Vilnius, Lithuania, November 4, 2021 — Belarusian authorities should cease their practice of banning news outlets, and should not punish journalists for allegedly interacting with such banned outlets, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On November 1, Belarusian courts convicted two journalists, Iryna Slaunikava and Syarhei Niarouny, on charges of spreading extremism over their alleged interactions with the Facebook pages of Belsat TV and Tut.by, two banned independent news outlets, according to news reports and multiple reports by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade organization that is also legally banned from operating within the country.
The Pershamaiski District Court in Minsk sentenced Slaunikava, a Belarus-based journalist and legal representative of the Poland-based independent broadcaster Belsat TV, to 15 days in detention for interacting with broadcaster’s Facebook page, according to those sources.
Separately, the Krychaw District Court in the country’s eastern region of Mahiliou fined freelance journalist Niarouny 580 Belarusian rubles (US$235) for “spreading extremist content” by liking Tut.by’s Facebook posts last year, according to news reports and those BAJ statements, which added that Niarouny plans to appeal the verdict.
“Accusing journalists of extremism for simply interacting with the Facebook pages of Belsat TV and Tut.by is a new low, even considering Belarusian authorities’ long campaign against the independent press,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should release Iryna Slaunikava immediately, not contest Syarhei Niarouny’s appeal, and cease harassing members of the press.”
Both Belsat TV and Tut.by covered the anti-government protests in Belarus following the contested August 2020 presidential elections, CPJ has documented.
Authorities banned access to Tut.by within Belarus in May, and in August labeled it as “extremist,” according to CPJ reporting and news reports; authorities labeled Belsat TV as “extremist” in July, and also blocked its website and social media accounts within Belarus, according to news reports.
On November 3, the Interior Ministry decreed that any citizens who used “online resources” to support Belsat TV would be considered members of an extremist group, according to media reports and the BAJ.
On October 30, authorities at Minsk National Airport detained Slaunikava along with her husband Aliaksandr Loika, who is not a journalist, when they two arrived from a vacation in Egypt; authorities accused Slaunikava, who is also a deputy chair of the BAJ, and her husband of storing articles by Belsat TV on their Facebook pages, according to those BAJ reports and the independent human rights group Viasna.
In court, Loika said that he and Slaunikava were transported from the airport to the Akrestina Detention Center in Minsk, and that authorities offered for him to record a “confession video,” which he denied, according to a report by the BAJ.
At the November 1 hearing, Slaunikava and her husband were charged and convicted of “distributing information containing calls for extremist activity” based on their Facebook activity, and were both sentenced to 15 days in detention, according to that report and Viasna.
Barys Haretski, the deputy head of the BAJ, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, said any independent media or journalist can now be labeled “extremist” and punished in Belarus.
“It is very clear that the authorities seek to crush all independent media completely,” he said.
Separately, on October 28, Belarusian authorities blocked access to the websites of German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Current Time, the Russian-language network run by the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for allegedly spreading material containing “extremist” content, according to reports by both outlets.
On October 30, Belarusian authorities also blocked access to the pro-Kremlin Russian news agency Regnum, without issuing any statement explaining that decision, according to news reports.
And today, the Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked access to the BAJ’s website in Belarus, according to a report by the association, which said that its website continues functioning outside of the country, and that it planned to launch a “mirror” website accessible in Belarus. The ministry also blocked the websites of PEN Belarus and The Writers’ Union, according to Viasna.
CPJ called the Pershamaiski District Court in Minsk, the Krychaw District Court, and the Interior Ministry for comment, but no one answered.