New York, March 23, 2017 - Belarusian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalists prosecuted for covering a wave of nationwide protests and should cease interfering with journalists doing their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Security forces have detained or otherwise obstructed at least 32 journalists in an effort to censor coverage of protests against the introduction of a new tax on the unemployed.
Security forces in the southwestern Belarusian city of Pinsk yesterday detained Viktor Yaroshuk, a freelance journalist working with the independent satellite television station Belsat, as he walked down the street, according to media reports and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Hours later, a court ordered him to pay 920 Belarusian rubles (US $486) in fines for "violating regulations on manufacturing and distributing [illicit] mass media materials," BAJ reported. Belsat reported that authorities did not tell Yaroshuk what mass media materials he had distributed.
Also yesterday, security forces briefly detained freelance Belsat correspondents Andrey Tolchin and Konstantin Zhukovsky as they filmed a factory in the southeastern city of Dobrush. They were released after a document check, local media reported. Police also detained Zhukovsky for more than four hours on March 18 as the journalist travelled to the southeastern city of Mozyr, where he planned to cover anti-government protests.
Police yesterday detained Belsat TV freelancers Lyubov Luneva and Olga Davydova for about an hour yesterday as they interviewed wives of jailed activists outside a prison in the capital Minsk. The women were also detained. Police searched the phones of the journalists and released them without charge, Belsat reported.
Belarusians have demonstrated since early February to protest the imposition of a tax of the equivalent of US $250 on Belarusians who have been unemployed for more than six months and who have not sought work at government job centers, under the slogan, "We are not parasites," a reference to President Aleksandr Lukashenko's 2015 introduction of the tax to fight "social parasitism."
In February 2017, nearly 500,000 Belarusians were informed that they must pay the tax because they had worked fewer than 183 days in 2016. More than 150 protesters have been arrested since March 1, and dozens have been fined or sentenced to up to 15 days in jail for participating in the protests, according to media reports.
"Journalists have a right to cover the protests sweeping Belarus," CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said. "We call on Belarusian authorities to drop all charges against journalists detained covering the demonstrations and to cease harassing, detaining, and charging journalists for covering events of international interest and importance."
At least eight other journalists were obstructed from covering the protests on March 18, according to media reports.
In the southwestern city of Kobryn, Belsat correspondents Ales Levchuk and Milana Kharitonova were detained for three hours after they covered the protests, local media reported. They were accused of "violating regulations on manufacturing and distributing [illicit] mass media materials" and released pending trial. Kharitonova told the Belarusian service of the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, locally known as Svaboda, that police broke their mobile phones and confiscated their camera and microphones pending the conclusion of their trial, the date for which has not been set, Svaboda reported.
Also on March 18, in Borisov, not far from the capital Minsk, security forces accosted Belsat correspondents Olga Chaychits and Sergey Kovalyov during a live broadcast and detained them for hours for a "document check," news media reported. They were released without charge.
The same day in the southeastern city of Gomel, police detained freelance journalist Larisa Schirakova for several hours as she tried to drive to a protest in Mozyr, according to media reports. Police said they believed she was driving a stolen car.
Also on March 18, police in the northeastern region of Vitebsk detained Belsat journalists Sergey Rusetsky, Vladimir Lunev, and Elena Stepanova as they traveled to cover a protest in Novopolotsk. Police searched them, their vehicle, and checked their papers, then released them. Rusetsky and Lunev had also been obstructed from covering a March 12 protest in Vitebsk, according to media reports.
On March 17, authorities charged Svetlana Tishko, editor of the news website Kraj, with violating regulations on mass protests by "publishing information about an upcoming protest not sanctioned by the authorities," according to media reports.
The day prior, a Minsk court acquitted Diana Seredyuk, a correspondent for the online news agency Eurobelarus, on charges of "participating in unsanctioned protests" after she showed the judge video of her interviewing protesters rather than chanting slogans, as prosecutors alleged she had done, according to local media reports.
On March 12 alone, security forces obstructed at least 19 journalists from covering protests in various cities.
That day, police detained Svaboda correspondent Halina Abakunchyk in the middle of her live broadcast of a protest in the eastern city of Orsha, and held her overnight. Abakunchyk's phone was confiscated, and she was questioned for six hours. The following day, a local court found her guilty of "participating in an unsanctioned rally" and ordered her to pay the equivalent of a US $300 fine, her employer reported.
Also on March 12, police detained Belsat journalists Aleksandr Borozenko and Katerina Bakhvalava as they broadcast live from a protest in the northeastern city of Orsha. Bakhvalava spent the night in jail, was tried and convicted the following day on charges of "manufacturing and distributing [illicit] mass media materials," and fined the equivalent of US $690, according to media reports. Borozenko was ordered to pay a fine of the equivalent of US $529 for parking illegally, according to BAJ.
The same day, police detained Adarya Gushtyn, a correspondent for the news agency BelaPan; Sergey Gudilin, a photographer for the independent weekly newspaper Nasha niva; Sergey Serebro, the editor of the independent regional website People's News of Vitebsk; Tatyana Matveyeva, a correspondent for the news website Tut.by; and Igor Matveyev, a photographer for Tut.by, for a "document check" at the railway station in Orsha. They were released only after the protests ended, BelaPan and Tut.by reported.
Also on March 12, in Gomel, freelance journalist Anatoliy Gotovchits was briefly detained on the charge of "participating in unsanctioned protests" after covering the March 12 rally in the southeastern city of Rahachow.
Freelance journalist Larisa Schirakova, who also covered the March 12 protests in Rahachow, stood trial on March 14 for "participating in unsanctioned protests" and was ordered to pay a fine the equivalent of US $85. She told Svaboda that authorities demanded that she stop practicing journalism and threatened to strip her of custody of her son "because [she had] several administrative penalties."
Belsat's Chaychits and Kovalyov, along with their colleagues Evgeny Merkis and Sergey Kozel, were also detained on March 12 while they traveled to cover protests in Rahachow, according to media reports. All were released two hours later, after the protests had ended. Merkes is awaiting trial on charges of "manufacturing and distributing [illicit] mass media products."
BelPan photographer Andrey Shavlyuga and blogger Anastasiya Pilyugina were also detained before reaching the protest site in Rahachow that day, according to media reports.
Dmitry Gorbunov and Sergey Petrukhin, video bloggers who were planning to livestream March 12 rallies in Brest, near Belarus' border with Poland, on their YouTube account, were detained and sentenced to 15 days in jail for "participation in unsanctioned protests," according to local reports.
BAJ reported that police prevented Igor Kazmerchak, editor of the regional news website orsha.eu, from leaving his house to cover the protests in Orsha on March 12. According to media reports, police searched the house of Artyom Sizintsev, a journalist for Belarusian Radio Racyja the same day.