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Arrests of journalists who were at the protest in Belarus continue: Journalists’ detentions are only the tip of the iceberg.

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For several weeks now, massive protests have been taking place in Belarus against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. More than a hundred people have found themselves in court in Minsk, and trials have started in other cities as well. Peaceful protests in a country which has been overcome by the crisis and led by Lukashenko for 23 years, followed after the introduction of new taxes for the unemployed.

Among those who were detained and received prison sentences are journalists who reported from the protest. As the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported, more than 50 journalists were detained during the protests of the 25 and 26 March this year. Most of the journalists were quickly released, however at least six journalists and bloggers were sentenced to administrative arrests for a duration of 10 to 15 days. On Freedom Day (25 March) alone, 36 journalists were detained.

The arrest of journalists started on 12 March when the police arrested 18 journalists. As the Belarusian Association of Journalists told us, at that time the police officers, dressed in plain clothes, used different methods to interfere with the journalistic work with the purpose of preventing journalists from obtaining information about the course of these mass events. They noted that it can be inferred that the actions of impeding the journalists in their work were coordinated considering the detentions occurred in different cities.

The association underlined that on that day alone (12 March) more journalists were detained than during the whole preceding year which puts a cross on the positive tendency in relations between mass media and law enforcement agencies.

BAJ reminds that a journalist has the right to attend mass events, any events of public significance, and distribute information from there. BAJ calls on the respective bodies to hold an immediate investigation of the massive violation of journalists’ rights; to identify those responsible for the unlawful actions and to hold them liable, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).

Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach, Belarusian media analyst and former journalist with over 15 years of professional experience who is currently working as coordinator of the Free Press Unlimited programme, commented on these events for Fairpress.

After a relatively calm year 2016, when the journalists were mostly fined or briefly detained, 2017 brought back the more brutal repressions against free press in Belarus. It does not come as a total surprise: Belarus is low in the international rankings of press freedom. Journalists and bloggers in Belarus for many years were detained, fined or given jail sentences while covering elections, protests,

peaceful rallies or just doing their job without a special permission of authorities. But it was the contrast with 2016 which made some people hope for liberalisation, including of the media environment. Those hopes were destroyed in early 2017 when journalists and bloggers who followed smaller rallies and protests against “freeloaders tax”, began to be treated as participants of those protests or as “hooligans” who apparently have nothing better to do but “swear in public”. The detentions on 25 and 26 of March were the culmination of that theatre of the absurd: media professionals whose only “weapons” are cameras and smartphones have been charged with “hooliganism” and “violating the procedure for organizing or holding mass events”. Their attempt to bring light on what is going on in the streets of Minsk and regional cities are punished by fines and jail sentences. There was a striking example of such treatment during the trial of the cameraman Alexander Borosenko. The witness from police ranks claimed that Alexander was swearing in public. When the video recording from the event was played in the court, his only “swear” words were: “I am a journalist! I am a journalist!”. Despite this being shown, Alexander got 15 days in jail and is currently reported to be on a hunger strike.

When asked what kind of atmosphere currently prevails in Belarus, Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach underlined that the arrests of journalists are merely a small part of the general suppression of freedom of speech, adding that strength for resistance in the country certainly exists.

However, journalists’ detentions, as much as I support my former colleagues, are only the tip of the iceberg. Last weekend, human rights defenders were targeted by the police who raided their office in Minsk and put 58 people, mostly women, on the floor and then into the police truck, holding them in detention for several hours. They were quickly released, but other people – both activists who participated in the rally and passers-by who say that they had nothing to do with the protests – have been left in jail.

The actions of the authorities bring not only sadness and despair; the spirit of solidarity is strong among Belarusians both within the country and abroad. People are collecting money to pay for fines and to financially support the families of jailed compatriots: the campaign under #BY_help hashtag has gathered more than 15,000 USD.

There’s still a chance that the Belarusian government will see the benefit of treating its citizens’ rights for peaceful protest and freedom of expression with more respect. And as a person who never gives up on hope, I choose to believe that this chance can become a reality any time, Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach for Fairpress.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined their affiliate in Belarus, condemning the actions of the authorities, stressing that violating journalists’ rights is not only an unlawful restriction of freedom of information but also violates constitutional rights of all citizens to express their opinion, receive and distribute information.

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