How Belarus authorities putting screws on Belsat journos before election

Fines and arrests have long been the everyday for Belsat TV journalists. It is not uncommon that the heat is turned up in the course of election campaigns. However, this year, the Belarusian authorities seem to outdo themselves.

Detention as special operation

Belsat contributor Halina Abakunchyk was detained on June, 5; according to her, it was like a special operation. She and cameraman Syarhei Kavaliou confronted a problem when leaving the town of Zhodzina (80 km from Minsk), where they livestreamed a picket to collect signatures for the nomination of presidential wannabe Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Several vehicles barred their car from moving, which made them get out.

Halina Abakunchyk and Ales Barazenka.

“It had a strong some capture operation. Among the people who detained us were riot policemen, plainclothes and uniformed policemen, traffic police officers. People in civvies resorted to force – they grabbed and forced us to exit the car. The operation was led by Syarhei Salavei, the deputy head of the local police department,” Halina says.

Then the crew was taken to the police station, where they had to spend several hours. The police interrogated them and drew up a report over the alleged violation of Art. 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (illegal production and distribution of media products), i.e. working without accreditation. Belsat TV repeatedly filed necessary documents to get registered in Belarus, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs turned down all the applications.

Focus on livestreaming

Belsat is covering the presidential campaign in Belarus, including by livestreaming pre-election pickets from Belarusian cities and towns. Unfortunately, on the back of such events, our journalists are often brutally detained, their cameras and phones are seized, and what is more, they get hefty fines afterwards.

Pickets in Minsk, 14 June 2020. Photo: Belsat

On top of this, the Belarusian police give the protocols with a free hand; a compelling reason is unnecessary. On June 17, Halina Abakunchyk and cameraman Alyaksandr Barazenka were detained in Salihorsk. They were supposed to launch a stream at the pre-election picket, but it failed due to technical reasons. However, the local police made a report under notorious article 22.9.

“I don’t think it to be something personal – any other journalist could be in my shoes. There is the pressure exerted on truthful information. The authorities are afraid of the truth that people voice during our broadcasts,” Abakunchyk believes.

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In addition, she is facing trials for livestreaming the parade on May, 9 and a picket in Kamarouski market in Minsk.

Diligent policemen

Alina Skrabunova, a freelance journalist from Mahiliou, says that earlier she used to receive two protocols per year; however, over the past five months she has got five.

“Policemen from district towns insistently call me. They even come to Mahiliou on purpose! Not long ago, I had to go on a trip with cameraman Alyaksandr Sidareuski, and we were literally chased by a crowd of policemen at the train station,” Skrabunova complains.

Alina Skrabunova and Alyaksandr Sidareuski

As a result, they were let go, but on their return to Mahiliou, the duo was met on the platform at 5:40 am and summoned under Art. 22.9 to Leninski district department of Interior of Mahilou and to Chavusy police station.

“A policeman from Chavusy was not even aware of what he was writing when he was drawing up a report on the spot. He just rewrote the contents of the previous protocol. When I asked him to read it, he got surnames and terms confused. He did not even know my name! And this was the person who had been after me!” the journalist says.

Alina is getting ready for the election day – August 9th. It is obvious that the situation is going from bad to worse: such unreasonable steps taken by the authorities are highly likely to backfire, she believes.

Unstoppables

Stepping up pressure is definitely linked to the upcoming election, Belsat TV deputy director Aleksy Dzikawicki says. He notes that the authorities have never given peace to the channel, but since the beginning of the year, the situation has drastically changed.

“Now the repressive machine has started to work in its fill swing,” Aleksy says.

In his opinion, the authorities are set to prevent the TV station from live broadcasting the current protest wave.

Aleksy Dzikawicki

“Writing articles or making news items is one thing, but showing people who are not afraid to speak, stand in line and sign for independent candidates is starkly different. That is why those who are engaged in livestreaming are at the gunpoint,” Aleksy stresses.

The pressure might be hindering, but they are not able to stop the work of Belsat, Dzikawicki believes. According to him, its team of professional and brave people does perform and will perform their duties no matter what happens, because the viewers need it.

“Moreover, I would like to address those who are imposing pressure on us: in the year of 2020, it is impossible to put a lid on what is happening. Even if you illegally take away all the cameras from us, almost everyone, not only journalists, has a smartphone. There will be pictures and footage anyway and Belsat will televise them,” he says.

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Presidential election-2020

From the very beginning of its activity, Belsat has been facing strong pressure. The channel has repeatedly tried to obtaing accreditation for full-fledged work in Belarus, but in vain.

  • The lack of the registration is the bane of our journalists. As of June 18, fines totalling to $101,791 have been imposed on Belsat TV contributors.
  • The presidential election is to take place on August, 9. Belarusian human rights defenders note the continuing trend of increasing repression eveb during the period of collecting signatures, including against the direct participants in the election, and the escalation of tensions and an atmosphere of fear in society.
  • Syarhei Tsikhanouski, the husband and trustee of presidential hopeful Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and eight other persons were charged under Art. 342-1 (planning actions that grossly violate public order) of the Criminal Code of Belarus. The above article may carry a punishment of up to 3 years in prison. Belarusian human rights watchdogs recognised defendants in the case as political prisoners.
  • On June 18, wannabe presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka and Eduard Babaryka, his son and campaign chief, were taken to the Department of Financial Investigations. Lawyers were barred from visiting them, and their homes are searched. Later, it became known that charges were brought against the Babarykas; they are allegedly being held in the KGB prison in Minsk.
  • In June, a criminal case was initiated against 15 employees of Belagzprombank. Notably, Viktar Babaryka had been CEO of the bank for about 20 years; he retired on the day when he revealed his presidential ambitions. The bank’s collection of paintings that included masterpieces by Marc Chagall and Chaime Soutine, was confiscated.
  • Since 6 May, a total of 1,316 days of administrative arrest was slapped on 98 Belarusians, according to estimations by human rights centre Viasna. 106 persons got fines to the tune of 90,000 Belarusian rubles. The human rights defenders stress that the authorities resort to the articles of the Code of Administrative Offences for political persecution of dissidents.

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