The May 23 arrest of Belarusian journalist and blogger Raman Pratasevich off a diverted commercial passenger flight was a shattering blow to press freedom in Belarus. Pratasevich is the co-founder of NEXTA and chief editor of Belarus of the Brain, two Telegram channels that covered protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a dangerous beat in the country where demonstrations are ongoing since the contested August 2020 election.
Liubou Luniova can attest firsthand to those dangers. A veteran Belarusian broadcaster who previously worked for U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and is now with Belsat TV, headquartered in Poland, she has covered decades of street protests. Since last August, she has been arrested three times, she told CPJ.
When CPJ first tried to reach Luniova for a scheduled interview back in March, she had to postpone. The police “just started pounding on my door,” she wrote CPJ via messaging app. “I am sitting quietly now, not opening.” They didn’t leave her door until the next morning, she said. When Luniova found a quiet moment to speak with CPJ on the phone, she talked about the significance of Pratasevich’s arrest, the past and present of journalism in Belarus, and why she insists on staying in the profession in spite of state harassment.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the press office of the state security committee of the Republic of Belarus, and the office of the president of the Republic of Belarus for comment but did not receive replies. Luniova’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does Pratasevich’s arrest mean for other journalists in the country?
Authorities now have — in case anyone had any remaining doubts – clearly demonstrated that journalists are their main enemies. We can only pray for Raman right now – we can only imagine what is happening to him in detention.
What has taken place is the absolute ban on the profession [of journalism]. All that’s left are the propagandists on [TV] channels whose work has no relation to journalism whatsoever while the real journalists are being isolated and silenced. I compare it to a war, when people are surrounded and don’t know what to do.
The moment has come, for many of my colleagues, when we just feel despair. But there should be some way out of it, it is impossible otherwise. We can’t just all leave the country. I don’t know what journalists can do. Of course, we can continue writing, and of course the international community can keep saying “keep your hands off journalists,” and the like. But our problem is that there is no one to speak to [in the government].
You began covering anti-government street protests in Belarus 20 years ago. When did the state start pressuring independent media, and how has that pressure evolved?
Since Lukashenko came to power [in 1994], things have been increasingly getting worse — he targeted media from the very start. Every year, one after another, [independent] media outlets were closed down. Regional press suffered first. Businessmen understood that if they advertised in the independent press, they would have problems. Outlets were put on the brink of extinction and [the state used] every method to kill them off.
Twenty years ago, were journalists targeted individually as well?
Journalists were under pressure early on. The first very notable cases were those of journalists Pavel Sheremet and Dmitry Zavadsky. They were the first ones for whom the door [of state pressure] opened in 1997.
Sheremet and Zavadsky both worked for the Russian channel ORT [in 1997] and filmed a report on how the Belarusian-Lithuanian border was not guarded very well and how it could be easily crossed. The state opened a criminal case against them. But aside from that story, they had been covering the protests on the streets, so this was just an excuse to silence them. They were put behind bars, and it was the first such case against journalists.
[Editor’s note: Sheremet was killed in 2016 in Ukraine; several suspects are now on trial for murder. Zavadsky was reported missing in 2000 and later declared dead; in 2002 five men were convicted of his kidnapping in a trial widely criticized by human rights groups. Both journalists faced years of state harassment.]
How are today’s protests different from past protests?
People who came out to protest were not the faces we were used to seeing protesting on the streets. It used to be that people who came out to protest and the journalists who covered the protests knew each other by sight — there were very few of us. And this time these were completely new people, regular townsfolk who decided they’d had enough.
There were several reasons for this uprising: the overall deterioration of the economic state in the country; the COVID-19 crisis, and all these idiotic statements Lukashenko made about it. When a woman died from COVID, he said something like, “Why was she so fat? She had to watch herself and go on a diet.” He didn’t consider that she was someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. People were looking and thinking, “My god, what an idiot.” People were also terrified [of COVID-19], but never heard a word of sympathy from him. And they could not get any truthful information about the pandemic. This infuriated everyone.
What’s different for journalists covering today’s protests?
What’s going on today is unprecedented. I have always covered protest rallies, and each of them, as a rule, was dispersed by the police, and the journalists who covered them got their share of harassment. But despite that, overall, the police tried to avoid targeting journalists. It is a completely different story now.
Back in the day, law enforcement officers who were implementing their orders did not do it with the kind of violence they use today. One of my colleagues, a journalist from [the Russian news agency] RIA, told me that until his death he will never forget standing outside the Akrestsin [detention center in Minsk] and listening to the moans of the people who were beaten to a pulp inside. He said that he has never heard anything more terrifying than the sound of grown men crying from pain, almost like babies.
[Editor’s note: CPJ called the Center for Temporary Isolation in Minsk (Akrestsin) for comment but no one picked up the phone.]
Do police specifically target journalists who are covering protests?
Yes. It happens like this: accredited journalists come to the square [to cover protests], then a bus arrives, and people in balaclavas begin to throw all of the journalists into the bus. So these days, you are better off without your press insignia.
Also, from the very first day the police started shooting people. In one of the first days, a rubber bullet hit a journalist from [independent news website] Nasha Niva.
I remember that when I first saw that, I could not believe my eyes. I was on the phone, reporting on what I was seeing, a man aiming a gun at the protesters. And then I realized that he was aiming at me. I was standing on the porch of a nine-story apartment building; all of a sudden, the door opened and a huge male hand grabbed my arm and dragged me inside. At this very moment a rubber bullet banged with all its might against the door.
It turns out the man who saved me from being hit by a rubber bullet lived in the building; he saw me from the window of the second floor. When we checked the door afterwards — a metal door — there was a huge dent in it from the bullet, right where I had been standing.
The attacks on journalists in Belarus have shocked the international community. How do people in Belarus react to them? Do journalists feel supported?
From the very first day, people helped journalists. People have been standing up for us.
For instance, a typical thing for [the authorities] to do these days is to disconnect a journalist’s phone line when they are broadcasting from the protest. They give an order to the phone company – it’s easy to see who is doing the broadcast, to identify the journalist’s phone number, and to block it. When that happened to me, I was surrounded by people, and I just said, “Damn it, they’ve disconnected my phone!” Immediately, 20 people reached out to me with their phones, saying “Here, take mine.”
When my son, who is a cameraman, and I were being arrested while interviewing people on the street, what impressed me most was that the people around immediately started defending us. An old lady with a girl carrying a violin came up and started telling the police, “Let them go, you fascists, everyone is so fed up with you!” An elderly man came up to berate the police. It was like a snowball of people all cursing at the police, calling them fascists. The police even started to step back away from us. A woman grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s go, I live nearby, they’d never be able to get into my building!” This would never have happened in the past.
People are on journalists’ side because they really want to know the truth. No one is afraid. What saves us is solidarity – and a sense of humor.
How do you manage to maintain your sense of humor?
I always try to joke in any situation. If we are not able to joke and laugh, we are all done for.
Let’s take accreditation. One evening I was covering protests, and it appeared that the law enforcement officers were given the command to check journalists’ accreditations. But no one explained to them what the [press] accreditation was and what it looked like.
So, my cameraman and I were filming that evening, and the cameraman stepped aside for a moment and I was waiting for him, wearing my “Press” vest. An officer came up to me asking, “Do you have accreditation?” I said, “Of course I do, I will show you now.” I dug into my purse breaking out in cold sweat – I understood that I wouldn’t be able to show him any accreditation [which the Belarusian government has denied Belsat, as CPJ documented]. And I thought, “What do I have to lose?”
I have a cat, Henrich. And I have many discount cards from the pet stores where I buy cat food and kitty litter. I pulled out one of those cards – as luck would have it, it had a drawing of a cat and a dog on it – and confidently showed it to the guy. And he looked at it, nodded, and said, “Ok, ok, I just had to ask.” And he walked away.
[Authorities] try to intimidate other journalists this way. If a journalist has a bedridden mother, for example, or they have children who need to be fed and taken to school, and so on, they wouldn’t want to be taken away. They wouldn’t want their children to be sent to a boarding school or their elderly parents neglected.
Plus [the authorities] are trying to prove to the people that the journalists are to blame. But of course, that’s not very effective. People can find out what’s really going on. People can see that this is not even surreal anymore, it’s just complete insanity.
You have been detained several times for covering protests. Can you talk about what happened?
The first time they arrested me, it was right after I had been sick with COVID-19, and I was dealing with complications. I was losing my breath, and they took me directly to the hospital from the detention center.
After my second arrest, when I was taken to my cell, I saw that it was packed with people, we couldn’t move around. There were no mattresses, and the iron weaving of the beds dug into my body, so it was impossible to lay down. There was a huge gap in the window, so it was freezing. One of the girls had white and red manicure [the former colors for the Belarus flag, which symbolize opposition to Lukashenko] and a guard told her that he would tear her nails out with pliers. He was also threatening women in the cell with rape.
After I was transferred to another building, my new cell was unbearably hot, over 30 degrees [86 degrees Fahrenheit], but the window wouldn’t open. They wouldn’t take us for walks and wouldn’t allow us to take a shower. It turned out that after I was released all of my cellmates were transferred to another, better cell. There was a specific order to pressure a journalist.
Your job is very dangerous, today more than ever. What keeps you from quitting?
It has become almost impossible to work on the streets. Police are patrolling, catching journalists, and if they detain you several times, they can charge you with a criminal case. This is the first time in my career that I have had to run away from law enforcement officers along with the protesters.
A policeman once asked me, “Don’t you have an instinct of self-preservation?” Of course, I know that [covering protests] is a huge risk, and of course I am scared. I have no days off, I have been poisoned during the gas attack by the police three times already. Sometimes I also ask myself, “Why the hell am I doing it?”
But I want to be where a journalist should be – with the people. You smell the smells, hear people speak — you can only get all that information if you are there with them.
And I think that these historic events are a huge turning point for our country. There are many tragic moments, many victims. When things like this happen, you cannot keep quiet, you need to tell the truth.