Chronicling The Bloody Belarus Crackdown An Imperative For Online News Editor, Despite Pressure
By RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Tony Wesolowsky May 02, 2021
Anger spilled onto the streets of Minsk and across Belarus on August 9, 2020, shortly after polls closed and a state-run exit survey pointed to a big victory for Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Protesters marched through the streets of the capital, many facing off against armed riot police who dealt with them brutally.
No election in Belarus under Lukashenka, in power since 1994, had been deemed free or fair by the West, and this one was no different, although the strongman was suddenly more vulnerable than he had been going into past votes. He was under fire for refusing to institute lockdown measures to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which he dismissed as "mass hysteria."
He was also facing a strong challenge from Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and last-minute fill-in candidate for her jailed husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski. Her huge campaign rallies had fueled hopes, quickly dashed, that Lukashenka's decades-long authoritarian rule was nearing an end.
Maryna Zolatava, editor in chief of the country's most popular news website, the independent outlet Tut.by, was working the editorial desk that day when reports came in of unrest on the streets of Minsk after the polls closed.
"The recollections from August 9 are seared into my mind," Zolatava told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in a recent interview, describing the scene "when our reporters in the field began calling in to the editorial office to tell us what was happening in the city."
"Explosions, gunfire.... I couldn't believe the things the reporters were telling me," she said. It was all remarkable, but we didn't have time to reflect on what was happening."
The protests, with crowds swelling to as many as 200,000 people in Minsk, have continued ever since, albeit with dwindling numbers. That has been put down to fatigue and the fear instilled by the Lukashenka government's brutal crackdown. More than 30,000 Belarusians have been detained, and hundreds beaten on the streets and in custody.
Rights groups have documented some 1,000 cases of suspected torture. At least five people have been killed. Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania after the vote amid threats to her and her family.
For the crackdown and alleged vote rigging, Lukashenka and his inner circle have been hit with sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and others, including Canada.
Lukashenka faces international isolation and is ever more reliant on support from larger, more powerful neighbor Russia, which commentators say is exploiting his weakness to squeeze out more concessions on a union treaty deal that critics say further erode what sovereignty it still possesses.
The practice of independent journalism, long dangerous work in tightly controlled Belarus, has become substantially riskier over the past year. And even journalists at state-run media weren't safe: Dozens who voiced support for the opposition were thrown out of work and replaced by state TV journalists from Russia.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 481 journalists were detained in 2020, twice as many than the previous six years combined.
Fear And Courage
Belarus slipped five places, to 158th, in Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Three journalists were given hard prison time, including two facing two-year prison sentences.
"The authorities are trying to suppress all independent voices and to strike fear into the hearts of journalists," said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. "RSF hails the courage of those who continue to report on the crackdown in Belarus and calls on international organizations to take action to prevent such harassment and to secure the release of journalists jailed for doing their job."
During the early days of postelection protests, journalists were not widely targeted by police, Zolatava said -- but that changed quickly, and soon police were harassing even those with vests clearing identifying them as "press."
"At the time I thought, 'This can't be!' But it is, and it should not be so. The administrative arrests had started. It all seemed impossible -- the fact that all this was happening was surreal."
The risk of her reporters being beaten or snatched off the street by police began to weigh on Zolatava. "It wasn't like that before. Now you're under constant stress as you try to maintain a state of normality within your team. And you constantly think about how you can guarantee the safety of your people," she said. "It has greatly changed the job. It doesn't impact you physically, it's more like constant psychological pressure. You really have to be prepared for it."
Long targeted by the authorities for its hard-hitting reporting, Tut.by has found itself under even greater scrutiny over the past year. The Ministry of Information warned the news site over four articles before withholding its accreditation for three months starting on October 1.
Tut.by only registered as a media outlet in January 2019. Before that, it had operated without media credentials since the site's founding in 2000.
Despite the growing pressures, Zolatava said her reporting team remains largely intact. "Have people left due to security issues or political problems? Nothing like that has happened. In August, our work underwent huge changes. Everything that happened before and after that has hugely impacted all of our lives," she said, adding that her reporters were detained 38 times by police in 2020.
One of them was Katsyaryna Barysevich. She was arrested on November 19 after writing an article about Raman Bandarenka, who died several days earlier following a beating by a group of masked assailants. Barysevich disputed the official claim that Bandarenka was drunk, citing medical findings that no alcohol had been detected in his blood.
The doctor who provided the lab results, Artsyom Sarokin, was arrested, tried, and convicted along with Barysevich, ultimately receiving a suspended two-year prison sentence and fine of 1,450 Belarusian rubles ($560) for disclosing medical information. Barysevich was handed a six-month prison term and fined 2,900 rubles ($1,130) for disclosing medical information and instigating a crime by pressuring a first responder to share information.
"Katsyaryna is in good spirits. Barysevich is someone deserving of admiration. Katya is the best," Zolatava said. "It is definitely very distressing that she is in there [prison]. And it's awful that we can't change that."
"We are doing our best. We are writing appeals, trying to draw the attention of the international community to the situation of Katsyaryna," she said, thanking the Belarusian Association of Journalists and human rights activists for their efforts. "But almost five months have passed since November 19, and Katya is still behind bars. And it's just awful. How can this be happening?"
Barysevich's arrest and sentencing served as wake-up calls to editors at Tut.by, Zolatava aid. "After Katya's arrest, we began to discuss our future more often and consult with lawyers. Although, in principle, her arrest did not affect the editorial policy; self-censorship did not increase. Katya did nothing illegal. She did her job, did it as it should be done," she said.
On April 20, the Minsk City Court upheld Barysevich's conviction and sentence. She is now scheduled to be released from prison on May 19.
While Barysevich's was one the harshest sentences, two other Belarusians suffered an even worse fate. Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, reporters for Belsat, a Poland-based satellite TV station, were arrested on November 15 while covering a rally in Minsk to commemorate Bandarenka.
A court in Minsk on February 18 found Andreyeva and Chultsova guilty and sentenced them to two years in prison each, sparking international condemnation, with EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano denouncing it as a "shameful crackdown on media."
Despite the dangers, more people than ever are turning to Tut.by for credible news coverage, although numbers are slipping as weariness creeps in, Zolatava said.
Visits to the site peaked in August, September, and October. By December, they began to dip and the downward trend continues, although there was a blip around March 25 and 27, when Tsikhanouskaya had called for a huge turnout coinciding with the anniversary of the founding in 1918 of the first free Belarusian republic.
"I think there is a fatigue factor with readers. A year ago, the coronavirus appeared, and the situation then was not completely normal. I think people were looking for something a bit lighter. The whole world is now stressed," Zolatava said.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka's government is pushing ahead with more media restrictions. Changes to the country's mass media law -- passed by the rubber-stamp parliament earlier this month -- would make it illegal for journalists to "discredit" the state, or livestream mass unauthorized gatherings, among other draconian measures. According to Human Rights Watch, at least seven reporters face trial.
Despite the bleak prospects and pangs of doubt, Zolatava says she is determined to continue her work at Tut.by. "There have been so many nightmarish events, so much that is unfair, that I've wondered whether it's possible to continue the work. The injustice, the fact that so much is horribly illegal, and yet we are still working," she said.
"On the other hand, what else can we do?" she continued. "We have to continue working so that all that has happened is not forgotten and remains a chapter of our history. So that people will know everything that happened."
Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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