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In Belarus, Journalists Beaten and Detained, Internet Cut

Voice of America
15 Aug 2020, 07:05 GMT+10

WASHINGTON - As Belarus cracked down on protesters contesting the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, dozens of journalists were detained, beaten, and deported, and internet service was blocked as authorities tried to stifle opposition to the Aug. 9 vote.

Mass demonstrations took place in the capital, Minsk, and other cities this week with protesters alleging the election was rigged and that opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya - and not Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years - won the vote. Belarus freed about 1,000 people overnight on Aug. 13 after public outcry at the harsh tactics.

Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania after the election and has called on her supporters to not oppose the police. She ran for president after authorities detained her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular video blogger who was registered as a presidential candidate.

About 80 violations against the media have been documented since the election, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which monitors attacks on journalists. Cases include reporters beaten by police, hit by rubber bullets, mistreated in custody, deported, or who had equipment confiscated or destroyed.

International journalists, including news crews for Russian and British broadcasters, were released relatively quickly, but several local journalists remain in detention. Internet and cell phone service were slowed or blocked in a move that human rights experts said was deliberate.

In the run up to the election, Belarus detained and harassed local journalists and bloggers. But the crackdown became more widespread after voting day.

"What we have seen in the last few days is censorship on an unprecedented scale even for a country like Belarus, which already has a pitiful record in terms of freedom of the press," said Johann Bihr, a press freedom expert and former head of the eastern Europe program at Reporters Without Borders.

The Belarus embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's email requesting comment.

Several videos showed police harassing and attacking journalists clearly identified as press, taking flash drives from photographers, or demanding that news crews stop work.

In one video, filmed while polls were still open on Aug. 9., plainclothes officers were seen grabbing Vladimir Romensky, a correspondent for the independent Russian channel Dozhd TV, and his colleagues in the center of Minsk. The journalists were forced to lay on the sidewalk and then pushed into a car and taken away

In another incident, riot police beat Maksim Solopov, a Russian correspondent for Meduza, and arrested him while threatening his colleagues. Solopov's whereabouts was unknown for two days. He was later handed to the Russian embassy, along with the reporters from Dozhd TV.

Security forces also detained and beat journalists from state-owned outlets including the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, Sputnik radio station, and RT TV, as well as the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, demanded the release of the country's journalists. At least 10 of those detained were deported, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In the Dozhd TV case, the journalists were barred from returning to Belarus for 10 years.

News crews from the BBC and Associated Press were also attacked or detained. Riot police beat a BBC cameraman and damaged his equipment. AP photographer Mstislav Chernov, was briefly detained and beaten on Aug. 10.

While foreign media were released, many Belarusian journalists were detained on accusations of petty hooliganism, violating laws on mass media, or violations of the law on organizing mass rallies or events.

Some are still in custody, and it was not always clear where they were being held.

Rights expert Bihr said the disappearance of journalists was disturbing.

"This has happened to several Russian journalists in recent days, and they have all been released now. However, we have so far failed to discover the whereabouts of certain Belarusian journalists. And this is a distinctive feature of the recent detentions," he said.

International rights groups have criticized the government's crackdown.

"The problem was the complete lack of communication: the mobile internet was completely down, it was impossible to use any instant messengers or get any information from the phone at all while you were in the street," Tanya Lokshina, director of the Russia program at Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

"You could only figure out what was happening and where basically only by the noise. It was also impossible to find Wi-Fi there, because cafes where such a connection could theoretically be available were forcibly closed. I literally had to run in the direction of the noise," said Lokshina, who was in Minsk.

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the internet block and attacks were an attempt by authorities to prevent independent information from being shared.

"We believe that the basic goal of the Belarusian authorities before, during and after the elections is to control the flow of information, to prevent the dissemination of any opinions about the elections or the political situation in Belarus that differ from the narrative approved by Lukashenko," she told VOA, adding that the brutality of the crackdown on protesters exceeds that of previous elections.

"The international community was aware of the nature of Lukashenko's regime, probably since the time Lukashenko came to power. And he has remained in power for so long, because the pressure on him to guarantee certain civil and human rights throughout Belarus from the international community was decidedly insufficient," she said.

Bihr said instructions appeared to be coming from the top.

"Over the past few days and weeks, President Lukashenko has repeatedly warned and threatened independent media. He scolded the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for accrediting Radio Liberty," Bihr said. "He threatened the journalists of (website) Tut.by and (television channel) Belsat, accusing them of instigating a revolution. In this way, he very openly and clearly empowered the state apparatus to crack down on independent journalists and arrange an information blackout in the country."

This article originated in VOA's Russia service.

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