Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist for Polish public broadcaster TVP Polonia, who was detained March 25, 2021, by Belarusian police in the western city of Hrodna. (Andrzej Poczobut)

Belarus police detain and fine at least 16 journalists over protest coverage, ties to foreign news outlets

New York, March 30, 2021 –Belarusian authorities should immediately release journalist Andrzej Poczobut, and stop detaining and fining members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Between March 18 and 27, Belarusian authorities detained at least 16 journalists and fined at least three members of the press, according to news reports, and Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) deputy head Barys Haretski, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

Of those journalists, only Poczobut, a political commentator and producer of Nad Niemnem, a TV program that covers issues affecting the ethnic Polish minority in Belarus for Polish public broadcaster TVP Polonia, remains in detention as of today, according to those reports and Haretski.

All of the detained journalists had recently covered protests in their respective cities calling for the resignation of the Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, according to those reports.

“Authorities in Belarus should once and for all stop persecuting journalists, searching their apartments, and throwing them to jail for simply doing their jobs,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “Belarusian authorities must immediately release journalist Andrzej Poczobut, drop any charges against him, free all jailed journalists, and stop their blatant attempts to intimidate members of the press and silence independent voices in the country.”

On March 25, police in the western city of Hrodna searched Poczobut’s apartment and confiscated two laptops, a hard drive, seven old cellphones, and several books in Polish, according to news reports, Haretski, and Aksana Poczobut, the journalist’s wife, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

Police then took the journalist to a detention center in Minsk where they keep him on suspicion of “igniting racial, national, religious or social hatred,” his wife said. She told CPJ that her husband has not been formally charged with a crime, and called the allegations “absurd,” saying that he “had not done anything illegal.”

Aksana Poczobut said her husband’s arrest might be connected to his coverage of the ethnic Polish community in Belarus, and his membership in the Union of Poles in Belarus, an independent cultural organization.

Over the last year, Poczobut has provided commentary and analysis of the anti-Lukashenko protests for regional news outlets, and wrote about them on his Twitter account, where he has over 12,000 followers.

Police have also recently harassed, detained, and fined at least six journalists for their alleged connections to the independent Poland-based satellite broadcaster Belsat TV, according to news reports and journalists who spoke with CPJ. Authorities accuse the journalists of working with the organization illegally, citing the fact that the Belarusian government has never granted Belsat TV an official accreditation, according to those reports.

On March 18, a court in the eastern city of Mahileu found Belsat TV correspondent Alina Skrabunova guilty of working without proper accreditation, and fined her 870 rubles (US $331), according to Haretski and Skrabunova, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.

Authorities have fined Skrabunova 10 times since the beginning of March, each time on the same charges in relation to different materials that she produced, with the total sum amounting to 7,540 rubles (US$2,867), according to the journalist and news reports.

She told CPJ that she maintains her innocence, saying that she anchored Belsat TV shows on a freelance basis, which should exempt her from the accreditation requirement. She told CPJ she would be appealing six of the 10 fines, adding that appealing every case would be too time-consuming.

“[The fines] are an enormous amount of money for Belarus, and are disproportionate to the charges against me,” she said.

On March 19, police in the southwestern city of Pinsk searched the apartments of videographer Andrei Yakimush and reporter Viktar Yarashuk, both of whom work for the independent news website Media Polesye and recently contributed videos covering protests to Belsat TV, according to news reports and Haretski.

Police confiscated the journalists’ equipment, including cameras and microphones, charged them with working without accreditation, and released them pending trial, according to those sources.

Yakimush, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview, said that he believes that the videos they contributed to Belsat TV do not represent a crime because he believes that Belsat TV does not have to abide by the rules governing domestic outlets. If the court finds him guilty, it could permanently confiscate his camera, which would be “a disaster” and make it very hard for him to continue his work, he said.

On March 24, the Pervomaisky district court in the northeastern city of Vitsebsk found Alyona Shabunia, a freelance journalist who contributed video reporting to Belsat TV, guilty of working without accreditation, issuing her a fine of 870 Belarusian rubles (US $331), according to the journalist, who spoke with CPJ via phone.

Shabunia told CPJ that she did not accept the verdict, saying that her right to collect and distribute information is protected by the Belarusian Constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. She has filed an appeal to the Vitsebsk regional court, she told CPJ.

Shabunia said that she was previously fined in October 2020 for “participating in an unsanctioned action” in relation to her protest coverage, and again in November for working without accreditation. She said that she appealed both decisions to the regional court, but her appeals were denied, and she had to pay fines totaling 1,147 rubles (US $436).

“These fines represent a significant amount of money and have been a challenge to pay,” She said.

On March 25, police in the southwestern city of Brest detained Ales Liauchuk and Milana Kharytonava, freelance correspondents for the Belarusian news agency Belapan, and accused them of contributing to a video report aired by Belsat TV without the proper accreditation, according to news reports and Liauchuk, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

Police confiscated their phones and then released them, and did not formally charge either journalists with a crime, according to Haretski and Liauchuk. Liauchuk told CPJ that the police did not have any evidence of his and Kharytonava’s alleged contributions to Belsat TV, and that both journalists refused to give statements to police.

On March 26 in Hrodna, police detained Belsat TV host Pavel Mazheika for allegedly “igniting racial, national, religious or social hatred,” according to Haretski.

On the same day, Hrodna police searched the home and confiscated the computer and phone of Iryna Novik, editor of the independent news website Hrodna.Life, as a witness in relation to the allegations against Mazheika; on March 29, Mazheika was released without charge, Haretski said.

Police have also harassed employees of other news outlets, according to news reports and journalists who spoke with CPJ.

On March 19, in the eastern city of Klimavichy, police searched the apartment of journalist Siarhei Arzhantsau, who runs Klimavitskaya Staronka, a news commentary group on the social media network Vkontakte that has over 1,700 subscribers, according to CPJ’s review of the page, Haretski and news reports. Police did not confiscate anything or detain Arzhantsau, according to Haretski.

After the search, Arzhantsau wrote on his page that he had to close Klimavitskaya Staronka because the police had accessed his computer during the search, which “affected the content” of the group, making “its further activity impossible.”

In the days before the raid, Klimavitskaya Staronka had shared reports on police detentions, the challenges faced by doctors fired for speaking out about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a report by U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about low salaries in Belarus.

On March 25 and 27, police detained at least 10 journalists covering anti-Lukashenko protests in Minsk, the capital, all of whom have since been released, according to news reports and Haretski.

On March 25, police detained and released without charge Natalia Khamutouskaya, journalist at the independent media platform Imena; Pavel Volkov, a photographer for the Russian daily newspaper Izvestiya; and Kiril Krivosheev, correspondent for the Russian daily Kommersant, according to those reports.

On March 27, police in Minsk detained Nicholas Connolly, correspondent for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle; Liubou Bakhurevich, correspondent for independent business outlet Belarusy I Rynak; Katsiaryna Karpitskaya, Nadzeja Buzhan, and Yahor Martsinovich, correspondents for independent news website Nasha Niva; and Halina Ulasik and Hanna Kaltyhina, correspondents for independent news website, according to news reports

Bakhurevich and Martsinovich were charged with the “violation of the procedure of organizing or holding mass events,” and the others were released without charge, according to those reports and Haretski.

CPJ emailed the Belarusian Ministry of Interior for comment, but did not receive any response.