Journalists in Belarus had once “looked to Turkey in fear” but are now facing the same fate amid the ongoing government crackdown, a leading press freedom advocate of the Eastern European country said.
Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) deputy chair Barys Haretski answered Journo’s email after he was forced to leave his country as numerous journalists and pro-democracy activists did.
“Since last summer, the authorities have been carrying out a widespread wave of repression against politically active people, human rights defenders, journalists, and many other citizens. Tens of thousands of people have been detained and arrested during this time. The security forces severely beat many people,” Haretski said.
BAJ was threatened with outright liquidation by the Belarusian Minister of Justice last week, being accused of not producing documents relating to the lease of its regional offices, although these documents were inaccessible because the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior had sealed BAJ’s central offices on July 14. The first hearing of the trial is scheduled for August 11.
Media freedom observers deemed the targeting of BAJ and its board members as yet another anti-democratic step by the administration of Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarusian Association of Journalists under threat
“In the last month, a new wave of repression against NGOs and the media swept across the country. Searches were carried out in the offices of dozens of organizations, more than 60 non-governmental associations, including the BAJ, are being liquidated by the authorities,” Haretski noted.
In July, the police searched the apartments and offices of independent journalists more than 70 times, and several reporters were subsequently arrested, he added. “Currently, 29 media representatives are in captivity, and there are 610 political prisoners behind bars. People are being held in very bad conditions. Letters to many political prisoners are blocked.”
In power for 27 years, the Belarus president has been cracking down on opponents since unprecedented protests erupted after the elections in August 2020. While Lukashenko declared that he won the presidency to a sixth term, international observers said he rigged the election.
The latest crisis set off months of massive protests and forced Lukashenko’s primary challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, into exile. The opposition says more than 35,000 have been detained in the last year.
The crackdown has recently intensified. In May, Lukashenko’s government intercepted an international commercial flight and arrested an opposition activist and his girlfriend on board. Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya sought protection to avoid being forced onto a plane home from Tokyo during the Olympic Games this month. Then came the raid on BAJ.
Meanwhile, the U.S. imposed fresh sanctions on the Lukashenko administration on August 9 over an ongoing “assault against the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Belarusian people, transnational repression… and corruption.”
Haretski: Solidarity is the only way to protect journalists
When asked why Lukashenko geared up the purge in recent weeks, Haretski answered: “Perhaps the security forces wanted to report on the complete elimination of the opposition and dissidents. To feel a complete victory.”
The Belarusian independent journalist also stressed that the situation of the past year is “new” for his country. “Previously, we had not encountered so many imprisoned journalists and looked with great apprehension and fear at the example of Turkey. Unfortunately, history is taking place in such a way that this fate has now touched our country,” he explained before adding:
- “In my opinion, the most important thing in this situation is to prevent the enemies from separating us, splitting us apart, making us lonely and defenseless. When journalists and media are left alone with their misfortune, it seems that complete defeat has come. Therefore, the main thing for us and all who find themselves in such a situation is complete solidarity within the community. No matter how competitive we are in the market, we must stand up for each other during this attack. It is the only way we can survive. Support each other’s editorial offices, each other’s families, each other’s lawyers. Support each other in the countries to which we had to leave.”
Thanking Turkish journalists for their solidarity, Haretski asked: “Tell me, how can we help the journalistic community in Turkey?”