October 9, 2020

RFE/RL’s journalists face unrelenting pressure in Belarus


WASHINGTON – During the past three months of a violent and contentious election season in Europe’s last autocratic stronghold, RFE/RL journalists in Belarus have faced the most intense harassment since they first began working inside the country 30 years ago.

“Our journalists have spent more than 125 days behind bars since June 25,” said Alexander Lukashuk, director of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. “In the course of covering the presidential election and the more than 50 days of protests that have followed, they have been harassed, beaten, jailed and stripped of their accreditation.”

The August 9 elections, fueled by public anger over government denial of the coronavirus pandemic and economic decline, were roundly condemned in the U.S. and Europe as fraudulent. Throughout the ensuing nationwide protests in support of opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanou­s­kaya and the self-determined inauguration of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, RFE/RL journalists have provided professional on-the-ground coverage of the electrifying events – and paid a high price. Among numerous incidents:

— RFE/RL social media consultant Ihar Losik marks his 100th day in pre-trial confinement in Minsk on October 4. Losik, a prominent blogger who worked with RFE/RL as part of the distinguished Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, was arrested on June 25 and accused by authorities of using his popular Telegram channel to “prepare to disrupt public order” ahead of the vote. According to his wife, Daria, Mr. Losik is being held in “deliberately inhuman conditions” – kept in cramped basement cells, forced to cohabit with a cellmate infested with head lice, and prohibited from receiving letters and personal visits. His wife and the couple’s baby daughter, Paulina, have not seen Mr. Losik since his detention; neither have his parents.

— Belarus Service photojournalist Uladz Hrydzin served 11 days in jail after being detained by unidentified men wearing balaclavas after covering a September 13 protest rally in Minsk. Authorities accused Mr. Hrydzin of violating Belarus’s law on mass gatherings; while in detention, Mr. Hrydzin was beaten and the flash cards holding his photos were confiscated. Released from jail on September 24, Mr. Hrydzin cannot work legally because he has been stripped of his accreditation.

— Anton Trafimovich suffered a broken nose after being grabbed from the street, beaten by riot police, and left handcuffed kneeling on the floor of a police van. RFE/RL later received anonymously sourced audio recordings suggesting that Mr. Trafimovich and other of its journalists in Belarus had been deliberately surveilled.

— Alexandra Dynko was arrested by police while reporting live on air from a street protest. Ms. Dynko, an award-winning reporter for the Belarus Service, has been repeatedly harassed by Belarusian authorities for her frank reporting during previous protest movements against Mr. Lukashenka, who has served as Belarus’s autocratic ruler for the past 26 years.

These actions come during an unprecedented crackdown against press freedom in Belarus. At least 17 journalists working for major foreign news organizations – including Mr. Hrydzin, Ms. Dynko, and three other Belarus-based RFE/RL reporters – were stripped of their accreditation on August 29. Earlier in August, five RFE/RL reporters with expelled from Belarus due to the government’s denial of accreditation.

“Our journalists need accreditation to legally work in Belarus – without it, they’re at grave risk of abuse and arrest,” said RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar. “The Belarus government has spent the last three months deliberately and cynically stripping professional reporters of accreditation. This is a clear attempt to silence truthful news and information from reaching the Belarusian people at a critical moment in their country’s history.”

That Belarusians are seeking trustworthy alternatives to state-controlled media is evident in the record audiences that are consuming RFE/RL’s live news and insightful analysis. The number of subscribers to the Belarus Service’s Telegram channel has tripled to nearly 100,000 since early August, the Belarus Service totaled more than 54 million Instagram video views in August and September, and video views on the Service’s YouTube channel in the two months together exceeded 30 million.

The service has deployed mirror sites and an updated news app to circumvent pervasive disruption to internet blockages, and has resumed radio broadcasting via cross-border AM transmissions. Additio­nally, live coverage of protests and developments by Current Time, the 24/7 Russian-language digital video network led by RFE/RL, earned its Belarus-related content a combined 294 million views in August and September.