Belarusian police block a street during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on November 1, 2020. In the three months since the presidential vote widely seen as rigged, authorities have detained dozens of journalists. (AP)

Belarus authorities arrest journalists, issue jail sentences, launch investigation

Vilnius, Lithuania, November 6, 2020 – Belarusian authorities should stop arresting and prosecuting journalists and allow news media to report on the country’s political situation freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, police in the capital Minsk detained Nasta Zacharevich of internet news portal Zeleny, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade group. She was taking photos at a protest march by people with disabilities near Independence Square, according to news reports.

Also yesterday, the authorities launched an investigation into two journalists who have administered the popular Telegram channel NEXTA-Live, accusing Stsypan Putsila and Raman Pratasevich, of “organizing mass riots” and “group activities, which grossly violate public order,” according to U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. If found guilty each of them could be jailed for up to three years, according to the Belarusian criminal code

As of yesterday, nine journalists were in detention, including several arrested November 1, according to BAJ. All are detained for covering protests that erupted after the August 9 presidential election in which incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko announced his victory, according to Volha Khvoin, secretary with the BAJ, who spoke via phone with CPJ. Three of them face more serious criminal charges, Khvoin said. 

“This war of attrition on Belarusian journalists is unproductive at best. The political crisis in Belarus persists and journalists will, rightfully, persist in covering it,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, in New York. “We call on authorities to stop trying to intimidate the media with beatings, jail sentences, fines, and criminal prosecutions.”

On November 1, police in Minsk arrested six journalists, according to news reports and information compiled by the BAJ. Four were later sentenced to administrative detention, one was fined and released, and one is awaiting a court appearance.

On that day, police detained and beat photographer Dzimitry Dzimitryeu of the news website Novy Chas, the outlet reported. Dzimitryeu had a press badge and press card with him, Khvoin said, adding that Dzimitryeu managed to call his wife and tell her he was beaten before police officers took his phone.

The next day, the Partizansky court of Minsk sentenced Dzimitryeu to 10 days of administrative detention on charges of “participation in an unsanctioned event and disobedience to lawful demand of officials,” according to the BAJ and Novy Chas.

On November 1, police also detained freelance journalists Alyaksandr Ziankovich and Yana Trusila, who were on assignment for Novy Chas, the outlet reported. The following day, the Oktiabrsky court of Minsk sentenced Trusila to 13 days of administrative detention and on November 3 the same court sentenced Ziankovich to 13 days, both on the same charge as Dzimitryeu.

Also on November 1, police detained, beat, and confiscated a camera and a mobile phone from Zmitser Buyanov, also known as Zmitser Soltan, a correspondent for Poland-based Belsat TV, the outlet reported. Khvoin told CPJ, citing the journalist’s lawyer, that police beat Soltan in their car. The next day, the Partizansky court in Minsk sentenced him to 13 days in detention for “participation in an unsanctioned event and disobedience to lawful demand of officials,” according to the BAJ and Novy Chas.

Authorities detained two other correspondents for Belsat TV on November 1, the news outlet said on Telegram. One of them Artsiom Bahaslauski, was charged with “disobedience to lawful demand of officials,” but had not been taken to court as of November 5, Khvoin told CPJ.

The other, Zmitser Krauchuk, was fined 1,395 Belarusian rubles ($540) by the Frunzensky court of Minsk and released on November 2, according to Belsat TV.

Soltan and Krauchuk are also charged with organizing riots, a criminal activity, according to Khvoin of the BAJ, while Bahaslauski is facing criminal charges of “organization of group activities, violating public order and disobeying lawful demands of officials.” Under the Belarusian criminal code, they could be sentenced to up to two years in jail. The trial dates have not been set, according to Khvoin. 

On October 20, the Minsk Centralny Court announced that NEXTA-Live and its logo are “extremist materials” and, according to the statement, Putsila and Pratasevich were added to the country’s wanted list. NEXTA-Live has almost two million subscribers and has actively covered protests in Belarus.

NEXTA’s Putsila lives in Poland, while Pratasevich left the NEXTA-Live channel in September, according to RFE/RL.

Separately on November 2, the Frunzensky court in Minsk sentenced a correspondent for the independent news agency BelaPAN, Pavel Dabravolski, to 15 days of detention for “participation in an unsanctioned event and disobedience to lawful demand of officials” in relation to his coverage of a protest on October 18, according to news reports. Police arrested him on October 30 in his office, the reports said.

CPJ called the Ministry of Interior for comment, but no one answered the phone.

According to the BAJ, since August 9 when the election protests began, 320 journalists have been detained.