‘What we are seeing is unprecedented’ Journalists share firsthand accounts of the crackdown on press freedom in Belarus
In Belarus, journalists covering the country’s ongoing protest wave continue to face arrests and even jail time. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), nine journalists reporting on the protests in the fall of 2020 have been targeted with criminal cases, which threaten up to three years in prison. Several journalists facing charges are currently in pre-trial detention; others have fled the country. Hundreds of media personnel have been arrested, while dozens have been held in administrative custody or become victims of police violence. Press IDs and vests have long ceased to protect reporters — in fact, they’ve had the opposite effect, drawing the attention of law enforcement officers, who have started targeting journalists. The crackdown has even inspired solidarity protests in defense of members of the press. “Meduza” talks to journalists from Belarus to get their firsthand accounts of covering the opposition protests, facing persecution for their work, and resisting the pressure to leave the profession.
Journalist for the independent television channel “Belsat”
In Belarus, the work of independent journalists is always under the gun of the special services, the pressure has always been felt. Sometimes the pressure was stronger — usually during political campaigns, sometimes it was weaker — during the period of so-called liberalization when Lukashenko tried to befriend the West. What we are seeing this year is certainly unprecedented. Everyone, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, recognizes that there has never been such massive persecution of journalists.
In fact, now a real hunt for journalists has been announced. This is especially true for journalists “on the ground.” The point is not even that he [a reporter] could get arrested in a general sweep. No. He will be hunted personally.
In recent months it has never occurred to any journalist to wear “press” vests to protests, because it doesn’t protect you — on the contrary, it makes you a target for the special services. Previously, when journalists were arrested at protests, in most cases they were released in a day, maximum.
Now, they give journalists 15 to 30 days. They simply go out to cover a rally twice and get a 15 day [sentence] twice, and then they aren’t released for a month.
At the demonstrations, the security forces specially seek out journalists on the streets and purposefully arrest them. Some of my colleagues who worked on the Maidan argue that for journalists, what’s happening [in Belarus] now is much worse and scarier than war. In war, there are still rules that are more or less clear.
Now, Belarusian journalists are under the gun of the special services almost around the clock. There were cases where reporters, after a demonstration, went to a cafe to send materials to the editorial office and they were taken away from there.
For us, it has already become a tradition that on Friday evenings they catch journalists coming home to their apartments, take them away, and slap them with 15 days. That is, now you can in fact be picked up at any time.
The most commonly used article of the administrative code is 23.34 — participation in an [unauthorized] rally. Even in spite of the fact that a journalist who was covering this protest was wearing a “press” vest, had a camera, and all the facts indicated that he was fulfilling his professional duties, they qualify his actions as participation in an unauthorized rally. Sometimes they add another charge against journalists, for example, for disobeying or resisting police officers.
In fact, now the work of a journalist in Belarus has been taken out of the legal field, we aren’t considered journalists in principle. If we appear at a rally, we’re regarded as participants. And that’s the best case scenario — my wife, Belsat journalist Ekaterina Andreeva, was accused of organizing some riots, though she, like all of our colleagues, was just doing her professional duty. My wife was arrested on Sunday, November 15, when another rally was taking place.
During large protests in Minsk, the authorities have been shutting down mobile Internet and catching journalists. Because of this, you might have noticed, in recent months there have been no live streams from the protests. On November 15, a demonstration took place in the courtyards of residential buildings and there was the chance to connect to the Wi-Fi from neighboring houses. Some concerned people who lived on the fourteenth floor invited Ekaterina to broadcast live from their apartment — to show what was happening on the street. Ekaterina broadcast from the window and commented on what was happening. She was in their apartment for five and half hours. Once the security forces had already dispersed the protesters completely, they launched a drone and saw from which floor and which apartment Katya was streaming.
As the apartment’s owner later explained in court, law enforcement officers started banging on the door immediately; they didn’t even try to shout “open up,” “police,” or anything like that. They knocked several times, pulled the handle, and broke down the door right away, 10 special forces officers burst in with weapons and took away everyone who was in the apartment without any explanation. Hence, her [Ekaterina] and her camera operator Daria Chultsova (she is in pre-trial detention now too, a criminal case was also opened against her).
Ekaterina was charged under article 342 — “Gross violation of public order and preparing and organizing actions, which grossly violate public order.” This is the most common political article now. It’s so vague absolutely all possible actions fall under it. This is today’s political article, our modern equivalent of [article] 58.
It’s a completely absurd situation. She practically spent the entire protest in that apartment, she didn’t leave there, she couldn’t take part or coordinate. The very fact that she ran a live broadcast is proof. But you have to understand that this didn’t happen by accident: in the summer our then-Interior Minister Yury Karayeu announced that the protests were being coordinated and organized with the help of journalists’ streams.
Yesterday, Ekaterina was transferred to the Zhodino prison. In the first days she was at the detention center on Okrestina Street [in Minsk], the conditions were terrible. She was shoved into a four-person cell where there were 11 people. They didn’t give them bed linens. Katya’s personal belongings were taken away, including the pills she’s supposed to take. During the day they were forbidden to sit or lie on the mattresses. I learned this from her cellmate who recently got out. I don’t know what Katya’s situation in the Zhodino prison is like now, no news has come from her.
Initially, my wife and I assessed the situation very sensibly and honestly. We understood perfectly well that working as an independent journalist is very dangerous in this country. When the mass repressions started in the summer, we understood that staying here and working was a great risk. We talked about this a lot. But it was our conscious choice to stay here until the end. So long as there’s at least some opportunity to work, we must stay, because it’s in line with our principles, with our outlook on life.
But we had a red line: if criminal prosecution looms on the horizon, we will leave. Because we wouldn’t be able to work in any case and we wouldn’t be helping anyone in prison. But it turned out differently. Preventative measures were taken against Katya immediately — she’ll be in custody for two months, until January 20. I will not leave the country without my wife.
When I learned Katya had been detained, I called a taxi and went to the district police department immediately. At that moment, her grandfather called me and said that [law enforcement] had just come to their [home], where Ekaterina is registered [as a resident], and were looking for me. Naturally, I got out of the taxi and didn’t go to the police department. And half an hour later I was informed that the Investigative Committee, along with the police, had gone to the place where I’m registered, where I do not live. If I had been there, I most likely wouldn’t be speaking to you now. I would have been detained or at least placed under administrative arrest.
Several hours after he spoke to Meduza, Igor Ilyash was arrested and taken to the Minsk detention center on Okrestina Street. Equipment was seized from his apartment. On the evening of November 25, Ilyash was sentenced to 15 days administrative arrest on charges of participating in an unauthorized protest.
Journalist for the independent newspaper “Nasha Niva”
Before this summer I wrote about social issues, interesting people, and led a women’s project. I’m not a political journalist at all. But in fact what happened in the country this summer isn’t just political events, it affected all areas of life. The whole country experienced these [presidential] elections, our entire small editorial office was on the street at that time — and I, of course, was too.
On August 10, I was covering a protest on Kalvarinsky Street in Minsk. I was wearing a blue vest with the word “press” on it. There were several hundred people around me with posters [that said] “We are Peaceful People” and “Police = People.” They shouted peaceful protest: “Long Live Belarus” and “No to Violence.”
Suddenly, a special forces unit ran out from the courtyards. We decided to leave. I felt as though something had burned my leg. I didn’t understand what had happened right away. A soldier who was standing 10 meters away from me shot me. I started to run away. I was driven to the hospital by people who had parked their car nearby. As we drove, both the bandage and my jeans became soaked with the blood. I spent the next 38 days in the hospital.
I filed a petition with the Investigative Committee requesting the launch of a criminal case for the bodily harm caused to me. Investigators came to the hospital to interview me twice, but a criminal case has yet to be initiated.
Furthermore, my editorial office at Nasha Niva is facing a fine for failing to give government agencies timely notice about an incident at work. Our accounting department took care of my sick leave and at that point we received a complaint from the department of labor, alleging that the publication didn’t inform them on time, didn’t conduct an investigation, and didn’t prevent this workplace accident — that’s what they call it — and therefore, we’re facing a fine.
At the same time, during the period when all of this happened to me, the publication’s editor-in-chief, Egor Martinovich — who, as they believe, should have reported the emergency situation to the authorities — was himself placed under arrest by the security forces and [put] in jail.
I only recently came into the profession, I’m 27-years-old. I’m not of the mindset that one should quit journalism or avoid sensitive topics. This is what the authorities want from journalists. I want to act in spite of that, in spite of what is expected from us and what they’re trying to achieve with all of these intimidations. This is even more motivation to stay in the profession.
Camera operator for “Belsat”
When I was arrested on November 1, I was doing my job — filming. When the [protest] reached its climax, the dispersal began, you could hear explosions and shots, the crowd dispersed, and the OMON [riot policemen] noticed us on the hill. They came and took [us].
Naturally, I didn’t resist. At that moment I was without a vest that says “press,” because we [journalists] already had this attitude — that there’s no need to mark ourselves as journalists. I even stopped bringing a professional camera to work, I filmed everything on a smartphone so as not to attract attention. By law this [a press vest] should protect us, demonstrate that we aren’t participants in the event, but in fact a deliberate hunt for journalists began. A real hunt — my colleague was even shot in the knee.
The trial was in the very same prison on Okrestina [Street]. They lead [you] from a cell into a room and the judge is on Skype. I was tried on two counts: for participating in the event, despite the fact that I said that I’m a journalist, and for some kind of “resistance.”
Many journalists have been sentenced to 15 days. I wasn’t sentenced, because my judge still had something human about her. I explained to her that I had experienced a misfortune — my wife had died. And the next day was the 40th day for my wife. I prayed to god I would be free, because everyone was invited to the commemoration, me in this state and my 12-year-old daughter there alone...The judge listened and awarded me a 1,350-ruble fine.
They released me. And that same day I found out that a criminal case had been opened against me under article 342. It turns out that the judge had released me and at that moment an investigator was on his way to the detention center to interrogate me. Apparently, their system didn’t work, somehow.
My daughter found out about this quickly and found me a lawyer with the help of my colleagues. The next day I visited the investigator with a lawyer. We chose a tactic — to be silent, not to answer any questions.
After several interrogations, I decided to leave [Belarus] — for the sake of my daughter. Because here, you might have heard, [they] influence “undesirables” through their children. Anything might happen to my daughter. Ultimately, I could end up in prison and my daughter would end up in an orphanage. I spoke to her, she wasn’t opposed, she understood everything. So we left.
If it weren’t for the criminal case I would have continued working in my profession. Now I’m 56, I had been working at Belsat since 2007, when it was founded. This job meant a lot to me. But if I could go [back], I would still struggle and work the same way my colleagues and I did. Because it’s a duty. I believe that we will achieve victory. My colleagues, who stayed there to work in spite of everything, are heroes.
What will happen to our life going forward? Where will I work? I don’t know. I need to somehow gain a foothold here, legalize myself. To be honest, I miss home already. I left everything there. My disabled mother is there, my middle daughter. I had a favorite job and I must admit, I made good money because I worked a lot. I have a house there, a car. If I had the chance I would return home, but now I see that I can’t show myself there.
I worked at the Sunday march on November 8. They arrested me around lunch time. There were few people at the place [where I was arrested] — no more than a thousand, dispersed along the avenue. The sidewalk was blocked by a wall of shields [belonging to law enforcement officers].
I walked to the front, looked, and began to leave. Suddenly, from the passages between the buildings, from the side of the courtyards, people in black ran out and fired into the air. I started to run away, turned around, and they were very close already. They grabbed me. I showed my journalist’s badge immediately. I heard “now we’ll check what kind of press you are” — and they took me deep into the courtyards. On the way, they grabbed my badge and shouted: “I don’t see it, what is this? A piece of paper printed on a color printer?” and “You’re lying.” Apparently, they had been instructed that journalists accredited by the Foreign Ministry can be considered foreign correspondents. And the rest follow the general program.
They constantly tried to bend [me], to hurry me up, yelling as a warning. At some point one of them yelled: “You’re walking too slowly!” and hit me in the gut. Then they threw me in a minibus. They put me on my knees — head down, hands behind my back.
There were already several other people there in the same pose. They took my phone, demanded the password. It was very scary, I knew that those who refuse are beaten up. I responded as amicably as possible: “Friend, forgive me, but no.” The riot policeman said “wrong answer” — and put the phone on the seat in front of me. From the front seat, someone yelled something along the lines of “You’re [done], now you’ll tell us everything” and jumped out of the minibus. But he didn’t come inside. They didn’t touch or threaten me any more. I think the press card helped in that moment.
Other detainees were less fortunate. When we were loaded into the paddy wagon a student was with me — he had a broken face, hefty lumps on the back of his head and, probably, a broken wrist, there was a bone protruding under the skin. He said he had been lying face down on the floor with his hands behind his head. When they asked for the password to his phone they started hitting his hands and the back of his head with a rifle butt. An ambulance took him from the district police station.
I heard similar stories from many other detainees: some were hit in their pressure points, some with a taser. The general point is that these were already immobilized people who couldn’t resist. But not all the officers were cruel. Some walked directly on top of the detainees on purpose. Some, on the other hand, walked around and jumped over the people lying down.
They unloaded us at the district police department and copied our information. I told the boss several times that I’m a journalist. They promised to figure it out and copied down my badge. To further questions they replied that they were resolving the issue. But in fact they couldn’t care less if you’re a journalist or not. Only correspondents accredited by the Foreign Ministry were released.
They drew up a protocol against me under article 23.34, section 1 of the Administrative Code, [for] shouting slogans “to express my disagreement with the decisions of the current government of Belarus” and participating in an unauthorized rally. The protocol [included] testimony from a secret witness who appeared [in the protocols] of several other people. Moreover, [these people] were in different places at the same time.
At night we were taken to a prison in Zhodino. Upon arrival, they gave us a warm welcome — at the entrance the receiver laid out a red-and-white flag, everyone who passed by was hit on the ass with a truncheon. The prison buildings are connected by several hundred meters of underground hallways — the warden ordered us to squat down and walk in single file. They shouted expletives all the while, mocking cries of “We believe, we can, we will win!” Those who couldn’t walk crawled on all fours. Those who got up were prodded with truncheons or kicks. The girls were also forced to walk this way, I didn’t see whether or not they beat them.
Absolutely exhausted, we crawled to the right building. There, we were lined up along the grating that lined the corridor, they told us to stand up in a “stretch” with our palms out. We stood like that for 40 minutes. It’s a terribly uncomfortable pose. Those who turned or raised their heads would get hit.
Then came the search and they shoved us into cells — at first there were 17 people to six bunks, then 13. We were put on trial there, in the prison. The hearing lasted less than a minute. A judge with sneakers protruding from under her robe, a badly tied tie, and a rumpled collar, quickly read out my remarks on the protocol, about the fact that I hadn’t been shouting slogans, I had been fulfilling my journalistic duties in accordance with the law on mass media. She asked what my journalistic duties were. After listening [to me] she said, briefly, “Understood. 15 days.”
Then there was the transfer from Zhodino to the jail in Mogilev. There were so many detainees that we were kept in prison facilities that operated as a temporary detention center. I could talk for a long time, [but] I’ll just say that being there is a constant struggle with everyday inconveniences. In Mogilev, it was very damp, many got sick, including with covid. But the guards looked after their own health — when they came in we were obliged to put on masks, any exiting of the cell was also in [masks]. They didn’t care [about] what would happen to us.
As a journalist I tried to remind myself that I didn’t come here to “relax,” but rather to work. The attitude of the guards, of course, changed when they found out who and what I am. They were more careful, some of them treated me with more respect. Everything was fine with the other inmates — I questioned them, wrote down information about beatings, torture, and recorded what happened on the inside.
Unfortunately, upon leaving, most of the notes were seized by the staff [of the pre-trial detention center]. Obviously they didn’t want what’s happening inside the system to get out. Lukashenko and the leadership of the security forces are genuinely convinced that journalists are coordinating the protests. They believe that by getting rid of our presence at the rallies, they will lower opposition sentiments or persuade people not to take to the streets. But even if we aren’t working on the street, there’s too much hell happening in our homeland that mustn't be ignored.
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart