Paris, June 15, 2022 — Belarus authorities should immediately release journalists Yauhen Yerchak and Dzmitry Suslau, drop all charges against them, and allow the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
On June 3, police in the eastern city of Babruysk detained Suslau, a reporter for the local weekly Kommercheskiy Kurier, and sent him to a pretrial detention center, where he was tried on June 6 and ordered to be held for 15 days after being convicted of “distributing extremist materials,” according to multiple media reports.
Separately, on June 13, officers with the Ministry of Interior’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption detained Yerchak, a freelance photographer, in Minsk, the capital, according to a post by the pro-government Telegram channel Center E and multiple news reports. On June 15, the Minsk Savetski District Court convicted Yerchak on charges of disobeying police officers and sentenced him to 15 days of detention, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a banned local advocacy and trade group.
“The arrests of journalists Yauhen Yerchak and Dzmitry Suslau in Belarus show that authorities are truly relentless in their harassment and prosecution of members of the press,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must immediately drop all charges and release Suslau, Yerchak, and all other imprisoned journalists, and stop using extremism legislation to cleanse the media landscape of reporting that contradicts the government narrative.”
Police detained Suslau at Kommercheskiy Kurier’s editorial office and held him in a police station until late in the evening of June 3, before sending him to the pretrial detention center, according to those news reports on his case.
Authorities have not disclosed the exact reason for Suslau’s detention, according to those reports. BAJ deputy head Barys Haretski told CPJ via email that he believed Suslau’s arrest was retaliation for his journalism. In recent articles reviewed by CPJ, Suslau covered local news stories and environmental topics.
In a confession video published by a pro-government Telegram channel, Yerchak is seen saying that he took part in the 2020 nationwide protests demanding the resignation of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, covered them for the banned independent news website Tut.by, and subscribed to extremist Telegram channels.
One image from Yerchak’s coverage of those 2020 protests was republished in a “The Year in Pictures” roundup by The New York Times. In its post, Center E wrote that authorities had gained access to Yerchak’s photo and video archives.
In his confession video, Yerchak said he was currently unemployed. However, Haretski told CPJ that Yerchak had been working as a journalist, but said he could not disclose the names of outlets that he had recently worked for, citing fear of reprisal against Yerchak.
Separately, on June 14, the Supreme Court of Belarus announced that Tut.by’s parent company had been designated as an extremist organization, according to media reports, which said the decision allowed authorities to confiscate the company’s property.
Tut.by’s website was blocked and its offices raided in May 2021, and authorities later declared all content published by Tut.by and its affiliate Zerkalo.io as “extremist.” Anyone convicted of producing, storing, or spreading materials designated extremist can be fined up to 960 rubles (US$290) or detained for up to 15 days, according to the administrative code of Belarus.
CPJ called the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption and the Interdistrict Babruysk Department of the Belarusian Investigative Committee for comment, but no one answered.