On Thursday, 18 February, the Frunzensky District Court of Minsk sentenced Belsat journalists Darya Chultsova and Ekaterina Andreeva to two years in prison. The journalists were accused of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order,” while they were fulfilling their professional duties by live-streaming from the “Square of Change”. This is how numerous politicians and organizations from around the world reacted to the verdict.
After the verdicts, Polish President Andrzej Duda asked the country’s diplomats to convey strong criticism of the crackdown on freedom of speech and civil rights to the Belarusian authorities, according to his top aide, Krzysztof Szczerski. He noted that Poland is urging its European partners to respond to the suppression of basic rights and freedoms in Belarus.
“We demand the immediate and unconditional release of Ekaterina and Darya. The court’s verdict for exercising their professional rights is illegal, it was dictated by the Lukashenko regime. Moreover, this is an unacceptable violation of democratic principles and freedom of the press,” reads the joint statement of the Lithuanian parliamentarians to BelaPAN. They also called on the European Union to include Judge Natalya Buguk and Prosecutor Alina Kasyanchik on the sanctions list under the European human rights protection system – the so-called European Magnitsky Act.
“Shameful crackdown on media continues, EU strongly condemns and calls for reversal of sentencing Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova for just doing their jobs. We call on the Belarusians authorities to respect fundamental freedoms and stop targeting journalists,” wrote Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU Peter Stano on his Twitter account.
“This judicial action adds to the evidence that the authorities’ objective is not one of justice but rather an attempt to silence the media and limit the Belarusian people’s access to information in order to further political aims,” said the U.S. Embassy in Belarus. They called the verdict “egregious”, “politically motivated” and called on the Belarusian authorities to cease the persecution, “including the prosecution of journalists and media outlets for covering the news.”
“This conviction is intended to intimidate the entire profession, to criminalise journalism. The repressive drift of dictator Lukashenko’s regime requires a rapid and firm reaction from the international community. We once again call on the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE not to be complicit in the regime’s abuses,” said President of the European Federation of Journalists Mogens Blicher Bjerregård.
“This is a shameful and completely unfounded decision. We call on President Lukashenko to immediately end the press intimidation campaign and release Katerina Andreeva and Darya Chultsova. Today’s verdict is a clear attack on freedom of the press, and we all stand together against this mockery of justice,” said Younes Mujahid, President of the International Federation of Journalists.
“Freedom of the press is a fundamental human right and it is extremely alarming to see how authorities in Belarus are violating international laws by continuing to try and repress free speech and deny their citizens access to information of public interest. We call on authorities to release Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova immediately and allow the media to report freely without fear of persecution,” said EBU Director General Noel Curran.
Christian Mihr, Director Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Germany, called the verdict “monstrous”. According to Mihr, this means a new stage of escalation in Belarus: if earlier journalists were sentenced to days of administrative arrest, now their terms are calculated in years. “This whole week is a black week for a free press in Belarus,” said Mhir.