Belarus: How Independent Media and Activists Keep Risking Everything
EUvsDisinfo has been regularly monitoring how the illegitimate Lukashenka regime abuses the country’s legal system and the security apparatus to shut down the very few remaining independent voices in the country. Targets include journalists, regional outlets, Telegram channels and their followers and readers.
Exercising freedom of speech in Belarus was difficult even before rigged elections in August 2020. Afterwards, however, the regime’s crackdown escalated. There continue to be so many cases and examples that naming all of them would require hundreds of pages.
Below we summarise key steps taken by the Lukashenka regime in the last months. It includes: the persecution of journalists, the use of fabricated or absurd charges, harsh prison sentences, forced ‘confessions‘ and pressure on family and friends of activists, a further crackdown on social media and distortion of the business environment, the manipulation of accounts, and closer contact with Russian mass media authorities. Expect more repression.
Journalists persecuted on absurd charges. On 15 March, Nasha Niva Editor-in-Chief Yahor Martsinovich and editor Andrei Skurko received a 2.5-year prison sentences for applying allegedly wrong rates for utility payments of the newspaper’s office in Minsk. Nasha Niva is the most popular independent Belarusian-language media outlet in Belarus. The KGB accused Belarusian journalist Dzianis Ivashyn, who has remained behind bars since March 2021, of cooperating with Ukrainian special services and charged him with treason against the state. Ivashyn had contributed to the independent media outlet Novy Chas (‘New Time’) and the Ukrainian debunking initiative InformNapalm.
The number of ‘confession’ videos on Belarus-related propaganda-spreading Telegram channels has increased significantly. Dozens of videos per week continue to appear on Telegram, with individuals asking forgiveness for alleged wrongdoings such as clicking on advertising banners with banned white and red colour combinations.
Looking for ‘the 5th column’. Different social and professional categories of the population have been targeted. For example, in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military used Belarusian railroad infrastructure. Since then, regime supporters have forced dozens of employees of the Belarusian railways system to record ‘confession videos’ posted by pro-regime Telegram channels. The employees ‘confessed’ to wrongdoings and were said to belong to the TG channel ‘Community of railway workers’ that has been listed as ‘extremist’ by the Belarusian regime.
Minors have also been forced to confess on pro-regime Telegram channels. For example, two female Belarusian teenagers confessed to allegedly uploading videos with military equipment in Belarus to their TikTok accounts. We do not link to these disturbing videos so as not to encourage their spread.
Wikipedia contributors persecuted. Belarusian Wikipedia activist Mark Bernstein was arrested for 15 days for ‘spreading fake anti-Russian materials’. It happened after a Russian propaganda TG channel published Bernstein’s personal data and accused him of violating a new Russian law banning criticism of the war in Ukraine by correcting a Wikipedia article concerning the Russian invasion. Bernstein was kept in detention and a month later sentenced to three years of restricted freedom and released from custody. Another Wikipedia author, Pavel Pernikov, was sentenced to two years for co-authoring articles about the 2020 election protests and repression in Belarus.
A crackdown on news aggregators. On 22 March, Lukashenka’s decree on online news aggregators was published. The decree states that if an aggregator places an article in its feed from an officially restricted media outlet, the aggregator may face restrictions itself. Although the decree does not mention specific aggregators, Yandex and Google News are thought to be included first and foremost. Hence, the Belarusian regime attempts to close remaining loopholes for access to non-controlled or objective information by Belarusian audiences.
Russia has restricted access to Belarusian independent online media, probably because of their coverage of the war against Ukraine which people inside Russia increasingly followed. Authorities also blocked the websites of Zerkalo.io (formerly Tut.by), Nasha Niva, Euroradio, Belsat, and others.
Draconian regulations of commercial advertising. Lukashenka signed on 31 March a decree, ‘On mass media development’, which regulates commercial advertising. The decree introduces a 10% duty on placing advertisements outdoors or in public transport; in other cases, the duty is set at 20%. The duty is paid by advertisers and used to support state media. If advertisements are placed directly in state media, the duty is not paid. Hence, any advertising of international brands in Belarus, irrespective of where it is placed, sponsors state propaganda.
Online restrictions continued. Access to Voice of Belarus, a volunteer-led media initiative, was restricted in Belarus. Authorities labelled content of the popular independent regional media outlet Media Polesye, including its publications in Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, as ‘extremist’. Access to the website was restricted long ago and its employees fired. Authorities had earlier launched a criminal case against Media Polesye’s owner. TikTok blogger Andrei Beliavsky, whose account is followed by over 100,000 people, was brutally detained. Pro-regime TG channels posted his ‘confession video‘ and a video of his detention. He is accused of insulting Lukashenka.
In addition, the regime labelled a series of Telegram channels as ‘extremist’ while the Belarusian Supreme Court classified the popular TG channels NEXTA, NEXTA Live, and Luxta as ‘terrorist’. During a high-level meeting with security officials on 19 April, Lukashenka criticised his supporters for not being even more loyal and decisive in dealing with ‘extremists’. Not only multiple media outlets and NGOs are listed as ‘extremist’ but printed materials as well. For instance, one outlet reported that a heraldic book about Belarusian military symbols titled ‘Belarus’s military history’ was added into the ‘extremist’ list by the Ministry of Information.
Manipulations with viewership of state-controlled YouTube channels. Steep increases in views of the YouTube channel of the Belarusian Broadcasting Company and other state controlled YouTube channels were notable in late March to early April 2022, particularly regarding Ukraine-related videos. Some videos, which normally get a few thousand views, were viewed hundreds of thousand times, sometimes over a million. These numbers might have resulted from significant promotional payments invested in pro-Kremlin coverage of the war in Ukraine and Russia-West relations. The inflated viewership figures returned to normal by late April.
Videos featuring mothers of Belarusian fighters in Ukraine. A Telegram channel associated with the Belarusian regime posted a video of a 68-year-old woman, the mother of a Belarusian volunteer fighting for Kyiv and Ukraine, in which she says that she is ashamed of her son. The video has the Russian battle sign letter Z in the background. Zerkalo.io interviewed her son who said his mother had participated in the video under pressure. On 15 April, Igor Tur (on the EU sanctions list for creating propaganda and disinformation for the Belarus regime and presenter of the state-owned ONT TV channel) posted a similar video of the mother of another Belarusian volunteer. She addresses her son, saying that ‘it is better to spend a few years in prison in your own country than to kill people.’
Hundreds of Telegram channels on the ‘extremist’ list. As of May, according to official comments, 633 TG channels were on the ‘extremist’ list and over 200 individuals have been detained since the beginning of the year for spreading information from ‘extremist’ sources. The allegedly extremist TG channels are not necessarily focussed on political news. The TG channel Ekonomika Belarus (‘Belarus’s Economy’) was labelled ‘extremist’ as well. In some cases, TG channels and online media are labelled ‘extremist formations’.
Being an ‘extremist’. In contrast to ‘extremist’, while subscribing to such channels is considered an administrative violation, being a follower of an ‘extremist formation’ can result in criminal charges and punished with years of imprisonment. In the meantime, the list of ‘extremist’ literature is growing too. The book The Belarusian National Idea was added to the list of ‘extremist’ materials, and the novel Europe’s Dogs by contemporary Belarusian writer Alherd Bakharevich are among the books which were recently labelled ‘extremist’.
More ‘extremist’ media outlets and continued restrictions. The website of Mediazone.Belarus and all its social media accounts have been added to the ‘extremist’ list. The project Chestnaya Gazeta (‘Honest Newspaper’), which was spread in the form of pdf leaflets with Belarusian news, was labelled an ‘extremist formation’. Authorities searched the office of the regional media outlet promogilev.by. Journalist Igor Kazmerchak, the editor-in-chief of Orsha.ru, is a suspect in a criminal case for insulting the president. Konstantin Zolotykh, director of the economic outlet The Belarusians and the Market, was detained by the KGB and is facing criminal charges for inciting hatred. Yury Hantsarevich, correspondent of the independent newspaper Intex-Press, was arrested for sending photos of Russian military equipment to independent media. Pro-regime TG channels published his ‘confession video’. Another criminal case, this time concerning the organisation of a terrorist group, was started against blogger Stepan Putilo, the founder of the largest Belarusian TG channel NEXTA, and his colleagues.
Repression of relatives of media workers and bloggers. On 26 May, the parents of Belarusian opera singer Margarita Levchuk were briefly detained and received big fines for ‘not obeying police’. Authorities also searched and vandalised the apartment of blogger Andrei Pauk’s parents and detained one of his friends. Levchuk and Pauk are members of a satirical duo who sing about political topics. They run a popular YouTube channel. It was also reported that the mother of Yahor Martsinovich, the editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva who was imprisoned for political reasons, was fired from the magazine Mastactva (‘Art’) where she had headed the magazine’s music section since 1991.
YouTube, TikTok and Instagram bloggers continue to be targeted. The popular YouTube channel Zhizn-Malina (110,000 subscribers), run by blogger Nikita Melkozerov, was added to the ‘extremist’ list. This YouTube channel posts interviews with civic activists, politicians, and popular Belarusian culture figures, among others. Instagram blogger Rostislav Chepurnoy, who posted a worker protest at a Belarusian dairy factory, was arrested and a state newspaper posted his ‘confession video’ online. Pro-regime TG channels featured a story about a schoolteacher who shared the locations of Russian troops with the Belsat TV channel. He faces up to seven years of imprisonment.
A crackdown on a recently opened bookstore with Belarusian history books. The regime increasingly targeted public manifestations of Belarusian identity and culture. In the first half of 2022, the activities of four Belarusian publishing houses which published books in the Belarusian language were interrupted. On 16 May, Belarusian state media propagandists criticised a newly opened bookstore in Minsk where historic books in the Belarusian language were sold. A few hours later, law-enforcement agencies raided the bookstore. State propagandists in Belarus are increasingly acting as a state-controlling entity which monitors manifestations of Belarusian identity in the public space and guides repressive actions of the state apparatus against it.
Lukashenka demands more active ‘counter-propaganda’. On 31 May Lukashenka chaired a high-level meeting on the topic of propaganda. ‘The most important is to be able to carry out counter-propaganda, as it was called in the Soviet Union,’ he said. Following the meeting, the head of the presidential administration, KGB Major General Igor Sergeenko, said: ‘You can say whatever you want in the media. But the most important is to be responsible for it before people, the society, yourself and the law.’ Meanwhile, Belarusian human rights defenders documented the case of a person arrested for political reasons who was forced to stand and watch Lukashenka’s speeches for three nights in a row (from 8PM until 6AM) in a special room in the detention centre.
New ‘extremist’ media and blogger ‘terrorists’. Over 50 new names were added to the list of extremist materials, including the personal Facebook and Instagram accounts of Belarusian activists. Among others, the project ‘Belarusian Culture Council‘, its website and social media were added into the list of ‘extremist formations.’ Several TG channels, including the political humour TG channel Us Lukashenka (‘Lukashenka’s Moustache’), were labelled ‘extremist formations’. The KGB added blogger Ihar Losik, who was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in late 2021, to the list of terrorists. Repressive raids against bloggers continued and pro-regime Telegram channels posted ‘confession videos’ of a few TikTok bloggers, including Alexei Bondar whose TikTok account lexmask has over 57,000 followers.
Six years of imprisonment for a journalist and other acts of repression against media workers. On 8 June, a freelance journalist for the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty, Andrei Kuznechyk, was sentenced to six years of imprisonment under strict regime. He was charged with the creation of an ‘extremist formation‘. On 6 June, a court trial began concerning the largest independent news agency, Belapan. Four Belapan employees, including Editor-in-Chief Irina Levshina and former Belapan Director Dmitry Novozhilov, are charged with ‘organisation of an extremist formation’ and tax crimes. Belapan journalist Andrei Aleksandrov is also charged with treason.
Editor-in-Chief Oksana Kolb of the independent newspaper Novy Chas (New Time) was sentenced to 2.5 years of imprisonment. The editorial teams of the largest automobile-related website abw.by and the largest IT-related website dev.by were persecuted. Belarusian journalist Tina Polynskaya was fined around USD 1,500 for having blue and yellow (the colours of the Ukrainian flag) ribbons on her bag. Authorities searched her apartment after she posted a critical Facebook post about the Russian Orthodox Church leader’s visit to Belarus. Freelance photographer Evgeny Yerchak, who collaborated with Tut.by, was detained. Chief Editor of Ezhednievnik Sergei Satsuk is facing two additional criminal charges.
See also our earlier article on political prisoners in Belarus here.
More people labelled as ‘terrorists‘ for critical online comments. In June, the Belarusian KGB added dozens of Belarusians to a terrorist list. It includes opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (working from Lithuania), bloggers, and activists, as well as ordinary citizens who posted critical commentary about a KGB officer killed in a shoot-out last year. Harsh sentences for exercising freedom of speech continue. For instance, a 57-year-old woman was sentenced to 1.5 years in jail for calling Lukashenka a ‘usurper’ in a letter sent to the Investigative Committee. Harsh sentences also continued to be imposed on people who filmed Russian military movements in Belarus. For instance, a 27-year-old woman was sentenced to four years of home confinement for filming the movements of the Russian military in Belarus and sending the video to an ‘extremist formation’.
More ‘coordination’ between Belarus and Russia in the media sphere. On 27 June, Belarusian Information Minister Vladimir Pertsov met Andrey Lipov, the chairman of Roskomnadzor, the Russian Federal Monitoring Service of Communication and Mass Media, in Moscow. According to the Belarusian Information Ministry, they discussed ‘contemporary trends in regulating media and legal relations in the online space’. The two sides might be planning to coordinate and intensify their efforts to restrict access to independent media.
Threats to restrict access to YouTube. Chairman of the Belarusian Broadcasting Company Ivan Eismont threatened to totally restrict access to YouTube in Belarus if the YouTube channels of state media outlets are suspended. ‘If no [official] Belarusian [content] is left [on social media] then the big question is if we need such networks,’ Eismont said in an interview.
More restrictions and media outlets labelled ‘extremist’. The European Radio for Belarus (Euroradio) outlet was labelled an ‘extremist formation’. The independent regional media outlet Hrodna.life and its social media accounts, as well as the website of Polish Radio Polskieradio.pl, were labelled ‘extremist’. The Instagram hashtag #svobodnayabelarus (‘#freebelarus’) was added as ‘extremist’ too. Online access to the economic newspaper The Belarusians and The Market, the websites vkletochku.org and politzek.me (which facilitated communication with political prisoners), and to the Belarusian Investigative Centre were restricted. Arche.by, the website of a history-focused Belarusian magazine, was restricted for ‘reposting extremist materials‘.
The terrorist label and 6.5 years in prison for an anti-war repost on social media. Individuals continue to be arrested for reposting content of independent media to public chats and in their private social media accounts. As of July, over 130 Belarusian nationals had been added to the ‘list of terrorists’, often just for spreading ‘extremist’ content.
Human right defenders report that a 20-year-old student, Danuta Perednya, was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for ‘harming the national interests of Belarus‘ and ‘insulting Lukashenka’. Her ‘crimes’ were reposting in a Telegram chat a text that contained criticism of Putin and Lukashenka for waging war against Ukraine. Furthermore, Perednya was added to the ‘terrorist list’.
A journalist receives eight more years of imprisonment for ‘treason’. Belsat journalist Katerina Andreyeva was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment for ‘transferring Belarus state secrets to a foreign country, international or foreign organisation and their representatives.’ Andreyeva is already serving a two-year term for streaming a protest rally in Minsk in November 2020.
Repression against journalists and TikTok bloggers. Journalist Yury Hantsarevich was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for spreading photos of Russian military equipment in Belarus. Leading Belarusian military expert and blogger Yahor Lebiadok was detained on dubious charges. Journalist Pavel Dailid was detained for taking a 2020 photo with the white-red-white flag at a sanctioned rally. Pro-regime TG channels published the ‘confession video’ of badly beaten TikTok blogger Aleksandr Gurnik. TikTok blogger Yaroslav Velichko, who has over 20,000 followers, was detained. Pro-regime TG channels published his ‘confession‘ video. Lately authorities have mostly targeted TikTok bloggers, probably because most YouTube bloggers have already emigrated or been imprisoned and because of TikTok’s growing popularity in Belarus.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, more than 400 journalists have left Belarus since 2020.