Riot police officers move to block thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus trying to storm the main government building to protest alleged vote-rigging in Sunday's election. (AP/Sergey Ponomarev)
Riot police officers move to block thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus trying to storm the main government building to protest alleged vote-rigging in Sunday's election. (AP/Sergey Ponomarev)

Dozens of journalists beaten, arrested in Belarus crackdown

New York, December 20, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the violent government crackdown against journalists covering demonstrations in Minsk against Sunday’s flawed presidential vote won by President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Security police have arrested at least 20 journalists and beaten at least 20 more between the outbreak of rallies Sunday evening and their forcible dispersal in the early morning, according to local news reports.

Special forces stormed the office of the pro-opposition website Charter 97 around 5 a.m. today and detained the staffers on duty, the website reported. Among those arrested was Charter 97‘s editor, Natalya Radina, who sent a text message to her colleagues saying that she and the several volunteers working that night had been taken to the Minsk headquarters of the Belarusian security service, the KGB, Charter 97 reported. 

Prominent Belarusian journalist Irina Khalip, a local correspondent for the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was beaten and forcibly driven away by riot police while on the air with the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy at an opposition rally in downtown Minsk. Her husband, opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, was repeatedly struck with clubs and also arrested, the local press reported. This morning, eight police officers searched Khalip and Sannikov’s apartment without a warrant, the journalist’s mother, Lyutsina Yuryevna, told Novaya Gazeta. Khalip’s whereabouts are currently unknown.

“We condemn the systematic repression of reporting on post-election protests and we condemn the arrests of numerous journalists,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “President Aleksandr Lukashenko must not encourage this blatant censorship and anti-media violence. We call for the release of all those arrested immediately. This crackdown must be thoroughly investigated and all those responsible punished to the full extent of the law.”

Several thousand protesters gathered in Minsk’s Independence Square after the Election Commission announced preliminary results declaring Lukashenko the winner of a fourth term. Lukashenko ran against nine opposition candidates; according to official figures, he won almost 80 percent of the vote. The opposition cried foul, saying the count was not transparent. At one point, demonstrators tried to enter the Election Commission’s headquarters, but forces dispersed the crowds with stun grenades, according to The New York Times. Security forces have arrested six of the nine candidates; at least three, including Sannikov, have been badly injured, according to news reports.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) said the following Belarusian journalists were told to stop working and lie face down in the snow, at around 7 p.m. on Sunday, while covering the arrest of opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev and his supporters: Dmitry Lukashuk, a correspondent for Evroradio; Solidarnost reporter Yelena Yakzhik; Nasha Niva correspondent Yulia Doroshkevich; freelance photographer Andrei Lenkevich; and Anton Taras with the BelaPAN news agency. In the same incident, John Hill, a reporter with The New York Times was hit in the face when he tried to show his press pass to the riot police. All were prevented from using their recording equipment, and officers destroyed Lenkevich’s camera by stomping on it, the BAJ said.

In various other incidents on Sunday night and Monday morning, BelTa news agency photojournalist Viktor Tolochko, Radina of Charter 97, and Obozrevatel newspaper journalist Aleksei Matyushkov–all with Belarusian outlets–were beaten by special forces and were variously injured. Also hurt were special correspondent Dmitry Tarakhov and cameraman Ilya Omelchenko with the Russian television station REN-TV, as well as Russia Today cameramen Anton Kharchenko and Viktor Filyayev.

Vadim Zamirovsky, a photojournalist for the newspaper Belgazeta; freelance journalist Tatyana Bublikova; and reporter Kostus Loshkevich with the website were detained and taken to unknown locations, according to press reports. All three are Belarusian. Aleksandr Astafyev, a photojournalist with the St. Petersburg-based Russian newspaper Moi Rayon, was also detained when covering the events on Independent Square; his whereabouts, too, are unknown.

Independent and pro-opposition websites, including the BAJ’s, have reported problems being accessed from within Belarus. Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio reported today that social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Odnoklassniki were intermittently inaccessible in Belarus; connectivity through the e-mail services of Google and Yahoo was blocked.