Pieter Stockmans volgt het mondiale optreden van de Europese Unie, het Europese vluchtelingenbeleid, de evoluties in Midden-Europa en de regio ten oosten van de EU.
War on journalism in Belarus: ‘European Union is reacting too slowly’
More and more journalists in Belarus are being tracked down and sentenced to prison sentences following show trials. MO* spoke with opposition leaders, persecuted journalists, and their colleagues behind bars. The UN Human Rights Council is looking into the situation, but the European Union is reacting slowly. ‘We will continue writing’, say the journalists. ‘That is our responsibility.’
February 16th 2021, 7am. Barys Haretski is looking out of the window and spots a group of police agents. Suddenly, loud banging echoes through the apartment building. He quickly grabs his phone and calls his colleagues of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
Haretski is the vice-chairman of this interest group that commands respect in diplomatic circles. They have been defending journalists in Belarus for a quarter of a century now. In 2004 they received the prestigious Sacharov Prize from the European Parliament.
The banging gets louder, more aggressive. Haretski sees armed police in full combat gear appear with tools to break down his door. ‘I’m coming down’, he shouts. ‘Please, do not damage my door. There are three children inside.’
The Belarusian government is holding journalists responsible for the protests.
The police officers show a warrant. The search is based on a criminal investigation concerning the ‘ban on the organization of and active participation in actions that constitute a major infraction of public order’. Under this article of the Belarusian Criminal Code, the government is holding journalists responsible for the protests.
‘But I am a journalist, we defend journalists. We work inside the framework of the law’, Haretski tries in vain. The police agents look everywhere: in the washing machine, in the tea pot, in the piggybanks of the children. They take cameras, memory sticks, hard drives, laptops, bank cards, documents, mobile phones, and even the tablets of the children with them. And all the cash money the family happens to have at home.
Since the protests against the falsified presidential elections of the 9th of August 2020 started in Belarus, several journalists have been attacked, arrested, fined, imprisoned, and harassed.
For half a year, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have held weekly protests. They demanded the resignation of president Lukashenko after 26 years of power. The protests were brutally repressed with about 33000 arrests, followed by abuse in the prisons.
Since the mass protests in Belarus died down in November last year, many protesters turned to peaceful guerilla actions such as short pop-up protests in back yards or nocturnal actions to paint revolutionary slogans or the red-white flag of the protesters on walls.
Or on benches. The authorities are reacting awkwardly. Tut.BY, the largest independent news site, published camera footage of two men painting a red-white bench on the streets white again (see picture below).
People are also hanging small red-white flags to the balconies of apartment buildings. ‘Police use fishing nets to fish the flags off the balconies’, says Aisha Jung of Amnesty International. ‘Someone also got fined because he had put up the red-white Japanese flag. Literally every expression of sympathy with the protests is being removed.’
‘But you can’t get the genie back into the bottle. Never before in the recent history of Belarus has there been such a nationwide and broad awareness and mobilization of people. Now social media has entered the fray: they give all those manifestations of support a second life, even after they have been erased in real life.’
The High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, Michelle Bachelet, opened an investigation into the situation in Belarus.
But that did not stop Lukashenko. On the contrary. ‘A week before the situation in Belarus would be on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, he launched the most blatant repression of human rights since the independence of Belarus in 1990’, says Aisha Jung of Amnesty International. ‘An organized and centralized prosecution of the most popular and internationally most respected people and organizations in civil society and journalism.’
‘In total, 481 journalists have been arrested since the beginning of the protests in the summer of 2020.’
Jung refers to the 16th of February 2021. On that day, agents of the department of organized crime and anti-corruption of the Belarusian police conduct raids on ninety locations simultaneously — newsrooms, offices, and private homes of journalists — across the country. The agents also seal off the offices of BAJ, close their accounts, and confiscate all the computers.
Those computers contain the personal data of 1900 journalists, members of the BAJ. It’s unclear what the authorities will do with this information. Several journalists have already been prosecuted and convicted by prosecutors and judges in show trials on fabricated charges.
The BAJ is keeping count. ‘In total, 481 journalists have been arrested since the beginning of the protests in the summer of 2020’, says vice-chairman Haretski. ‘At the moment, there are 9 journalists are behind bars. We haven’t seen this many trials against journalists seen since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a quarter of a century ago.’
‘A month ago, Lukashenko’s regime rolled out a campaign of terror over the entire country’, Jung adds. ‘The authorities are methodically destroying the vibrant cultural life of Belarus in an attempt to subdue all vestiges of free speech and divergent opinions.’
‘They especially target journalists,’ says Jung, ‘because journalists keep writing about the protest movement. And because their work is a documentation of human rights violations that can someday be used to the hold those responsible to account.’
Amnesty International is supplying input for the negotiations at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The human rights organization is pleading for the creation of a mechanism to investigate the human rights violations in Belarus, to eventually be able to bring those responsible to justice.
Journalists behind bars
Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova are two of the 481 arrested journalists. On the 20th of November 2020 they are at work near the Square of Change. People are holding a vigil for Roman Bondarenko, a protestor who had died 8 days prior. He was the victim of police violence.
The authorities have sabotaged mobile internet as they often do to hamper street protests. But Andreyeva and Chultsova, journalists of the Polish news broadcaster Belsat, can use the internet of an apartment building on the square to livestream the protest.
On the final images they manage to film, police agents can be seen dispersing the crowd. Thousands of followers are following the spectacle live. Not much later, police officers break into the apartment itself and arrest the two young women.
Three months later the two journalists are presented in a show trial, in cages in the courtroom (see picture at the top of this page). Andreyeva’s husband, also a journalist, says that the charge against his wife in solely based on twelve fragments from her livestream where she described the actions of the protestors and the police.
‘I was on my way home when masked men grabbed me and pushed me into a car.’
According to Russian newssite Meduza, the court had summoned four linguists to analyze Andreyeva’s words. They agree that the livestream does not contain ‘any signs of organizing protests’. But the linguistic analysis does not bear any fruit as the judge sentences the journalists to two years of prison time anyway.
The sentence shocks the protest movement and the diplomatic community. That is the point, their colleague Eugene Merkis says. ‘Lukashenko is trying to provoke the EU with this shocking sentence of journalists working for a Polish television channel. Would there be such a big reaction if the journalist of a local, Belarusian newspaper had been sentenced?’
Belsat, the employer of the sentenced journalists, is an independent Polish-Belarusian television channel with its headquarters in the Polish capital of Warsaw. It is mainly funded by the Polish ministry of Foreign Affairs. With its social media channels, Belsat often reaches more people than the state television. ‘This is making Lukashenko nervous as he knows the number of viewers of the state television is diminishing.’
Merkis is being targeted himself. ‘Since the beginning of the protests I have been in jail for 35 days in total. I have been arrested 3 times. Or more precisely: kidnapped.’
‘The first time was very scary’, Merkis explains. ‘On the 11th of August, 2 days after the falsified presidential elections, I was on my way home when masked men in grabbed me and pushed me into a car. Mobile internet had been shut off. We did not know what the government was going to do to us. Afterwards, it turned out they were agents of the organised crime and corruption department of the police. They are dealing with journalists. They operate as if they are the personal guards of Lukashenko.’
The regime of Lukashenko understands the death of Roman Bondarenko will keep causing upheavals. They are nervously trying to cover it up. The police claim the man died because supposedly he was drunk.
‘Every journalist has spare clothes and a toothbrush in his or her backpack. We never know if we will be able to get home.’
Journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich is tasked by her chief editor at the biggest independent Belarusian news site Tut.BY to check that version of the facts. On the 14th of November she publishes an article with pictures of the official autopsy report of the hospital where Bondarenko died: the man had no alcohol in his blood. Four months later, a judge sentences Barysevich to six months of prison for ‘publishing confidential medical files’. The doctor who supposedly leaked the report receives a two years suspended prison sentence.
‘Katsiaryna found information that diverges from the official story. She was just doing her job’, her colleague Maryna Zolatava says. ‘There is no criminal investigation into those responsible for the death of Bondarenko, but there is one into our journalist. We have been getting threats and fines for a long time, but none of us expected criminal sentences.’
‘Our life was never easy, but today the government is waging a real war against independent media’, Zolatava says. ‘If we work outside these days, we don’t know if we’ll come back home again. Each Belarusian journalist has spare clothes and a toothbrush in their backpack. We have become accustomed to the lawlessness, but do not underestimate the psychological impact. For example, Katsiaryna was in prison when her daughter turned 18.’
Zolatava reports on all court cases against protestors and journalists, also the case against her colleague. But only staff of state media is allowed into the courtrooms.
That is how journalists deduce which cases are political prosecutions via the judicial power. ‘We cannot even report on the court case against presidential candidate Viktor Babariko, that started on the 17th of February,’ says Zolatava. Amnesty International considers Babariko a prisoner of conscience who is only imprisoned because of his conviction.
Slow European Union
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who participated in the presidential elections, is now in exile in the neighboring country of Lithuania. She has pointed criticism for the EU. ‘Lukashenko will interpret the slow reaction of the EU as a green light to step up the repression and completely eradicate the protest movement’, she says in a reaction to MO*.
‘The European Member States have to urgently add all judges, prosecutors, and police personnel involved in the prosecution of journalists and activists to the sanction list’, Tsikhanouskaya says. ‘The EU’s approach to gradually increase pressure on Lukashenko has yielded no results. As was expected.’
The past weeks Tsikhanouskaya met the president and prime minister of Finland. She was in Portugal, the country holding the current Presidency of the Council of the EU. On the 8th of March she had a video call with representatives of the European Commission and ambassadors of the EU Member States. She called on the EU to approve the fourth package of sanctions during the next council meeting on the 22nd of March.
‘The approach of the European Union has yielded no results. As was expected.’
But Belarus is not on the agenda on Monday. ‘Belarus is not a full discussion point, but each member state can present it as a current affairs topic at the beginning of the meeting’, the spokesman of the European Commission reacts. The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says not a single member state is planning on doing this.
Last month, the EU only renewed the existing sanctions, even though the situation in Belarus had already worsened. At this moment 84 individuals and 7 entities are on the sanction list. They have received a travel ban and their assets in the EU have been frozen.
‘The EU is considering new sanctions’, the European Commission communicates to MO*. ‘But the member states have to decide unanimously. We cannot publish any information on these internal discussions.’
‘If the EU does not want to lose ground, it must take action now’, says journalist Maryna Zolatava. ‘The names of the prosecutors and judges involved in the repression are known, they are published in the reports of journalists and human rights organisations. Is it such a big effort to gather these names and verify them?’
The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights came into fruition partially with help from the EU that submitted the resolution in September last year that led to the report. ‘We also hope that the Human Rights Council, in session until the 23rd of March, will set up the mechanism to judge those responsible for the oppression’, the European Commission still said.
‘A system of state terror’
Back to the 16th of February. While the police in Minsk are banging on the apartment door of BAJ vice chairman Barys Haretski, other agents are raiding the home of the parents of Alexander Burakov in Mogilev, a city 200km to the east of Minsk.
For years, Burakov has been working as a freelance journalist for Deutsche Welle, a German public international broadcaster. The agents confiscate the laptop, USB sticks, and mobile phone of Burakov’s father. ‘I have not been living with my parents for a very long time, but I am registered there. With my father’s devices the police will not able to do much’, he says. Apparently, the state apparatus of does not always work in a professional manner.
The same thing happened to Eugene Merkis and his parents in Gomel, a city in the very southeast of the country. ‘I do not believe that the police does not know where I live now’, he says. ‘The explanation for these blunders? It is a mix of bureaucracy, a lack of coordination between state departments, and intimidation of my family to apply pressure to me.’
Burakov is working for a German channel, Merkis for a Polish one. In the past, both journalists have repeatedly received administrative fines of several hundred euros. Now their accreditation to work as a journalist has also been revoked, which makes them even more vulnerable. ‘There have been countless reports of incidents where the authorities have revoked the accreditation of journalists’, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, writes in her report.
‘Since 2008, Belsat has been trying to officially get registered in Belarus,’ says Merkis, ‘but we keep getting denied. Our journalists do not get an official status and subsequently we get sentenced because we do not have an official status. One of my colleagues has already collected thousands of euros in fines because he works for an “unregistered channel”.’
‘Lukashenko would like nothing more than all of us leaving the country.’
But journalists from registered media are also fined. After all, the independent Belarusian news site Tut.BY was registered, but it offered no protection. ‘Whether the government considers us journalists or not makes no difference,’ says Maryna Zolatava. ‘It is our journalistic method, our popularity and the recognition of our audience that give us media status, not the government. We are reaching more than 60 per cent of the internet audience in Belarus.’
In September 2020, the Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit to strip Tut.BY of its media status, following warnings for publishing “false information”. ‘In the years before, we never got a single warning,’ Zolatava says, ‘and then suddenly four in one month. This is psychological warfare.’ On 1 October 2020, Tut.BY was suspended for three months.
‘All logic is lost, this is arbitrary’, says Burakov. ‘Nobody is safe in Belarus anymore. Everyone runs the risk of being arrested. The police are above the law. They have enormous power outside the system. This regime has many characteristics of a dictatorship. We are now living in a system of state terror.’
Stay or go?
Merkis compares the situation with an occupation: ‘Criminal elements within the regime of Lukashenko have occupied the Belarusian state to eradicate every sign of opposition. Any journalist that says they do not feel fear is lying.’
‘Now, I better understand the stories of my grandparents about the German occupation’, he says. ‘Many journalists have already fled to EU member states. When I get arrested, the police agents always ask me why I am still in Belarus. Do you want to go to prison so badly?, they mockingly ask me. Lukashenko would like nothing more than all of us leaving the country.’
Burakov is not sure if he will be able to stay in Belarus. ‘If this regime continues to exist, the repression against us will only increase. We are just doing our jobs, but our lives are in danger. Not everybody can can keep that up forever.’
‘We cannot stop. Our work is more important than ever. So many people are seeking reliable information.’
At Tut.BY no one is thinking of leaving the country yet. ‘We talk about it a lot during editorial meetings’, says Maryna Zolatava. ‘You may not believe it, but despite the psychological warfare against us we remain optimistic. We see the majority of citizens has become politically aware and has turned against Lukashenko. They are seeking reliable information.’
‘We will keep writing,’ Zolatava continues, ‘about the court cases, the repression, the political situation, the positions of the EU, the talks between Lukashenko and Putin, the activities of Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition, and the activities of the protest movement. That is our responsibility.’ Tut.BY even organises a daily live feed with minute by minute updates.
Barys Haretski of the journalists association BAJ emphasizes this responsibility: ‘1900 journalists have joined BAJ. More and more members need legal counsel during court cases against them. We cannot stop now that our work is more important than ever. Nevertheless, our staff feels unsafe. Journalists are a hunted game. They can expect banging on their doors at any time.’