Thirty-three names, thirty-three journalists behind bars, thirty-three portraits in the center of Vilnius... This number is particularly dramatic today, on World Press Freedom Day.
In order to draw attention to the situation of the media in Belarus, Belarusian and Lithuanian journalists held a solidarity rally. This is the first action within the whole solidarity marathon, which is to be held in many countries of the world.
It took thirty-three pairs of hands
- We stand by the truth, we stand together! - These words have soon become a manifestation of freedom, solidarity and professional determination of Belarusian journalists to continue their work despite the ruling regime.
It is quite natural that the marathon's slogan in Belarusian and Lithuanian languages was chanted near the "First Swallows" monument, which symbolizes the thirst for freedom. The birds slowly rise from the a woman's palm, finally regaining their freedom.
This feeling is missing in Belarus today. Over the past few years, journalism has become one of the most dangerous professions in the country. It has become completely criminalized.
Belarus ranks 157th out of 180 countries in the 2023 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). To compare, the neighboring Lithuania is the 7th.
Although the gap seems huge, Belarusian and Lithuanian journalists joined together to hold the portraits of Maryna Zolatava, Andrzei Poczobut, Andrei Skurko and other journalists. It took thirty-three pairs of hands to represent the ordeals that their colleagues had to endure.
- The meaning of the World Press Freedom Day is to remind the authorities of the obligation to respect human rights and freedom of expression, above all -- said the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrei Bastunets. - The portraits in our hands are the evidence of how freedom of expression is now treated in Belarus.
He called on media representatives in other countries to support the solidarity action and keep the torch burning.
"I hope that one day the world press freedom rankings demonstrate that journalists can do their job safely."
Unfortunately, abnormality has become the norm in Belarus. This is perhaps most evident in the media sphere.. Currently, 33 media representatives are behind bars.
A year ago, there were 24 journalists in detention. And this is in light of the fact that some of our colleagues have recently been released.
- Your slogan that journalism is not a crime is especially relevant now, - says the head of the Lithuanian Union of Journalists Dainius Radzevičius. - This is an important message for the entire European community of journalists, and I am glad that we are launching a solidarity marathon in Vilnius.
He expressed the hope that one day the world press freedom rankings demonstrate that journalists can do their job safely.
Meanwhile, the regime's efforts have made Belarus a black spot on the map of press freedom in Europe, and the most striking evidence of this is the number of portraits in the hands of the participants of the solidarity action.
It was particularly hard for the regional media.
Since last year, the repression has intensified. Independent media remain a target for the punitive bodies.
- Today in Minsk, a journalist can be sentenced to up to four years in prison simply for exercising the profession, - says the deputy head of the BAJ Barys Haretski. - From 7 to 15 years in prison if we are talking about an editor, a publisher, or another prominent figure in the media community. Such sentences have been announced in the courts recently.
It was particularly hard for the regional media. Just a few days ago, the website and social network accounts of the most popular Baranavichy publication, Intex-Press, were recognized as extremist.
In early April, Info-Courier newspaper (Slutsk)announced its closure after all their texts were recognized as extremist materials. The day before, their newsroom was raided. Its editor-in-chief Siarhei Stankevich and his deputy Aleh Rubchenia were arrested. They were sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest.
In mid-March in Vileika, the police raided the house of Rehiyanalnaya Hazeta's chief editor Aliaksandr Mantsevich, he was arrested. He is charged with "spreading deliberately false information discrediting Belarus and its government."
- Barys Haretski believes: "The authorities are taking more and more hostages to replace those who have been released. - Very often it is not even a specific text or story the authorities are after. The reporters are arrested on charges of collaboration with the media, which has been declared an extremist formation by the authorities.
BAJ announced the "Marathon of Solidarity" campaign to support all jouornalists behind bars. It is a reminder to the whole world that free speech is being destroyed in Belarus, and journalists pay with their freedom for doing their job honestly and professionally.
We call on journalists' unions and human rights organizations, as well as prominent public figures, to join the campaign and advocate for the release of the Belarusian journalists.
BAJ calls on colleagues around the world to support the solidarity campaign!
You can print portraits of our imprisoned colleagues, take photos with them in well-known locations in your city (not in Belarus) and post them on social networks with the tags #СвабодуЖурналістам and #BecauseTheJournalist, and also send them to us at email@example.com.