Soldiers are seen in Minsk, Belarus, on April 9, 2020. Security forces recently arrested five journalists for their coverage of an opposition candidate. (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)
Soldiers are seen in Minsk, Belarus, on April 9, 2020. Security forces recently arrested five journalists for their coverage of an opposition candidate. (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)

Belarus jails 5 journalists over coverage of opposition candidate

Vilnius, Lithuania, May 15, 2020 — Belarusian authorities should immediately release the journalists detained over their coverage of the country’s political opposition, and let the press work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On May 7, authorities in the eastern city of Mahilou arrested Mikhail Arshynski, a correspondent for the Poland-registered satellite broadcaster Belsat, according to a report by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a local trade and advocacy group and Barys Haretski, the deputy head of the group, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

The next day, authorities in Mahilou arrested Alyaksandr Burakou, a freelance correspondent for German broadcaster Deutche Welle, and authorities in Hlybokaye, in western Belarus, arrested Zmitser Lupach, a Belsat correspondent, according to that report and Haretski.

On May 9, Mahilou authorities arrested Ales Asiptsou, a correspondent for the independent news agency BelaPan, according to that report.

On May 11 and 12, courts in Mahilou and Hlybokaye charged the four journalists with “participating in an unauthorized demonstration” over their coverage of blogger and opposition presidential candidate Siarhei Tsikhanouski, and sentenced each journalist to 10 days of administrative detention, according to a statement by the journalists’ association.

Today, Mahilou authorities arrested Alyaksandr Burakou, a freelance reporter for the human rights organization Vesna, who has the same name as the Deutsche Welle correspondent, also for allegedly participating in an unauthorized demonstration by Tsikhanouski, Haretski said, adding that he will likely be taken to court on May 18.

All the detained journalists had covered Tsikhanouski’s campaign events, according to that report and Haretski. Tsikhanouski, a blogger turned opposition politician, traveled the country over the last month, filming videos about political issues that he uploaded to his YouTube channel, where he has more than 180,000 subscribers.

“Throwing journalists behind bars for covering an opposition candidate’s presidential campaign shows how scared Belarusian authorities are of any challenge to their rule,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “Belarusian authorities should release the journalists, stop putting their lives in danger by jailing them amid the spread of coronavirus in the country, and allow them to report on the presidential campaign freely and safely.”

On May 11, a court Mahilou ordered Asiptsou to serve 10 days in jail, and the next day ordered Arshynski and Deutche Welle’s Burakou to serve the same sentence, according to the journalist’s association report.

A court in Hlybokaye sentenced Lupach to 10 days in jail on May 11, but he was taken from the courtroom to a hospital for treatment for a heart condition, according to that report, which said that he will begin his jail term on May 18.

Haretski told CPJ, “the journalists were not participating in the rallies but were doing their job and reporting.”

Haretski said the arrests began after Tsikhanouski announced on May 6 he would run for president in the country’s August elections. That day, a court sentenced him to 15 days in jail for illegally holding mass events, according to news reports.

CPJ emailed the press office of the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior for comment, but did not receive any response. CPJ called the ministry, but the person who answered refused to comment.