circumstances. The IPI-IMS Hero Award is a reminder to all on how tirelessly Belarussian journalists have been standing up for press freedom. Yuliya Slutskaya and her colleagues have my deepest respect.”