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

    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.

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