Journalists are still being detained in Belarus, months after a rigged presidential election. Among the latest to have been arrested is Yulia Slutskaya, founder of the Press Club Belarus.
Yulia Slutskaya is a prominent Belarusian journalist and the founder of the local Press Club, which runs educational and cultural initiatives relating to journalism, and hosts professional development events. In July 2016 I had the pleasure of being invited to meet with her, and with her students of journalism, to share my experience in the media.
Yulia, together with five other Press Club Belarus’ employees, was detained on December 24. Prior to that, the Club had reported on the detentions of journalists covering the anti-government protests in the country, ongoing since a rigged presidential election in August 2020.
Yulia and the other five employees, including her son, did not discover the charges being made against them until December 31. She was charged with large scale tax evasion (Article 243, part 2 of the Belarus Criminal Code). Alla Sharko, Sergei Olshevsky and Pyotr Slutsky, Ksenia Lutskina were charged with complicity in the crime.
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Sergei Yakupov, programme director of the Press Club Academy and a Russian national, was detained along with the others and deported to Russia on December 31. He has been banned from entering Belarus for the next 10 years, but the authorities have brought no charges against him.
Yakupov wrote in a Facebook post: “Infinitely offended by all this nonsense that is happening to colleagues and friends from the Press Club. The volume and level of impunity and absence of any moral but also legal borders on the part of those who are supposed to ensure legality is not fit in the head. Scary.”
The authorities had been monitoring Yulia Slutskaya’s activities for some time.
“In November, I discovered that another device, a desktop, located somewhere in the Russian Federation, was connected to my Telegram,” Slutskaya said in a short interview for Komsomolskaya Pravda, carried out with the assistance of her lawyer. “I turned to specialists. It was found that the connection had been made on June 11. They laughed that the [authorities] were interested in me before August. We disconnected the device, subsequently checked it, but I did not attach due importance.”
Belarus has been known for its repeated violations of human rights and press freedom for years. Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 press freedom barometer ranked Belarus 153rd of 180 countries.
The state exercises total control over all TV channels. A few independent media outlets exist but many are forced to base themselves abroad and the authorities continue to harass them, as is the case with the Poland-based Belsat TV.
For foreign journalists it takes weeks to get media accreditation granted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At least that was what happened in my case – or I was simply advised to apply for a tourist visa and confirm I would not report on any events in the country.
Not reporting didn’t always help. In September 2016, I was detained at the Belarusian-Polish border in Brest for about eight hours, having taken part in a panel discussion at an international conference held in Minsk 12 hours earlier.
In August, the country revoked the accreditations of some journalists working for foreign media and covering anti-government protests that erupted after the presidential election on August 9.
Since then, journalists’ work has become even more dangerous — reporters detained while working on the streets, ostensibly for document checks, but then taken to police departments or physically removed from the streets.
Following the election, 76 independent media websites were blocked. On August 21, the Interdepartmental Commission on Security in the Information Sphere under the Security Council said the decision to restrict access was taken due to “inflicting damage on national interests”. The Ministry of Information in its letter attributes such measures to the fact that the blocked publications “describe the situation in Belarus following the end of the electoral campaign in a negative way and discredit the work of state bodies”.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, in 2020 alone there were 540 violations of journalists’ rights, committed by representatives of the authorities.
The Press Club’s Press Under Pressure programme lists almost 400 press freedom violations that occurred between August 9 and December 14, 2020.
Since August, the European Federation of Journalists and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom has been calling on the Belarusian authorities to stop attacking, detaining and demonising journalists and media staff, and to work towards meaningful protections for media freedom.
Emerging Europe, an organisation that strongly supports the social, economic and democratic development of 23 countries in Central and Eastern Europe by strengthening media pluralism and diversity, empowering independent journalism and journalists, and tackling misinformation, joins the call.
All detained journalists, those affiliated with Press Club Belarus as well as others, should be released immediately, and the charges against them dropped.
In her interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, Yulia said she keeps thinking about other people who find themselves in prison or in similar places.
“‘I am a journalist at Radio Liberty! I do not resist!” – That’s all Vitaliy Tsygankov, an observer of Radio Liberty’s Belarus Service, had time to say before he was cuffed.
Vadim Zamirovskiy, a TUT.BY news photographer: “They were sure they had no unwanted witnesses and acted with bestial brutality.”
“We were lucky enough to be detained very early and avoid being beaten by the riot police,” said Stanislav Ivashkevich, an investigative journalist and presenter at Belsat TV.
Natalia Lubnevskaya, a journalist at Nasha Niva: “Most of us wore blue ‘Press’ vests, we all had special badges. It was clear we were not participating in the event. However, this did not save us, unfortunately. The shooter decided that it was okay to shoot at an unarmed person who was doing their job, did not threaten him in any way, and did not even see him,”
A book, Seeking Justice. Stories of Violence in Belarus, tells the stories of people from all over the country which were published in the Belarusian independent media in the days after the August election, and which require a legal assessment and investigation.
Without journalists just like Yulia Slutskaya these stories would have never been told.
On January 6, relatives of Yulia and the other Press Club detainees made a payment to the authorities of 109,769 Belarusian rubles (around 35,000 euros) – the amount of tax that she is accused of evading.
According to Alexandra Slutskaya, Yulia’s daughter, payment of the funds does not mean acceptance of guilt by the accused. However, the payment should mean that the authorities release her. They have yet to do so, suggesting that her detention never had any connection to financial offences.
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