Repressions against journalists in Belarus have dramatically transformed over the past four months. First, they were detained under the pretext of checking their work permits, but now many are facing criminal charges. No one today is surprised when a journalist on duty doesn’t return home and ends up in a detention facility instead. Recently, three journalists, including Katerina Borisevich who works for TUT.BY, have been arrested on criminal charges. Journalists behind bars are a new reality and a feature of the present time.
363 journalists detained since the election day
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has been calculating the number of arrests of journalists in Belarus since 9 August, the day of the presidential election. There are currently 363 arrests on the list. Besides local journalists on the list, there are names of the foreign journalists as well. According to the BAJ, 390 journalists became victims of repression during the election and post-election period, 77 of them were subject to administrative arrests.
As of 24 November, 12 journalists are held in detention facilities for either an administrative or criminal offence. They are TUT.BY journalist Katerina Borisevich, TUT.BY and Novy Chas journalist Alexandra Kvitkevich, Belsat journalists Katerina Andreeva and Daria Chultsova, BelaPAN journalists Maxim Lavretsky, Yulia Kotskaya, Andrey Shavlyugo, Andrey Ryabchik, journalists Oleg Gruzdilovich, Igor Kornei, Marina Kastylyanchenko and Katerina Medvedeva.
Journalists were detained long before the election and charged with violation of the procedures for organising or holding mass events under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code. This is despite the fact that journalists covering an event or a protest rally cannot be viewed as its participants. Moreover, obstruction of the lawful professional activities of journalists is regulated by Article 198 of the Criminal Code.
Until 9 August, the Belsat TV channel journalists were often charged with violation of the legislation on the mass media under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code. The catch is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not accredit Belsat in Belarus, and journalists working with the TV channel regularly receive fines, since, technically, they do not have this media accreditation in the country.
However, after the election, journalists were detained in huge numbers. There is hardly a single rally now where media employees covering the event are not detained. Comparing August and the present-day period shows that back then journalists were taken to police departments for a document check. Besides, not all media reps were brought under trial, whereas now journalists are put under arrest. Seven media workers are currently in custody on criminal charges.
Katerina Borisevich ended up behind bars after publication of a commentary on a medical document. It had revealed that blood alcohol of battered and deceased Roman Bondarenko was ‰, while officials claimed the man was intoxicated. Bondarenko’s family has no claims against the media. Nevertheless, the correspondent was taken to a KGB detention centre and charged with disclosing medical confidential information entailing grave consequences under Part 3 of Article 178.
Two more criminal cases were initiated against the Belsat TV channel journalists Katerina Andreeva and Daria Chultsova. They are charged with organising actions that grossly violate public order, or participating in them, under Article 342 of the Criminal Code. Although the reporters simply broadcast live from an apartment in Changes Square [a courtyard where Roman Bondarenko was detained and badly beaten – Ed.] in Minsk on 15 November. The journalists are now in custody. Three other journalists cooperating with the channel – Dmitryi Buyanov, Dmitriy Kravchuk and Artem Bogoslavsky – were charged under the same article. They are not under arrest.
Nasha Niva editor-in-chief Yegor Martinovich is now a suspect in a criminal case under Article 188 of the Criminal Code [Defamation]. The resource published an interview with one of the DJs who played Viktor Tsoy’s song ‘Peremen’ [‘We want changes’] during an official event in the Kievskiy park in Minsk. The article, among other things, refers to the former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and the current aide to the president – inspector for Minsk Alexander Barsukov.
TUT.BY journalists were detained 37 times since summer
Since the summer of 2020, 18 TUT.BY journalists and photographers have been detained 37 times while performing the editorial office tasks. These are our colleagues Elena Tolkacheva, Olga Komyagina, Ekaterina Gordeeva, Stanislav Korshunov, Tatyana Matveeva, Ales Piletsky, Alexey Sudnikov, Yulia Algerchik, Alexandra Kvitkevich, Katerina Borisevich, Nadezhda Kalinina, Vadim Zamirovsky, Vsevolod Zarubin, Vladimir Gridin, Stanislav Sharshukov, Elena Bychkova, Angelica Zaitseva and Alexandra Elbaum.
Alexandra Kvitkevich was arrested for 15 days under Part 1 of Article 23.34. Two cases are being revised: Yulia Algerchik is charged with violation of the procedures for organising or holding mass events under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code and Elena Tolkacheva is charged with disobedience to a lawful order or demand of an official in the exercise of his official powers under Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code.
Several people from the TUT.BY editorial office have already served their time. For instance, back in September, Nadezhda Kalinina and Alexey Sudnikov served three days each, Vladimir Gridin spent 11 days behind bars, photographer Vadim Zamirovsky and videographer Vsevolod Zarubin served a 15-day term of arrest each.
Force was used against our journalists: for example, Brest correspondent Stanislav Korshunov was detained and beaten with rubber truncheons on his legs and lower back, and photographer Vadim Zamirovsky was beaten in a minibus. Speaking about violent methods, one cannot but recall the story of Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubnevskaya. She sustained a gunshot wound while covering a protest and was hospitalised for 38 days.
“Never before has there been such a flurry of repressions against journalists in Belarus”
BAJ deputy chairman Boris Goretsky says that this year the Belarusian authorities have actually waged war against journalists.
“Never before in Belarus has there been such a flurry of repressions against journalists. Moreover, the authorities continue to tighten the screws. Journalists were initially detained and released, then they were detained and tried. First, they were sentenced to three days of arrest, now it is – 15 days. But the most important thing is that they now initiate criminal proceedings against them,” he says.
According to the expert, today “the authorities see journalists and media as some kind of force that allegedly makes people protest”.
“The authorities probably believe that information encourages people to take part in protest rallies. Obviously, Katerina Borisevich is not to blame for the fact that there was no alcohol in Roman Bondarenko’s blood. So it is for all other cases. One can blame Belsat for allegedly inciting some kind of mass actions, but Belsat simply shows the situation in the country. The authorities’ goal is obvious – to force journalists not to cover street protests. Basically, journalists are being squeezed out of the streets.”
Boris Goretsky notes that despite the repressions against journalists, the correspondents continue to work and the quality of journalism has not deteriorated. However, there are fewer photo reports from Sunday’s protest rallies, he admits.
“There is less multimedia content now, because people put themselves at risk. If a journalist covers a Sunday rally, it is very likely that he will be detained and his camera taken away. On the other hand, all events still remain in plain sight, even if there is no journalist with a camera, it is very difficult to conceal information today.”
According to Borsi Goretsky, the pressure on journalists and the media keeps growing.
“Until recently, for example, the Narodnaya Volya newspaper could be printed abroad and distributed in Belarus, but the screws are tightened more and more every day. I guess the work of journalists annoys the authorities so much that it’s getting pitch dark for journalism.”