Crackdown on journalists continues, new restrictive regulations

Crackdown on journalists continues, new restrictive regulations

Association

The situation of Belarusian civil society worsened

Between April and June 2021, the situation of civil society in Belarus worsened. Authorities continued to pressure civil society organizations, suppressing freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. The number of political prisoners has increased, with many of them receiving prison sentences. As of June 11, 476 persons in Belarus are considered political prisoners, reports Viasna Center. In addition, the authorities blocked several independent publications, and employees were charged with non-payment of taxes, organizing and engaging in unsanctioned activities or conspiracy against government authorities. Activists, representatives of opposition parties and human rights defenders were also detained. Among the organizations whose collaborators have been temporarily detained is the Viasna Center, which actively monitors respect for human freedoms in Belarus. Martha Rabkova, a human rights activist and coordinator of the Viasna Volunteer Service, was put on a preventive record in the pre-trial detention center as "prone to extremism".

According to Lawtrend, a feature of the month was the adoption at the spring session of parliament in the second reading of several draft laws that could have an impact on the Belarusian civil society: regarding extremist activities, preventing the glorification of Nazism, mass events, advocacy, changes in labor legislation. Pressure continues on Belarusian human rights defenders and human rights organizations connected with their legitimate human rights activities, particularly the organization of educational events, the provision of free consulting assistance. In addition, the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that the Economic Crime Department of the Minsk Region established an organization in August 2020 of an illegal fund for the delivery of food to "victims of repression". The organizer of a fund that provided food and other goods for those in need was brought to administrative responsibility for illicit organization and participation in the fund's activities. The fund members were accused of involvement in an organization that did not undergo state registration in the prescribed manner.

Peaceful Assembly

New regulations limiting the activities of mass media while covering public events

Alexander Lukashenko approved amendments to the laws on mass media and public events. Now journalists in Belarus are prohibited from covering uncoordinated protest actions. About this informed the publication "Current Time" cited by Radio Free Europe. The ban aims to limit the coverage of mass events held in violation of the established order, to popularize or propagate them. The novelty of the law is that this ban will also apply to media journalists. The amendments also prohibit the collection and use of funds from paying fines for participation in protest rallies. Previously, Belarusian activists organized fundraising activities to collect money. The organizers announced fundraising initiatives on different social media outlets before and after the presidential elections when people were detained to participate in protest activities. Usually, the fundraising activities were organized online abroad. Now, the legal framework that will enter in place in June offers the possibilities for the local bodies and internal affairs to suspend infrastructure in areas of mass events.

"Journalists are fined not for the content but solely for the fact that their articles appear in foreign media in Belarus now" said chairman of BAJ Andrei Bastunets

The media are prohibited from publishing the results of public opinion polls "conducted without obtaining the necessary accreditation." Also, the founders of the press - "regardless of the time of creation" - cannot be foreign legal entities, foreign citizens, stateless persons and legal entities with foreign participation. The new regulations also say that a journalist may be deprived of accreditation if he or a legal entity entrusted with the functions of the media editorial office violates the established procedure for accreditation or disseminates information discrediting the business reputation of the organization that accredited the journalist.

Also, Alexander Lukashenko signed in May 2021 the law "On Amendments to the Law on Ensuring the National Security of the Republic of Belarus." The new law allows law enforcers to use military and special equipment to suppress riots. Employees of the internal affairs bodies are given the right to prohibit citizens from video recording, filming and photographing for personal and public safety officers, keep sound and video recording of the environment, including citizens, in the line of duty.

Expression

The webpage of TUT.BY was blocked

The website of the Belarusian independent media outlet, TUT.BY, has been blocked by the regime. Before this, the security officers came to the offices of the TUT.by portal and at the homes of its editors, including here the editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova. The door of the TUT.BY editorial office is sealed with polyethylene. The State Control Committee of Belarus reported on May 18 that the Financial Investigation Department opened a criminal case against officials of TUT.BY MEDIA LLC under the article "large-scale evasion of taxes and fees". Euronews reported that the authorities took at least six employees for questioning, and the portal's domain has been blocked. According to the same source, a criminal case has been initiated against TUT.BY The news website remained inaccessible in Belarus and abroad and posts only on social media.

Arrested journalist confirms that he started hunger strike

The Belarusian journalist Alexander Burakov, who works with Deutsche Welle, was arrested for 20 days for "participating in an unauthorized event again within a year". The journalist was accused of participating in a mass event near the walls of a court in the Mogilev region on May 12. The press informed that Vasily Kornienko, an officer of the Leninsky ROVD, became a witness in this case and testified against Alexander Burakov. Alexander Burakov lawyers insist that there was no mass event under the court's walls or nearby at the time. During the trial, the journalist spoke about the torture and inhuman treatment that he suffered in prison. The psychological and physical pressure is applied by the employees of the prison where he is detained. The journalist confirmed that he had started a hunger strike.

Belarusian activist and politician, Vitold Ashurak, dies in prison

The Belarusian activist from Byarozauka, and Hrodna regional coordinator of the Movement For Freedom, member of the BPF Party Seim, Vitold Ashurak, passed away in the penal colony in Shklou. Officially the cause of death was cardiac arrest, but the relatives are convinced that he was tortured. The activist was detained on August 9, 2020, immediately after the presidential elections. On September 19, 2020 he was sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest for participation in protests. After serving his sentence, he was not released. He was kept on criminal charges under Article 342 - participation in the group actions that grossly violate public order and Article 364 - violence against a police officer. On January 18, 2021 Vitold Ashurak was sentenced to 5 years in a minimum security penal colony. Later, the Belarusian human rights community recognised Vitold Ashurak as a political prisoner.

Belarusian authorities detained the co-founder of NEXTA channel

The co-founder of the Telegram NEXTA channel and opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, was detained on May 23, 2021, in Belarus. The airplane he was travelling from Athene to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk. The pilot received a message from the Belarusian authorities that a bomb was on board. Until landing, the plane was accompanied by a MIG-29 and several helicopters. At Minsk airport, the security service detained Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sophia Sapega (a Russian citizen). According to the foreign media outlets, the government-affiliated media described the operation to force the aircraft to land in Minsk as a success. In Minsk airport, Roman Protasevich was immediately separated from the rest of the passengers. Later, the Lithuanian authorities confirmed that Protasevich's companion did not re-embark for Ryanair's flight from Minsk to Vilnius. Roman Protasevich is the co-founder of the NEXTA Telegram channel - one of the most important sources of information about the human rights violations committed by the Belarusian authorities since the summer of 2020. Shortly after the August 9, 2020, the Belarusian journalist was included together with Putsila Stsiapan, his colleague, in the list of terrorists wanted by the Belarusian authorities, and risks the death penalty.

Several European states and the United States condemned the detention of the journalist and described the action of the Belarusian authorities as an act of terrorism and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the journalist. The heads of state and government of the EU member states, who meet in Brussels from 24 to May 25 2021, discussed "possible sanctions" against Belarus, which forced an airliner to land in Minsk and arrested an opponent, according to the Declaration issued by the High Representative on behalf of the EU, published on May 24, 2021. The Lithuanian General Prosecutor's Office has opened a criminal investigation into this case. A few days after the journalist was detained, public television stations, loyal to the regime, published an interview in which Roman Protasevich admits that he was involved in the post-presidential protests. The video shows that the journalist was under pressure to declare that he regrets his involvement in protests and actions against government authorities. Roman Protasevich was declared political prisoner.