Journalists and their audiences in Belarus remain at risk of arrest, media analysts say, as authorities continue to persecute opposition voices.
Even with a large number of journalists now living and working in exile, “repression against journalists in Belarus has not significantly decreased,” said Barys Haretsky, deputy chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
In 2022, BAJ documented more than 40 media detentions and 50 searches, “but all these are trifles compared to criminal terms,” Haretsky told VOA. “According to our estimates, 32 members of the Belarusian media are behind bars.”
International media watchdogs have recorded similarly high figures of journalists detained in Belarus. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in its annual census of media workers in custody as of December 1, 2022, found 26 detained in direct relation to their work.
The deteriorating situation for the media in Belarus comes after a contested August 2020 election and mass protests. President Alexander Lukashenko’s government declared several news outlets as extremist organizations, and reporters covering protests and opposition to the election were detained.
Neither the Belarus embassy in Washington nor its Foreign Affairs Ministry responded to VOA’s email requesting comment.
But in an interview with The Associated Press in May 2022, Lukashenko said reports of mass jailings were “misinformed.” Whether someone is a journalist or a politician, “the law is one, and it must be observed,” he said.
Haretsky, however, said Minsk is persecuting journalists as well as those connected to media organizations that authorities have designated as “extremist organizations.”
Even commenting under a Facebook post from one of these outlets could result in a five-year prison term for “promoting extremist activity,” he said.
And authorities can be quick to act in labeling sites as extremist.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a Telegram-based monitoring group called Hajun appeared, which used open-source and user-provided information to track the movements of the Russian military in Belarus.
“The concept was that Belarusians in cities where rockets are launched and planes take off reported on these events,” Haretsky said. “Belarusians did this en masse, and the military command of Ukraine seriously relied on the data because it was reliable. And many independent Belarusian publications received the same information.”
But Minsk soon added Hajun to its list of extremist groups, which made it risky to share information with the group.
An information technology specialist was sentenced to two years in prison in August for sharing photos of a Russian military convoy with the Telegram channel.
The media community in Belarus is also seeing heavy prison terms handed to colleagues who were first detained in 2020.
Those sentenced to three to four years in prison are considered “lucky” Haretsky said. Others have been sentenced to much longer sentences or sent to prison colonies.
“When a person finds himself in a colony, this, as a rule, means that he is completely cut off from the outside world,” Haretsky said. “Lawyers are not allowed in the colony. Letters do not reach there, and the relatives of the prisoner may not know what is happening to him for months.”
The team at Belsat TV is keenly aware of the risk of lengthy prison terms.
Several people associated with the independent broadcaster, which is headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, are behind bars, Belsat deputy director Alyaksei Dzikavitski told VOA.
“With some, we refrain from saying, ‘These are our journalists,’ because there have not yet been trials, and we do not want to do harm,” Dzikavitski said.
Belsat TV is among the Belarusian broadcasters that Minsk has deemed “extremist.”
Nearly all the major Belarusian media have been forced to officially cease their existence inside Belarus, emigrate and start working from abroad, Dzikavitski said.
BAJ figures show that more than 400 journalists have left Belarus in the past 18 months.
“When you consider that the independent Belarusian media, with the exception of TUT.BY, have never been huge corporations, this is a lot,” Dzikavitski said. “Journalism has been dealt a huge blow, and everyone is afraid to even take a photo and send it to independent media.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has had ripple effects in other ways. Those working for independent outlets had to evacuate urgently, some with only a passport and a small backpack. Among them were people who work with Belsat TV.
“When the war started, their bank cards were blocked, the Belarusian passport immediately became suspicious. And we had to evacuate these people to Poland or Lithuania,” Dzikavitski said.
In the newsroom, the Belsat TV team ramped up coverage, increasing broadcasts to 16 hours a day.
“We fully mobilized, slept right in the office. Colleagues from other editorial offices came to the rescue,” Dzikavitski said.
As the months wore on, Belsat TV reduced its broadcasts to eight hours a day, seven days a week.
The changing legal landscape in Belarus has made it easier for authorities to bring charges against social media users and bloggers, or even those who quit journalism.
Iryna Khalip, who works at the Novaya Gazeta Europe media site, said dozens of bloggers with large audiences are currently jailed in Belarus.
Sometimes, even former reporters end up behind bars.
Khalip cited the arrest last month of journalist Larysa Shchyrakova in the Belarusian city of Gomel.
After repeated arrests and harassment, Shchyrakova announced publicly last February that she was quitting journalism.
“She did not write anything. She did not even publish posts on social networks. She took up photography of national costumes,” Khalip said.
But in December, authorities arrested the former journalist on charges of “discrediting” Belarus.
“It turns out that even if a journalist in Belarus publicly leaves the profession and says, ‘That’s it, guys. I’m not here. Forget it!’ Even that won’t protect him,” Khalip said. “It means that every journalist who is physically present in Belarus is still a target.”
This report originated in VOA’s Russian Service.