KIEV, Ukraine (AP). On Thursday, Belarusian authorities called the local service of the US-funded radio station Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty extremist and launched a criminal investigation against one of its journalists.
This was the latest step in a months-long crackdown on the country’s independent media.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus has entered the publication known in the country as Radio Svaboda and its journalists into the state register of extremist organizations. Earlier this month, a court in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, ruled to recognize Radio Svaboda’s social media pages as extremist.
Journalists and members of the public in Belarus face up to seven years in prison for distributing materials produced by “extremist” media.
Also on Thursday, authorities opened a criminal case against Andrei Kuznechik, a 43-year-old journalist for the publication, his relatives said. It was not immediately clear what the Grasshopper was accused of.
The journalist was detained a month ago and twice sentenced to 10 days in prison. According to RFE / RL President Jamie Fly, he remains in custody, although he served both sentences.
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“Andrey Kuznechik has finished his sentences. As far as we know, the Belarusian authorities continue to detain him, in fact, as a kidnapped hostage. Andrey should be allowed to return to his family immediately. Journalism is not a crime, ”Fly said in an online statement.
More than 300 independent media outlets and channels on the messaging app Telegram have been deemed “extremist” in Belarus after covering massive protests that erupted following the controversial presidential election in August 2020. The official results allowed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in power, but were denounced by the opposition and the West as fiction.
In response to unprecedented anti-government demonstrations, the Lukashenka government brutally suppressed the protests, arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands of them. All leading opposition activists have either fled the country or been imprisoned.
After the protests subsided, authorities targeted independent media outlets, human rights groups, individual journalists and activists.
Currently, 31 Belarusian journalists are serving their sentences or awaiting trial.
Last Thursday, a court in Gomel sentenced the famous blogger and journalist of Radio Liberty Igor Losik to 15 years in prison.
“Journalism in Belarus is equated with a criminal offense, and dozens of colleagues were thrown into jail just for fulfilling their professional duties,” said Andrei Bastunets, head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. “North Korean standards have been set for freedom of speech in Belarus.”
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 elections and who was pressured to leave the country soon after the protests erupted, told The Associated Press on Thursday that “the truth cannot be beaten with truncheons. and go to jail. “
“The regime hopes in vain that repression against journalists will help them,” Tsikhanovskaya said, commenting on the actions against RFE / RL.
“There are fears that journalists will continue to expose corruption schemes, investigate who organized the migration crisis (on the border with the EU) and how, write about the terrible torture in prisons. And for Radio Svaboda, this is an assessment of its work, (a) recognition of its necessity and effectiveness, “Tsikhnauskaya said.