The head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) Andrei Bastunets (right) leaves the BAJ office after police raided it on February 16, 2021. (AFP)

Belarusian authorities raid Belarusian Association of Journalists headquarters, journalists’ homes

Vilnius, Lithuania, February 16, 2021 — Belarusian authorities should cease their raids against journalists and journalistic associations and return confiscated reporting equipment, records, and money, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Today, police in Belarus raided the Minsk headquarters of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade group, and the apartments of two of BAJ’s employees, according to a report on BAJ’s website and BAJ secretary Volha Khvoin, who spoke with CPJ via phone. 

Police officers confiscated mobile phones, laptops, and money from the homes of BAJ deputy head Barys Haretski and the organization’s lawyer, Aleh Aheyeu, according to Khvoin. After those raids, the officers ordered Haretski, Aheyeu, and BAJ head Andrei Bastunets, whose apartment was not searched, to accompany them on their raid of the BAJ office, said Khvoin. The three were detained there for three hours, during which police confiscated smart phones, computers, money, a safe box, and a folder with personal information of BAJ members from the BAJ office, Khvoin said. They were allowed to return home after the search, she said.   

Police also searched the homes of at least three independent journalists across the country today, according to BAJ.  

“Belarusian police must return all equipment and money seized from the Belarusian Association of Journalists and its employees, drop any trumped-up criminal investigations into the group, and allow it to continue its work unhindered,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s Deputy Executive Director. “Belarusian authorities must put an end to their relentless harassment of journalists and press freedom organizations.” 

According to BAJ, the officers told the BAJ employees that the searches were part of a criminal investigation into individuals “participating in activities aimed at violating public order,” a charge that carries a punishment of up to two years in prison under the Belarusian criminal code. In its report on the incidents, BAJ said that police did not tell the BAJ employees whether they faced charges in the investigation. 

The Investigative Committee of Belarus, part of the State Security Committee, announced on its official Telegram channel that it is “continuing to investigate activities, aimed at violating public order, or actively participating in them” and is also looking into those it suspects of “financing protest activities.”

In a separate incident today, police searched the apartment of a freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova in the southeastern city of Homel, according to local human rights group Viasna. Shchyrakova is being investigated in connection to a criminal case in the murder of a police officer, according to local human rights group Viasna and BAJ; CPJ could not determine whether the journalist is facing charges in the investigation. CPJ tried to call Shchyrakova but the call did not connect. 

Today police also searched the apartment of a freelance journalist Anatoly Gotovchits in Homel; the journalist is suspected of violating public order, according to Khvoin. CPJ could not determine whether he has been officially charged. CPJ tried to call Gotovchits but the call did not connect. 

Also today, police searched the apartment of Alyaksandr Burakou, a freelance reporter for the human rights organization Viasna in the eastern city of Mahilou, according to BAJ. CPJ tried to call the journalist but the call did not connect. Viasna’s headquarters were also searched, reports said

The searches were part of a broader crackdown of civil society groups aimed at quashing opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko, news reports said. Dozens of journalists have been arrested during opposition protests since the August 2020 election, when Lukashenko was reelected in a vote that his detractors deemed fraudulent, as CPJ has documented.  

CPJ called Volha Chemodanova, head of the press office of the Belarusian Ministry of Interior, for comment but she did not answer the phone.