2020 became the year of unprecedented pressure on the media community in Belarus. Website blocks, fines, detentions, beatings, gunshots, and tortures became the new normal for the independent media reporters in the country. Not only for them: most of the civil organizations, activists and regular people that are in opposition to the current authorities have experienced if not the whole then some of the options on the list. The job of a reporter now includes running, hiding, and having an extra pair of underwear and socks in case she would get detained.
In 2020 Belarus ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index run by Reporters Without Borders (place 158 in 2021). Yet, this does not illustrate the repressions towards the media in the aftermath of the presidential elections on August 9, 2020, when Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, declared his victory in the rigged elections despite multiple violations during the electoral campaign and the elections. Indeed, that date marked the border between somewhat thawing though never liberal conditions for the independent media and its mere survival mode. The relationship of the state towards the non-state-owned media that were slightly relaxing for the past couple of years, started to freeze back already in early 2020. The story of the repressions against the independent media is ongoing, and while space here is limited you can look at more stories in detail at Press Under Pressure project.
Before the elections
Court trials against regional bloggers, regular court hearings and fines for the Belsat journalists [TV and news outlet for Belarusians with an HQ in Warsaw], were joined first by the detention of Sergey Satsuk, the editor-in-chief of the Ezhednevnik website famous for its investigations; and then by the failure to provide information on the current COVID-19 statistics and data. Regional website Media Polesye was fined for ‘spreading panic’ when it published whichever data they could get their hands on, since quite soon after the official start of the pandemic in Belarus in late February, the relevant statistics were either absent or not provided, especially to the independent media. The Ministry of Health stopped any briefings for over a month.
May was marked by the death of Yuri Zisser, the founder of the biggest independent news outlet in Belarus, TUT.by. It was followed by the detention of Sergei Tikhanovsky, the blogger who declared his ambition to become a presidential candidate, then was denied this status on a bogus allegation and was having one of the rallies in the regional town of Hrodna in support of his wife, now the candidate instead of himself. Five Belarusian journalists were arrested for covering or trying to cover opposition rallies. This was just the start.
After another potential candidate for the presidency, Viktar Babaryka, a famous banker and philanthropist, was arrested on June 18, the people went out on the streets with a peaceful protest: they stood in lines (with a social distancing of 1,5 meters) and clapped on the main streets of Minsk and other cities. However, this led to massive detentions, not only of more than 270 peaceful protesters but also 14 journalists from independent and foreign media including Reuters, Euroradio [Belarusian radio in exile], TUT.by, Onliner.by and Radio Svaboda [RFE/RL’s Belarusian service] that was later accused in coordinating the protests via their live streams. These were also the times when the Internet was disconnected before the protests. It was also the first incident when police have targeted journalists with valid accreditation. Later that month Ihar Losik, an influential blogger of the Telegram channel @belamova, was detained for allegedly organizing mass disorders. Despite his two hunger strikes he is in prison up to this date.
“In response to this unprecedented show of support for opposition candidates, the authorities are trying to gag the media and keep suppressing all forms of pluralism, both political and journalistic,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
One month before the elections, more bloggers were arrested, some manage to flee the country; famous TV personalities are forced to leave state TV channels, the trend that would evolve into an exodus in the aftermath of the elections; mass detentions and occasionally even beatings of journalists continued. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs suddenly became quite slow in providing accreditations to the foreign journalists, and some that were already in Belarus were deported on the eve of the main elections day. More than 100 journalists from international media were denied accreditation in anticipation of the elections. It was announced that due to COVID-19, there would be no election information centre, and only the state media would be working at the House of government on August 9. The results of the elections would be released the next day by the Central Elections Committee.
Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has been reelected every five years. Many international actors doubt that elections are transparent and fair. Belarus is sometimes referred to as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’.
The election day
August 9, the main day for the presidential elections, saw the Internet blackout for the whole country not only on the election date but also a couple of days later. Without access to news websites (those who had VPN could use the Internet, however, it was slow, and the websites were updating irregularly), people turned to Telegram with its numerous channels run by both independent media and bloggers and constant information supply by the readers themselves. Gunshots, stun grenades, beatings, rubber and real bullets, shot at protesters and journalists… Something unthinkable even a few days before, took most of the people by an evil surprise. Those who were less digitally literate saw the atrocities of the riot police on August 12 when the Internet finally came back to Belarus. This provoked massive peaceful protests, first by women in white with flowers and then, starting from the first weekend after the elections, on a weekly basis by thousands of people who protested against not only the fraudulent elections [according to the online platform Golos the alternative candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya won with at least 50% of the votes; the official statistics informed that approx. 80% of the votes were given to Alexander Lukashenko] but also against the tortures of those detained during the protests. And what about journalists? Suddenly, independent media and its reporters have found themselves to serve rather like war correspondents at gunpoint.
Tanya Korovenkova is a reporter at the independent news agency BelaPAN. We are sitting in a café surprisingly popular with the supporters of the current regime and she tells her story occasionally casting a sidelong glance at their tables and reminding that, unlike with many other Belarusian journalists, her story is nothing unique, just a regular daily grind of an independent media reporter in Belarus 2020.
“On the main day of the elections at around six in the evening, I went to the polling station. There I met my colleagues from Svaboda, and together we drove to the centre. We tried to get to the Stela [one of the main Minsk sites for the protests in August], but everything was blocked. We had to walk quite a lot and got there at the beginning of the dispersal by the riot police. Some people whose windows were overlooking the site let us in and we filmed the whole thing from there. Later that night, we tried to get to the car and not get caught by the riot police. On the way, we saw people coming back from the protests, some were wounded by rubber bullets or stun grenades”, remembers Tanya.
The protests continued the consecutive days. On August 10, Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubnevskaya was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet while working at a protest in Minsk. Nasha Niva published a video where you can see the security forces officer fire at Natalia from close range.
After the elections
Since August 2020, journalists, editors, and photojournalists of Belarusian independent media have been working without rest, on adrenaline. They also spend nights near police departments and temporary detention centres where their colleagues are detained. They take part in solidarity actions, and demand meetings with senior officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. All of that while continuing to do their job.
Journalists are detained while working on the streets, ostensibly for document checks, but are then taken to police departments, cutting them off from events and denying them the chance to report from the ground (19 journalists of well-known international media had their accreditations revoked on August 29). Correspondents and photographers are often detained both during live streams and before events begin, being physically removed from the streets.
Such detentions can be especially widespread on some days, either on the eve or at the beginning of protests. During just one day, August 27, the security forces removed 47 journalists from the streets of the cities of Minsk and Brest.
“I was detained twice, the first time on August 27. I did not even plan to work that day, but the colleagues who were initially on duty called when I was about to leave home saying that they are detained at the starting point of the protest. So, I went to Independence Square [one of the central squares in Minsk] where there were a couple of thousand people by that time. At some point, a person in civilian clothes came to our group of journalists and said that the riot police are going to ‘work’ here in a moment and if we do not want to get detained, we better stay aside. And so, we did and looked at how riot police were chasing the protesters. Then eventually another person in civilian clothing came and said that we needed to go to the police for identity verification despite that we had our passports, all documentation, press badges, press vests, and so on. Although that was rather polite.”
Tanya recalls that there were Russian journalists as well, but they were released quite soon. On the contrary, the Belarusian independent media reporters spent several hours in the police office and were asked to show their phones and information that was there. When Tanya, unlike most of her colleagues, refused to do so, the police officer started threatening to file a case for disobedience to the police. In a couple of hours, the European journalists who were detained with the group were met by their respective ambassadors, and their Belarusian colleagues had to undergo another scrutiny with the phones and photos that were taken during the protest. If a photographer was reluctant to first show and then delete the photos, the people in the police office (which were now in civilian and in balaclavas), inclined that the camera may ‘occasionally’ fall at some point. Tanya who had only a smartphone on her refused again, but while waiting for those long hours in stifling police premises her blood pressure went high and eventually, she was taken out of the police office by an ambulance though the police were quite unwilling to let her go. In a few hours, other journalists were released without protocols. This was one of the last times they had it easy.
Arrests and detentions
Even though journalists do not participate in rallies and wear special vests to always remain visible, they are still among those brutally beaten and detained. Those covering the protests are being accused of, and sentenced to, different terms of administrative arrest for alleged participation in unauthorized events, shouting out slogans or coordinating protest actions.
“The second detention happened on October 11”, continues Tanya her story casually.
As soon as they went out in the city centre where the gathering point for the protests was announced, a photographer from the state-owned newspaper Belarus Segodnya confessed that there were special lists of journalists who were allowed to work that day and that none of the independent media reporters was on the list. In a couple of minutes, they were accompanied by the city police press officer to the bus that took them to the nearest police station. There, most of the journalists had to wait till 3 am to leave the police station with the protocol on “Disobedience to request of an official”. However, Belsat journalists were taken to the detention facility right away.
“Once again, I got lucky because the papers for my trial were taken to court but they sent it back for revision, and then the period for the court hearing on this kind of offence was overdue. I had a light version: no trials, no administrative arrests in 2020. Not all my colleagues were that lucky”, says Tanya.
“I think there is some weird logic behind it: like if you detain journalists before the rally to prevent the coverage of events, there would be no information about it. The thing is that most of the information is sent by our readers already, who sometimes have better cameras in their smartphones than journalists do”, continues the reporter.
…and criminal cases
Many of the independent media reporters did face trials. Massive conveyor belt trials of journalists began in September. After the student protests, journalists detained during their work were sentenced to three days of administrative arrest. But then the terms became different: from 10 to 20 days of arrest. Article 23.34 (“violation of the procedure for organising or holding mass events”) is supplemented by article 23.4 (“Disobedience to a lawful order or request of an official”), which allows the courts to appoint longer terms. In November, the terms already reach 25 days.
These conveyor courts hand out identical sentences, with judges who never let lawyers defend their clients, interrogate anonymous witnesses, or establish their identity. Witnesses in balaclavas under assumed names appear in courts against journalists.
Besides, journalists are drawn into criminal cases. The most famous case relates to the death of Raman Bandarenka, a resident of one of the quarters famous for its peaceful protesting activities who was allegedly killed by unknown people who might be close to Alexander Lukashenko. The Investigative Committee was quick to publish information that Bandarenka was drunk at the time of the incident. Katerina Borisevich published a piece that refuted the official version and provided evidence that Bandarenka was sober. Later she was arrested and charged with “disclosing medical secrets”. The court decision was 6 months in low-security prison and a fine of 2 900 BYN (approx. 914 EUR). The General Prosecutor considered the sentence too lenient and filed an appeal.
On November 15 people from all over Minsk started to come to the ‘Square of Changes’, the quarter where Raman Bandarenka lived to pay homage to the latest victim of peaceful protests. Two Belsat journalists, Katerina Andreeva and Darya Chultsova were live streaming from the site and were detained by the riot police, who stormed the flat where they were hiding. Moreover, they stormed many more flats that day looking for protesters who were hiding there. The riot police surrounded the area and stayed there till the next day, making people hide in the flats of strangers, or the basement and parking lots, reminiscing of how the Jews should have felt during the Holocaust.
Tanya was among those who albeit was not caught, had to spend the night hiding in the quarter. they were filming and reporting from the balcony of one of the apartments in the quarter, and their hosts had the TV on with the Belsat live stream. At one point one of the riot police officers pointed at that exact balcony – the reporters had to leave immediately, and they just started knocking on all the doors. A woman next door let them in but could not host them for the night. She was alone with two small kids and she was terrified of what was going on and did not want to take the risk. Luckily, Tanya’s previous hosts called her colleagues, also hiding with her, and soon after midnight they returned to the first hosts literally in tiptoes, as the riot police were downstairs.
“I knew that if we just went down, we would get arrested immediately. Those were the longest 15 meters in my life”, she admits and says that she was once again lucky since the hosts provided them with dinner, sleeping space and their dog was adorable. Unlike those tens of people who spent the night in the concrete basement without any facilities at all. They left the quarter the next day at around 10 am when the riot police stopped blocking all entrances. That was the last protest Tanya covered as a reporter – after the siege by riot police, it became too dangerous to send out journalists in the field.
Belsat journalists Katerina Andreeva and Darya Chultsova were first accused of participating in an unsanctioned mass event and disobeying the demands of police officers and later charged under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (“Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them”). Both serve the prison term now – two years in a low-security prison.
Blocking the media
From August 2020, 76 independent media websites and political resources were blocked. The Ministry of Information explains why: the blocked media outlets “describe the situation in Belarus following the end of the electoral campaign in a negative way and discredit the work of state bodies.”
BelaPAN’s online newspaper, Naviny.by, was one of those blocked websites. Thus, you need to use VPN to read it, and consequently, the advertising revenue and the website traffic have significantly shortened.
BelaPAN has also lived through a police search. As a result, the work of the accounting department was stopped as all financial documents and essential computer hard drives were taken away. The search was conducted as part of the investigation against BelaPAN’s former colleague and now a media consultant Andrei Aliaksandrau who was detained on January 12 and accused of financing protests (he helped to collect the fines for those detained). You can read his story here.
Newspapers covering what is happening in the country in an unbiased manner are being denied access to printing presses and distribution among their readers. Four national newspapers, including Narodnaya Volya, KP in Belarus, Svobodnye Novosti and Belgazeta, were denied print and distribution. The official reason for the repeated breach of obligations by the state Press House is an allegedly broken printing press. However, state newspapers were printed without delay on the days of the “breakdown”.
On 1 January 2021, a local state-owned printer refused to print Brestskaya Gazeta. Negotiations with other state-owned printers failed. And since 1 February Novy Chas weekly newspaper disappeared from the state-owned monopolist Belsayuzdruk kiosks. The newspaper is now available only by subscription or in PDF format.
“What a poor picture of the world it would be, if not for the independent media”
When I ask Tanya if it is going to be any worse, she responds positively. “As long as that power is there, yes, it will get worse. Throughout these 26 years, Lukashenka has been purposefully and deliberately pressurizing the independent media, so many of them have been shut down already. It is a constant strategy of the authorities to hinder the work of the non-state media. We already had websites blocked both in 2010 and in 2014, when a new media law was introduced. This is a continuation of the authorities’ loathing for non-state journalists, but now this loathing has intensified and manifested itself in such harsh actions.”
The largest information portal in the country, TUT.BY, has lost its media status. Belarusian legislation provides for a specific form of sanction against the media – written warnings issued by the Ministry of Information. A media organization can be closed by a court decision if it receives two or more warnings within a year.
TUT.BY received four warnings during August and September 2020. The Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit to close the online platform TUT.BY. Its status as media were suspended for three months, from October 1 to December 30, 2020.
The economic court’s decision of December 3, 2020, stripped TUT.BY of its media status, however, this does not mean that the portal will cease to operate. TUT.BY continues as an “Internet resource” and, according to the Law “On Media” (Article 301), an Internet resource can collect and distribute information. The media status gives certain benefits, such as the right to be present in the zones of armed conflicts or emergencies, at public events, in places where socially important events are held, and disseminate information from there.
Tanya remains positive.
“The last several months have shown people why there are independent media, and what an abyss lies between the state-owned TV, newspapers and radio and the independent media. It showed a different approach to work by the state journalists and independent media reporters. We saw a huge wave of solidarity and support when people hosted us, gave us a lift, or hid us or even fought off the journalists from the riot police, the last months showcased what a poor picture of the world there would be, if not for the independent media. People saw that it is the independent media that shows the reality how it is.”