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  • “Turkmenization is underway in Belarus.” Experts comment on situation with independent journalism in Belarus based on new BAJ and JFJ report

    Since the suppression of the 2020 protests, the number of attacks on journalists and the media has declined, but the nature of the attacks has become more violent. In 2021 and 2022, the total number of reported cases was 1,432, compared with 1,558 in 2020, according to a report presented in London by BAJ and the Justice for Journalists Foundation.

    Download the report in English


    “The perpetrators are predominantly public officers”

    The speak­ers, who includ­ed media experts, human rights activists, and politi­cians, acknowl­edged that the sit­u­a­tion in Belarus has been over­shad­owed by the war in Ukraine. How­ev­er, it demands the atten­tion of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty because of the bru­tal repres­sion of civ­il soci­ety and jour­nal­ism.

    British human rights activist Baroness Hele­na Kennedy assured:

    “For our part, we con­tin­ue to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion in Belarus. We pay par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to vio­la­tions of free­dom of speech and the rights of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism. We do our best to sup­port the media and restore jus­tice”.

    Accord­ing to the authors of the report, attacks via judi­cial and/or eco­nom­ic means were the most com­mon method of exert­ing pres­sure on media work­ers. Such attacks account­ed for 90 per­cent of the total in 2021 and approx­i­mate­ly 94 per­cent in 2022.

    “This year the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists was rec­og­nized as an extrem­ist for­ma­tion, and a few days ago our web­site, social media pages, and even logo were declared extrem­ist. So you are now lis­ten­ing to an extrem­ist, and shar­ing this report in Belarus entails crim­i­nal lia­bil­i­ty,” BAJ chair­man Andrei Bas­tunets com­ment­ed iron­i­cal­ly on the lat­est actions of the regime.

    He stressed that the decrease in the over­all num­ber of attacks is linked to the so-called Turk­m­eniza­tion of Belarus: there are few­er legal­ly work­ing jour­nal­ists in the coun­try to be per­se­cut­ed. Some have been arrest­ed, oth­ers have fled the coun­try and oth­ers have left the pro­fes­sion.

    “The per­pe­tra­tors are pre­dom­i­nant­ly pub­lic offi­cers, and this is char­ac­ter­is­tic of what is hap­pen­ing in Belarus,” said the head of the BAJ.

    Journalists are given harsher punishments than murderers

    The crim­i­nal­iza­tion of jour­nal­ism con­tin­ues. Crim­i­nal penal­ties for media work­ers, the report notes, have become more severe. In par­tic­u­lar, reporters are being sen­tenced to terms longer than those for vio­lent crimes such as mur­der.

    “In terms of media free­dom, Belarus is on a par with such coun­tries as Azer­bai­jan and Afghanistan,” said Maria Ordzhonikidze, direc­tor of the Jus­tice for Jour­nal­ists Foun­da­tion.

    She point­ed out that the web­sites of many inde­pen­dent media in Belarus are blocked on such far-fetched pre­texts as dis­cred­it­ing the author­i­ties, incit­ing social hatred, and oth­ers, which is very sim­i­lar to the sit­u­a­tion in oth­er coun­tries with the most bru­tal dic­ta­to­r­i­al regimes.

    This is con­firmed by the data indi­cat­ed in the report. The num­ber of cas­es relat­ed to media clo­sures, obstruc­tion of print pub­li­ca­tions, and restrict­ing access to online media has increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly even in com­par­i­son with 2020.

    “Belarus could be an exam­ple of how a dic­ta­tor­ship devel­ops in the absence of inde­pen­dent media and a sup­pressed civ­il soci­ety,” not­ed Robert Seely, a mem­ber of the British Par­lia­ment.

    The most fright­en­ing thing is that not all cas­es of harass­ment of press rep­re­sen­ta­tives are in the pub­lic eye. The report says that often jour­nal­ists and their fam­i­lies are afraid to dis­close attacks after intim­i­da­tion by secu­ri­ty forces.

    Some­times reporters con­sid­er cer­tain types of rights vio­la­tions, such as restrict­ing access to infor­ma­tion, to be insignif­i­cant and there­fore do not report them.

    The harassment continues even behind bars

    Of great con­cern is the pres­sure exert­ed on jour­nal­ists (cur­rent­ly 30+ media work­ers are behind bars in Belarus) while they are in cus­tody.

    “Polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, includ­ing jour­nal­ists, are placed in over­crowd­ed cells,” the report states, “deprived of basic ameni­ties such as bed­ding and hygiene prod­ucts, sub­ject­ed to vio­lence, kept in the cold with­out warm cloth­ing, strip-searched, deprived of sleep and the abil­i­ty to con­tact rel­a­tives and denied med­ical care”.

    Anoth­er method of pres­sure that the authors of the report point out is the pub­li­ca­tion of “repen­tant” videos of impris­oned jour­nal­ists, appar­ent­ly record­ed under duress.

    These videos are then broad­cast on state tele­vi­sion and pro-gov­ern­ment Telegram chan­nels.

    “Accord­ing to Reporters With­out Bor­ders, Belarus ranks fifth in the num­ber of impris­oned jour­nal­ists and fourth in the num­ber of female jour­nal­ists,” empathized Andrei Bas­tunets.

    Raids are just one of many forms of harassment

    The state per­se­cu­tion is not lim­it­ed to arrests and deten­tions of inde­pen­dent media work­ers.

    Recent­ly, the main meth­ods of pres­sure on jour­nal­ists have been depri­va­tion of access to infor­ma­tion, harass­ment, intim­i­da­tion, death threats, and hack­ing into jour­nal­ists’ social media accounts, the report con­cludes.

    Accord­ing to the report’s authors, the num­ber of cyber attacks, includ­ing hacks of jour­nal­ists’ emails and Telegram chan­nels, has risen sharply.

    RFE/RL Belarus, Nasha Niva, Onlin­er, Char­ter 97, Nar­o­d­naya Volya, Brest­skaya Gaze­ta, Avto­biznes, and oth­ers were sub­ject­ed to such attacks.

    In addi­tion, jour­nal­ists have faced con­stant undue obstruc­tion of their pro­fes­sion­al duties dur­ing court ses­sions.

    Last year the num­ber of such cas­es decreased, but only because of the ‘Turk­m­eniza­tion” process.

    “The media sector has shown tremendous resilience and ability to resist”

    Accord­ing to Robert Seely, the Krem­lin has long used Belarus as a plat­form for Russ­ian pro­pa­gan­da.

    “The sup­pres­sion of protests in 2020 was a con­se­quence of Russia’s long-stand­ing takeover,” said the British MP.

    Belarus, he added, has become a spring­board for test­ing polit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies for Moscow, and the prac­tices test­ed have been quite suc­cess­ful.

    “Belarus used to have a strong media sec­tor,” said Maria Sadouskaya-Kom­lach, head of Free Press Unlim­it­ed. “But when the regime expelled so many jour­nal­ists, the coun­try had no sources of infor­ma­tion oth­er than the state media. And those who find them­selves out­side the coun­try have to start prac­ti­cal­ly from scratch.”

    Experts agree that coun­ter­ing pro­pa­gan­da remains the most impor­tant goal of the inde­pen­dent media now oper­at­ing in exile.

    “But it is only pos­si­ble to put pres­sure on some­thing that resists,” Bas­tunets con­clud­ed. “The media sec­tor has shown tremen­dous resilience and abil­i­ty to resist.”

    Read more:

    Tatsiana Pytsko extends the list of media representatives behind bars in Belarus. Now it counts 34 journalists

    “We stand in full solidarity with our brave colleagues!” The IFJ keeps torch of solidarity with journalist prisoners burning


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