Supporters of presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya attend an authorities-organised concert in Minsk on August 6, 2020. Journalists have been arrested while covering her rallies. (AFP/Sergei Gapon)

Belarusian journalists detained ahead of presidential elections

Vilnius, Lithuania, August 6, 2020 — Belarusian authorities should immediately release blogger Evgeniy Vasilkov and allow him and other journalists to freely and safely cover upcoming presidential elections, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.   

On July 31, police arrested Vasilkov, a blogger who also works as a mechanic, at his garage in Khoiniki, near the Ukrainian border, and brought him to a police station, according to news reports. Police officers accused Vasilkov, who has covered elections and social issues on his YouTube and Telegram channels, both named Khoiniki for Life, of writing a slogan popular with critics of President Aleksandr Lukashenko on road signs, reports said. Vasilkov denied that he had put up signs and said his arrest was retaliation for his support for an opposition candidate on his blog, according to reports.

On August 3, Vasilkov appeared before a local judge who sentenced him to 10 days of administrative detention for “disobeying” police by allegedly refusing to show his identification at his arrest, according to reports.

“Aleksandr Lukashenko wants an election to put a veneer of legitimacy on his longstanding leadership, but he is achieving the reverse by harassing and detaining journalists up and down the country who are trying to cover his opposition,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “We call on Belarusian authorities to let the media do its work freely and safely.”

Separately, on July 31, police detained five reporters for Belsat, the independent satellite broadcaster, while they were livestreaming protests in support of opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in two locations in northwestern Belarus, according to Belsat, news reports, and interviews with two of the journalists, Dzmitri Mitskevich and Halyna Abakunchik.

Mitskevich told CPJ via phone that he, Dzyanis Dzyuba, and Ales Silich were detained by police in Maladzyechna for five hours during which police confiscated all of their equipment, including cameras and mobile phones. According to Belsat, police did not provide the journalists with an explanation for their detention. Silich was fined 135 Belarusian rubles (US$55) for allegedly having a sticker on his car in support of the opposition to Lukashenko, reports said. Mitskevich and Dzyuba were charged with violating a media law forbidding journalists without Belarusian press accreditation to work in the country, according to reports. (Belsat is registered in Poland.) If the journalists are found guilty, they could face fines of 540 Belarusian rubles (US$220) each, the reports said. 

Abakunchik told CPJ via phone that she and journalist Uladzimir Lunyov were followed by a police car when they were reporting in Lida. Police stopped them, detained them, and confiscated their mobile phones, she said. The two reporters were charged with violating the same media law and face the same possible fines, according to reports.

Belsat’s representative in Minsk, Irina Slavnikova, told CPJ via phone that Belarusian authorities have refused to give Belsat press accreditation even though the outlet has worked in the country for 13 years. 

In another incident involving Belsat journalists, on August 4, police in the eastern Belarusian city of Sklou detained correspondents Stanislau Ivashkevich and Volha Ratmirava and camera operator Ivan Muravyou as they were working on an investigative story regarding support for Tsikhanouskaya, according to a statement of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a local trade and advocacy group, and reports. They were released later that day after police confiscated their cell phones, according to the same reports. The journalists were not provided with a reason for their detention, according to Belsat.

In a separate incident on August 4, police in Slutsk, in central Belarus, detained Zinaida Timoshak, correspondent for independent news site Novyy Chas, while she was reporting on a rally in support of an opposition candidate, according to Novyy Chas. She was released a few hours later because of her poor health, the report said. Timoshak told CPJ via phone that a Belarusian court fined her 135 Belarusian rubles (US$55 dollars) on August 6 for participating in an unsanctioned event. Timoshak denied the charge, and said she was working as a journalist, not participating. 

Barys Haretski, the deputy head of BAJ, told CPJ via phone that so many journalists have been detained in recent weeks that he has lost count of the number. He said authorities are “terrorizing” journalists by detaining them and releasing them a few hours later. Haretski also said that at least 10 foreign journalists were denied government accreditation to cover the August 9 presidential election. 

CPJ called the Belarus Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, and the Belarus Ministry of Information, which oversees press accreditation, but no one picked up.