In the latest of a series of penalties against independent journalists in Belarus, Current Time’s Minsk correspondent Raman Vasiukovich has been fined around $220 (580 Belarusian rubles) for supposed distribution of a book, Belarusian Donbas, that the Belarusian government deems “extremist.”
"I don't acknowledge my guilt because I didn't intend to distribute anything," Vasiukovich commented on Current Time's April 7 Evening news show. Adding that “not a single word of mine was heard,” the Belarusian journalist told RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service that he will appeal the court decision.
The fine follows the detention or fining in late March of 16 Belarusian journalists who, rights activists report, have covered unsanctioned protests against the Belarusian government.
The independent news service TUT.by has reported that the Ministry of Information has drafted changes to Belarus’ media law that would ban such outlets, among other measures. The ministry has not confirmed or denied the report.
The charges brought against Vasiukovich came several months after three Current Time journalists were deported from Belarus on the eve of the country’s contentious August 2020 presidential election.
On December 11, 2020, Vasiukovich was detained in the Minsk National Airport after returning from a work trip to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Officials confiscated his notebook computer and two copies of Belarusian Donbas for a supposed "extremism" check.
Vasiukovich was eventually charged with “the distribution, preparation, storage, transportation of an information product containing appeals to extremist activity” (Part One, Article 19.1 of Belarus’ Administrative Code). His notebook was returned.
A potential criminal charge was later dropped, although police searched the journalist’s residence for extremist materials on the eve of his April 7 court session, Vasiukovich told RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service. No such materials were found, he said.
Belarusian Donbas, written by Belsat TV journalists Ihar Ilyash and Katsyaryna Andreyeva, examines how Ukraine’s conflict with Russia over the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas has impacted Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the Belarusian special services, and ordinary Belarusians.
At the time of Vasiukovich’s detention, the book, unavailable for sale in Belarus, was not officially considered “extremist.” Officials nonetheless sent the journalist’s two copies to Belarus’ Ministry of Information for an “expert” analysis “on extremism.”
One of the book’s authors, Katsyaryna Andreyeva, was detained in November 2020 under charges of supposedly “organizing” and “preparing” an event that “grossly” disrupted public order.
Along with a colleague, Daria Chultsova, Andreyeva that month had broadcast a livestream of a police crackdown on a memorial gathering in Minsk for a protest sympathizer, Raman Bandarenka, whom government critics charge police killed.
In February 2021, Andreyeva and Chultsova, who pled innocent to the charges against them, were sentenced to 2 years in prison.
Just over a month over their sentencing, a Minsk court on March 26 ruled that Belarusian Donbas is extremist; a status that renders its distribution illegal. Neither of the book’s authors testified at this hearing, the non-governmental Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported.
Vasiukovich, who purchased the book in Kyiv before this ruling, has denied that he had any intention to distribute the publication to the general public. He commented to RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service on April 7 that he had intended to keep one copy for himself and to give the second as a gift to co-author Ihar Ilyash, from whom he sought an autograph.
In an interview with the German broadcaster DW, Ilyash dismissed the book’s extremist label as absurd and groundless. He contended that Belarus’ State Security Committee likely ordered the book to be found “extremist” and that experts simply complied with that order.
The government has not responded.