Updated: September 2, 2020 9:12:17 am
With thousands of anti-government protesters storming the streets of Belarus for the third consecutive week to demand the resignation of their long-time authoritarian President, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarusian authorities have launched a severe crackdown on journalists covering the crisis.
Protests broke out across the country after Lukashenko returned to power earlier in August, in what is widely being considered a rigged election. The demonstrations grew more heated after several opposition leaders, including the main Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, were forced to leave the country and many others imprisoned.
In recent weeks, nearly 50 journalists from around the world were rounded up by law enforcement authorities dressed in riot gear and taken into custody. Several of these were made to hand in their documents, cellphones and hard drives to government officials.
International news agency Associated Press has said that two of its Moscow-based reporters covering the demonstrations in Belarus have been deported back to Russia. Another two reporters working for the German broadcaster ARD have also been asked to leave the country, Al Jazeera reported. Paul Hansen, a Swedish photojournalist, was given 24 hours to leave the country and told he could not return for the next five years, The Guardian reported.
Moreover, at least 19 journalists, including the two AP reporters, were recently informed by Belarusian officials that their press credentials had been revoked.
Why is the government clamping down on the media?
Faced with the wrath of its own citizens and growing international condemnation, Belarus’ leadership is working overtime to keep the media in check.
When asked why authorities had revoked the media accreditation of so many journalists, government spokesperson Anatoly Glaz told AFP that the decision was taken based on advice from the country’s counter-terrorism unit.
In July, President Lukashenko had threatened to deport foreign journalists, accusing them of instigating nationwide dissent and protest right before polling, which took place on August 9.
According to a report by DW, media representatives have said that the recent spate of arrests was likely to have been triggered by the news of a fresh round of protests scheduled this weekend.
Steve Rosenberg, BBC’s reporter from Moscow, who was detained while reporting in Belarus’ capital Minsk, said his arrest was a clear “attempt to interfere with coverage of events in Belarus.” In a tweet, he said he had been held at a police station for two hours while his documents were checked.
Tonight we were detained by police in the centre of Minsk, held at a police station for two hours for “document checks”. Same thing happened to many other journalists. A clear attempt to interfere with coverage of events in #Belarus
— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) August 27, 2020
Several prominent media organisations, including BBC and AP, have now urged the authorities to allow reporters to do their jobs.
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The protests in Belarus
Widespread protests in Belarus were sparked by the re-election of its leader Lukashenko, who has served as president for over 26 years. According to the country’s election commission, Lukashenko secured 80% of the vote in the poll on August 9.
A day later, the streets of Belarus were overrun by thousands of demonstrators, who accused the 65-year-old leader of committing fraud by rigging votes and demanded a fresh election.
In a video shared on YouTube, Lukashenko’s main competitor Svetlana Tikhanovskaya revealed that she had fled to Lithuania after facing threats from the country’s leadership. “God forbid you face the kind of choice that I faced,” she said. “Children are the most important thing in our lives,” a shaken Tikhanovskaya said in the video, according to a BBC report.
To contain the crowds of demonstrators that had gathered across the country, Belarusian authorities deployed a huge number of law enforcement officials. Reports of police brutality soon emerged. At least four people were killed and thousands were arrested in the weeks that followed.
Several countries, including the United States, have rejected the election results in Belarus. The European Union, too, has announced it will impose sanctions on top Belarusian officials for alleged vote rigging and violence against protestors.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Lukashenko, has said he has formed a reserve police force set to intervene if the situation gets “out of control” in the country.
Is this the first time Belarusian authorities have launched such an attack on journalists?
No, the Belarusian government has been known to detain journalists with little explanation in the past too. In fact, right before the 2020 elections, the government began amending laws to impose new restrictions on the media.
In 2018, at least 19 independent journalists were detained after an investigative committee accused them of allegedly illegally accessing and using information from the state-run news agency BeITA, the Washington Post reported. Several of the detained journalists were made to sign non-disclosure agreements before they were released.
Even in 2010, when Lukashenko returned to power in another disputed election, protests broke out across the country and the government arrested thousands, including journalists.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 153rd out of 180 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom Index.
How have world leaders reacted
Several world leaders have condemned the Belarusian authorities’ actions against journalists. In a tweet on Saturday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused authorities of targeting BBC News and other foreign media organisations by cancelling their accreditation to report in the country.
“The Belarusian authorities are continuing to target BBC News, local and international media by cancelling their accreditation to report in Belarus. This has been raised with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. I condemn these clear attacks on media freedom,” Raab’s tweet read.
Austria’s foreign ministry has also decried the government’s actions, describing them as a clear attempt to suppress media freedom and bias-free reporting, BBC reported.
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