Detained journalists and civic activists face freedom of expression threats in Belarus

Detained journalists and civic activists face freedom of expression threats in Belarus

General update

The results of the 9th of August 2020 presidential elections triggered mass protests following the announcement of President Alexander Lukashenko after leading for approximately 26 years. Over 100 000 protestors took to the streets on several occasions and were met with a violent crackdown. These Belarus police crackdowns resulted in harsh treatment towards demonstrators – over 3 000 were detained and many were injured as a result of police brutality. Further arbitrary conduct included security forces raiding the homes and offices of human rights activists, journalists and trade union members. Not only has this compromised on their right to freedom of expression in several ways but it has also resulted in the international community condemning the appalling violence unleased by the Belarusian police on peaceful protesters.

Both the European Union and the United States of America have imposed sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies.


Attacks against journalists and civic activists

The Belarus regime has put pressure on independent journalists and has resulted in the intimidation of civic activists or bloggers who have been critical in providing essential coverage and publication of the regime against the contested election results. Several non-governmental organizations like Reporters Without Borders who are documenting the cases of persons detained and accused illegally by law enforcement, highlight that Belarusian journalists and foreign journalists were detained between August 2020 and March 2021. Beyond the arrests, journalists and civic activists have been sanctioned unlawfully with fines, having their activities restricted and temporarily detention sentences issued against them for allegedly organizing illegal mass actions, instigating the public against state authorities, misinformation, or even extremism. The FIDH and Viasna Center in Belarus have kept records of these cases in a list of "political prisoners" and informs the public about the progress of investigations for each case. According to the Viasna Center, for April 14th, 2021, over 354 persons were considered political prisoners. The Belarusian Journalists' Association also documented every case of intimidation or illegal detention of journalists who produced critical materials about high level officials. This has the had the effect of hindering the normal development of independent press activity in Belarus and the protection of freedom of press.

" We had to sleep on the floor because our cell was overcrowded. We were not given mattresses and pillows. A woman with kidney failure caught a cold. Women made a mattress from pads. Pads!" Hanna Barushka

International organizations condemn Minsk regime

The international community has become greatly involved in condemning the Minsk regime. Several international organizations have called on the international community to take joint actions to condemn and sanction the Minsk regime in an effort to bring an end to the human rights violations associated with the post-elections riots and most importantly the infringement of the right to freedom of press. These international organizations or platforms include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and national organizations such as the Promolex Association. For example, in March 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on condemning the violation of fundamental freedoms like the freedom of expression of journalists and civic activists in Belarus during the 46th session.


Threats extend to freedom of association

According to a report from Law Trends released in March 2021, the pressure on Belarusian civil society organizations, journalists and individual civic activists continued. The numerous cases of detention and imprisonment of Belarusian activists pointed to the repression of the freedom of association. A unique feature of the month was the pressure on the Polish minority and civil society organizations working in the field of popularizing the Polish language and culture. The representatives of the Polish minority were accused of deliberate acts aimed at inciting religious hatred based on national, religious, linguistic affiliation and of premeditated actions to rehabilitate Nazism. Some of the Polish leaders were arrested for over 15 days for these alleged actions.

Cases against human rights organizations and political leaders

In early March, investigative actions were carried out within the framework of a criminal case initiated by the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus under part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code – for the education or other preparation of persons to participate in group actions into the Human Rights Center "Viasna" activities. Other human rights organizations like the Chairman of the Public Association "Belarusian Association of Journalists" Andrei Bastunets and the Deputy Chairman of this organization Boris Goretsky were also actively summoned for interrogations. Among them were the, the Chairman of the Belarusian PEN Center Tatyana Nedbay, the Chairman of the RPOO "Belarusian Helsinki Committee" Oleg Gulak. A list with journalists behind bars can be accessed on Balarusian Association of Journalists. Some leaders of political parties were also detained and interrogated.

Legislative acts to disrupt activities of civil society organisations

The Belarus government has had the tendency to disrupt activities carried out by civil society organizations. They have even gone to the extend of working to complete the preparation of legislative acts to ensure national security and protect public order. Some of these bills will regulate the fight against the rehabilitation of Nazism, on countering extremism, amendments to labor legislation aimed at preventing illegal strikes, amendments to legislation providing for liability for the authors of disseminated false information. These legislative acts empower state security agencies to recognize groups of citizens as extremist formations and prohibit their activities. Precisely the prosecutor, the state security and internal affairs bodies will have the right, when signs of extremist actions are detected, to issue instructions to the founders and heads of organizations, individual entrepreneurs in the absence of grounds for bringing them to criminal responsibility. Repeated issuance of an order within a year will serve as grounds for liquidating of the organization. The court of the first instance will consider cases on the recognition of an organization as extremist and its liquidation within a shortened period: up to one month from the date of the application. At the same time, the founders and participants of extremist organizations are prohibited from establishing new organizations and media for five years.


Persecution of employees of Our House Belaruskali

These strikes extended beyond journalists and civic activists and also impacted employees. In early April 2021, the International Center for Civil Initiatives "Our House" from Belarus published a consistent analysis of the workers' strike in "Belaruskali", one of the largest producers of potassium fertilizers in the world. Although the first public statement on the Belaruskali employee strike took place on August 17, 2020, following the alleged fraudulent Belarusian presidential election that took place on the 9th of August 2020. Experts from Our House documented and analyzed the impact of this strike on employees and after the first protests that covered the whole country. Many of the participants were detainedin the following the elections after the declaration of the strike. According to the analysis, Belaruskali employees went on strike for several days and immediately after this, the authorities organized pressuring actions targeting them and their leaders, most of them being forced to return to work and continue the activity.

On September 12, 2020, the authorities declared the strike illegal. Several strike leaders were persecuted by law enforcement and detained or forced to leave the country. The company workers continued to disagree with the political context across the country and with the organised persecution against the citizens who decided to protest against the regime. Their work condition worsened during the time. In December 2020 one of the Belaruskali customers addressed to the management of the state company asking for better conditions for the employees and for the authorities to stop the pressure. The last documented case is from March 25, 2021 - the day of solidarity in Belarus. According to data collected by" Our House" experts, strike participants Dmitry Karaka and Pavel Puchenya were detained and sentenced to 15 days of arrest.

Protests against the government have resumed in Belarus

On March 25, 2021, the protests in Belarus were officially resumed. This day is used to celebrate Solidarity Day in Belarus, dedicated to the Belarusian People's Republic's anniversary. The organization of protest actions' was known in advance, and the authorities had enough information to prevent them. The messages sent to the public by the representatives of the opposition, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, had as objective both the mobilization of the protesters inside the country and the organization of solidarity actions outside the country. For this, the organizers of the solidarity actions called the participants to use the hashtag #standwithbelarus. According to the DW publication, the Nexta telegram channel contributed to the protesters' online coordination and organization. On the same day, March 25, 2021, several publications and civil society organizations announced that law enforcement had arrested more than 200 people. The police's actions against the citizens who were protesting were again accompanied by violence, as they had the equipment for organizing the detentions prepared in advance. Also, in the same period, repressive actions against the representatives of the Polish minority, who live in Belarus and who were accused of inciting hatred, intensified. One of the Union of Poles' leaders in Belarus, Andzelika Borys, was detained by law enforcement and charged with organizing mass actions sanctioned by the authorities.

" On Tuesday, I was arrested in Belarus. I was one of 15 journalists detained, while reporting on peaceful anti-government protests in Minsk. We watched hundreds of protesters snatched on the street by police and KGB." Andy Smythe

In the context of the new mass arrests of protesters in March 2021, several EU member states have announced the introduction of new sanctions against Belarusian officials. In this regard, DW informed that more than 100 people close to the Minsk regime would not be able to travel on the territory of EU member states. On their turn, Amnesty International called for a coordinated international response against Belarusian regime. It appears the protests will continue.