Since August 9, the journalistic community of Belarus has been experiencing an unprecedented level of pressure and repression from the state. Belsat.eu has prepared an overview of the persecution of our journalists over the past 7 and a half weeks. Seven journalists remain behind bars at the time of publication.
Since August 9, there have been more than 50 cases of detention of Belsat correspondents or freelance journalists who cooperate with our TV channel. The total length of administrative arrest that our journalists have faced exceeds 120 days. Some were beaten or injured as a result of the use of weapons by the security forces during the dispersal of the protests. The detentions were repeatedly accompanied by the complete confiscation of equipment. Finally, the Belarusian government restricted access to our page belsat.eu in August.
The persecution of Belsat journalists after the elections can be conditionally divided into two stages. The first is the bloody events of August 9-12, when journalists had to openly risk their lives during the brutal dispersal of protests.
At least three of our correspondents were injured as a result of the use of non-lethals by the security forces. On August 10, during the tragic events near the Pushkinskaya metro station (that very evening, the demonstrator Alyaksandr Taraikouski died), photojournalist Tatsyana Kapitonava and journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva were concussed by flash grenades..
The next day, on August 11, near Pushkinskaya metro station, photojournalist Iryna Arakhouskaya was injured by a rubber bullet. In connection with the injury received at work, Arakhouskaya wrote an appeal to the Investigative Committee with a request to check the legality of the security forces’ actions. Its results have not yet been obtained.
Residents of houses adjacent to the scene of the events helped many Belsat staff to escape from the security forces. This is how Katsyaryna Andreyeva escaped after a light concussion on August 10 — strangers let her into the apartment and allowed her to stay until the end of the sweep.
The journalists who fell into the hands of the security forces in those days went through very cruel treatment and beatings. Stas Ivashkevich was detained on the evening of August 9 at one of the polling stations and sent to the remand center in Akrestsina Street, where he spent about 48 hours. In his cell, which is designed for only 3 people, were kept 13 people. For two days they were not actually fed. The detainees were taken out into the courtyard and taken “through the line”, beaten with rubber truncheons. On August 11, the court found Ivashkevich guilty of an offense under Article 23.34 (participation in an unauthorized event) and fined 30 base units.
Belsat journalist Alena Dubovik was detained on the evening of August 10 near the Central District Department of Internal Affairs and spent almost three days behind bars. First, she was beaten right after her arrest, and then again after she journalist refused to sign the forged protocol. The blonde guard beat Alena with her knee in the stomach. As a result, the journalist was hospitalized with suspicion of “ruptured ovary.”
The Babruisk journalist Maryna Malchanava, who cooperates with Belsat, was detained on August 10 near the temporary detention center. The riot policemen beat her with a truncheon, insulted her and promised to kill her.
Despite the ill-treatment, in most cases, the Belsat staff detained on August 9-12 were released without trial, and sometimes without protocols. However, some regional correspondents were already given administrative arrests. Journalist from Hlubokaye Dzmitry Lupach was sentenced to 5 days of arrest (he was detained on August 9), Vitsebsk correspondent Dzmitry Kazakevich — 10 days (August 9), Mahiliou journalist Alina Skrabunova – 8 days (August 11), Homiel reporter Yauhen Merkis — 15 days (August 12. In all four cases, journalists were accused of participating in an unauthorized event, although in fact during the actions they were fulfilling their professional duties.
The story of Dzmitry Kazakevich‘s arrest went on in an unexpected manner. The journalist spent 5 out of 10 days of arrest in prison before being released. On September 28, Judge Veranika Barysava terminated the administrative case against Kazakevich due to lack of evidence of guilt and even apologized to him on behalf of the court. This is an absolutely unique case in the history of the persecution of Belsat residents.
The second stage of the post-election persecution of Belsat staff began at the end of August. The level of physical violence has clearly decreased, but the risk of being imprisoned as a result of performing professional duties has increased. The fabrication of administrative protocols, in which journalists were accused of participating in mass events or of disobeying the police, has become a mass phenomenon.
On August 27, journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva and cameraman Maksim Horchanka were detained during a live broadcast. Despite the fact that there was a video recording proving that Belsat staff performed their professional duties during the rally near the City Hall that day, police drew up protocols for their participation in an unauthorized mass event. They spent the night in the assembly hall of the local police department. The next day, the court sent the protocols for revision and the Belsat staff were released.
Katsyaryna Andreyeva and cameraman Maksim Horchanka were again detained on the air during the women’s march on 12 September. Now they have already protocols filed on them under Article 23.4 (disobedience to the police) and 22.9 of the Administrative Code (violation of the law on mass media) and sent to the Akrestsina Street. They spent three days there, the trial took place only on September 15. The Kastrychnitski District Court returned the protocol under Article 23.4 for revision, and under Article 22.9, both journalists were fined 50 basic units (1,350 BYN).
For the cameraman Maksim Horchanka, this was already the third detention in three weeks: on September 5, he and Alena Dubovik were detained at the women’s march, but then they were released a few hours later, after protocols were filed on them under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code.
The court treated Ales Lyubyanchuk and Dzyanis Hancharenka, who were detained in Minsk on September 24, more harshly. They were charged with “disobeying the police” and “violatiing the law on media”, but now the court has already punished both journalists with administrative arrest for 12 days. Lyubyanchuk and Hancharenka were also fined 30 basic units each. At the same time, Pavel Patapau was arrested for 15 days (allegedly for participating in an unauthorized mass event (Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code).
Even if the court decides to only use fine as a measure, it does not mean that the journalist will be immediately released. Maryia Hryts was detained during the Women’s March on September 26, charged under Article 23.34 and left until the trial in Akrestsina Street. On September 28, the Zavadski District Court fined Maryia 20 basic units, but she was not released from the remand center. The police filed a protocol against the journalist and left her behind bars. At home, Maryia has a little daughter.
The hunt for Belsat journalists has also intensified in the regions. Yauhen Merkis and Maryna Drabysheuskaya were detained on September 14. The court punished them with 15 and 10 days of arrest, respectively. Cameraman Andrei Tolchyn from Homiel received 5 days of arrest. In all three cases, they were charged under Article 23.34 of Administrative Code. Homiel journalist Yauhen Merkis was supposed to be released on September 29, but he was left behind bars to serve 12 days of administrative arrest, which he received back in August. As a result, he must stay in imrisoned for 27 days non-stop.
Several protocols under Art. 23.34 were filed against the Homiel journalist Larysa Shchyrakova. In total, since the end of August, the journalist has been detained three times. Twice she was left in the detention center pending trial: she spent the night in the center from 3 to 4 September, and also three days from 11 to 14 September. They wanted to leave Shchyrakova behind bars even after the arrest on August 30, but then the journalist felt sick in the police station and she was eventually hospitalized. Larysa was not put on administrative arrest, but was fined four times.
Larysa Shchyrakova says that the pressure on independent journalists in the regions has always been very strong, but earlier, at least, reporters were not charged with offence under Article 23.34 and were not left in the remand center pending trial. Although the working conditions of journalists during August-September changed rapidly.
“There were a couple of weeks of absolute freedom (I mean the short period after August 12, when the authorities did not disperse the protests – belsat.eu), then a couple of weeks of freedom with consequences. And then they completely closed it. Although on the last march we were not bothered,” says Larysa.
Katsyaryna Andreyeva says that for journalists making every story is like going to war.
“Since the beginning of August, it has become clear to me that every work assignment can end at least with detention, and maybe something worse. Despite all the previous courses on the safety of a journalist, you still get lost for a couple of seconds when you hear shots and explosions a couple of tens of meters away. But you can’t afford to linger in such a situation — it’s a matter of life. We must realize that safety (albeit relative) is more important than our story: an injured journalist cannot continue broadcasting. Previously, my work was also related to pressure and detention, but now my colleagues and I go to every assignment as if we were going to war: we always have a set of clean clothes, a first aid kit with medicines and first aid supplies, water and a scarf in case of tear gas, SOS function – notifications on the phone,” says Katsyaryna.
At the same time, Katsyaryna admits that there are also positive aspects in the new conditions:
“Never before have I heard so many words of sincere gratitude to journalists. People come up to me and my colleagues to hug, take pictures, give flowers. We are called heroes, but I believe that I am just doing my job and being in the right place at the right time to convey information to the viewer”.
In a comment to belsat.eu, the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) Andrei Bastunets noted that the journalistic community is now experiencing, perhaps, the largest-scale repression in all the years of independence of Belarus.
“The Belarusian independent media have always been under serious pressure, but this year stands out even against this background precisely by the number and variety of repressions. The quantitative indicators of repression are off scale. This is the worst year of all time. Although at the same time it is worth noting that in the past we went through the death of our colleagues and through the closure of newspapers (when there was no internet media yet),” he stressed.
Bastunets does not yet see totally new forms of persecution or pressure on journalists. The main difference from previous years is precisely in quantitative indicators.
“All forms of pressure have already been tested to one degree or another. This also applies to the blocking of Internet media, the detention of journalists and accusations of journalists of alleged participation in mass events, and even a summons to close the media outlet. We have already gone through all this before. Now we record about three times more cases of pressure on journalists than it was in the worst years, for example, in 2011,” says the head of the BAJ.
Ihar Ilyash / IR, belsat.eu