New York, September 20, 2023—Belarusian authorities should stop using the country’s extremism legislation to silence independent reporting and let the media work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
At a closed-door hearing on September 15, the Belarusian Supreme Court labeled the Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC), an independent Czech Republic-based investigative media outlet, as “extremist” at the request of the general prosecutor’s office, according to a statement by the office, a report by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an advocacy and trade group operating from exile, a Telegram post by BIC, and a representative of the center who spoke to CPJ under the condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.
In late 2022, authorities had previously labeled BIC’s content and logo as “extremist,” according to media reports and a list of materials deemed extremists by the authorities shared with CPJ.
“By labeling the Belarusian Investigative Center as ‘extremist,’ the Belarusian authorities are once again seeking to intimidate and obstruct the work of an independent outlet known for its sharp investigations into alleged corruption in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Belarusian authorities should immediately repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation instead of routinely using it against independent media and members of the press.”
Anyone who distributes extremist materials can be held for up to 15 days, according to the Belarusian rights organization Human Constanta. Organizations classified as extremist are banned from operating in Belarus, according to the Belarusian law. In addition, individual entrepreneurs and legal entities face up to three years in jail for displaying the logo of an organization deemed extremist.
Authorities accused BIC of “inciting social, political, and ideological hostility,” distributing “extremist” materials and so-called “false information about the political, economic, social, military, and international situation in Belarus,” as well as “discrediting government bodies and administration.” The Supreme Court denied BIC’s request to participate in the hearing via videoconference, according to those reports and the BIC representative.
“This is an unfortunate attempt by Belarus’ authorities to further repress and intimidate independent media,” BIC head Stanislau Ivashkevich told CPJ via messaging app.
BIC reports on corruption, economics, politics, and the war in Ukraine. In 2022, BIC and banned Poland-based independent broadcaster Belsat TV published a joint investigation into a possible corruption scheme involving the prosecutor general and his brother.
BAJ deputy head Barys Haretski told CPJ via messaging app that BIC was the second media outlet, after the now-defunct independent news website Tut.by, to be labeled an “extremist organization.”
”The fact that BIC is the only active media labeled an extremist organization…shows the importance of our investigators’ work in revealing corruption among Belarus’ political elites and their schemes of sanctions evasion,” Ivashkevich told CPJ.
More than 15 media outlets are labeled as “extremist groups,” Haretski told CPJ, with BAJ having been added to that list in February. Anyone charged with creating or participating in an “extremist” group faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the Belarusian Criminal Code, with potential sentences of up to eight years for financing extremism and up to seven years for facilitating such activity.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Supreme Court and the general prosecutor’s office for comment but did not receive any replies.
Separately, on September 14, law enforcement officers in Brest, a Belarusian city at the Poland-Belarus border, detained Syarhey Hardzievich, a former correspondent with the independent regional news website Pershy Region, after checking his phone, and took him to a detention center in Brest, according to BAJ. A court in Belarus later ordered Hardzievich to be held for 15 days, BAJ reported.
The journalist was returning from a short personal trip to Poland when he was detained, a BAJ representative told CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The source said they believed that the authorities charged the journalist with distributing extremist materials but could not confirm that until Hardzievich was released.
CPJ is investigating to determine whether Hardzievich’s detention is related to his journalism.
Hardzievich was released from jail in October 2022 after completing a one-and-a-half year prison-sentence on charges of insulting Lukashenko and two police officers, as well as defaming one of those officers.
CPJ emailed the Brest police for comment but did not receive any reply.
(Editor’s note: This report was updated throughout to correct references to a source and in paragraph 14 to reflect that the charges against Hardzievich have not been confirmed.)