New York, April 12, 2017–Belarusian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalists for covering protests and should allow the news media to work unobstructed, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
A district court in the southwestern Belarusian city of Kobryn is scheduled to try Ales Levchuk and Milana Kharitonova, correspondents for the independent broadcaster Belsat TV, tomorrow, according to their employer. The journalists are to face charges of “violating regulations on manufacturing and distributing [illicit] mass media materials” and disobeying police for covering a March 18 protest in the city.
“Journalists covering protests are not committing a crime; they are doing their jobs,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Belarusian authorities should drop the absurd charges against Ales Levchuk, Milana Kharitonova, and all journalists who have been detained for their work, and should cease trying to intimidate the news media.”
“I have no doubt that we will be found guilty and ordered to pay huge fines tomorrow,” Belsat quoted Levchuk as saying today.
Belarusian courts convicted several other journalists yesterday and today for covering protests last month. In two separate sessions today, the Vitebsk Regional Court upheld a lower court’s conviction of Halina Abakunchyk, a correspondent for the Belarusian service of the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, locally known as Radio Svaboda, and Katerina Bakhvalava, a correspondent for Belsat, on charges of “participating in an unsanctioned protest” in the eastern city of Orsha on March 12, their employers reported today.
Police detained Abakunchyk as she broadcasted live from the protest and detained her overnight, CPJ reported at the time. Police confiscated her phone, questioned her for six hours, and sent her to court the following day, where she was convicted and fined the equivalent of US$300. Bakhvalava was also detained overnight and convicted the following day of the same charge, and was fined the equivalent of US$365, Radio Svaboda reported.
Also today, freelance correspondent Larisa Schirakova, who covered March protests in the southeastern cities of Rahachow and Gomel, stood trial in Gomel for “manufacturing illicit video products.” The judge ordered her to pay a fine of the equivalent of US $500, Belsat reported.
Yesterday, the Oktyabr District Court in Vitebsk, convicted Belsat journalists Olga Chaychits and Andrey Kozel in absentia on charges of “manufacturing illicit video products,” Belsat reported, without specifying the amount of the fine. According to the Belarusian Criminal Code, the offense is punishable by a maximum fine of US$600.
Protests erupted in February after the imposition of a new tax on Belarusians who have been unemployed for more than six months without seeking work at a government job center, but have since developed into broader protests against the 23-year rule President Aleksandr Lukashenko. CPJ reported on dozens of cases of detention and other forms of intimidation of journalists covering the protests. At least eight journalists were sentenced to 5-15 days of arrest following the March 25-26 rallies, according to CPJ research.
CPJ on March 24 issued safety advice for journalists covering the protests in Belarus.