Belarus: Journalistic work must not be criminalized

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Belarusian regime to immediately release imprisoned Belsat journalist Katsyarina Andreyeva and to not use criminal proceedings to prevent media workers from doing their job.

Andreyeva has been charged with participating in protests against President Alexander Lukashenko and faces up to three years in prison. Until now, reporters covering the mass protests in Belarus have been detained for no more than 15 days. Andreyeva is to remain in custody until at least 20 January, pending trial.

First case of several months’ detention for covering protests 

A Minsk-based reporter for Belsat, a TV channel based in Poland that is aimed at Belarusian viewers, Andreyeva was arrested on 15 November in an apartment from which she was filming the crackdown on a demonstration in Minsk’s Square of Change. The owner of the apartment confirmed this in court. According to the journalist, the door was broken down and around ten security officers entered the apartment and took her away.

Initially, the journalist was given seven days in detention for “participating in an unauthorized event and resisting state authority.” Five days later, she was charged under Article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code with “organizing and preparing actions that seriously violate the public order or actively participating in such actions” – a far more serious offence. She is now to remain in custody until 20 January, awaiting trial. If convicted, she faces up to three years in prison. Her husband, Belsat journalist Ihar Ilyash, was also arrested unexpectedly on 24 November. According to Belsat, he was not involved in the coverage of the recent protests.

“The charges brought against Katsyarina Andreyeva clearly illustrate the travesty of justice to which journalists are subjected in Belarus,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The laws are abused and evidence is fabricated in order to hamper their work and reduce them to silence. Katsyarina Andreyeva and the other detained journalists must be released at once and the charges against them must be dropped.”

Criminal prosecution for reporting on mass protets

At least nine journalists in Belarus are currently being prosecuted or threatened with criminal prosecution. Belsat journalist Darya Chultsova was arrested in Minsk on the same day as Andreyeva, and criminal proceedings are presumably also underway against her. However, according to the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), her lawyer signed a confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot even confirm whether a case has been opened against Chultsova, and if so, for which offences.

Three other Belsat employees (cameraman Zmitser Soltan and the reporters Zmitser Krauchuk and Artsiom Bahaslauski) and Dzmitry Dzmitrieu, a photographer for the independent weekly newspaper Novy Chas, were arrested on 1 November while covering the protests, and one day later were declared suspects in a criminal case under Article 342 (“mass unrest”). On 13 November, security forces searched Dzmitrieu’s apartment as part of the investigation.

Journalist detained by intelligence agency

Katsiaryna Barysevich, a journalist for the news website and one of the country's best-known court reporters, has been held in a Belarusian intelligence agency (KGB) detention centre since 19 November. She was arrested while reporting on the death of Raman Bandarenka, who died in unexplained circumstances after his arrest on 11 November. Barysevich had quoted a doctor as saying that, contrary to what the authorities claim, no alcohol had been found in the blood of 31-year-old Bandarenka. The Prosecutor General’s Office then launched criminal proceedings against the doctor for “disclosing medical secrets” and “passing on false information,” and Barysevich was also arrested in the course of these proceedings.

In September, criminal proceedings were initiated against Yahor Martsinovich, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Nasha Niva, on charges of defamation. The case against him is based on an article published by the paper in which a well-known DJ claimed that deputy interior minister Alexander Barsukov had beaten him in prison. Police searched Martsinovich’s apartment on 23 September and confiscated technical equipment and data storage media. Martsinovich was interrogated by the Investigative Committee and remained in solitary confinement for three days.

Sergei Satsuk, a journalist known for his investigative reporting on Belarus’s healthcare system and editor of the news website Yezhednevnik, is also facing prosecution. He was arrested on 25 March after criticizing Lukashenko’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in an editorial. Ten days after his arrest, Satsuk was released on condition that he check in regularly with the authorities. Satsuk was accused of having accepted bribes, for which he faces up to ten years in prison. The journalist was also investigated for fraud, but no official charges were brought against him.

Twelve media workers behind bars

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 367 media workers have been detained since the controversial presidential election on 9 August, and 78 of them have already served detention sentences. Eleven journalists are currently in prison. The association recently summarized the most serious violations of press freedom committed in Belarus in recent months in an English-language report.

Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.