WASHINGTON -- Ahead of the August 9 presidential election, authorities in Belarus are detaining and physically attacking hundreds of activists and journalists, including five from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in a campaign of aggression targeting the power of the independent press.
The most violent of the attacks took place on July 15, when RFE/RL journalist Anton Trafimovich was detained and beaten by seven riot police members, who left him handcuffed and kneeling on the floor of a police van, bleeding with a broken nose, as he was taken to a precinct station. Trafimovich, who was later released without explanation, had been reporting from downtown Minsk on protests following the Central Election Commission’s disqualification of Viktar Babaryka and Valer Tsepkala, the two main challengers to the authoritarian incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is seeking a sixth consecutive term in office. Belarus’ Investigative Committee has said that it will investigate the circumstances of Trafimovich’s detention.
A day earlier, RFE/RL journalists Ales Piletsky and Andrej Rabchyk were forcibly detained during a live broadcast about the CEC’s decision and held by police for several hours.
The Belarus Service later received from an anonymous source audio recordings suggesting that the Service's broadcasts were being monitored and that its journalists had been deliberately surveilled. Former Belarus police have reviewed the recordings and confirmed they are authentic.
RFE/RL Acting President and Editor-in-Chief Daisy Sindelar said, “As the audio recordings indicate, these are calculated, highly coordinated assaults on professional journalists – indeed, journalists that Belarus’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accredited.” Sindelar added, “That our colleagues were attacked in the middle of live broadcasts leaves no doubt that the government is trying to stop our coverage and prevent audiences from having access to reliable news."
This week's detentions are just the latest move against RFE/RL journalists covering the controversial run-up to the August vote, which has been marked by so-called "pickets of solidarity" and other protests in support of opposition candidates. On June 19, the final day of candidates’ signature-gathering campaigns, RFE/RL journalists Alyaksandra Dynko and Andrei Rabchyk were seized by men in plainclothes while they were livestreaming from downtown Minsk, forced into a waiting van, and driven to a precinct where they were detained for several hours.
On June 25, prominent blogger and former Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow Ihar Losik was arrested and accused by authorities of using his Telegram channel to “prepare to disrupt public order.” Losik, who is also a social media consultant for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, is currently being held in a Minsk detention center.
Belarusian Interior Minister Yury Karayeu has openly accused RFE/RL of helping to "coordinate” street protests with its live news coverage, and threatened to revoke the bureau’s official status, a message that was reinforced on Belarusian state television.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service, providing independent news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language, demonstrated record-breaking use of its online platforms in June. Consumption of Belarus Service video content on YouTube in June tripled over the previous month to 9.6 million views, while Facebook video views rose by a similar factor to 3.1 million video views. The total number of visits to the svaboda.org website also rose to over 4.1 million, an increase of 49% over May. Video views on the Service’s Instagram page rose by a factor of four, to 1.5 million.