(WASHINGTON—December 23, 2021) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President Jamie Fly rejected today’s announcement that Belarus’ Interior Ministry had added RFE/RL’s Belarus Service to its registry of extremist organizations. Fly also expressed disgust at the detention today of Belarus Service journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich, as he reiterated his concern for the health and safety of Andrey Kuznechyk following word that a criminal case on unknown charges had been opened against the journalist.
Said Fly, “We condemn the Belarusian government’s campaign to criminalize honest journalism and deprive the Belarusian people of the truth. We again adamantly reject this ridiculous, regime-imposed label—Radio Svaboda is not an ‘extremist organization.’ Aleh Hruzdzilovich and Andrey Kuznechyk are hostages taken by this lawless regime, not criminals. Factual reporting is not an ‘extremist’ activity, and journalism is not a crime.”
The Interior Ministry announcement means that Belarusians who subscribe to the service’s online content channels could face up to six years in prison. It follows the December 3 designation of Belarus Service social media channels as “extremist” by a Belarusian court.
Authorities in Belarus have declared over 300 Telegram channels and communities “extremist”—from local chats to channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers—making anyone who publishes or reposts “extremist” materials liable for up to seven years in prison. According to RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, seven of the 10 most-popular Belarusian telegram channels have been declared “extremist.”
The detention of Hruzdzilovich, an award-winning journalist for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service who served a 10-day sentence in July 2021 and a 15-day sentence in November 2020 for his reporting activities, comes on the same day the service reported that Belarusian authorities have opened a criminal case on unspecified charges against journalist Andrey Kuznechyk, who was first arrested on November 25 and has been in detention ever since. On December 22, the Belarusian Association of Journalists demanded that Belarusian authorities provide information on Kuznechyk’s whereabouts, echoing previous calls by RFE/RL President Fly, who has termed Kuznechyk’s situation a “state-sponsored kidnapping.”
RFE/RL journalists in Belarus have spent a cumulative 708 days behind bars since prominent blogger and Radio Svoboda journalist Ihar Losik was arrested in June 2020; Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison on December 14 following a months-long, closed -door trial. Numerous other RFE/RL journalists on assignment to report on the election and its aftermath have been harassed, detained, jailed, and stripped of their accreditations. In October 2020, the Lukashenka regime blocked the service’s website, and on July 16, Belarusian security officers broke through the doors of RFE/RL’s bureau in Minsk to raid and seal the office.
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to more than 37 million people every week in 27 languages and 23 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed 7 billion times on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram/IGTV in FY2021. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.