Vilnius, Lithuania, July 1, 2020 – Belarusian authorities should immediately release all journalists held for their work, and allow the press to cover the country’s upcoming elections without fear of prosecution, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Since June 15, authorities throughout the country have arrested at least six bloggers, according to news reports. Speaking in the parliament on June 26, Interior Minister Yuri Karaev claimed that the bloggers were seeking to make a “revolution” in the run-up to the country’s presidential election on August 9, according to state news agency BelTA.
Barys Haretski, the deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an independent advocacy group, told CPJ last month that, because government censorship is so pervasive among mainstream television, radio, and print outlets, many citizens get their news from independent journalists online.
“In its latest crackdown on critical voices, Belarusian authorities have thrown at least half a dozen bloggers behind bars on allegations that they plotted a revolution,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “President Aleksandr Lukashenko should order these journalists to be released at once, especially if he wants the country’s upcoming elections to have even a veneer of legitimacy.”
On June 15, authorities in the western city of Brest detained Serhei Petrukhin and Aleksandr Kabanau, who post political commentary on the YouTube channel “People’s Reporter,” which has about 50,000 followers, and “YouTube Deputies,” a video series on that channel, respectively, and on June 20 charged them with “participating in activities [in] clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities,” according to news reports.
Both channels feature political commentary, interviews with opponents of Lukashenko, and reports on social and economic issues, according to CPJ’s review of their content.
They have since been held in the Minsk detention center, where Kabanau has suffered from poor health after contracting COVID-19, according to those reports. Police allege that the pair were connected to the campaign of opposition candidate Syarhei Tikhanouski, according to reports.
On June 25, law enforcement officers in Minsk detained Ihor Losik, a blogger for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, according to news reports. Losik also runs the “Belarus Brain” channel on Telegram, which posts commentary critical of Lukashenko and has about 165,000 followers.
Losik remains in detention but has not been charged, Haretski told CPJ.
On the same day, police detained Volodimir Neronski, a blogger who runs the YouTube channel “Slutsk for Life,” and opened a criminal investigation into him for allegedly “degrading the honor and dignity of the authorities,” according to news reports.
“Slutsk for Life” features commentary on the country’s politics and social issues, and has about 13,000 followers.
On June 26, law enforcement detained Aleksandr Andreyev, a blogger who runs the political commentary blog “Orsha For Life“ on YouTube and Telegram for an unspecified “administrative violation,” according to news reports.
Those reports did not identify why Andreyev had been arrested, but said he had recently interviewed people who opposed Lukashenko.
On June 27, three police officers beat and detained Serhei Sparish, a blogger and an activist with the Narodnaya Hromada political party, according to RFE/RL.
According to local news reports, Sparish administers a group of Telegram channels that share news about Belarusian politics. Those reports said police hit him and dragged him to a car during his arrest, and do not specify the extent of his injuries.
Haretski told CPJ he did not believe any of the bloggers did anything wrong, and said they were “only gathering and spreading information critical of President Lukashenko, so the authorities decided to arrest them before the August 9 presidential elections.”
He told CPJ he suspected the bloggers would remain in detention until the elections are over.
CPJ called the Belarusian Ministry of Interior for comment, but no one answered.