Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on July 23 demanded the expulsion of journalists who, in his opinion, “are calling for mass disturbances,” the country’s state-run BelTA news agency reported.
The criticism appears to be aimed at coverage of opponents of President Lukashenka, the country’s ruler since 1994, in the run-up to Belarus’ August 9 presidential election.
“Listen, we’re the bosses in this country,” Lukashenka said, addressing the general government at an official meeting. “Do your job.”
He singled out the BBC, Radio Liberty, and “Free Europe,” an apparent reference to Radio Free Europe, and “these streams.”
“I’m already not talking about a bias. They’re calling for mass disturbances,” he charged. “Why do you put up with this?” he asked, addressing the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. “You accredited them here.”
Lukashenka demanded that journalists working for these outlets be expelled from Belarus before the end of the election campaign. “Kick them out of here if they don’t follow our laws and are calling for Maidans,” he said, referring to the February 2014 uprising in neighboring Ukraine that led to the overthrow of then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar termed Lukashenka's accusations "outrageous" and "a possible pretext" for shutting down the company's operation, the U.S. outlet’s English-language news site reported.
"RFE/RL is doing nothing of the sort -- to the contrary, our own journalists have themselves been the victims of unjustified police detentions and violence in recent days for simply doing their jobs," Sindelar said.
For the past two months, as Belarus’ presidential campaign has gained momentum, Belarusian police have detained dozens of journalists, including five employees of RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service in Minsk.
One RFE/RL correspondent, Anton Trofimovich, was beaten by several riot police on July 15 and detained while covering protests against the Central Election Commission’s decision not to register the candidacies of two Lukashenka critics, Viktar Babaryka and Valer Tsapkala. He was later released, but then cited for allegedly disobeying police officers.
On July 14, police also detained for several hours two other RFE/RL reporters during a livestream broadcast about the election campaign.
Current Time, based in Prague, is run by RFE/RL in association with the Voice of America.
Aside from journalists,bloggers critical of Lukashenka have also been detained. The best known among them, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, intended to run for president until election officials refused his registration. His wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is now a leading opposition candidate, backed by the Babaryka and Tsapkala campaigns.
The government’s pressure on media has increased with each election campaign, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the recent detentions of journalists in Belarus. On July 21, more than 200 journalists petitioned the Belarusian authorities to stop “persecuting journalists representing independent media outlets,” noting that such actions violate the law.
Among former Soviet republics, Belarus ranks as one of the most restricted countries for press freedoms, according to media-rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders.