The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Belarusian media is ‘on the edge of survival’ amid crackdown

Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko, accused of attacking a police officer, sits in the defendant’s cage during his trial in Minsk in July. He was sentenced to four years in a labor camp and says the punishment was retaliation for his reporting. (Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images)

MINSK, Belarus — The Belarusian government is cracking down on journalists who report without its permission, issuing the most fines since the country’s independence and adopting a restrictive online media law, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

“The media are on the edge of survival and under threat,” said Barys Haretski, the group’s deputy chairman.

The online and satellite TV news channel Belsat, which calls itself “the first independent television in Belarus” and is based in Warsaw, has received the brunt of the government’s fines, detentions and arrests, Haretski said.

Belsat TV was launched in 2007 and is largely backed by the Polish Foreign Ministry and several Western governments. Its mission is to provide uncensored information and promote democracy in Belarus. The channel often reports stories critical of the Belarusian government.

“Belsat journalists cover serious problems in Belarus: the economy, society and living conditions,” Haretski said. “The Belarusian authorities can’t stand a channel broadcasting from the territory of a neighboring country that speaks ill of [President Alexander] Lukashenko.”

In July, police raided two Belsat journalists’ apartments and confiscated cameras, phones and computers. Authorities also detained several Belsat journalists and threatened to take away a car belonging to one of them if he and his partner didn’t pay fines of $7,369.

“It is a very tense moment,” said Agnieszka M. Romaszewska-Guzy, director of Belsat TV. “We don’t have any other options but to keep paying the fines and to keep working. It makes the stories much more expensive. The fines are also connected with increased intimidation. Most of our reporters are young people, and the KGB is intimidating their families — their mothers and fathers. We’re trying to cope.”

Most journalists’ detentions and fines involve the live-streaming of protests on social media. Since May, Belsat reporter Larysa Shchyrakova has been repeatedly fined $500 for live-streaming on her Facebook page a hunger strike involving mothers protesting harsh drug laws. During a court appearance, Shchyrakova wore gauze over her lips in protest.

Police regularly detain and fine journalists for live-streaming demonstrations at Kurapaty, a memorial outside Minsk, in a forest where thousands were executed during Stalin’s Great Purge. Since early June, protesters have continuously demonstrated against the opening of a restaurant called “Let’s Go and Eat!” on the site.

“During protest rallies, you are not considered a journalist if you don’t have accreditation, and you get detained easily,” said Ekaterina Andreeva, 24, a Belsat reporter who has twice been taken into police custody this summer at Kurapaty for live-streaming. During her first detention, she was strip-searched after police accused her, falsely, of having a hidden camera on her body.

Andreeva, whose grandfather was a Soviet-era journalist, mostly reports investigative stories with her husband, Ihar Ilyash, 29, another Belsat reporter. “The most dangerous thing you can do in Belarus is investigative reporting,” she said. “My granddad says: Investigative reporting is too risky. You’re better off going to the village and asking people, ‘How are the cows?’ ”

Haretski calls Andreeva “a very brave journalist” and recently featured her on the cover of his association’s magazine holding out a microphone to an intimidating crowd of riot police.

The Belarusian government labels those who work for independent news sites controlled outside the country as “foreign journalists” and requires them to receive accreditation. The catch is that the government rarely grants accreditation, so the journalists’ work is considered illegal, Haretski said. So far this year, police have issued 63 fines to individual reporters — not their media outlets — totaling more than $27,000, which might seem relatively small until you consider that the average Belarusian makes $479 a month.

The increased fines accompany a new media law that further enforces the penalties for working without accreditation, requires online sites to post the names of commenters and sets up more procedures for the government to block sites it doesn’t like — something the government has done for years.

The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which issues journalists’ accreditations, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Independent reporters and editors in Belarus say that among their greatest fears is surveillance by the Belarusian security force known as the KGB.

“Every media in Belarus has a supervisor in the KGB,” said Vital Zybluk, 35, who worked at Euroradio for 12 years and served as editor in chief, then general producer, until he left in June to become a media consultant.

The FM radio station targets young people with programing that is 70 percent rock and alternative music and 30 percent uncensored news — which the station calls “debunking disinformation and fake news.” Situated in Poland, the station broadcasts in Belarus via satellite and Internet and is supported by grants from Western governments, including money from USAID. The station has a small bureau of journalists in Minsk who are officially accredited.

“There is one official interrogation a year and two unofficial ones where the KGB guy says, ‘Let’s go have coffee,’ ” Zybluk said.

Zybluk said the KGB interrogated him for hours after the 2010 elections, demanding to know the source of Euroradio’s funding. He was again pressured by the KGB before the Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk in 2014.

“The KGB guy was like, ‘Well, you know there might be some political protests, so maybe you shouldn’t cover those.’ ” When Zybluk refused to go along, he said he was told, “In case of doubt, just feel free to send your articles for review to us.”

Independent journalists in Belarus assume that their offices are bugged and that co-workers are spying on them. Reporters are trained to watch for signs that they are being followed. Several program their phones to make “SOS calls” to their editors. Reporters recount incidents — often comical — of KGB agents following them, sometimes even running after them.

“In the court cases against journalists, they pull out records of our phone conversations going back years and printouts of our emails,” said Stas Ivashkevich, 34, a Belsat investigative reporter. “We’ve had many cases of us agreeing to meet someone on the phone for a story, and then we get there, and the police are waiting for us.”

Ivashkevich is frequently sued in civil court. His latest case dragged on for four months. On July 25, the judge rejected the plaintiff’s demand for damages to its business reputation but required Ivashkevich to publicly apologize for using the word “corrupt” in his reports.

In late May, the Belarusian Supreme Court found Ukrainian Radio journalist Pavlo Sharoiko guilty of spying and sentenced him to eight years in prison. In June, the KGB announced that other Belarusians, and possibly journalists, were involved in Sharoiko’s alleged espionage network.

“I’m scared,” confided one journalist. “He could name any one of us, any of his friends.” The reporter removed a photo of Sharoiko from Facebook and was advised by a lawyer to leave the country for a few months.

A journalist named Dzmitry Halko, 38, was sentenced in July to four years in a labor camp. He was convicted after getting into a scuffle with a police officer at his son Jan’s 15th birthday party, but he says the punishment was retaliation for his journalism.

“I’ve written dozens of articles, all on very sensitive and hot political topics,” he said.

While his case is under appeal, Halko is out of jail but isn’t allowed to leave the country to visit his partner, Julia Garkusha, a journalist who occasionally works for Belsat, and their ­2-year-old son in Mariupol, Ukraine.

“Our son, Nestor, will have started school already in four years,” Garkusha said of Halko’s prison sentence. “Will we keep our relationship? I doubt it. The search for justice in a dictatorship results only in jail time and irreparably negative consequences for personal, social and professional life.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Belsat was incompletely described. It is available both online and by satellite.

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