This summer, 29-year-old Olga Alkhimenka was one of the last independent journalists to leave Belarus. It came when authorities launched a search for unaccredited reporters who were still in the country.
Alkhimenka headed an investigative unit that collaborated with the Polish channel Belsat TV. On Friday, July 16, he learned that the Belarusian police had started arresting his colleagues.
What was supposed to be a normal day turned out to be the last in Belarus. At 7 a.m., he awoke to reports that members of his team were being detained in the capital, Minsk, after several attempts to intimidate and arrest them.
“A colleague was immediately kidnapped and others tried to lock his doors,” Alkhimenka explained to Euronews.
“They took all the phones and computers, so of course I knew they would see all the messages and come for me. It would be extremely dangerous to stay. It would only be a matter of time before they came and arrested me.” . “
Alkhimenka took her things and her eight-year-old daughter and took a taxi to get away from the safe house on the outskirts of Minsk, where she had been staying due to the repressions.
“When I left town by taxi, police cars passed us,” says Alkhimenka, who now lives in Poland. “I think if I had waited another five minutes, they would have arrested me.”
“I expected to have to flee for only a month and be able to return, but now I see that this is not possible as long as the government continues with these repressions,” he explains.
Alkhimenka says the situation in Belarus has become increasingly dangerous since former leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won the presidential election in 2020 with 80 percent of the vote.
The election plunged the country into a crisis when tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the vote that they claimed had been rigged.
Since then, more than 30,000 people have been arrested and the Belarusian authorities have stepped up their efforts to stamp out critical voices, such as the independent media, since then.
“The situation in Belarus has worsened, step by step. Before the elections, everything was calmer. We could even ask the government for contributions and be invited to its offices, but everything changed after last year’s elections,” he says. “Since the spring, especially, we have seen the situation get worse and worse.”
“In the spring, they began to monitor each of our team members, trying to follow us through our phones and find out where we lived,” says Alkhimenka, explaining that the increase in repressions was the reason why he left. Minsk and moved to a safe house. .
The crackdowns intensified after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, with journalist and activist Roman Protasevich on board, was diverted to the Belarusian capital in May. Upon landing in Minsk, Protasevich was arrested. Amid an international outcry, it was denounced as state-sponsored aviation piracy.
In the same month, Belarusian authorities searched Belsat TV’s offices in Minsk, seized equipment and arrested a cameraman. In June and July, several journalists were detained when more media offices were raided.
Belsat TV brings out journalists
Another journalist who left Belarus in the summer is Stanislav Ivashkevich, who also works with Alkhimenka and is a producer of investigative and analytical programs for Belsat TV. He left Belarus in July for a business trip and was unable to return due to the wave of arrests.
He maintains that the situation in Belarus is so dangerous now that “any freelance journalist who signs his name is abroad, inactive in jail.”
“The few remaining independent journalists are always in danger of arrest,” he says, adding that all the reporters from his investigative unit have left Belarus.
Belsat TV deputy general manager Alexy Dzikavicki told Euronews that the channel decided to remove most of its reporters from Belarus this summer as it had become too dangerous to stay.
“When we saw that it was too dangerous for them to stay, we had to remove most of our reporters to prevent them from going to prison,” he said. “Belarus is trying to destroy all independent media, but we will continue to cover the country as best we can.”
Dzikavicki described how Belsat TV also had to evacuate some reporters through illegal border crossings, across grasslands and across rivers, because the Belarusian government had closed its borders to anyone who left without permission.
The station had been reporting from Belarus for years without accreditation, as the Belarusian government had always rejected requests.
Few free media left
After Alkhimenka left Belarus, the authorities continued to crack down on the few remaining independent media outlets. Recently, reporters from the independent weekly Novy Chas were detained and questioned and the Polish-based Belsat TV was branded an “extremist”.
“If Belarus before the 2020 elections was somewhere close to Russia (in terms of freedom of the press), how much could be published within the country, how many independent or critical media existed, since then the situation has become much worse than in Russia, it is even worse than in countries like Uzbekistan and even Azerbaijan, “says Artyom Shraibman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“There are dozens of journalists in jail. Virtually all independent media have closed or blocked. You only see a very small space for foreign information because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has revoked many, if not all, accreditations for” non-Russian foreign communication in the country. The coverage of street protests has been basically criminalized, “he told Euronews.
Shraibman refers to how two Belsat TV reporters, Katerina Andreyeva, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, were jailed in February and sentenced to two years in prison for broadcasting a protest live from an apartment, which the government did not had approved.
“What we currently see is basically a domestic occupation, but the security apparatus continues to support Lukashenko, and it is strong, and with the opposition weak, there are no signs of cracks within his leadership and no immediate danger to the Lukashenko government.” .
Euronews contacted the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had not responded at time of publication.
“Why should Lukashenko stop?”
According to Reporters Without Borders, Belarus is one of the worst places for journalists globally, ranking 158 out of 180 countries on its list. Artyom Shraibman says the current situation only appears to be getting worse.
“Why should Lukashenko stop? Western sanctions are not so painful for him as to stop the repression that he believes is necessary to eliminate any possibility of protests in the future,” he argues. “And for security officers and law enforcement agencies, they enjoy the new attention from the government. They enjoy budgets and they enjoy their new status.”
“So, everything indicates that we will continue to see repressions against independent media and the opposition. There is no resistance from society apart from some incidents such as a recent shooting in Minsk, where a KGB (intelligence service) officer was shot. No there is resistance right now forcing Lukashenko to stop, “he says.
“The Belarusian opposition is very weak and limited in what it can do because it has been the victim of a year-long crackdown, a very intense crackdown. So it’s hard to imagine much opposition in Belarus right now,” says Shraibman. He added that various opinion polls estimate that Lukashenko’s support in the country is only 25 to 35 percent.
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, also sees no real reason for things to improve in Belarus.
“We see how Lukashenko continues to repress the opposition and even tries to pressure his immediate neighbors like Poland and Lithuania,” he says, referring to the arrival of thousands of migrants to his borders with Belarus in recent months. Lukashenko is accused by the European Union and the West of orchestrating the influx to destabilize the EU.
“I find it difficult to believe that the relationship with the West can improve. It is difficult for the EU to tell the public that Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 in Belarus and has been in all the news about repressions and is holding almost nine million hostages. in his country – he’s willing to change. I don’t see that happening, “Rojansky told Euronews.
‘I hope to come back sometime’
Alkhimenka now works for Belsat TV in Poland, where she continues to cover Belarus to the best of her ability from outside the country. She says she’s keeping busy.
“Back then, I had to assess the risk for my son and myself,” he says. “And I knew that if I stayed in Belarus, they would arrest me and I could do no good from a cell.”
“Now, I try to be helpful in supporting Belarus and its people,” adds Alkhimenka. “I hope to go back to Belarus at some point, but it will have to be after some kind of change of power.”
Every weekday at 1900 CET, Discovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to be alerted about this and other breaking news. Is available in Apple and Android devices.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism