Lukashenka’s war against the free media

Minsk journalists and their supporters near the district department of internal affairs where several representatives of media were detained. Protesters demanded to release detained journalists. Photo: tut.by 

International

Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Sonia Maryn

The dictatorship regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka has ignited a new battle against journalists in Belarus who do not align with the regime’s repressive policies. Local journalists are experiencing mass detentions, foreign ones have been deported, those who have resigned from state media in opposition to its policies are being replaced by staff recruited from Russia, and free internet platforms have been blocked in the country. Throughout his rule, Lukashenka has forced free media deep underground. Protests against the 9 August 2020 presidential elections – which have been determined to be falsified — and in opposition to the dictatorship as a whole have been ongoing for several weeks. Media coverage is more crucial than ever as Lukashenka accelerates efforts to shut it down.

Previously, Euromaidan Press wrote about journalists’ resignations from state media. Until now many of them have been reluctant to describe openly the reasons for their resignations for fear of reprisals. Deutsche Welle interviewed some of them, altering their names to protect their identity.

One journalist discussed censorship in the state publishing house Belarus Today. In particular, revealing how they were first ignoring and then outright rejecting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The source also talked about state media coverage of opposition candidates during the run-up to the election.

“We were talking only about Lukashenka. We were ordered not to write about other candidates at all. We even were not mentioning their names.”

The reporter left Belarus Today after police detained Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya’s husband Sergei Tsikhanouskiy. The Grodno video blogger had announced his candidacy for president. After her husband’s detention, Tskikhanovskaya announced her own decision to run for president. The reporter commented:

“He was detained on 29 May, and after 10 days I was told to write that the Investigative Committee has filed charges against the blogger. I trusted both Sergei and Svitlana Tikhanovskaya, but here I had to write that he was practically a criminal.”

Another DW source, a journalist who left News Agency — the news department of state channels Belarus-1 and Belarus-2 — confirmed that the agency she worked for had never shown news on any member of the opposition. Apparently, there was a list of many others who were not to be shown on Belarus TV. Among them was Yury Zisser, founder of the independent news platform tut.by.

“It is enough for a person to express an opinion which does not coincide with official policy once, and he will never be called to television again.”

The source also talked about censorship of language.

“Usually, editors cross out the words ‘Stalinism,’ ‘personality cult,’ ‘GULAG.’ There were also completely absurd things. Once, the word ‘mustachioed’ was removed from my text.”

Those who cover the situation do so illegally or under threat

“Freedom to journalists!”, “They did their job and ended up in Akrescina [detention center]” say these placards at a rally in support of illegally detained journalists near a police station in Minsk on 3 September. Photo: Nadzeia Buzhan, nn.by

Journalists throughout the country have been pressured in many ways.

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On 1 September, six journalists who were covering the events on the streets of Minsk were detained. Among them were journalists from programs of tut.by, “Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus” and “BelaPAN.” The next day, they were charged with participating in an unauthorized mass event.

Some days earlier, on 29 August, several correspondents, photographers, and camera operators of foreign media were informed that their accreditation had been revoked. Since then, accreditation has been withdrawn from Belarus journalists working for BBC, Reuters, RFE/RL, AFP, AP, and others.

Foreign media journalists receive accreditation through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, they were stripped of it by the Interdepartmental Commission for Information Security, created by Lukashenka’s decree in 2017. Among the official tasks of the commission is an analysis of state security in the area of information; determination of the national interests of Belarus in the information sphere; development of priority areas for government agencies to identify and neutralize internal and external risks, challenges, and threats to security in the information sphere; and others.

Tut.by explains that the majority of those deprived of accreditation were Belarus citizens working for foreign media. Therefore, they could not be deported. But foreigners could. Russians from the German ARD TV channel were deported, as was a Russian photographer with the Associated Press. Earlier, 8 August, the day before the election, two Ukrainian journalists working for the Russian-language TV channel Current Time – a joint project of the RFE/RL and the Voices of America – were also deported.

Lukashenka has been increasingly critical of international media and has called on the government to “expel” them from the country in case they “do not comply with our laws and call people to the ‘maidans.’” The latter is a reference to the Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution of 2014.

Tut.by explains that losing accreditation means a journalist can no longer act legally. Any normal activity like making reports, taking photographs, or shooting video could result in administrative penalties. Depending on the charge, a reporter could face a fine of 20 basic units, and his media affiliate a fine of up to 500 basic units. As well, their equipment could be confiscated.
Nevertheless, there is a media outlet that is able to work successfully in Belarus without accreditation — the Polish channel Belsat. Still, every year it receives fines over $100,000.

Free media being blocked

Apart from restrictions for the foreign press, Belarus print media like the newspapers Komsomolka, People’s Will, Belgazeta, and Free News Plus also experience difficulties in publishing.

On 21 August, Belarus independent media reported that the Ministry of Information would restrict access to more than 70 internet resources. Among them were Euroradio, The Village, and RFE/RL.

In addition to all of this, from time to time the country experiences difficulties with internet connection. On 30 August, users of the three mobile operators that were available began registering difficulties with mobile internet in Minsk. Later, mobile operators confirmed that the capacity of the mobile internet in Minsk was decreased that day in accordance with an order of authorized state bodies.

“I work here and I want the truth!” says the placard of (ostensibly) a worker of the state media company Belteleradio (BT) at a protest of striking workers of this company on 15 August. Photo: nn.by

Moreover, after the mass resignations of journalists from state outlets, Belarussian media reported that Belarus staff had been replaced by Russians. Referring to its own sources, the Belarussian office of RFE/RL stated specifically that the new journalists had come from Russia Today (RT) — Kremlin propaganda channel broadcasting to the foreign audience.

Later Lukashenka himself thanked the RT journalists for their good work. Margarita Symonian, head of RT, denied sending their journalists to work for the Belarussian state media. However, Lukashenka thanked her as well.

Who to trust in Belarus

Trustworthy English-language media in Belarus that continue to cover the protests include news provider Belsat, Belarus in Focus, Belarus Digest, Voice of Belarus, Belarus Feed. You can also subscribe to our twitter list of accounts covering Belarus and join the Facebook group Infocenter Free Belarus 2020 – About protests in English, or to the Telegram channels Free Belarus News and Pray for Belarus.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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