New York, July 20, 2023—Belarusian authorities should immediately disclose the reason for the recent detention of journalist Ihar Karnei, reverse their decision to ban Polish journalist Justyna Prus, and let the media work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
On Monday, July 17, authorities in Minsk searched the home of Karnei, a former freelance journalist with Radio Svaboda, the Belarus service of the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, detained him, and ordered him to be held for 10 days, according to a Facebook post by his daughter Palina Karnei, a report by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an advocacy and trade group operating from exile, and multiple media reports. He is held in Akrestina temporary detention center in Minsk, those sources said.
Palina Karnei told independent news website Mediazona that her father was facing criminal charges, but authorities did not disclose the reason for Karnei’s detention. Police seized computers and phones during the search of his apartment, media reports said.
Separately, on June 30, a Belarusian border guard in Brest, a Belarusian city at the Poland-Belarus border, gave Prus, a Polish correspondent with Polish state news agency PAP, who was leaving Belarus, a document stating that she was banned from entering Belarus until June 7, 2028, following a decision by the Belarusian State Security Committee, or KGB, according to media reports, Tomasz Jarosz, the head of PAP’s foreign desk, who communicated with CPJ via email, and another PAP representative who communicated with CPJ via messaging app on condition of anonymity.
“With the arrest of Ihar Karnei, the Belarusian authorities are following their usual pattern of detaining journalists on opaque grounds to maintain the pressure on independent voices. Meanwhile, the ban on Justyna Prus marks the departure of one of the last Western journalists from Belarus,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Authorities should immediately disclose the reason for detaining Karnei, reverse the ban on Justyna Prus, and let the media work freely in Belarus.”
Belarusian authorities have jailed an increasing number of journalists for their work since 2020, when the country was wracked by mass protests over the disputed reelection of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. In 2022, CPJ ranked the country as the world’s fifth worst jailer of journalists, with at least 26 journalists behind bars when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census on December 1.
On July 1, Lukashenko signed into law a bill empowering the country’s Ministry of Information to ban the activities of foreign media in Belarus “in the event of unfriendly actions by foreign states against Belarusian media.”
The PAP representative told CPJ that Prus was leaving Belarus for a personal trip to Poland on June 30, when she was notified of the five-year ban. Jarosz told CPJ that the document handed to Prus stated she was banned under Article 30 of the law on the legal status of foreign citizens in Belarus, but did not provide further details.
Prus had been reporting from Belarus for PAP since 2016, and was accredited by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PAP report said. The representative told CPJ that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs canceled her accreditation in October 2020, when it annulled all foreign media accreditation, and reinstated it in the first half of 2021. Prus’ accreditation was valid at the time of the ban, but expired on July 13.
Other recent detentions of journalists in Belarus:
- Previously, around July 7, authorities in the eastern city of Mahilou detained Dzmitry Lyapeyka a freelance journalist and a former reporter with the local outlet Mahilou Vedomosti, and ordered him to be detained for 15 days for “subscriptions and likes,” according to multiple media reports and a BAJ report. Those reports did not specify the exact date of Lyapeyka’s detention or the charges he faces. CPJ is investigating to determine whether Lyapeyka’s detention is related to his journalism.
- On June 9, officers with the Ministry of Interior’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption detained four journalists with privately-owned broadcaster Ranak in the southeastern city of Svietlahorsk on charges of distributing extremist materials, according to multiple media reports and BAJ. The journalists included Ranak editor-in-chief Vadzim Vezhnavets, reporter Andrei Lipski, and cameramen Pavel Rabko and Uladzimir Papou. In addition, law enforcement detained five other non-journalist employees of the broadcaster.
On June 12, a court in Svietlahorsk ordered Lipski and Rabko to be detained for seven days, confiscated their phones, and ordered Vezhnavets and Papou to be held for three days. They were all released after serving their sentence, a BAJ representative told CPJ via messaging app, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The other five Ranak employees received fines ranging from 780 (US$312) to 925 (US$370) Belarusian rubles.
According to BAJ’s unnamed source, the charges opened against the journalists are retaliation for Ranak’s coverage of a June 7 explosion of a pulp and paper mill in Svietlahorsk. Ranak covered the 2020 nationwide protests demanding Lukashenko’s resignation, media and BAJ reported. Authorities had previously searched the company’s office and some of its journalists’ apartments in 2020 and 2021.
The Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked Ranak’s website shortly after the detentions, BAJ reported. On July 4, a court in the southeastern city of Homel labeled Ranak’s website and its social media as “extremist,” BAJ said.
- On June 6, law enforcement detained Tatsiana Pytko, the wife of freelance camera operator Vyacheslau Lazarau, who was detained in February, in the outskirts of the northeastern city of Vitebsk, BAJ and banned human rights group Viasna said. Lazarau was charged with facilitating extremist activity and Pytko, was charged with participating in an extremist formation, those sources said. If found guilty, they both face up to six years in jail, BAJ reported.
The charges against Lazarau stem from his alleged collaboration with the banned Poland-based independent broadcaster Belsat TV. According to BAJ, while examining the content of Lazarau’s computer and phone, investigators noticed that Pytko appeared in some of the footage.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee and the KGB, but did not receive any reply.
[Editors’ note: This article has been updated in its 11th paragraph to reflect the number of non-journalist Ranak employees arrested by authorities.]