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    №1 (75) 2024. Download PDF.

    The Belaru­sian inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists, blog­gers and media out­lets faced increas­ing pres­sure and restric­tions in 2023:

    • crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists and blog­gers;

    • a new wave of repres­sion on the part of secu­ri­ty forces, which began in March 2023 (appar­ent­ly, it was relat­ed to the sab­o­tage that occurred at a mil­i­tary air­field near Min­sk on Feb­ru­ary 26th);

    • the fight against “extrem­ism” as a basis for cen­sor­ship and per­se­cu­tion (e.g., access to the con­tent of media out­lets that con­tin­ued to oper­ate from abroad was blocked, and any coop­er­a­tion with them was con­sid­ered a man­i­fes­ta­tion of extrem­ism;

    • the appli­ca­tion of admin­is­tra­tive and leg­isla­tive mea­sures to restrict access to infor­ma­tion and, in par­tic­u­lar, the adop­tion of restric­tive amend­ments to the law “On Mass Media”;

    • the gov­ern­men­tal pol­i­cy to for­mal­ize and ide­ol­o­gize the activ­i­ties of state-owned media as tools of pro­pa­gan­da and strug­gle with dis­sent in the con­di­tions of the alleged “hybrid war against Belarus and Rus­sia”.

    Belarus dropped by four posi­tions over the year in the Press Free­dom Index pub­lished by Reporters With­out Bor­ders, hold­ing the 157th place among 180 coun­tries of the world. It can be found among 31 coun­tries rat­ed as ‘very poor’ for press free­dom, between Pales­tine and Nicaragua.

    The posi­tion of Belarus in the Free­dom on the Net annu­al glob­al rank­ing list, com­piled and pub­lished by a human rights orga­ni­za­tion Free­dom House, has dete­ri­o­rat­ed, too. As a coun­try lack­ing free Inter­net, it received only 25 points out of 100 pos­si­ble, com­pared to 28 points a year before.

    The inde­pen­dent media and civ­il soci­ety, which con­tin­ued their activ­i­ties from abroad, respond­ed to pres­sure and repres­sion with sol­i­dar­i­ty and mutu­al sup­port. Thus, the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (BAJ) arranged the inter­na­tion­al “Marathon of Sol­i­dar­i­ty” with impris­oned jour­nal­ists and took part in “We care!” online char­i­ty marathon of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Belaru­sian polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, arranged by influ­en­tial inde­pen­dent mass media and blog­gers. The sum of col­lect­ed dona­tions dur­ing the fundrais­ing event exceed­ed EUR 574,000.

    The BAJ’s activ­i­ty in sup­port of the inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian press was marked by the award of the East­ern Part­ner­ship Civ­il Soci­ety Forum, pre­sent­ed on Novem­ber 14, 2023. At the same time, the BAJ was labeled by the KGB as an “extrem­ist for­ma­tion” last year. The BAJ’s web­site, pages on social media, and logo were arbi­trar­i­ly rec­og­nized as “extrem­ist mate­ri­als.” More­over, access to the BAJ’s web­site was pro­hib­it­ed in Rus­sia on the grounds of mil­i­tary cen­sor­ship.

    Also, the Belaru­sian author­i­ties seized the domain name of BAJ at the end of 2023 — begin­ning of 2024. Since the begin­ning of 2024, the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists has changed the address of its web­site to https://baj.media/, and its email address to office@baj.media (for inter­na­tion­al mail­ing — intercomm@baj.media).

    Criminal prosecution

    16 court ver­dicts were pro­nounced against jour­nal­ists in crim­i­nal cas­es dur­ing the year of 2023. At least six oth­er jour­nal­ists were accused of com­mit­ting crim­i­nal offences.

    32 jour­nal­ists were in jail at the end of 2023. The list of media work­ers includ­ed the heads of TUT.by News Por­tal Mary­na Zolata­va and Lyud­mi­la Chek­ina, both sen­tenced to 12 years in prison as well as a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist and edi­tor of the “Belaru­sian Year­book” peri­od­i­cal Valeryia Kast­si­uho­va, sen­tenced to 10 years in prison.

    Crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of blog­gers con­tin­ued. The first case of con­vic­tion in absen­tia in the frame­work of “spe­cial pro­ceed­ings” was a case ini­ti­at­ed under Arti­cle 130 (‘incite­ment of hatred’) and Arti­cle 203–1 (‘ille­gal col­lec­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of per­son­al data’) of Belarus Crim­i­nal Code against five “admin­is­tra­tors” of the “Black Book of Belarus” Telegram chan­nel, which pub­lished infor­ma­tion about gov­ern­men­tal offi­cials alleged­ly involved in the per­se­cu­tion of the oppo­si­tion. All defen­dants, includ­ing Sports.ru co-founder Dzmit­ry Navosha, were sen­tenced in absen­tia to 12 years in prison. On May 3, 2023, a ver­dict was pro­nounced in absen­tia in the crim­i­nal case of well-known blog­gers, who edit­ed the ‘Nex­ta’ and ‘Belarus of the Brain’ Telegram chan­nels. Stsi­a­pan Put­si­la was sen­tenced to 20 years of impris­on­ment in a high secu­ri­ty colony and Yan Rudzik was sen­tenced to 19 years in prison. Raman Prata­se­vich, who col­lab­o­rat­ed with the legal inves­ti­ga­tion, was sen­tenced to 8 years in a gen­er­al regime prison colony and par­doned by Ali­ak­san­dr Lukashen­ka lat­er.

    Jour­nal­ists were sub­ject­ed to pres­sure and inhu­mane treat­ment in cus­tody.

    Report­ed­ly, Siarhei Sat­suk, Dzia­n­is Ivashyn, and Andrzej Poc­zobut had prob­lems obtain­ing med­ica­tions and access­ing qual­i­fied med­ical care in 2023. Accord­ing to human rights activists, Ihar Losik went on a hunger strike for a long peri­od of time, while in the Navap­o­latsk colony. Then, he cut his hands and neck. And con­se­quent­ly, he was tak­en to hos­pi­tal.

    A blog­ger from Pin­sk Mikalai Klimovich, 61, died in the prison colony on May 7, 2023. At the end of Feb­ru­ary 2023, he was sen­tenced to one year in prison on charges of ‘insult­ing the Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic of Belarus’, while he had a very seri­ous heart con­di­tion, which was known to the court.

    The security forces kept up the pressure on independent journalists and the media

    Accord­ing to the BAJ’s cal­cu­la­tions, jour­nal­ists were arrest­ed 16 times on admin­is­tra­tive charges in 2023. It was reg­is­tered for the first time that a journalist’s prop­er­ty was seized in con­nec­tion with a crim­i­nal charge. It hap­pened to a media work­er Ihar Kazmi­ar­chak, who resides abroad.

    All in all, it was reg­is­tered that jour­nal­ists were detained 46 times, and 34 search­es were con­duct­ed in their homes and offices in 2023. Thus, in Feb­ru­ary-March 2023, the search­es took place in the edi­to­r­i­al offices of “Intex-press” (Baranavichy, Brest region), “Infa-Kury­er” (Slut­sk, Min­sk region), and “Rehіyanal­naya Gaze­ta” (Mal­adziech­na, Min­sk region) region­al news­pa­pers. They were accom­pa­nied by arrests, pros­e­cu­tion of employ­ees and recog­ni­tion of pub­li­ca­tions as “extrem­ist mate­ri­als.” Con­se­quent­ly, all these media out­lets were forced to cease their activ­i­ties.

    Since June 2023, the author­i­ties start­ed ruin­ing the ‘Ranak’ pri­vate TV and Radio com­pa­ny in the city of Svet­la­horsk (Homiel region). They con­duct­ed a search in the edi­to­r­i­al office and pros­e­cut­ed nine of its employ­ees on admin­is­tra­tive charges. The TV com­pa­ny was rec­og­nized as an “extrem­ist for­ma­tion” lat­er. Con­se­quent­ly, three of its jour­nal­ists faced crim­i­nal charges.

    The ‘Ranak’ employ­ees’ sub­scrip­tion to a local group on ‘Odnok­lass­ni­ki’ social media was pre­sent­ed by the author­i­ties as the offi­cial rea­son for the admin­is­tra­tive pros­e­cu­tion. How­ev­er, most like­ly, the real motive was the TV company’s cov­er­age of the acci­dent at the Svet­la­horsk pulp and card­board mill, which hap­pened on June 7th and led to the death of three fac­to­ry work­ers.

    The de-fac­to takeover of some pop­u­lar local media resources took place in 2023. Cor­re­spond­ing­ly, their man­age­ment was trans­ferred to the odi­ous ‘Min­skaya Prau­da’ media out­let with the pur­pose of pub­lish­ing pro­pa­gan­da con­tent. There were reg­is­tered at least three cas­es of the kind, which affect­ed oper­a­tion of ‘Our Native Land of Lahoysk’ Telegram chan­nel (Lahoysk, Min­sk region), ‘Stoubt­sy City’ Insta­gram chan­nel (Stoubt­sy, Min­sk region), and ‘Kraj.by’ Web­site (Mal­adziech­na, Min­sk region).

    The authorities broadened the use of anti-extremism legislation, in order to restrict freedom of expression in the media and on the Web and prosecute any disloyalty

    The Crim­i­nal Code  was sup­ple­ment­ed with new “extrem­ist” crimes. Thus, Arti­cle 289–1 intro­duced lia­bil­i­ty for “pro­pa­gan­da of ter­ror­ism or its pub­lic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” (max. pun­ish­ment — 7 years in prison). Arti­cle 369–1 (“dis­cred­it­ing the Repub­lic of Belarus”) was sup­ple­ment­ed with lia­bil­i­ty for dis­sem­i­nat­ing know­ing­ly false infor­ma­tion, dis­cred­it­ing the armed forces of the Repub­lic of Belarus, oth­er troops and mil­i­tary for­ma­tions, as well as para­mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions of the Repub­lic of Belarus.

    Crim­i­nal charges were pre­sent­ed more fre­quent­ly for any form of coop­er­a­tion with inde­pen­dent media, labeled as “extrem­ist for­ma­tions”, in 2023. Accord­ing to a new trend, the ordi­nary cit­i­zens who com­ment­ed on any socio-polit­i­cal events for jour­nal­ists faced charges along­side the civ­il soci­ety rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Thus, Darya Losik, the wife of Radio Lib­er­ty employ­ee Ihar Losik, was sen­tenced to two years in prison in Jan­u­ary 2023 for an inter­view with the Bel­sat TV chan­nel about her husband’s sit­u­a­tion.

    The Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists and 10 inde­pen­dent media out­lets were labeled as “extrem­ist for­ma­tions” in Belarus in 2023. The num­ber of affect­ed media orga­ni­za­tions increased twice in com­par­i­son with the pre­vi­ous year.

    33 con­vict­ed media work­ers were includ­ed in the offi­cial list of “extrem­ists” and 12 impris­oned media work­ers were includ­ed in the list of “ter­ror­ists” in 2023.

    It was for the first time that a for­eign media resource was includ­ed in the list of “extrem­ist for­ma­tions” by the Belaru­sian author­i­ties last year. These were the Telegram, YouTube and Tik­Tok accounts of the pop­u­lar Ukrain­ian blog­ger Alexan­der Rykov (Bal­aganOff). He pays sig­nif­i­cant atten­tion to the Belaru­sian issues in his videos.

    As before, the pub­li­ca­tions of inde­pen­dent media were fre­quent­ly includ­ed in the list of extrem­ist mate­ri­als. Thus, the Belaru­sian author­i­ties start­ed label­ing pub­li­ca­tions from the print media, some of which had been pub­lished decades ago, as “extrem­ist mate­ri­als” along­side online in 2023. The same label­ing hap­pened to a num­ber of per­son­al pages of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists on social media.

    The num­ber of cas­es of bring­ing peo­ple to admin­is­tra­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty for the dis­tri­b­u­tion of “extrem­ist mate­ri­als” (Arti­cle 19.11 of the Code of Admin­is­tra­tive Offens­es) has increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly since the begin­ning of 2023. It increased 1.7 times in the first half of the year com­pared to the same peri­od in 2022 (at least 1274 vs 721 cas­es), since almost all lead­ing infor­ma­tion resources were “banned” by the regime in pow­er. Thus, regard­less of how old the pub­li­ca­tion is, prac­ti­cal­ly any­one can be con­vict­ed for hav­ing it on the elec­tron­ic device.

    The mass media that con­tin­ued to oper­ate in Belarus, were sub­ject­ed to var­i­ous restric­tions and cen­sor­ship. Apart from the pub­li­ca­tions on polit­i­cal issues, they also affect­ed crit­i­cal expres­sions in rela­tion to gov­ern­men­tal author­i­ties. 

    A range of amend­ments to the Belarus Law “On Mass Media” was adopt­ed on June 30, 2023. The changes were jus­ti­fied by the need for an “ade­quate response to destruc­tive process­es in the media space” and fur­ther lim­it­ed the media activ­i­ties. In par­tic­u­lar, there were intro­duced require­ments for the oper­a­tion of news aggre­ga­tors, includ­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of block­ing them for dis­trib­ut­ing con­tent from the banned web­sites. The list of grounds for strip­ping media out­lets of their offi­cial reg­is­tra­tion and restrict­ing the pub­lic access to Web-resources was fur­ther expand­ed. Also, the author­i­ties intro­duced the pos­si­bil­i­ty of using sym­met­ri­cal mea­sures in response to “anti-Belaru­sian” attacks by for­eign media and jour­nal­ists, etc.

    The Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion con­tin­ued to act as a cen­sor. It mon­i­tored Web-con­tent, ini­ti­at­ed the block­ing of web­sites, and issued warn­ings. Thus, onliner.by, officelife.by and some oth­er Web-resources were forced to remove cer­tain con­tent in order to receive per­mis­sion for regain­ing pub­lic access to their web­sites. Offi­cial warn­ings were issued to the “Nasha TV” (“Our TV”) chan­nel (Vit­seb­sk) as well as to the founders of the “Bel­MuzTV” and “Europa Plus TV” pro­grams.

    The “Vkon­tak­te” social media (Rus­sia) blocked the com­mu­ni­ties of “Zerka­lo,” “Medi­a­zone. Belarus,” and “Nasha Niva” inde­pen­dent pub­li­ca­tions as well as Bel­sat TV chan­nel at the request of the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of Belarus in 2023.

    The exist­ing ten­den­cy to ide­ol­o­gize the activ­i­ties of state media and their reori­en­ta­tion exclu­sive­ly to pro­pa­gan­da con­tin­ued. The trend also extend­ed to the field of jour­nal­ism edu­ca­tion in 2023.

    Thus, the Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment of the Belaru­sian State Uni­ver­si­ty enrolled stu­dents only to the sub­si­dized places in 2023. Con­se­quent­ly, the num­ber of first-year stu­dents of this depart­ment reduced by 20%. The depart­ment dean Ali­ak­sei Bialayeu stat­ed that there was no need in the stu­dents, who pay for their stud­ies, since “the Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment ful­fills the state order and trains spe­cial­ists for the state media.”

    The Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion Uladz­imir Piart­sou called the first-year stu­dents of the Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment “fight­ing bay­o­nets in the infor­ma­tion war” dur­ing a meet­ing with them.

    “Purges” con­tin­ued among the state media work­ers at that. They were detained direct­ly at their work­places, sub­ject­ed to admin­is­tra­tive pros­e­cu­tion, and fired.

    Thus, three employ­ees of the Homiel Plus radio sta­tion were sub­ject­ed to admin­is­tra­tive arrest for up to 15 days for the alleged “dis­tri­b­u­tion of extrem­ist mate­ri­als” in May 2023.

    New inter­na­tion­al sanc­tions were intro­duced against the state-owned media and pro­pa­gan­dists in 2023.

    Thus, the Belaru­sian TV and Radio Com­pa­ny was exclud­ed from the list of Olympic Games broad­cast­ers for the term of 10 years. The Tik­Tok social media blocked and then delet­ed the account of the chau­vin­is­tic pro­pa­gan­da news­pa­per “Min­skaya Prau­da”, which had about 70 thou­sand sub­scribers.

    Ukraine imposed sanc­tions against odi­ous pro­pa­gan­dists Ryhor Azaron­ak, Ihar Tur, Ali­ak­san­dr Shpak­ous­ki as well as the CEO of STV chan­nel Ali­ak­san­dr Aseyen­ka.

    In con­nec­tion with the adop­tion of anoth­er pack­age of EU sanc­tions against Rus­sia and Belarus, restric­tive mea­sures were intro­duced against sev­er­al Belaru­sian pro­pa­gan­dists, employed by the state TV broad­cast­ers, includ­ing Kseniya Lebedzie­va, Yauhien Pus­tavy, Anas­tasiya Benedzi­siuk as well as Vadz­im Hihin, who is the cur­rent chair of the “Vedy” (‘Knowl­edge’) soci­ety.

    More detailed information about the situation of Belarusian mass media in 2023 can be found under the following links:

    FIGURES OF THE YEAR. Repression of media and journalists in Belarus in 2023



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