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  • Belarus: 2022 another disastrous year for media freedom

    Thirty-two journalists currently behind bars amidst continuing legal crackdown. As another devastating year for media freedom comes to a close in Belarus, the International Press Institute (IPI) and our global network today condemn the government’s relentless efforts at prosecuting, jailing and otherwise silencing journalists, as part of a wider campaign aimed at eliminating all forms of dissent in the country.

    In a lit­tle over two weeks, five jour­nal­ists and media work­ers have been detained, pros­e­cut­ed and put before courts to answer absurd charges rem­i­nis­cent of Sovi­et-era prac­tices. They are: Dzya­nis Ivashyn, Larysa Shchyrako­va, Iry­na Slau­nika­va, Dzmit­ry Luk­sha, Henadz Mazhey­ka.

    At least 32 jour­nal­ists and media work­ers are cur­rent­ly being held in deten­tion cen­tres and penal colonies, accord­ing to the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (BAJ), which was liq­ui­dat­ed by the country’s Supreme Court in August 2021.

    Belarus also has the fifth-high­est num­ber of impris­oned jour­nal­ists in the world, after Chi­na, Myan­mar, Iran and Viet­nam, accord­ing to reports.

    IPI demands an end to this per­se­cu­tion and to gov­er­nance by fear in Belarus, a trade­mark of Alexan­der Lukashenko espe­cial­ly fol­low­ing mass protests against his rule in August 2020.

    In the most recent case on 20 Decem­ber, the Belaru­sian Supreme Court con­firmed a 13-year prison sen­tence for Dzya­nis Ivashyn, who was found guilty of state trea­son. Accord­ing to BAJ, his per­se­cu­tion could be linked to an arti­cle he pub­lished in 2021, in which he inves­ti­gat­ed the case of for­mer Ukrain­ian secu­ri­ty offi­cials recruit­ed into Belarus’ anti-riot police force.

    On 6 Decem­ber, police arrest­ed Larysa Shchyrako­va, a long-time free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Homel, a major city in south-east­ern Belarus. A lit­tle over a week lat­er, BAJ informed that a crim­i­nal case for “dis­cred­it­ing the Repub­lic of Belarus” had been opened against Shchyrako­va. No addi­tion­al details were avail­able on the accu­sa­tions made against her. Sus­pects found guilty of “dis­cred­it­ing” Belarus face up to four years in prison and a fine under arti­cle 369.1 of the country’s crim­i­nal code.

    Accord­ing to Barys Haret­s­ki, BAJ vice-pres­i­dent, Shchyrakova’s case is also seri­ous because she does not reside in Min­sk: “The sit­u­a­tion out­side of the cap­i­tal is par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult, where the num­ber of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists and activists is low­er”, he explained in a phone con­ver­sa­tion with the IPI. “In Homel, this may only be a few dozen peo­ple”.

    “Of course, Belaru­sian author­i­ties pre­fer that inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists leave: this makes things eas­i­er for them”, added Haret­s­ki. “Larysa decid­ed to stay in Belarus out of patri­o­tism, and because she want­ed to look after her son”, he explained.

    Pri­or to her deten­tion, Shchyrako­va had been reg­u­lar­ly harassed by police due to her activ­i­ties, an anony­mous board mem­ber of BAJ told IPI. Even­tu­al­ly secu­ri­ty forces had her record a video in which she stat­ed she was end­ing her career as a jour­nal­ist, they added.

    “2022 has been anoth­er dev­as­tat­ing year for media free­dom in Belarus”, IPI Europe Advo­ca­cy Offi­cer Jamie Wise­man said. “Dra­con­ian leg­is­la­tion is mak­ing it near­ly impos­si­ble for jour­nal­ists to do their job. Laws which for­bid ‘dis­cred­it­ing’ Belarus in prac­tice mean that jour­nal­ists can be jailed for crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment in any form what­so­ev­er.

    “We demand that Belarus imme­di­ate­ly revoke this and relat­ed leg­is­la­tion, which is aimed sole­ly at silenc­ing free press and under­min­ing all dis­sent­ing voic­es, and demand that gov­ern­ment and law enforce­ment author­i­ties end their vin­dic­tive per­se­cu­tion of all forms of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism”.

    Legal crackdown continues

    On 6 Decem­ber, the Supreme Court of Belarus also con­firmed a five-year prison sen­tence ear­li­er hand­ed to Iry­na Slau­nika­va by a region­al court in Homel. On 16 Decem­ber, the Min­istry of Inte­ri­or includ­ed Slau­nika­va in its list of per­sons and orga­ni­za­tions legal­ly rec­og­nized as “extrem­ist”.

    The Belaru­sian jour­nal­ist, who pre­vi­ous­ly worked for Bel­sat TV, has been behind bars since Octo­ber 2021. She stands accused of orga­niz­ing and prepar­ing actions that “gross­ly vio­late pub­lic order” and of par­tic­i­pat­ing in an “extrem­ist” group. The group in ques­tion, accord­ing to Belaru­sian courts and pros­e­cu­tors, is Bel­sat TV, an inde­pen­dent media out­let based in Poland. Actions which “gross­ly vio­late pub­lic order” are report­ing for this tele­vi­sion chan­nel.

    Accord­ing to Haret­s­ki, Slau­nika­va has been trans­ferred to a penal colony for women in Homel, where she is expect­ed to serve her sen­tence.

    Sim­i­lar charges were brought against Dzmit­ry Luk­sha, a Belaru­sian jour­nal­ist who report­ed from the 2020 anti-gov­ern­ment protests for Khabar 24, a Kaza­khstani tele­vi­sion chan­nel. On 2 Decem­ber, a court in Min­sk sen­tenced Luk­sha to four years in prison for, again, “dis­cred­it­ing Belarus” and “orga­niz­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing in gross vio­la­tions of pub­lic order”. The jour­nal­ist was hand­ed the prison term after broad­cast­ing videos from anti-gov­ern­ment protests for Khabar 24, which, accord­ing to pros­e­cu­tors, con­tained “delib­er­ate­ly false infor­ma­tion”.

    On Decem­ber 1, a court in Min­sk opened pro­ceed­ings against Henadz Mazhey­ka, a jour­nal­ist at Kom­so­mol­skaya Prav­da in Belarus.

    Mazhey­ka stands accused of hate speech for inter­view­ing a child­hood friend of a man sus­pect­ed of mur­der. Pros­e­cu­tors inter­pret­ed the inter­view as apolo­getic of the mur­der.

    Accord­ing to Haret­s­ki, Mazheyka’s case is “incom­pre­hen­si­ble”, as author­i­ties claim the jour­nal­ist incit­ed peo­ple to hatred by inter­view­ing a woman who said the sus­pect behaved well at school. “This makes no sense”, said Haret­s­ki.

    On 5 Decem­ber, Mazhey­ka was also accused of insult­ing Alexan­der Lukashenko. The basis for this accu­sa­tion was Mazheyka’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, as a jour­nal­ist, in a meet­ing with vot­ers orga­nized by a Belaru­sian mem­ber of par­lia­ment. One of the par­tic­i­pants of this meet­ing was record­ed using a curse word against Lukashen­ka, with pros­e­cu­tors claim­ing this was Mazhey­ka. The jour­nal­ist, how­ev­er, pro­duced evi­dence which he claims shows he was not the per­son who used the curse word.

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