WASHINGTON - As protesters remain unyielding nearly three weeks since an election they say was rigged handed Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term, authorities are escalating their attacks against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other independent media.
“Authorities are treating the media in an increasingly arbitrary manner. Not only are they refusing to accredit journalists, but they are using a variety of pretexts to detain fully credentialed journalists to prevent them from reporting what they see,” said Acting President Daisy Sindelar. “We are also alarmed that authorities have threatened to bring arbitrary charges against journalists who refuse police orders to surrender photos and other information. This is blatant retaliation, and an outrageous breach of norms and laws.”
RFE/RL Belarus Service journalists Uladz Hrydzin, Ales Dashchynski, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrei Rabchyk and Current Time reporter Roman Vasiukovich and cameraman Andrey Yaroshevich were among 30 or more local and foreign journalists the Belarusian Association of Journalists says were detained on August 27 while covering peaceful protests in downtown Minsk’s Independence Square. They were among tens of journalists, several with visible press credentials, who were herded into minibuses at about 5:00pm local time and taken to a district office of the Ministry of Interior. A ministry spokesperson said it was necessary to check “documents confirming the legality of their professional activities,” adding that the journalists “were not detained.”
Rabchyk was snatched by police in the middle of a live broadcast. Yaroshevich was released this afternoon after spending the night in custody on charges of participating in an unauthorized rally. Yaroshevich was previously a photographer for Belarusian State TV, but was one of hundreds of workers who went on strike, eventually leaving his job, to protest the police violence that erupted after the August 9 election.
During their detention, RFE/RL journalists were searched by police, who appeared to be looking for recording equipment. Their laptops and cameras were seized, and they were ordered to open up the photo galleries and other information on their mobile phones; in at least one case, a journalist was told to delete images of riot police. When Hrydzin, an accredited photographer, refused to surrender his photos, police threatened him with new administrative charges.
With the exception of Yaroshevich, the journalists were all released by 1:30am on August 28.
Journalists from TUT.BY, BelaPAN, Belsat, TASS, the Associated Press, and other media were also detained. Most were later released.
The attack comes amid an information blockade that the Belarusian government has engineered to radically reduce internet access for more than 70 targeted websites, including the website of RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
As part of the blackout, numerous bloggers who were instrumental in mobilizing public attention around the election remain in prison, in some cases for months. Ihar Losik, a popular blogger who consults for the Belarus Service on digital strategy, is currently in Zhodzina prison outside of Minsk, having been arrested on June 25; authorities today extended his detention release date to October 25.
Protesters are planning another mass demonstration in Minsk on Sunday, August 30.
“Our journalists will of course be there,” said Sindelar, “and we call on the government to stop targeting the media and -- at the barest minimum -- to respect the rights of the journalists it itself has accredited.”
About RFE/RL's Belarus Service
Despite the government's information blockade, RFE/RL's Belarus Service continues to provide live coverage and independent news and analysis of the fast-moving events to Belarusian audiences in their own language, relying on messengers, social media, circumvention technology, and even a return to the AM airwaves. In July, views of Belarus Service video content via Facebook jumped to 4.2 million from 1.2 million in May, while the sum of interactions with its Instagram feed quadrupled during the same timeframe. The number of subscribers to its YouTube page has more than doubled since May, to 206,000. Current Time, the 24/7 Russian-language digital network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, received over 86 million video views of its Belarus coverage across digital platforms between August 17-24.