Law enforcement officers leave the office of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists during a search in Minsk, Belarus, on February 16, 2021. The country's Justice Ministry recently sued to shut down the association. (BelaPAN via Reuters)

Belarus authorities sue to shut down independent journalist organization

Stockholm, July 22, 2021 – Belarus authorities should immediately drop all proceedings against the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and allow members of the press and their trade organizations to operate freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, the Justice Ministry of Belarus applied to the country’s Supreme Court to dissolve BAJ, the country’s largest independent media association, according to news reports, a Telegram post by the Justice Ministry’s press service, and BAJ Deputy Director Aleh Aheyeu, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

The ministry alleges that BAJ failed to comply with a written warning to turn over documents, according to those sources. Under Belarusian law, a repeat violation after an initial warning is grounds for shutting down a civil society organization.

BAJ announced today that it plans to appeal the Justice Ministry’s initial written warning; if the Supreme Court rejects that appeal, then it would be able to rule on the group’s dissolution.

Aheyeu told CPJ that he believed the ministry’s claims were just a pretext for shutting BAJ down. In a statement yesterday, the association’s head, Andrei Bastunets, accused the Justice Ministry of “not even making an attempt to keep up appearances.”

“Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has made it abundantly clear in recent weeks that he intends to wipe out any trace of an independent media sector in the country, and targeting the Belarusian Association of Journalists is a cynical next step in this process,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “For months the BAJ has heroically stood up for the trampled rights of Belarusian journalists. Authorities must not attempt to silence this indispensable organization.”

Since the start of protests following contested presidential elections in Belarus last August, BAJ has regularly reported on violations of press freedom on its website and Telegram channel, and has maintained an online database of violations of journalists’ rights allegedly committed by Belarusian authorities.

On June 21, BAJ announced that the Justice Ministry had given the organization two days to turn over thousands of documents dating back to January 1, 2018, including membership lists, meeting protocols, all incoming and outgoing correspondence, and all of the organization’s financial documentation.

Authorities raided BAJ’s Minsk offices on July 14, as CPJ documented at the time. The following day, the association reported that the Justice Ministry had sent it a written warning, which CPJ reviewed, stating that the association had failed to provide up-to-date rental contracts for three of its regional offices, and gave the organization until July 16 to send those documents.

On July 16, BAJ informed the Justice Ministry that it was unable to search for those documents because authorities had sealed the association’s facility following the raid, according to correspondence seen by CPJ.

Aheyeu added that two of those contracts had been renewed automatically, and therefore updated versions did not exist, and said that BAJ had originally been unable to find the third following another raid by authorities in February.

Separately, on July 20, the BAJ wrote on Telegram that its bank accounts had been frozen since the raid on July 14. The Belarusian branch of the international free expression organization PEN also announced today that the Justice Ministry had applied to the Supreme Court for its dissolution, after similarly reporting that its accounts had been frozen following a search of the organization’s office on July 15.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko stated in the midst of the raids last week that the authorities were actively pursuing civil society organizations “and so-called Western media,” according to reports. On July 16, the Investigative Committee of Belarus said that it was investigating “multiple” organizations and media outlets for alleged financial irregularities and funding of protests, without naming those organizations or outlets.

Since early July, authorities have repeatedly raided independent news outlets, journalists’ homes, and nongovernmental organizations, as CPJ has documented. The BAJ estimates that law enforcement officials have searched at least 66 editorial offices and media representatives’ homes during this period.

CPJ emailed the Justice Ministry of Belarus for comment, but did not receive any reply.