Never a free media-friendly country, Belarus is intensifying crackdowns on reporters in the run-up to presidential election. Belsat TV journalist Dzmitry Mitskevich experienced it firsthand.
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June 10, 2020, 18:43. Two men approach a car parked in a narrow street near Hrodna city centre. Behind them, eight young men follow.
The men surround the car shouting “Police!”, as they take the hands of both men and pack them into a grey unmarked van that has just pulled over.
In a couple of seconds, the bus is driving fast along the streets of the place that has been once a favourite city of Stefan Batory, the famed 16-century Polish-Lithuanian king.
This looks like a kidnapping scene from a movie about Mexican drug cartels. But it isn’t.
One of the two people shoved into the grey Russian Gazel bus is myself, Dzmitry Mitskevich, a journalist of Belsat TV which is banned by the Lukashenko regime. The other man is my cameraman.
Minutes before the detention on June 10, we had finished filming from the centre of Hrodna where state organisations had been collecting signatures for Alexander Lukashenko. He is running for his sixth presidential term in the upcoming election on August 9.
Fortunately, we didn’t turn off the equipment and our colleagues in Minsk and Warsaw were able to witness our arrest live on their screens.
We were detained by the special police forces — OMON, as they call themselves according to Soviet tradition. The police in Belarus is still called ‘militia’, like in the USSR.
The Soviet militia was initially a non-professional organisation for law enforcement. The term ‘militia’ sounds appropriate for Belarusian strongmen in civilian clothes who are attacking people in the streets.
Minutes later on June 10, the van arrives to Hrodna Leninski district police station where we hear that we’re charged with breaking Article 22.9 of the Belarusian Administrative Code.
The article prohibits producing content for media not registered and accredited in Belarus. As the Belarusian Foreign Ministry has refused to issue a single accreditation to Belsat reporters, we are always facing the risk of breaking the law.
At the police station, we are forced to hand over all of our possessions, including phones, watches and jewellery. Everything is listed on the ‘detention protocol’.
The police officers treated us quite politely and even propose to take my temperature in order to if I don’t have Covid-19. But this is not their usual behaviour. I have heard reports from my colleagues who were subjected to beatings and intimidation at police stations. On June 20, for instance, the police in Hantsavichy, Brest region, brutally detained journalists of the Hancavicki čas newspaper, beating and accusing them of “insubordination to the police officer”.
Three hours later, when we are finally released, our things are handed back to us, except the video equipment and phones – these things will be taken “for expertise” in order to find out whether we used them to break the law. This is a new practice by the authorities – they did not use to confiscate equipment before.
The detention protocol is written by the OMON men and local police officers. Often, one of the main tasks of people in such positions is fighting independent media and political opposition.
Fines are not fine
On June 18, we were given a fine of around 850 US dollars. According to the court, all the equipment except our private mobile phones had to be confiscated, because they were “tools for committing offence”.
This is, however, against the law, since the Administrative Code doesn’t provide for the confiscation of equipment as punishment. Meanwhile, Article 22.9 itself is a direct violation of the constitutional right to free speech.
Protocols in such cases are usually fabricated by the police who receive orders from higher authorities once a broadcast is aired on TV or online.
Laws limiting media freedom are also often used by local authorities against journalists who expose inefficiency and corruption in provinces or villages of Belarus.
Belsat employees who are based in provinces suffer the most, with local authorities eager to use fines as a way of silencing independent media.
Nor do courts ever side with journalists – only 0.2 percent of all cases result in acquittal.
Repressions are about to increase
Belsat is not the only media outlet to experience pressure from the authorities. Belarusian blogger and journalist Uladzimir Chudziantsou, for example, was arrested and accused of drug trafficking while crossing the Belarusian–Polish border on November 21, 2019.
He was one of the authors of the film Lukashenko. Criminal Materials , which details the Belarusian ruler’s rise to power and his grip on it since 1994.
The film became extremely popular, getting more than 2.5 million views only on YouTube. According to information from different sources, Lukashenko, who is extremely sensitive to criticism, took it as a personal insult.
Another instance of heavy pressure on the media happened in 2018. On August 7, the police broke into the offices of the country’s most popular online news outlets Tut.by and Belapan.by.
After searching the offices, the police officers seized equipment and detained journalists of both outlets, which are considered independent but not radically opposed to Lukashenko’s regime.
The journalists of Tut.by and Belapan.by were accused of illegally accessing information of the BelTA state-run news agency, resulting in big fines and arrests.
Finally on March 26, 2020, the editor-in-chief of Ej.by, Siarhei Satsuk, was arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe to publish an investigative article.
Satsuk is famous for his investigations which tackle corruption among Belarusian officials. He was released on April 4, 2020, after the criminal case against him was re-qualified as “fraud”. The case is still ongoing.
At the moment, the Belarusian authorities are in their traditional pre-election hysteria, doing everything they can to prevent people from organising and participating in mass protests.
As a result, repressions against independent media will continue and become even tougher. Arrests of journalists will likely follow.