Belarus Media Crackdown Intensifies, Rights Groups Say

The Belarusian government is escalating its clampdown on the media that began after Alexander Lukashenko won a disputed presidential election in August, according to two news freedom rights groups.The Belarus Journalist Association (BAJ) and Reporters Without Borders said Thursday they referred to the United Nations 15 cases of journalists who were arbitrarily arrested after Lukashenko’s victory, which his political opponents and many Western countries have deemed questionable.The groups demanded an end to media censorship, website blockages, internet blackouts and cancellations of journalists’ accreditation credentials.Women wearing carnival masks march down the streets under umbrellas with the colors of the former white-red-white flag of Belarus to protest against the Belarus presidential election results in Minsk, on Jan. 26, 2021.They said Lukashenko’s government has taken a more threatening turn since the beginning of 2021, with phony criminal charges being placed against journalists that could lead to several years in prison.In addition to allegations of raiding journalists’ homes, the rights groups accused the Belarusian government of threatening reporters over their coverage of the election and the mass anti-government protests that began before the election, and which have since gained momentum.“The Belarusian authorities are pursuing a new tactic in which they permanently lock up journalists to prevent them from covering the protests, which have continued for more than five months despite the crackdown,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.  Ten journalists are currently in Belarusian jails, six of whom are subject to criminal investigations, a situation the BAJ and RSF considered serious enough to prompt them to refer 15 cases of arbitrary arrests to the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.Among those jailed during the protests was a popular blogger, Ihar Losik, who is facing an eight-year prison term and recently ended a six-week hunger strike. Belarus accuses him of helping organize riots.FILE – Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 21, 2020.Also under arrest are four members of the Belarus Press Club accused of large-scale tax fraud, a claim rejected by rights groups that call the charges retaliatory, and three journalists facing charges of organizing mass protests and disclosing information about a protester that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who lost the disputed election to Lukashenko, said was “killed by the regime’s cronies.”According to the BAJ, independent journalists were detained in Belarus more than 470 times last year, 50 media websites were blocked, and 15 journalists currently are facing criminal charges.Tsikhanouskaya said earlier this month at an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council that unrest in Belarus “has only worsened” since September and that Lukashenko’s government continues to attack media outlets in the former Soviet country of 9.5 million people.Tsikhanouskaya said she and her supporters have refused to recognize Lukashenko’s victory, contending the election results were riddled with fraud.Lukashenko has been reelected as president of Belarus every five years since 1994.The former Soviet Republic was ranked 153 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index. 

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