In the run-up of election-2015: Independent journalists at Lukashenka’s gunpoint

Not a day goes by without a court hearing. On Tuesday, Kastus Zhukouski, an independent journalist from Homiel, was Br 5.4 mln fined for ‘illegal production and distribution of media products’. On Wednesday freelance journalist Natallia Kryvashey landed in the dock: the court in Homiel imposed Br 9 mln fine on her.

“We tell the truth and show the truth just the way it is. But the authorities do not need it, because presidential elections is nearing and they still have to draw a picture of a peaceful and stable Belarus, where everything is OK,” Natallia said.

The judge gave her sort of the ‘honorary’ judgment by imposing the heaviest fine ever meted out to any Belarusian journalist – the maximum provided by the relevant article of the Administrative Code. Like Kastus Zhukouski, Natallia was sentenced for reporting the story of the Belarusian language lecturer who committed suicide. The report appeared on Belsat.

No chance to remove all satellite antennas…

“Belsat is aired via satellite, and everyone in Belarus who installs a satellite dish, can watch it. It would be very difficult to fight against it, that is, to remove all the dishes,” Aleh Vouchak, a human rights activist from Minsk, says. „It seems to me, therefore, they chose the second option – to intimidate journalists.”

Since the beginning of this year independent journalists have been tried over 20 times in Belarus, the number of sentences being equal to that of trials. The total sum of fines has exceeded 108 million Belarusian rubles. And 2/3 of this sum is financial penalties imposed for cooperating with Belsat.

Belsat is not ‘Soviet Byelorussia’

Other journalists contributing to Belsat – Ales Lyauchuk, Alina Litvnichuk, Tamara Shchapyotkina, Larysa Shchyrakova, Ales Dzyanisau and Ales Kirkevich – also had to stand trial for the same ‘illegal production and distribution of products’ which were then televised by the independent TV channel. The latter two journalists were punished for the reportage about … the exhibition of Slutsk belts at the Museum of History and Religion in Hrodna.

“On the one hand there is good news because a minimum fine was suddenly imposed (Blr 3.5 mln). On the other hand, one can talk about some improvement only after [the Foreign Ministry] accredits Belsat TV  and the channel starts working on equal footing with other foreign channels – Russia’s NTV, RTR,etc.” Ales Kirkevich said.

Kastus Zhukouski, who has appeared before court six times in 2015, stresses:

“I was sentenced for producing and distributing information. But how could I distribute it? Sitting in Homiel and sending it to the satellite? Yes, I make videos and offer them to various agencies. But where it gets is not my concern. The verdict is illogical. Listen, a man is looking for ore to make metal. Later metal is used to make spacecraft. It flies into space and explodes. So why punish someone who is mining? My photos were published in Sovetskaya Belorussia, but I was not tried for that,” said Zhukouski.

Vicious circle of getting accredited

But Belsat TV is not an official newspaper, not a mouthpiece of the administration of President Lukashenka. The channel which has been broadcasting for seven years, has been denied accreditation for its journalists during these very seven years. Its recent request was turned down in March, 2015. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry declared that it could not issue any accreditation to Belsat TV because the journalists working for it … break the law. The document lists the names of nine persons who received warnings of the Belarusian prosecutor’s office over this case.

So 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.

Everyone can be brought to justice

Journalists contributing to Belsat are also regularly punished under one more article that provides fines for the lack of accreditation. On June 1 journalist Volha Chaichyts was Br 5.4 mln rubles fined. The case was based on the report about social debates in the town of Fanipol. The police barred journalists from participating in it and accused of ‘working for foreign media without accreditation’. The court upheld the charge.

Let’s recall that accreditation in Belarus is not a document to facilitate cooperation with state institutions, but a document authorizing foreign correspondents’ work in general. And the Belarusian authorities do not want to provide such opportunity to Belsat TV. Moreover, they control their domestic media with the help of mandatory registration. If one fails to be registered, they are not allowed to perform journalist duties.

How ‘spies’ gathered information about tickets to doctor

And the regime is trying to prove it at every step and almost every day. On Wednesday, when Natallia Kryvashey was being tried in Homiel, and on the day after imposing a fine on Kastus Zhukouski, Minsk police arrested Arkadz Nestsyarenka. The reporter who covered the events at Kyiv’s Maidan, in Crimea and Donbas was taken to a police station for collecting information on … queues for a ticket to the doctor in a clinic in Minsk.

Five hours later Nestsyarenka and his cameraman were released. The policemen gave the both a rake-through: they even put down all the data from business cards found in Nestsyarenka’s wallet. The nterrogators admitted that they had received an order to exercise control over public spaces and the activities of mass media. And the Belsat crew (a respresentative of mass media) happened to be in a municipal clinic…

“It should be sort of spy mania,” Nestsiarenka wonders. “They asked us whether we were not spies – and then said they meant it for a joke. But it might well be preventive preparation for the elections.”

Waiting for October?

Well, the question of what another Belsat TV journalist will be tried for – ‘working for foreign media without accreditation’ or ‘illegal production and distribution of media products’ – remains open. How many journalists will get into trouble with the authorities?

At this moment it is the only intrigue of the action being played out. And one will not have to wait for its culmination for long. This week Lukashenka has had a meeting with Lidziya Yarmoshyna, Chairperson of the Central Election Commission. During the conversation it was established that the presidential elections, initially scheduled for mid-November, will be held on October 11, about a month earlier. Why are the authorities in such rush? A lot of work is ahead of the journalists who are eager to find it out – and this work is even more difficult than usual.

Cezary Golinski/MS

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