‘Freelancer’ may well derive from the word ‘free’, but in Belarus it is getting a contrary meaning. Homiel-based freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova who contributes to Belsat has been tried 8 times over the past year.
“And every time I was heavily fined. A strong psychological pressure has been exerted on me – they posted slanderous articles about me on the Internet and even threatened to take away my child,” the journalist says.
To persecute independent journalists, the authorities use Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media products). Each case is monitored and recorded by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Year to date, there have been 55 fines on the BAJ list, which is 5 times more than in 2016.
“Journalists from different regions of the country are fined for cooperating with different media outlets, but the vast majority of those punished are journalists who contributed to Belsat TV,”BAJ chairman Andrey Bastunets says.
Another wave of hunting for independent journalists started in the spring of 2017 – reporters covering protest rallies were thrown into paddy wagons together with the protesterss.
“In the course of protests, plenty of journalists were detained. Within only one day, the police arrested more journaliststs than for the whole previous year. We are deeply concerned about such trend, as the journalists just do their job – they inform people,” Adrien Colin from the International Federation of Journalists stresses.
According to the Press Freedom Index, Belarus ranks 153rd out of 180 countries of the world. Every year, our country is at the bottom of Reporters without Borders rankings. According to the report, as freelancers who work for independent media based abroad cannot get accreditation in Belarus, they learn the pressure from the police first hand.
Only solidarity and a firm stance of the European Union may influence the situation with freedom of speech, BAJ representatives believe. Meanwhile, the dialogue between Minsk and Brussels has been resumed again.
As for independent journalists, they dream of the authorities’ giving them a break. They just want to live a normal life and not to be afraid to leave their homes.
“Before Belsat TV livestreams, the police usually keep an eye on my house to prevent me from going to work, and I had to spend nights somewhere else, not at home,” journalist Volha Czajczyc says.
Moreover, sometimes freelance journalists have to sleep in jail. In the spring of 2017, Belsat TV contributors have been repeatedly arrested, tried and heavily fined for covering the protests. The total amount of fines reached $9,000. In addition, our journalists spent more than 30 days in prison.