Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrests of at least 19 journalists and bloggers while covering a crackdown on demonstrations in cities throughout Belarus since 10 March, and the prison sentences imposed on four of them yesterday and today.
RSF regards the police arrests and the jail terms as major violations of media freedom.
Two bloggers, Syarhei Pyatrukhin and Dzmitry Harbunou (of Narodny Repartsyor), were sentenced to 15 days in prison in the western city of Brest today for allegedly taking part in an “unauthorized demonstration.” Pyatrukhin was tried in absentia but Harbunou attended the hearing and was detained immediately afterwards.
Viktar Andreyeu of Orshatut.by, a local news website in the eastern city of Orsha, and Maksim Filipovich, a blogger in the southeastern city of Homyel, were sentenced to 13 days in prison
yesterday on the same charge.
Two other Orsha-based journalists, Halina Abakunchyk of RFE/RL and Katsyaryna Bakhvalava of Belsat TV, were fined 575 rubles (283 euros) and 690 rubles (340 euros) respectively yesterday after being held overnight in police custody.
“The Belarusian authorities must put an immediate stop to this targeted and coordinated harassment,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Journalists have a right to cover events of general interest, regardless of their nature. We urge the European Union to issue a firm reminder that massive media freedom violations of this kind are incompatible with the continuation of a rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels.”
Many journalists were arrested before they could begin to cover the protests. They included Syarhei Serabro, Tatsyana Matsveyeva, Ihar Matsveyeu, Adaryya Hurshtyn and Syarhei Hudzilin, who were arrested on their arrival at Orsha station on 12 March and were held for so long that they missed all or most of the demonstration in Orsha.
Syarhei Rusetski , Uladzimir Lunyou, Yauhen Meriks, Syarhei Kavalyou, Volha Chaychyts and Andrei Kozel were stopped by traffic police while on their way to cover a demonstration in Rahachou, near Homyel, on 12 March.
Unusually large demonstrations have been taking place in Belarus since late February in protest against a new tax on “social parasitism” applicable to anyone working for less than six months a year.
President Alexander Lukashenko suspended the tax on 9 March but ordered the interior ministry to take “extremely severe measures” against the protests’ “instigators” and to restore “perfect order.” The police began at once to disperse the protests with much more energy and at least 70 arrests have so far been made.
Belarus is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.