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RFE/RL Journalist Arrested In Belarus As Protests Escalate

RFE\RL Belarus Service journalist Halina Abakunchyk after her release from a courtroom in Vorsha, Belarus, March 13, 2017.
RFE\RL Belarus Service journalist Halina Abakunchyk after her release from a courtroom in Vorsha, Belarus, March 13, 2017.

WASHINGTON - An RFE/RL reporter was among several demonstrators and journalists detained by police in Belarus on March 12 while reporting on the latest in a series of emotional protests over a controversial tax on the unemployed.

RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Halina Abakunchyk was kept in police detention overnight after being arrested while live-streaming the protest in the city of Vorsha, northeast of the capital, Minsk. Abakunchyk’s mobile phone was confiscated, and she was questioned for six hours. A local court found her guilty of taking part in an unsanctioned rally, and released her on March 13 with the equivalent of a US$300 fine.

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent deplored the arrest, calling it “a blatant attempt to prevent a journalist from doing her job.”

The rally in Vorsha featured several hundred people chanting anti-government and anti-tax slogans to protest a 2015 tax that Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said was needed to fight what he called "social parasitism." Nearly 500,000 Belarusians were informed in February 2017 that they would need to pay the tax, because they had worked less than 183 days in 2016. Protests that have since taken place in Minsk, Vorsha and other cities in Belarus have forced Lukashenka to suspend enforcement of the law for one year, but organizers are planning a rally for March 15 in Minsk to demand more change.

RFE/RL’s Belarus Service has weathered numerous attempts at intimidation in the past. Journalists are frequently interrogated by security agents, and subject to administrative pressure for reporting that challenges official policy or documents dissent. The Service’s website has also been targeted by Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, attacks in 2013 and in 2008.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda, is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It offers an alternative to Moscow-based news outlets, and is a trailblazer in social media, logging more than 500,000 visits and 1.1 million page views on is website in February 2017, and more than 1 million video views on its YouTube page in the same month.