President Alexander Lukashenko speaks to the media in Grodno, Belarus, on November 26, 2021. At least five journalists have upcoming court dates in Belarus over their reporting. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)

At least 5 journalists face court hearings over reporting in Belarus

Paris, July 11, 2022 – Authorities in Belarus should immediately stop harassing and prosecuting members of the press, and release all journalists imprisoned for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

This week, at least four members of the press are scheduled to appear in court because of their work, and another was recently charged but no court date was set. If convicted, they face heavy fines and prison terms, according to news reports and reports by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade group.

“This new round of trials shows how Belarusian authorities are constantly resorting to ludicrous pretexts to silence independent reporting in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should immediately release all imprisoned journalists, drop the charges against them, and ensure that members of the media can work freely and without fear of reprisal.”

Journalists who face upcoming court hearings include:

Yury Hantsarevich, a correspondent for the independent news website Intex-Press, is facing charges of “facilitating extremist activities” and is due to appear in a court in the southwestern city of Brest on Wednesday, according to BAJ.

Hantsarevich was detained in May after he reported on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russia. If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison under the Belarusian criminal code.

Aleh Hruzdzilovich, a freelance journalist and former correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster RFE/RL’s Belarusian service Radio Svaboda, is facing three civil suits over allegedly blocking traffic at protests he covered in 2020, according to Radio Svaboda.

If convicted, he faces a total fine of up to 56,000 Belarusian rubles (US$21,820); the three separate trials will be held in Minsk, the capital, beginning on July 15, July 22, and July 25, according to that report.

Hruzdzilovich is already serving an 18-month prison sentence after he was convicted on May 3 of participating in those protests, as CPJ documented at the time.

Katsiaryna Andreyeva, a correspondent with the Poland-based independent broadcaster Belsat TV, is due in court in the southeastern city of Homel on Wednesday to face treason charges, according to a Facebook post by her husband, Ihar Ilyash. Her trial started on July 4 but was suspended on July 6, Ilyash wrote.

If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in jail under the criminal code.

Andreyeva was detained in November 2020 while livestreaming protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s continued rule, and is already serving a two-year prison sentence for organizing an illegal protest, as CPJ has documented.

Iryna Slaunikava, also a Belsat TV correspondent, is due in court in Homel on Thursday to face charges of “organizing or participating in gross violations of public order” and “creating an extremist group,” according to media reports. She has been detained since October 2021.

If convicted on the public order charge, she could face up to four years in prison; if convicted of creating an extremist group, she could face up to seven years. Her trial started on June 23 and was also suspended on July 6, according to those reports.

CPJ is also monitoring the case of Ksenia Lutskina, a former correspondent for the state broadcaster Belteleradio (BT), who has been detained since December 2020 and has been charged with “conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional manner,” according to a July 7 statement by the Belarusian prosecutor general’s office.

If convicted, she could face up to 12 years in prison under the criminal code. CPJ was unable to immediately determine when she is scheduled to appear in court.

Separately, on June 29, the trials of three journalists with the independent Belarusian news agency BelaPAN, which began earlier that month, were suspended for “at least two months,” according to BAJ.

CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee for comment, but did not receive any reply.

Belarusian authorities also recently sentenced Wikipedia editor Mark Bernstein to three years of restricted freedom for allegedly “organizing or participating in gross violations of public order” over his work editing articles about the Russian war in Ukraine, according to multiple news reports.

He was detained on March 11 and sentenced on June 24, according to those reports, which said he is allowed to live at his home and go to work, but must be home at prescribed hours and cannot leave the country or conduct certain activities.

Belarus was the fifth worst jailer of journalists in the world, with at least 19 journalists behind bars on December 1, 2021, when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census.