Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s high-level talks at the White House on July 19 coincided with another wave of brutal crackdowns on civil society in her home country, where independent media has almost died out.
The West must now put media freedoms first on its list in negotiations with the Belarusian authorities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Restoring the work of the independent media should be a precondition at least equal to the release of political prisoners.
Images of Belarusians peacefully and courageously demanding a free and fair process were seen around the world in the August 2020 elections.
Unfortunately, so was the subsequent falsification of the results and the ongoing brutal reprisals against the protesters by government security forces.
Almost a year after losing an election, Lukashenko is still in office and thousands have been arrested, tortured and imprisoned. There seems to be no limit to the terror that can be waged against its enemies. And we know all of this from the brave journalists on the ground who document their own persecution.
Last week, police broke into the offices of more than 40 nonprofit organizations and the media, questioning employees and confiscating equipment.
What the government has grimly described as a “clean-up” operation is clearly a retaliatory act against participants in last year’s mass protests, but also against sanctions imposed by the West.
In May, the United States and the EU blacklisted regime officials after journalist Roman Pratasevich was taken off the Ryanair flight that was forced to land in Minsk under the pretext of a bomb and was arrested. Although the EU and the US ordered their planes to avoid Belarusian airspace, Lukashenko’s comment was made to the challengers: You are not safe anywhere.
Working as a journalist in Belarus has always carried risks, but no more than now. Authorities have even given up on trying to accommodate some independent media after protests, mass arrests and assaults by police forces that followed a disputed election in August 2020 were broadcast live.
It is not surprising that the media were one of the first victims of post-election repression. Pratasevich previously co-managed the dissident Telegram channel Nexta, which published thousands of news stories about protests to more than a million subscribers. The government has described this channel as “extremist”.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Belarus is the worst place in Europe to be a journalist. By latest count, more than thirty Belarusian media workers are currently behind bars, including editors, journalists, photographers, camera operators and stringers. Websites are routinely blocked. Fines and jail time for bogus charges are on the rise.
In the two months after Pratasevich’s arrest, threats to the independent media in Belarus have intensified. Hundreds of people continue to be forced into exile after bogus criminal cases are opened against them. Those who stay are accused of extremism and hate speech, threatened to report on their colleagues or forced to make false confessions broadcast on state television. Pro-regime newspapers, reporters and social media also smear the names of the detainees, accusing them of Nazism or being Western puppets.
The lack of attention to the erosion of the independent media sector in Belarus is dangerous as it creates an information vacuum at the borders of the EU. If the democratic international community wants to help independent media and civil society in general in Belarus, they must insist on freedom of the press as a prerequisite for easing sanctions, including removing website blocks and releasing all jail journalists.
They must also lead by example. In the last week alone, there have been a series of attacks on the media across Europe. Georgian cameraman Alexander Lachkarava was beaten to death by a group of far-right thugs in Tbilisi, while fifty of his colleagues were also assaulted. Dutch investigative journalist Peter De Vries was shot dead in broad daylight on the streets of Amsterdam after leaving the filming of a talk show. In Poland, the government is unhappy about your critical coverage under the guise of countering evil foreign influence. And journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and politicians around the world are allegedly being targeted by authoritarian regimes using a Pegasus cyber-surveillance weapon, a hacking spyware originally intended to be used against criminals and terrorists. How can Europe take a position on the safety of journalists and freedom of the press abroad when its own neighborhood is in such disarray?
Keep the pressure on the regime, but also create opportunities for Belarusians. With the seemingly unconditional backing of Moscow, we can no longer rely on economic sanctions to change Lukashenko’s behavior. The EU appears to be currently obsessed with a small increase in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers crossing Belarus and entering the bloc.
Tomorrow will be the Belarusians themselves climbing the barbed wire?
Europe and the West must create favorable working conditions for exiled journalists and media outlets forced to leave Belarus, providing them with urgent visas and accelerating their legal status allowing them to expand media centers. The people of Belarus deserve to know that the doors of other European countries and the United States are open to them.
Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach is a Belarusian journalist and team leader for Europe and Central Asia at Free Press Unlimited.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism