Reporters Without Borders condemns the way judicial authorities in the southeastern city of Homyel are hounding freelance journalists Kastus Zhukouski and Larysa Shchyrakova and urges the European Union to condition its rapprochement with Belarus on specific progress in respect for media freedom.
Is Homyel being used a laboratory to try out persecution of journalists in Belarus? Yesterday a local court ordered Zhukouski and Shchyrakova to pay fines of 7.5 million rubles (330 euros) for working for an independent media outlet based in a foreign country.
Both have been repeatedly fined this year. In all, Zhukouski has been fined seven times and Shchyrakova three times. Each of the fines imposed on Zhukouski has exceeded the average monthly wage in Belarus, which is 274 euros. If the two journalists fail to pay the fines, their homes and possessions could be seized.
“Reducing journalists to destitution is a way to destroy them,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The level of harassment of journalists in Homyel is such that it seems to be a test. If the international community does not react, President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime will assume it has a free hand to persecute journalists as it sees fit.”
Zhukouski was not allowed to have a defence lawyer during yesterday’s hearing. In protest, he wore a gag when he appeared before the judges and refused to answer their questions.
“It was a farce, not a trial,” he told RSF. “[The court] has been given the order to stifle journalists. Today the police are
after us two. Tomorrow they will hunt down others if we surrender.”
Zhukouski works mainly for Belsat TV, a TV station based in Poland. The report that was the subject of yesterday’s hearing was about Ukrainian refugees in Homyel and a visit by a representative of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
Shchyrakova also filmed the visit but accidentally deleted her footage. This did not stop the court from convicting her as if she had sent the footage to Belsat TV. “The judge did not even bother to ask for proof of my contribution to the Belsat TV report,” she said.
Zhukouski and Shchyrakova are the latest victims of the government’s hypocritical censorship. One the one hand, it bans the main independent broadcasters, forcing them to broadcast from outside the country. On other, it systematically denies accreditation to the journalists who work for them, so that they can be prosecuted for “illegally producing and disseminating media content.”
There were no fewer than 28 convictions on this charge last year, in the run-up to the latest presidential elections. This year the harassment seems to be concentrating on Homyel.
I appeal to the international community to defend the principles they proclaim and to stop living by double standards. I do not call for sanctions, but conditions must be set for any dealings.
In a bid to overcome a slump in the country’s economy, the Belarusian government is trying to improve relations with the European Union and to woo international donors. The EU settled for the release of the leading political prisoners in 2015 in return for lifting the targeted sanctions imposed on leading Belarusian officials four years earlier.