ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the criminal charges pursued in Belarus against Belsat TV journalists Ekaterina Bakhvalova and Daria Chultsova. Both journalists were covering the peaceful protests taking place on 15 November 2020 that demanded a change of the ruling government and of the president, and accountability for the tortures and killings of protesters like Roman Bondarenka. Journalists are now facing criminal charges for organising actions that grossly violate public order, and active participation in them. ARTICLE 19 argues that journalists are simply prosecuted for carrying out their role – gathering and sharing important information about protests and ensuring accountability of public bodies for their actions. We call on the Belarusian courts to immediately and unconditionally drop these charges and refrain from bringing similar charges in the future.
Since the contested August 2020 Presidential elections in Belarus, there have been mass protests taking place across the country including in Minsk. On 15 November 2020, a protest took place following the killing of Roman Bondarenka, who was beaten by a group of persons removing white-red-white ribbons (protest symbol) after he confronted them.
Numerous media reports have covered the protests in Belarus. This coverage documents and testifies to the peaceful nature and political character of the protests. The 15 November protest was held in the so-called “Change Square” – the courtyard where Roman Bondarenka had been beaten. The Belsat TV channel was covering the protest via a live television broadcast partially provided by journalists in the studio but also by journalists directly reporting from Change Square. Ekaterina Bakhvalova (correspondent, known as “Ekaterina Andreeva”) and Daria Chultsova (operator) periodically went live from Change Square and broadcasted online. Following the protests, they were detained and accused of the crime of organising and actively participating in actions that “grossly violate public order”, under Article 342 para 1 of the Belarussian Criminal Code.
ARTICLE 19 notes that the media holds a “public watchdog” role in a democratic society which is of high importance. International human rights bodies have continuously emphasised the essential role of the media in covering protests. Such coverage is aimed at facilitating effective fulfilment of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and guarantees that States can be held accountable if human rights violations occur during protests. ARTICLE 19 reminds the Belarusian authorities that the media must be able to gather information about demonstrations and protests as the sharing of this information is of public interest. Preventing journalists from carrying out their public watchdog role at protests is, therefore, a clear violation of their right to receive and impart information.
Restrictions on freedom of expression taken to protect public order and/or national security can constitute a legitimate ground for the restriction of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. However, this limitation must not be used by authorities to silence opposition or dissent. In this case, suggesting that media coverage of a protest could constitute the “organisation of violation of public order” is a dangerous precedent that undermines the basic functions of journalistic reporting.
Therefore, we find that the charges against the two journalists are contrary to the recognised international human rights standards and their prosecution amounts to a violation of their right to freedom of expression. No evidence has been brought forward to prove that their actions constitute the “organisation of violation of public order”.
ARTICLE 19 demands that Belarusian authorities:
Immediately and unconditionally drop the criminal case against journalists Ekaterina Bakhvalova and Daria Chultsova and refrain from any similar charges against journalists covering protests in the future;
Fully recognise, respect, fulfil and protect the right of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression of the Belarusian people;
Halt persecution and repressions of media workers, human rights defenders, civil society activists and regular protesters;
Release political prisoners and engage in a genuine and constructive dialogue with the political opposition.