Regional independent journalists see Belarus’ imprisonment of two journalists for streaming an unauthorized Minsk rally as a warning to all journalists covering the ongoing political unrest in Belarus over the country’s disputed official 2020 presidential election results. With another Belarusian journalist now also on trial for her reporting, that hypothesis may soon be tested.
In a proceeding with strictly limited press access, Minsk’s Frunze District Court on February 18 found 27-year-old reporter Katsyaryna Andreyeva and 23-year-old camera operator Daria Chultsova, both employees of the publicly funded, Warsaw-based satellite TV broadcaster Belsat, guilty of “organizing public events aimed at disrupting civil order.” The women, who pled innocent, were each sentenced to 2 years in a prison colony.
An appeal of their sentencing is possible until February 28. Belarus’ Viasna (Spring) human rights organization lists both women as political prisoners.
From the 14th floor of a Minsk apartment building, the two had provided a YouTube stream of a violent police crackdown on an unauthorized November 15, 2020 rally in the Belarusian capital to commemorate the recent death of Raman Bandarenka. A 31-year-old Minsk resident, Bandarenka was hospitalized with severe head trauma after asking men to stop cutting down white and red ribbons, an opposition symbol, from outside his apartment building.
Forinvestigative journalist Ihar Ilyash, the husband of Katsyaryna Andreyeva (the pen name of Katsyaryna Bakhvalava), the two Belsat journalists’ prison sentences reflect the government’s fear of Belarusians knowing the whole truth about any of its activities.
“Katya and Dasha ended up in prison because the authorities are afraid of the truth, afraid of the facts,” Ilyash commented. “That means we should give even more truth, even more facts. Judging by everything, this is a lethal weapon for the regime.”
Bandarenka has become, arguably, one of the most sensitive topics for the Belarusian government. Rights activists and government critics attribute his death to a brutal beating by the men, alleged to be plainclothes police officers. Belarusian prosecutors on February 18 opened a criminal investigation into his death, but have not brought charges against any police employee.
On February 19, another Belarusian journalist also went on trial for her coverage of Bandarenka’s November 12, 2020 death. Katsyaryna Barysevich, a reporter for the independent news service TUT.by, is charged with revealing “a medical secret,” without permission, about Bandarenka’s medical condition and “creating an atmosphere of mistrust” in the government that allegedly led to “aggression and illegal actions.”
In late November 2020, Barysevich published a report in which she cited an emergency-room doctor, Artyom Sorokin, who stated that the young man’s blood had shown no trace of alcohol – a report that contradicts the government’s claim that he was drunk and disorderly. Barysevich and Sorokin, in detention for three months, both face a potential three years in prison.
Against that backdrop, how ready Belarus’ handful of independent journalists are to provide “even more facts” about the Bandarenka case or other such controversies is unclear.
Belsat Editor Dmitry Yegorov, who managed to attend his colleagues’ sentencing, described an atmosphere in which journalists took precautions against detention. Some of those reporters covering the proceedings had brought backpacks with extra pairs of socks, toothpaste, and hygienic items in case they did not go home, he said.
“This is really state terror against civil society and against independent journalism,” Yegorov charged. “They’re just trying to shut us up.”
For Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of Russia’s independent Dozhd (Rain) TV, that does not come as a surprise.
The Belarusian government wants as few people as possible to know about the “instability” in Belarus since protests began against Lukashenka’s official reelection as president on August 9, 2020, he posited.
“How to stop this? Stop the journalists,” Dzyadko said, describing Belarusian officials’ alleged thinking.
The Baltic Centre of Media Excellence, a media-training center in Latvia, Belarus’ western neighbor, had expected the Belsat journalists to be, at worst, sentenced to house arrest. Given the pair’s prison sentences, “We can conclude that the authorities are trying for as few people as possible to know about this struggle going on inside the country,” said the Center’s chairwoman, Viktorija Terentjeva.
Boris Goretsky, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, described the pair’s sentence as “a sentence for all Belarusian journalists.” The punishment is intended “so that every journalist in Belarus knows that if you go out to cover protests, you’ll end up with two years in a prison colony.”
The Belarusian government does not appear to have responded to such criticism.
One Russian journalist wonders if Russia, also undergoing regular unsanctioned protests against the government, will take a cue from Belarus’ imprisonment of Andreyeva and Chultsova.
A Siberian saying advises that “‘If it’s cold in Moscow, then, in two days, this weather will reach us,’” said Roman Badanin, editor-in-chief of the independent Proyekt (Project) news site.
“It’s a similar story with Belarus now,” Badanin continued. “If today this is in Belarus, then, after some time has gone by -- we don’t know exactly how much -- this will also be in our country.”
Belarus (153) and Russia (149) received similarly negative rankings in international media-rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 index of press-freedom in 180 countries. As of December 2020, Belarus contained at least 10 journalists in jail; Russia contained seven, according to the non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists.
The two countries have a strategic partnership predicated on the belief that both are under attack by Western countries trying to overthrow their governments. Lukashenka is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 22 in the Russian resort town of Sochi to discuss further steps in this partnership.
Officials in both countries already face sweeping sanctions from the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States for their crackdowns on protests and imprisonment of political opponents.
One Ukrainian journalist, though, questions what anyone outside of Belarus can do to prevent the restriction of media freedoms.
“We’re here next to Belarus and you understand that the international community is absolutely helpless in this situation …” commented NV weekly journalist Kristina Berdynskych. “I don’t know how [to respond] because I understand that my voice in Belarus will not be heard for sure and will not influence this situation in any way.”
Former Belarusian presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has called for international sanctions against Belarus’ government, argues that speaking out alone can make a difference for the country’s estimated 252 political prisoners.
“Concretely, the maximum publicity will help them; when all the world with a single [raised] fist stands up for these people,” Tsikhanousakaya said.