Belarus is purging the space for information, local journalists say, pointing to raids on independent media outlets, arrests including of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondents, and moves to shutter the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Journalists, members of the opposition and activists have been targeted for arrest or harassment since widespread protests erupted last August over contested presidential elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory as members of the opposition were jailed or forced to flee.
Most face charges of violating public order, damage to public property or accusations related to the country’s anti-terror laws.
The media environment has become so repressive that many journalists are working in underground conditions, says Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), who spoke to VOA’s Russian service earlier this month.
The Minsk-based organization documents arrests, attacks and raids on media in Belarus. Since August last year BAJ has documented at least 480 detentions and lists 33 journalists in custody.
On Friday, it was named as one of dozens of nongovernmental organizations that are being forced to close.
The day before, Lukashekno was reported as saying he planned to “cleanse” the country of nonprofits, which he described as “bandits and foreign agents.”
“It’s a total mopping-up operation. The Justice Ministry isn’t even trying to respect decorum,” Bastunets told The Associated Press. “Even though the situation seems desperate, we will defend BAJ by legal means.”
Belarus has said that those being detained are suspected of inciting hatred or mass disorder, or are being investigated for tax fraud or other crimes. When the BAJ offices were raided in a separate incident in February, Belarus said it was investigating people “participating in activities aimed at violating public order.”
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Obstacles to reporting
As well as arrests, authorities have revoked media accreditation, including for the popular news portal Tut.by. In May, authorities blocked access to the outlet’s news website, claiming it was in violation of the country’s mass media law.
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“Tut.by journalists have lost their professional status, and the authorities are consistently forcing independent journalists out of the legal domain. The legal space is shrinking to such an extent that now there is only a sliver of it left,” Bastunets told VOA’s Russian service.
Some outlets were already denied the official accreditation permitting them to work in the country, but Bastunets said more have been denied permits since August.
“Reporters working for the Polish Belsat TV channel have long been denied accreditation; they have been both fined and detained. Last September, all foreign correspondents were stripped of their accreditation, and yet some of them continue working in semi-underground conditions,”…