Belarusian opposition supporters block a street during a rally to protest presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on October 11, 2020. At least 49 journalists were arrested covering protests on October 11 and 12. (AP)

At least 49 journalists detained in Belarus while covering recent protests; 8 still held

New York, October 13, 2020 – Belarusian authorities should immediately release all journalists detained while covering nationwide protests, stop targeting and harassing members of the press, and allow them to work freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

At least 49 journalists were detained between October 11 and 12 while covering protests in Belarus; three of them remain in detention, bringing the total number of journalists in custody to eight, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade group, and its deputy head Barys Haretski, who spoke with CPJ over the phone. One of the eight was inexplicably sentenced again on new charges on October 11 when she was due to be released, Haretski said.

Out of the 46 journalists detained and released over the recent two-day period, 16 face trial on charges of either disobeying the lawful order of a police officer or participating in the unsanctioned protests, or both, according to BAJ. The rest were freed without charge. This is the largest number of journalists detained during the protests since August 27, according to Haretski.

Belarus has experienced months of protests leading up to, and since, the country’s presidential elections on August 9 in which longstanding leader Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory.

“During this prolonged period of unrest, independent news is essential to Belarusians and people all around the region,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Gulnoza Said, in New York. “We call on authorities to release all journalists in detention, drop all the bogus charges against members of the media, and allow the press to do its work freely and without fear.”

On October 11, while covering the “March of Pride” demanding that authorities release all political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition, 43 journalists were detained nationwide; six more journalists were detained on October 12 while covering the “Rally of Retirees” demanding Lukashenko’s resignation, according to Haretski, BAJ, and news reports

Haretski told CPJ that police confiscated equipment, phones, and flash drives from at least three journalists: Pavel Mickiewich, correspondent from the local branch of the Russian daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda; independent news website reporter Aliaksey Nosau; and independent news agency BelaPAN correspondent Siarhei Satsuk.

One of the detainees, Nasta Boyka, a correspondent for independent business outlet Belarusy I Rynok who spoke with CPJ via messaging app, said that the police detained her on October 11 in Minsk, the capital, after verifying that she was an accredited journalist; Boyka was also wearing a blue vest marked “Press.” Boyka has been released and faces charges of “disobeying a lawful order of a police officer,” with a trial scheduled for October 16, she told CPJ, adding that she had not disobeyed the police. “My rights were violated: the police workers who arrested me did not provide their IDs nor explain the reason for my arrest; the lawyer was allowed to see me only after 12 hours of detention,” Boyka told CPJ.

The three journalists arrested over the two-day period who are still in detention are all correspondents for independent satellite broadcaster Belsat TV, according to Haretski and BAJ: Zmitser Kazakevich and Viacheslau Lazarau, arrested in the northeastern city of Vitebsk; and Milana Kharitonova, arrested in the western city of Brest. All of them face charges of participating in unsanctioned protests and are in pretrial detention.

Five more journalists who had been arrested earlier in October while covering protests remain in detention in Belarus: Freelance journalist Aliaksandr Vialitchanka and Belsat TV correspondents Aliaksandr Yarashuk and Alena Dounar, arrested in Minsk; independent news website Silnie Novosti; correspondent Dzianis Yakshtas, arrested in the southeastern city of Homel; and Belsat TV correspondent Aliaksandr Sidareuski, arrested in the eastern city of Mahileu, according to BAJ and news reports. Vialitchanka and Yarashuk are serving 10 days of administrative detention, and Yakshtas and Sidareuski are serving 15 days, all on charges of participating in unsanctioned protests, according to BAJ.

Dounar was sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest on charges of both participating in unsanctioned protests and disobeying a lawful order of a police officer, and was due to be released on October 11; instead, the court sentenced her to yet another 15 days of administrative arrest for alleged participation in unsanctioned protests, despite the fact that she was in custody all the while, Haretski told CPJ.

According to a database maintained by BAJ, since the beginning of 2020, over 400 journalists have been detained, harassed, or otherwise persecuted while performing journalistic work in Belarus.

CPJ called Volha Chemadanava, head of the press office of the Belarusian Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, for comment, but she did not answer.