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An IFEX Q&A with the Belarusian Association of Journalists: Defending press freedom is a marathon, not a sprint

08.08.2023 Source: IFEX

As the country marks the third anniversary of manipulated elections that kept “Europe’s last dictator” in power – and the launch of a brutal crackdown – we spoke with BAJ about their ongoing global Solidarity Marathon on behalf of imprisoned journalists.

In August 2020, a rigged presidential election in Belarus meant a victory for incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka – and a brutal repression for peaceful protesters contesting the results. Three years after the elections, the situation has only worsened.

IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) describes the current context as one where authorities have declared the media and civil society organisations “a tumour that needs to be removed,” and where the government has started “cleansing” the information space, targeting those opposed to the regime and levying absurd charges, from organizing mass protests to participating in extremist activities, and even treason.

Part of the IFEX network since 2015 – and an award-winning professional union with over 1,300 members – BAJ was liquidated by the politicized Belarus Supreme Court in 2021 and labelled an “extremist formation” by Belarus’s state security agency (KGB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs in early 2023. They are in good company. The use of anti-extremist legislation has forced almost all leading Belarusian media to go abroad and work in exile, with 18 media organizations declared “extremist”.

The international community has not been silent to the escalating levels of repression. Groups have issued condemnations and called for independent investigations into human rights abuses and multiple rounds of sanctions. IFEX has campaigned on behalf of persecuted Belarusian activists and journalists, launched advocacy initiatives designed to keep the international focus on events in the country, and worked to keep Belarus in the spotlight through its regularly updated Chronology.

BAJ and the Lithuanian Union of Journalists launched a campaign in support of Belarusian journalists earlier this year, on World Press Freedom Day. The Solidarity Marathon is a call to action for fellow journalists, human rights organizations, and well-known public figures fighting for the democratic values of free expression and the right to information.

Below, we share a conversation we had with BAJ in July about the campaign, and the broader context it is in response to.

We are maintaining the anonymity of the individual respondent out of concerns for their safety.

A Q&A with the Belarusian Association of Journalists

Can you describe for us the current landscape for journalists in Belarus?

The criminalization of independent media in Belarus has made journalism one of the most dangerous professions in the country. Today, at least 34 journalists and media professionals are behind bars, but every day we learn about new arrests and extreme and unjust sentences.

Belsat TV channel journalist Ekaterina Andreyeva (Bakhvalova) was sentenced to eight years and three months in prison for live reporting from a protest rally. Investigative journalist Siarhei Satsuk was sentenced to eight years, as were Gazeta Vyborchaya journalist Andrey Poczobut and Ksenia Lutskina, who retired from state TV. The editor-in-chief, Marina Zolotova, and director Lyudmila Chekina of the leading Belarusian Internet portal TUT.by, shut down by the authorities in 2022, were sentenced to 12 years, journalist Denis Ivashin to 13 years, media manager Andrei Aleksandrov to 14 years, and Radio Svaboda consultant Igor Losik to 15 years in prison.

We’ve seen how different groups are impacted in distinct ways by this kind of crackdown. What has been your experience in Belarus?

Journalists and other media workers from vulnerable populations and marginalised groups have been particularly affected, while depression, burnout, and even suicidal behaviour are plaguing the Belarusian media community.

LGBTQI+ people, individuals living with chronic diseases and those with physical and mental disabilities have found themselves in especially dire situations both in Belarus and in exile. A Belarusian journalist diagnosed with HIV struggled to get medication and treatment while in exile in other countries, including in Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion. Well-known blogger Anton Matolka, and at least one regional journalist, experienced homophobic threats of harassment. The latter was also threatened with rape in detention when he was forced by law enforcement to open apps on his phone that disclosed his sexuality.

Whether due to loss of jobs through the closing of media outlets or targeted persecution and jailing, journalists who are single parents, those with many children and those who have children with special needs have experienced even greater stress as they find it impossible to provide for their families. In December 2022, freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova – a single mother – was arrested on bogus charges and placed in pre-trial custody. Her 16-year-old son was immediately taken to an orphanage and was only allowed to be released to his biological father, who had to travel from Siberia.

Your Solidarity Marathon is a response to the dire situation you are describing. Briefly, what is it, and how can people support it?

We have produced portraits of our unjustly imprisoned journalist colleagues and are asking people all around the world to download them, print them out, take pictures holding them up in recognizable places of their city, and then to share them on social media.

We hope that as this Solidarity Marathon travels around the world, everyone who participates will be able to influence the Belarusian regime by demanding the release of all journalists who are behind bars, paying for their profession and for the right to free expression with their personal freedom and their lives.

You launched the campaign just over three months ago, on World Press Freedom Day. How is it going so far?

Our combined voices are getting stronger and louder, and this is giving us the confidence that we will achieve our goal.

Many of our colleagues immediately responded to the call for solidarity. Journalists’ unions in Sweden and Finland were among the first to support us. Journalist organizations in the Scandinavian countries collected financial assistance for the families of imprisoned journalists. Finnish colleagues created a group for weekly discussions on what they can do to move the situation in Belarus forward.

It has been very important to feel the support from the European Federation of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, which has drawn attention to the issue.

And more recently, the Marathon reached Australia. The incredible feeling of solidarity from people sharing your profession from the other side of the world helps to motivate us.

Solidarity gestures from Sweden, Finland, Australia… Why is the participation of individuals and organizations around the world important?

Belarus is a small country with authorities who ignore the voices of their citizens and do not consider it necessary to comply with laws. To strengthen the voice of its democratic forces, we need the support of our colleagues and other people from around the world. As we have seen with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the absence of democracy in one country can lead to catastrophic consequences beyond its borders.

The more powerful our combined voices are, the further our reach, and the greater the chance that Belarus will draw the international community’s attention. This will drastically improve the chances that our colleagues will be released.

On a more personal level, what impact do you believe this kind of solidarity has?

In any battle, it is important to feel the reliable shoulders of your comrades-in-arms and like-minded people nearby. The struggle for our democratic values is no exception. After all, only when we are together can we be a single indestructible mechanism in the fight for democracy, freedom, and human rights.

For the imprisoned journalists, it is the feeling of solidarity with all the journalists of the world, the realization that someone is thinking about you even from a distant country, and is making efforts to free you, that gives you strength to survive this whole nightmare in prison.

Let’s return to the context behind the campaign. What impact is the criminalization of the media – and of organisations like BAJ that defend their rights – having on Belarusian citizens’ access to information?

There has been an enormous impact. Widespread censorship in Belarus’ information space has shrunk the number of independent information sources, obstructing the work of journalists and other media workers. Access to hundreds of independent online media resources has been blocked by Belarusian authorities, including the Ministry of Information of Belarus.

It is basically considered a crime to disseminate virtually any information that the authorities do not want disseminated.

There are no democratic publications published in print form in the country, and the designation of a media outlet as “extremist” allows for the persecution not only of its journalists and media managers, but also of their authors, interviewees, subscribers – even readers who simply comment on posts in social networks, share, or even just “like” them. Criminal cases can and have been initiated; some have reached the court and ended in guilty verdicts.

We know you are working hard to ensure that reliable information from Belarus continues to reach audiences.

Yes, despite the “cleansing of dissidents,” pro-Kremlin propaganda in the country’s state media, and Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, BAJ and the editorial offices of independent media continue our work as a trusted source of objective information, whether in Belarus or abroad.

This work has to be done safely. Journalists who continue to work inside the country are strongly encouraged to follow physical and digital security protocols while collecting information and passing it on for publication abroad. Participation in global networks like IFEX has been important for us to share information and ideas and get inspiration from organisations operating in similar situations in other countries, as well as to share our success stories and knowledge.

A common tactic used by authorities during crackdowns like this is to try to undermine the credibility of critical voices. How is BAJ able to push back against this narrative?

For this, we see media literacy is critical. BAJ promotes events that help audiences learn how to distinguish between the propagandist narrative of state media and reliable and verified information from independent sources.

International recognition has also helped underscore our credibility and our work for Belarusian independent media. The awards BAJ has received strongly contradict the narratives of the Belarusian regime.

Beyond supporting the Solidarity Marathon, what further actions can the international community take to assist Belarusian journalists?

BAJ members from vulnerable populations and the freelance media community, both in Belarus and in exile, are in dire need of assistance. Vulnerable members experiencing intersectional struggles would benefit from greater psychosocial support through individual and small-group retreats and psychological consultations.

Freelancers, particularly those fleeing Belarus, require support and stability in the absence of media houses. It is crucial that the international community step up to develop assistance programs to evacuate and support journalists and media workers facing these challenges, while also continuing to engage in international campaigning against the shameful practices of the Belarusian regime in power.

IFEX is encouraging everyone to show their support for BAJ and free expression in Belarus by participating in the Marathon of Solidarity.

Here’s how: Download and print portraits of the journalists currently imprisoned from the campaign page, then take pictures of yourself holding these portraits in prominent locations around your city. Share these images on social media using the hashtags #СвабодуЖурналістам and #BecauseTheJournalist. If you prefer, you can also send your photos directly to BAJ via email at baj@baj.by.

Find the portraits and read more about the campaign at this link.