A photo of Press Club Belarus program director Alla Sharko (top) is held by an activist opposing the imprisonment of women after the August 9, 2020 Belarus presidential elections as pictured on February 14, 2021, in Minsk. Months after Sharko's arrest, Belarus Press Club has now been dissolved. (AFP)

Belarus authorities dissolve Belarus Press Club

Stockholm, July 27, 2021 – Belarusian authorities should reverse their decision to dissolve Press Club Belarus and allow the organization and its staff to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 21, the Minsk City Executive Committee, the city administration headed by a presidential appointee, initiated the dissolution of the independent professional trade organization Press Club Belarus, according to news reports, an announcement on the organization’s Telegram channel, and the organization’s file in a state register of legal entities.

Natalia Belikova, head of international projects at Press Club Belarus, who spoke to CPJ by telephone, confirmed the dissolution. Belikova told CPJ that Press Club Belarus received confirmation from the City Executive Committee that the dissolution decision is final.

Press Club Belarus conducts educational and cultural initiatives relating to journalism, hosts professional development events, and produces media content, according to its website. Belikova said that the organization is considering an appeal and in the meantime will continue to promote development of the media sector in Belarus on an informal basis.

The move comes eight months after five of Press Club Belarus’s employees and a journalist who participated in Press Club Belarus’s events were arrested as part of a tax evasion investigation into the organization in December 2020, as CPJ documented at the time. Four of Press Club Belarus’s staff, including founder Yulia Slutskaya, remain in detention awaiting trial on tax evasion charges, Belikova told CPJ, adding that the organization has operated online since its office was raided and sealed by police at the time of the arrests.

“The forced closure of Press Club Belarus is yet another sorry page in the history of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s relentless drive to stamp out any trace of an independent media sector,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Belarus authorities should immediately retract this unjustified decision, reinstate Press Club Belarus, and drop all charges and release its staff.”

CPJ emailed the Minsk City Executive Committee for comment. On August 9, after publication, the Minsk City Executive Committee’s Justice Department replied, referring CPJ to the state register of legal entities and to a July 27 letter to Press Club explaining the reasons for the organization’s dissolution. On July 29, Press Club shared with CPJ a letter it received from the Executive Committee that day, dated July 27, stating that the basis for the decision was Press Club’s alleged lack of business activity for a period of 24 months, which is grounds for dissolution of a business entity according to a 2009 presidential decree

Belikova informed CPJ by messaging app on August 30 that Press Club had appealed the grounds for this decision but had yet to receive a reply from the Minsk City Executive Committee. 

In recent months, as part of its project “Press Under Pressure,” Press Club Belarus has reported on the detentions of journalists and other press freedom violations since the country’s contested presidential election in August 2020.

Press Club Belarus was one of at least 53 civil society organizations whose liquidation was initiated by authorities on or around July 22, according to a list compiled by the independent human rights NGO Viasna.

Last week Belarusian authorities applied to the Supreme Court for the dissolution of the independent trade association Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Belarusian branch of the international free expression organization PEN, as CPJ documented. Both groups are officially registered as NGOs, and may only be dissolved by the courts according to Belarusian law. Press Club Belarus, by contrast, is a registered foundation, meaning a local administration can dissolve it per the 2009 presidential decree.

The move to liquidate Press Club Belarus and other organizations comes after more than two weeks of official raids on media outlets’ and NGOs’ offices and detentions of their staff, as CPJ has documented.

Editor’s note: The seventh, eighth, and 11th paragraphs have been updated with responses from the Minsk City Executive Committee and from Press Club Belarus.