Guest post by Sviatlana Haluza
Guest post by Sviatlana Haluza
Belarus ranked 158th in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This is the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists. The report points out that “the state exercises total control over all TV channels. A few independent media outlets exist but many are forced to base themselves abroad and the authorities continue to harass them.” There are a total of 180 positions in the ranking. Eight months after the report was released, 29 independent journalists are still in prison. As well as this, according to the website of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), as of today there are a total of 33 media workers in captivity. Two of these are under house arrest, one is serving 15 days in an administrative case.
On 15 November 2020, Katerina Andreeva and Daria Chultsova, journalists of Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel, were detained. The young women were live-streaming from a protest in memory of Roman Bondarenko who was killed by security forces. For more than 5 hours they showed people gathering, law enforcers arriving, and riot police destroying the people’s memorial. They were sentenced to 2 years in prison each. According to the judge, the journalists organised and participated in actions that grossly violated public order. While live-streaming, they were allegedly fully aware that an unsanctioned event was taking place and they went out into the street where they interviewed citizens and commented on the events. Their actions allegedly caused disruption of public transport. The charge stated that they committed their offence using a tripod, mobile phones, video cameras, and vests labelled “Press”. Both were charged under Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organising and preparing actions grossly violating public order or actively participating in such actions). On 18 February 2021 both women were sentenced to 2 years in prison.
On 22 December 2020, law enforcers raided the Press Club Belarus, an educational platform for Belarusian journalists. Yulia Slutskaya (founder of the Press Club), Sergey Olshevsky (director of the Press Club), Alla Sharko (programme director of the Press Club), Pyotr Slutsky (employee of the Press Club), and Ksenia Lutskina (former employee of the Belarus 2 TV channel) all found themselves behind bars. They were charged under Article 243 (2) (tax and duties evasion). According to the investigators, the tax evasion charge concerns a “public television project”, which the former journalists of the state-run TV channel allegedly wanted to create at the premises of the Press Club. On 19 August 2021, Yulia Slutskaya, Sergey Olshevsky, Alla Sharko, and Pyotr Slutsky were released. Ksenia Lutskina remained in prison, facing new charges on 20 August 2021. Her health deteriorates in custody every day. Ksenia has a brain tumour which is growing, and because of this she suffers headaches. Every day, the political prisoner has to receive painkilling injections.
On 25 December 2020, Sergey Gordievich, a journalist of the regional portal Pershy Rehiyon, was placed under house arrest. He is charged with insulting Lukashenko in a comment on social networks (Article 368 of the Criminal Code), but he denies his guilt. Sergey Gordievich had worked in the editorial office since 2018, writing about current affairs in the Drogichin region, making photo reports and videos. More than once he helped local residents to reach out to the authorities to pay attention to the problems of citizens. Under house arrest, Gordievich was unable to use his phone and the Internet, and therefore unable to work. Sergey Gordievich’s trial started on 24 June 2021. On 02 August 2021, he was sentenced under three articles at once: insulting representatives of the authorities in connection with the execution of their duties (Article 369 of the Criminal Code), spreading knowingly false and discrediting information, accusing another person of a serious crime (Article 188 of the Criminal Code), and publicly insulting the president of the Republic of Belarus (Article 368  of the Criminal Code). The journalist was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
On 12 January 2021, Andrey Aleksandrov, journalist and media manager, was detained. He worked as deputy director of BelaPAN and remained its consultant until his detention. On 15 January 2021, Andrey Aleksandrov was charged with financing protests. According to representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, since August 2020 Andrey Aleksandrov and his girlfriend Irina Zlobina had been helping Belarusian protesters in Minsk pay their fines. On 30 June, Andrey Aleksandrov faced a new charge under Article 356 (1) of the Criminal Code (treason against the State). On 27 August, the Investigative Committee announced that it instituted criminal proceedings under Article 243 (2) of the Criminal Code (tax and duties evasion) against Andrey Aleksandrov.
On 12 March 2021, journalist Denis Ivashin was detained in Grodno. He was suspected under Article 365 of the Criminal Code (interference in the activities of an internal affairs officer). He worked as part of the InformNapalm investigative community and wrote for the Novy Chas newspaper. This newspaper published an investigation about the Ukrainian Berkut officers who serve in the Belarusian police and take part in dispersing peaceful protests. On 11 March, Denis gave a comment to the Real Time channel on his investigation, explaining where he got his information from and saying that he sent the data he collected to the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. Since Denis Ivashin has the status of a Ukrainian, the country’s Foreign Ministry reacted to his detention. “This detention is particularly worrying against the background of the ongoing attack on freedom of speech, and the life and health of journalists in the Republic of Belarus. We demand that the proceedings in Denis Ivashin’s case be transparent and impartial, and we continue to closely monitor every subsequent step of the Belarusian authorities in relation to him,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. On 30 October, it became known that Denis Ivashin was charged under Article 356 (1) of the Criminal Code (treason against the State). He faces up to 15 years in prison. Now the journalist spends his days in a punishment cell, and his relatives have not received any letters from him for two months. In the punishment cell, Denis Ivashin had a heart attack, but not even his family know anything about his health.
In the spring of 2021, the Belarusian authorities started putting pressure on the Polish diaspora in the country. On Freedom Day, 25 March 2021, law enforcement officers searched the flat of Andrzej Poczobut, a Grodno-based journalist and representative of the Union of Poles in Belarus. They confiscated his two laptops, disks, old phones, literature, and documents in Polish, as well as his awards. The journalist’s wife said he was suspected of fomenting racial, national, religious, or other social enmity or discord (Article 130  of the Criminal Code). A lawyer was not allowed to be present during the search. Andrzej Poczobut was detained. Michal Dworczyk, Chief of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, reacted to the detention of the journalist. In prison, Andrzej Poczobut suffered from heart issues and felt very weak on hot days when he could not even get out of bed. Andrzej’s wife, Oksana Poczobut, tried to push for his hospitalisation, to no avail.
On 18 May 2021, one of the main independent web portals in the country, TUT.BY, was attacked. The Ministry of Information restricted online access to the portal. According to them, this web portal violated the Law on Mass Media by posting prohibited information. The State Control Committee instituted criminal proceedings against the officials of TUT.BY for “tax evasion on a particularly large scale”. Searches were carried out in the company’s offices in Minsk and the regions. The management of the web portal and the journalists who remained in Belarus were put behind bars. On that day, CEO Lyudmila Chekina, deputy directors Irina Rybalko and Alexander Dayneko, TUT.BY editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova, editor Olga Loyko, journalist Yelena Tolkachova, chief accountant Angela Assad and her deputy Maria Novik, TAM.BY project manager Darya Danilova, TUT.BY manager Andrey Avdeev, and chief engineer Alla Lapatko were detained.
On 03 June 2021, Alexander Ivulin, journalist of the Tribuna.com sports portal and founder of the ChestnOK YouTube channel, was detained in his own flat, together with cameraman Yaroslav Pisarenko. The next day, Alexander was sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest under Article 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Offences for a flag hanging in the window of his flat. Yaroslav was given 15 days in jail for the same offence and released on 18 June 2021. Alexander, after 30 days of arrest, was transferred to the Pre-trial Detention Centre No. 1 and charged under Article 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions grossly violating public order). On 19 January 2022, Alexander Ivulin was sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment.
On 30 June 2021, the police detained Valeriya Kostyugova, editor of the Belarusian Yearbook. Prior to that, her flat was searched. On 26 July 2021, she was charged with participation in a conspiracy to seize state power (Article 357 of the Criminal Code) and with calling for actions against national security (Article 361 of the Criminal Code).
On 8 July 2021, Yegor Martinovich, editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, was arrested for 72 hours. On the same day, other staff members of the newspaper, journalist Andrey Dynko and head of the marketing department Andrey Skurko, were detained. All of them were detained on suspicion of organising group actions that grossly violate public order (Article 342  of the Criminal Code). The journalists’ homes, the editorial office, and the accounting office were searched and access to the media’s website was restricted at the request of the Ministry of Information. Ten days after this arrest, three staff members of Nasha Niva were detained again, this time under Article 216 (2) of the Criminal Code (causing property damage). According to the investigators, Nasha Niva paid for electricity at a different rate than it was supposed to, causing 3,500 Belarusian roubles (1,258 euros) worth of damage to the power grid. On 21 July 2021, Andrey Dynko was released. Andrey Skurko and Yegor Martinovich remained in custody. It has been reported that Yegor Martinovich was beaten in prison.
On 18 August 2021, law enforcers searched the editorial office of the BelaPAN news agency. On the same day, the agency’s director Irina Levshina and former director Dmitry Novozhilov were detained. Both were charged under Article 342 (organising and preparing actions grossly violating public order or actively participating in such actions) and Article 361-1 (creating an extremist group) of the Criminal Code. This charge was related to the fact that on 01 November, BelaPAN was labelled an extremist group.
On 01 October 2021, Gennady Mozheyko, a journalist of Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, was detained in Moscow. The day before, Gennady Mozheyko wrote an article about Andrey Zeltser, who, during a raid on his flat, shot dead a KGB officer and then was killed himself. In his text, Gennady Mozheyko cited Zeltser’s classmate Vera Solovyova who shared her memories of Andrey. The journalist’ article came out under the heading “Andrey had always been for the truth, able to stand up for himself”. This positive memory contradicted the image created by the state propaganda, the image of a monster and a “white-red-white beast”. On the day of his arrest, Gennady tried to take a plane to Warsaw but was detained by the Russian security services who forced him to return to Minsk. He was escorted to a plane going to Minsk where he was met by Belarusian KGB officers. On 05 October, Gennady Mozheyko was charged with incitement to hatred (Article 130 of the Criminal Code of Belarus) and insulting a representative of the authorities (Article 369 of the Criminal Code of Belarus).
On 30 October 2021, Belsat journalist Irina Slavnikova was detained at the airport. She and her husband were returning from vacation. Irina Slavnikova was charged under Article 19.11 (2) of the Code of Administrative Offences for distributing “extremist” materials on Facebook from January 2020 to May 2021. Her husband, Alexander Loyko, was charged with possession of extremist materials. The spouses were sentenced to 15 days in jail. After the end of their sentence, Irina and Alexander were not released. Alexander was charged with using foul language and not reacting to directions given by law enforcement officers. He was given another 15 days of arrest. Irina Slavnikova was given the same sentence for allegedly aggressive behaviour.
On 25 November 2021, Radio Liberty freelance journalist Andrei Kuznechik was detained. He was running the media’s Telegram channel. After his detention, the security forces briefly seized control of the channel. On 26 November 2021, Andrei Kuznechik was sentenced to 10 days in jail. By the end of his term, he had been given a further 10 days. However, Andrei Kuznechik was never released. There is still no information about which article he has been charged with. Kuznechik’s relatives were not informed about the charges. Before the detention, Andrei was persuaded to leave Belarus, but he did not want to leave the country as a matter of principle, and decided to serve his unjustified term.
On 08 December 2021, investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of the Yezhednevnik newspaper, Serhiy Satsuk, was detained. He was searched and then taken to the Investigative Committee for questioning. After interrogation on an old case under Article 430 of the Criminal Code (bribery), Sergei Satsuk was taken into custody. This case started back in March 2020. On 26 and 27 March 2020, searches were conducted at the office of Yezhednevnik and at the journalist’s home, and he himself was detained. On 4 April 2020, the Prosecutor General of Belarus reversed the decision to detain the journalist due to the activity of human rights organisations, who called for his release.
On 23 December 2021, Oleg Gruzdilovich, a journalist of the Belarusian media Radio Liberty, was detained. He had worked in this outlet since the 1990s. In the summer of 2020, Oleg Gruzdilovich actively covered social and political events in Belarus, live streaming from opposition rallies and marches. In August 2020, he was deprived of his accreditation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as were other journalists of foreign media. Since 16 July 2021, Gruzdilovich has been under house arrest. His equipment was taken away from him. After his arrest, he was accused of participating in unsanctioned rallies, while having already been stripped of accreditation by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The journalist did not plead guilty, stating that he did not take part in the rallies, but was there as a freelance journalist to report for the newspaper Narodnaia Volia.
There is no more independent media in Belarus. The current situation is being covered by a few news resources working from abroad, and Telegram channels where Belarusians anonymously share their news and photos. This is the only chance to learn about what is happening in the country. This situation can change only after Alexander Lukashenko steps down. Under his rule, independent media have no prospects for development since an alternative point of view is disadvantageous for the dictator. – Sviatlana Haluza
This post was written by Sviatlana Haluza
Translation by Sergei Medvedev and Olga Komarova
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