Beatings, injuries, detentions. Searches, arrests, trials. Website blocks, refusals to print, revocation of credentials… Belarusian independent journalists and media are no longer protected: either by the law, or their “Press“ vests, or their press cards.
Since August 2020, journalists, editors, and photojournalists of Belarusian independent media have been working without rest, on adrenaline. They also spend nights near police departments and temporary detention centers where their colleagues are detained. They take part in solidarity actions, and demand meetings with senior officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs… And yet, they continue to do their job – discovering and disseminating information about what is happening in Belarus here and now.
Journalists during a rally, following which they were convicted for coordinating the protest march. Photo by TUT.BY
A group of journalists being detained before a rally starts to prevent coverage of events. PHOTO BY TUT.BY
It must be said that the Press under Pressure project cannot be considered complete at the time of publication: the number of injured journalists is still growing, the stories continue to pile up, and some of them evolve. For example, the police opened a criminal investigation against the Nasha Niva editor-in-chief for defamatory libel after a podcast had been recorded; numerous journalists are being detained and imprisoned for the second or the third time – it is easy to lose count.
So we will continue to record the stories of journalists and editors in interviews in which they talk about what is happening now and what it feels like to work in such conditions.
Listen to the voices of Belarusian journalists and editors, read their stories, look into their eyes and understand the price they pay to remain in the profession – and do their job, no matter what.
The statistics below refer to the period from August 9, 2020 to March 21, 2021. The numbers are constantly increasing and updating. Information from the operative spreadsheet of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
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Journalists are detained while working on the streets, ostensibly for document checks, but are then taken to police departments, cutting them off from events and denying them the chance to report from the ground. Correspondents and photographers are often detained both during livestreams and before events begin, being physically removed from the streets.
Such detentions can be especially widespread on some days, either on the eve or at the beginning of protests. During just one day, August 27, the security forces removed 47 journalists from the streets of the cities of Minsk and Brest.
“‘I am a journalist at Radio Liberty! I do not resist!’ That's all I had the time to say. I was professionally grappled, thrown on the tarmac, held down with a knee, and handcuffed. I kept repeating, ‘I do not resist.’ However, they still beat me on the head with their fists – for fun, I guess. Then they started pulling my stuff out of my pockets while hitting me on the back of the head, in the temple, in my eye.”
“We saw and heard people being beaten. There's such cruelty, about which a lot is said, at Okrestina Street. And because they were sure that there were no unnecessary witnesses, the cruelty was atrocious.”
Security officials warn photo journalists that they must not approach the crowd more closely. Photo by Pavel Krichko
Journalists gather in front of a police station in solidarity with their detained colleague holding posters "I DO NOT PROTEST, I WORK", "THIS IS MY DUTY", "FREEDOM TO JOURNALISTS". Photo by TUT.BY
incidents of physical abuse
Despite the fact that journalists do not participate in rallies and wear special vests in order to remain visible at all times, they are still among those brutally beaten and detained. In the early days of the protests, the security forces beat and tortured detained journalists.
“A major used me as a table when questioning a guy next to me. He put a piece of paper on my back and wrote down the information. Later, he told me to crawl aside so that he could continue.”
On August 10, Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubnevskaya was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet while working at a protest in Minsk. Nasha Niva published a video where you can see the security forces officer fire at Natalia from close range.
A journalist injured by a baton round led by her colleagues. Photo by Uladz Hrydzin
“Most of us wore blue ‘Press’ vests, we all had special badges. It was clear we were not participating in the event. However, this did not save us, unfortunately. The shooter decided that it was okay to shoot at an unarmed person who was doing their job, did not threaten him in any way, and did not even see him.”
Journalists covering the protests are being accused of, and sentenced to, different terms of administrative arrest for alleged participation in unauthorized events, shouting out slogans or coordinating protest actions.
Conveyor courts hand out identical sentences, with judges who never let lawyers defend their clients, interrogate anonymous witnesses or establish their identity. Witnesses in balaclavas under assumed names appear in courts against journalists.
Detained, allegedly for checking documents. PHOTO BY TUT.BY
Journalists stage an all-night vigil in front of a police station where their colleagues are being held. Minsk residents brought warm beverages and food. Photo by TUT.BY
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journalists found guilty of “violation of the procedure for organising or holding mass events"
journalists have become involved in criminal cases since August
journalists found guilty of "Disobedience to a lawful order or request of an official"
Massive conveyor belt trials of journalists began in September. After the student protests, journalists detained during their work were sentenced to three days of administrative arrest. But then the terms became different: from 10 to 20 days of arrest. Article 23.34 (“violation of the procedure for organising or holding mass events") is supplemented by article 23.4 ("Disobedience to a lawful order or request of an official"), which allows the courts to appoint longer terms. In November, the terms already reach 25 days.
In addition, journalists are drawn into criminal cases. At the time of the release of the special project, six journalists are accused under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code – “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order." Two more journalists are suspects in other criminal cases, for example, “divulging medical secrets, which entailed grave consequences" after the publication of high-profile material, or allegedly slandering a high-ranking official.
On 22 December, Press Club Belarus got under the "criminal pressure" as well. And since January 2021, the number of criminal cases against journalists started growing exponentially. Journalists have been accused of "financing protest activities", "tax evasion", "insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus"...
On 18 February 2021, the first court judgement was made under one of such criminal cases: Belsat journalists Katerina Andreeva and Daria Chultsova were found guilty and sentenced to two years in a low security prison.
“Many of us had a witness in a balaclava named Kovalyov speaking at our trials. Despite the balaclava, it was obvious that all those Kovalyovs were different people. That Kovalyov saw three journalists from different media in different parts of the march and heard them coordinating students with the same phrase ‘keep going!’”
“Four hours later, I was taken to another court, to another judge. She was very surprised to hear that I had already had a trial. I had spent three days in the Okrestina Detention Center. Beaten, hungry, under moral pressure. I was tortured, but still have no documents certifying my detention.”
independent media websites and political resources blocked
This is a quotation from the decision by the Interdepartmental Commission on Security in the Information Sphere under the Security Council: the decision to restrict access due to “inflicting damage on national interests” was only taken on August 21, while the resource had been offline since August 9.
The Ministry of Information in its letter attributes such measures to the fact that the blocked publications “describe the situation in Belarus following the end of the electoral campaign in a negative way and discredit the work of state bodies.”
Journalists released after trials where witnesses wore balaclavas. The widely covered case features on a newspaper's front page. Photo by Violeta Savchits
A Skype trial of a journalist who reported from a rally. A witness testifies using an assumed name and wearing a balaclava. PHOTO BY TUT. BY
journalists of well-known international media had their accreditations revoked on August 29
Foreign photographers and correspondents were deported, sometimes beaten, and some were kept in the detention center on Okrestina Street. More than 100 journalists from international media were denied accreditation in anticipation of the elections. International organizations issued statements condemning such practices.
The largest information portal of the country, TUT.BY, has had its media status revoked
Belarusian legislation provides for a specific form of sanction against the media – written warnings issued by the Ministry of Information. A media organization can be closed by a court decision if it receives two or more warnings within a year.
TUT.BY received four warnings during August and September 2020. The Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit to close down the online platform TUT.BY. Its status as media were suspended for three months, from October 1 to December 30, 2020.
The economic court's decision of December 3, 2020, stripped TUT.BY of its media status, however, this does not mean that the portal will cease to operate. TUT.BY continues as an “Internet resource” and, according to the Law “On Media” (Article 301), an Internet resource can collect and distribute information.
The media status gives certain benefits, such as the right to be present in the zones of armed conflicts or emergency situations, at public events, in places where socially important events are held, and disseminate information from there.
“The status of the media is a protection for the journalist in a situation where the law is in force. But now whether you have media status or not – there is no difference."
Chief Editor of TUT.BY greets journalists after several days in detention. Photo by Violeta Savchits
Protesters support media with "Hands Off TUT.BY" poster. PHOTO BY TUT.BY
newspapers were denied printing and access to distribution
Newspapers represent a traditional source of information for older people. And those covering what is happening in the country in an unbiased manner are being denied access to printing presses and distribution among their readers.
Four national newspapers, including Narodnaya Volya, KP in Belarus, Svobodnye Novosti, Belgazeta, were denied print and distribution. The official reason for the repeated breach of obligations by the state Press House is an allegedly broken printing press. However, state newspapers were printed without delay on the days of the “breakdown".
On 1 January 2021, a local state-owned printer refused to print Brestskaya Gazeta. Negotiations with other state-owned printers failed. And since 1 February Novy Chas weekly newspaper disappeared from the state-owned monopolist Belsayuzdruk kiosks. The newspaper is now available only by subscription or in PDF format.
“They actually believe that if they close down all the (few) printed newspapers, they will only have state television, state radio, and their own newspapers left, and so people will have no other point of view…”
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