Yan Rudzik was charged with running a terrorist group for his work on popular Telegram channel NEXTA-Live. (YouTube/NEXTA)

Exiled Belarusian journalists face terrorism charges; former journalist detained

Paris, May 27, 2022 – Belarus authorities should drop all charges against journalists Stsypan Putsila and Yan Rudzik, immediately release detained former journalist Aliaksandr Lyubyanchuk, and stop labeling media outlets as terrorists or extremists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Thursday, May 26, law enforcement officers in the western Belarusian village of Krivichy detained Aliaksandr Lyubyanchuk, a former journalist with independent Poland-based online television station Belsat, and took him to a pre-trial detention center in Minsk, according to a Telegram post by Belarusian human rights group Viasna, and local advocacy and trade group Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). (Both Viasna and BAJ are banned in Belarus but continue to operate unofficially.) Lyubyanchuck is detained as part of a criminal investigation, BAJ said, but Belarusian authorities have not yet disclosed any charges.

Lyubanchuk left Belsat last year and no longer works in journalism, BAJ deputy director Barys Haretski told CPJ via email. He believes that Lyubanchuk’s recent arrest was in retaliation for his previous reporting for Belsat.

Separately, Belarusian authorities charged exiled journalists Stsypan Putsila and Yan Rudzik, the co-founder and a former administrator of the popular Telegram channel NEXTA-Live respectively, with running a terrorist group, according to news reports. The charges are related to their work on the channel, which the Belarus Supreme Court declared a terrorist organization in April, reports said. CPJ was unable to determine the date of the charges, though they were reported on May 20.

If convicted, the two could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, according to the Belarusian criminal code.

“Belarusian authorities must release Aliaksandr Lyubyanchuk immediately and drop the ludicrous charges against Stsypan Putsila and Yan Rudzik,” said CPJ Executive Director Robert Mahoney in New York. “Journalism is not terrorism and efforts to erode the country’s independent media by going after individual journalists merely highlights the government’s inability to withstand any critical coverage.”

Belarus’s Investigative Committee said in a statement to state-owned news site BelTA that Putsila and Rudzik were charged because, since 2020, they had “used their information resources to destabilize the situation on the territory of Belarus and radicalize the so-called protests.” Describing them as terrorists, the committee alleged the two had “repeatedly called for inciting social enmity and discord, blocking roads and coordinating street riots, committing terrorist acts on railroads and sabotage at enterprises that could lead to man-made disasters.”

Rudzik told CPJ via messaging app that he had not been officially notified of the charge by Belarusian authorities.

Rudzik said he left NEXTA-Live to become chief editor of the Belarus of the Brain Telegram channel following the May 2021 arrest of former editor Raman Pratasevich, who was detained after Belarusian authorities diverted his Lithuania-bound commercial flight to the Belarussian capital of Minsk. (Pratasevich was also a co-founder of NEXTA, which owns NEXTA-Live; both outlets have extensively covered protests against Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, as CPJ documented.)

Rudzik recently left Belarus of the Brain and has since founded another Telegram channel, Post-Rudzik, he posted on the channel on May 23. In the post he called the terrorism charge against him the “cherry on the cake” in terms of authorities’ targeting him for his journalism and said he was now based in Poland.

CPJ wrote to Putsila via social media but did not receive a reply. He is also based in Poland, according to news reports, which said Polish authorities refused to extradite the journalist earlier this year over multiple additional charges he faced in Belarus.

Separately, on May 20, the Leninski District Court in the western city of Hrodna declared the website and social media pages of Mediazona-Belarus, the Belarus-focused news site of independent Russian outlet Mediazona as extremist, according to the news site.

“Despite the fact that all the members of our small editorial board are in exile, we continue to do quality journalism, we report on the situation in Belarus and we cover the war in Ukraine. We will continue even now, despite the fact that the authorities in our country want us to be afraid and give up our work,” Mediazona.Belarus said in a statement on May 25.

Two days earlier, on May 18, a court in the western city of Baranavichy declared all “information products” by the Telegram channel Economy of Belarus, which publishes economic news and analysis, as “extremist materials,” according to news reports.

Anyone convicted of producing, storing, or spreading extremist materials can be fined up to 960 rubles (US$290) or detained for up to 15 days, according to the administrative code of Belarus.

CPJ contacted both Mediazona.Belarus and Economy of Belarus via messaging app but did not receive replies. CPJ also did not receive responses to emails to the Belarusian Investigative Committee and Leninski and Baranavichy district courts.

CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service for comment, but no one answered.