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Deported Current Time Journalists: 'Objective' Belarus Election Coverage 'Not In Vain'

(Left to right:) Current Time anchors Timur Olevsky and Iryna Romaliiska, correspondents Ivan Grebenyuk and Yury Baranyuk on August 8, 2020
(Left to right:) Current Time anchors Timur Olevsky and Iryna Romaliiska, correspondents Ivan Grebenyuk and Yury Baranyuk on August 8, 2020

In a live television discussion, Current Time journalists Iryna Romaliiska, Ivan Grebenyuk, and Yury Baranyuk on August 8 described their detention and deportation from Belarus two days ahead of the country’s August 9 presidential election.

The journalists -- Evening news anchor Iryna Romaliiska and correspondents Yury Baranyuk and Ivan Grebenyuk -- were summarily detained on August 7 in the Belarusian capital’s Hotel Minsk, and deported to Odesa, Ukraine. They have been banned from reentering Belarus for 10 years.

“I think that the 10 years that they banned us from entering Belarus is the biggest evaluation of our work,” commented Grebenyuk from Odesa. “Everything was not done in vain. We worked objectively as independent journalists. And here, we see the reaction of the authorities.”

Eight police officers, including riot police, had first burst into Grebenyuk’s hotel room in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, late in the afternoon of August 7. Preparing a report for an evening news broadcast at the time, he quickly sent an alert to his colleagues on the floor above and to Current Time’s main office in Prague.

For several hours, Current Time did not know where the journalists were located, nor what were the charges facing them. All three were deported to Odesa, Ukraine late on August 7.

The three journalists were told they had committed an administrative violation of the law; apparently, for not having accreditation. Current Time filed its application ahead of the election campaign period, but, like other international media, did not receive a response within the mandated period.

Taken in mini-vans to Minsk’s Moskovskoye police station, they were split up into separate rooms for roughly four to five hours for questioning and waiting.

Romaliiska said that she had been given a choice to either voluntarily leave the country or police would put her in a holding cell prior to deportation.

The police officer told her her equipment would be confiscated “because you, your materials, have denigrated the honor and dignity of Belarus,” she said.

Detentions of independent journalists, bloggers, and supporters of main opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as well as arrests of opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have marked Belarus’ 2020 presidential election campaign to date.

The Current Time detentions took place following a four-hour August 6 live program by the TV-digital network about the Belarusian election campaign. The broadcast, which included footage from a Tsikhanouskaya rally in Minsk, has been viewed more than 500,000 times on social media.

Belarusian police also appear to have been watching social media.

Grebenyuk said that during his interrogation, a riot police commander kept an eye on the popular messaging app Telegram; apparently to find out what was being written about the journalists’ detention.

When the officer realized that information about the journalists’ detention and location was spreading throughout Telegram and other social media, “this very much pissed him off,” Grebenyuk said.

“At one point, he even started screaming, ‘Why do you do all of this? Why do you need this? You don’t like it here? Someone’s threatening you with something?’”

By contrast, Yury Baranyuk, a citizen of Russia, with which Belarus has an open border and an uneasy partnership, was questioned about Russians’ and his own impressions of Belarus. Mention of the country’s large harvests, hard-working people, public cleanliness, and, compared with Russia, relatively well-organized law enforcement appeared to placate the police officer, he said.

Baranyuk, whose wife in Russia gave birth to a baby girl during his detention, stated that he received no assistance from the Russian consulate in Minsk. Friends who contacted the consulate on his behalf were told that diplomats there required official information about his detention.

The Belarusian government, to date, does not appear to have released official comments on the detention and deportation of the three. Current Time, which is led by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in association with the Voice of America, has sent a request for information about these detentions to Belarus’ Interior Ministry.

“Our Current Time journalists were detained in the course of professionally carrying out their work covering the Belarusian presidential election,” commented RFE/RL Acting President and Editor-in-Chief Daisy Sindelar on August 7.

“Current Time requested accreditation for its journalists well in advance of the election. The failure by Belarusian authorities to grant credentials is yet another example of their contempt for the rights of a free press and the right of Belarusians to uncensored information,” Sindelar said. ”We are outraged by their detention and demand respect for the internationally recognized rights of journalists to do their work.”