From the beginning of the year, the total sum of fines imposed on Belsat TV journalists and contributors has reached $13,000. Trials, intimidation and persecution continue, the pressure on our journalists has been stepping up before the autumn protests announced by the Belarusian opposition.
In 2017, the Belarusian Association of Journalists recorded 157 cases of harassing independent journalists by government agencies; 82 of them are cases of persecuting Belsat TV contributors.
In the spring of 2017, they were repeatedly arrested, tried and heavily fined for covering the protests. In most cases, Belsat TV contributors were accused of illegal production and distribution of media products (Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code), some of them were charged with disobedience to police (Art. 23.14), disorderly conduct (Art. 17.1) and participating in an unauthorized mass rally(Art. 23.34).
However, when the spring wave of protests died down, the regime did not leave our journalists in peace. Moreover, they suddenly remembered the lawsuit of businessman Andrey Belyakou who contested rights for ‘Belsat’ trademark and used it against our channel.
Last week there were five trials of Belsat TV contributors; on one and the same day judges imposed fines totaling $2,000 on them.
“Such increase of pressure on Belsat TV at this very moment means that the authorities are getting ready for the autumn protest campaign announced by the opposition. However, the purpose of this pressure is not quite clear. It is a well-known fact that the fines is not the thing that make journalists afraid – they pay fines and continue to work. Apparently, the authorities simply want to remind journalists that they should not relax, that they are keeping a close eye on them. But I can assure the authorities that our journalists will not cease to cover events live, write articles for our and continue doing their job,” Alyaksei Minchonak, the official representative of Belsat Tv in Belarus, says.
Belsat TV is the only independent media outlet in Belarus that has the ability to broadcast live via satellite. Belsat TV live programmes can be watched even if Belarusian authorities decide to switch off the Internet all over the country. The channel’s technological capacity poses a problem to those who has something to hide and practises censorship. That is why the authorities found a solution – confiscating Belsat TV equipment.
On March 31, the Minsk police raided two Belsat TV offices in the Belarusian capital. Plainclothed policemen civilian clothes seized all computers, cameras, etc, put them into a car without number plates and drove away. According to Alyaksei Minchonak, they failed to give the equipment back.
The video equipment was also confiscated from Belsat TV cameraman Ales Barazenka. On March 25, he was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Later, he was accused of the illegal use of the Belsat trademark. The main evidence is mysterious logo stickers on the equipment, which, according to the reporter, appeared on his camera after it had been seized by the police. In his opinion, the way those stickers look is a proof of their being made in an improvised manner. The logo was printed on a usual paper. In August, a Minsk court decided to send the case back for revision due to the shortcomings in the protocol made by the police, but the equipment is still kept in the police department. It is unknown when the cameraman will get it back.
Firstly, they livestream various events and situations which are not always linked to politics or protests. Katsyaryna Andreyeva was fined for livestreaming a protest rally on 3 July and the Airborne Forces Day celebration on July 29. Secondly, the issues raised often damage the reputation of local authorities or government agencies.
“The authorities are sensitive about our covering grave problems and situations. If local authorities do not like our journalists’ activity, they order local policemen to draw up a protocol,” Minchonak says.
Homiel-based freelance journalist Kastus Zhukouski has hit a record in receiving penalties for working without accreditation in Belarus. Over the last three years, he has been fined 17 times; the total sum reached $6,000.
„The authorities have found a loophole: they can hold Belsat TV contributors liable for work without accreditation. Many freelance journalists have no accreditation, but it is hard to identify them. As for Belsat TV, it is enough to visit the website,” Barys Haretski, Spokesman for the Belarusian Association of Journalists, says.
The BAJ is going to send a letter to the presidential administration over the massive persecution of journalists. This year, the total amount of fines imposed under Article 22.9 (illegal production and distribution of media products) is 27,738 Belarusian rubles.
“We believe that it [the sum] is nothing but peanuts, it will not replenishthe national budget. They just want to make journalists stop contributing to the channel. Belsat is an uncensored media outlet, it is impossible to issue a warning or deny a license, and the authorities feel very uncomfortable about that,” he stressed.
The BAJ will also send a letter to David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to inform him of the situation of Belsat TV journalists.
“We always call on the Belarusian authorities not to prevent journalists from performing their professional duties. Journalists show us where troubles are. If there are no journalists, a problem might remain undetected. Belarus also has international commitments, there should be a common understanding of human rights and the rights of journalists. Even in accordance with the Belarusian law, journalists have the right to to be present at rallies, protests and do their job. If journalists are persecuted, the international image of Belarus deteriorates, which affects other fields, for example, our economy – hardly anyone wants to invest in it now,” the press officer added.
Belsat TV which has been broadcasting almost ten years, has been denied accreditation for its journalists during these very nine years. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly declared that it could not issue any accreditation to Belsat because the journalists working for the TV station … break the law.
Thus, the circle closes: journalists are denied accreditation because they break the law and they break the law, because they work without accreditation that they seek… And it explains the existence of absurdist Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, which provides punishment for ‘illegal production and distribution of media products’. If you have accreditation, you are allowed be a journalist. If you do not have it – you are outlawed.