Continuing its Crackdown on Media, Belarus Tries Reporter for Covering Protests

Published: 12 January 2024

Lukashenko OSCE FlickrBelarus has been an OSCE member state since 1992. The elections of 2024 will be the second ones that Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko will not allow to be monitored by OSCE. (Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Flickr, License)

By Erika Di Benedetto

As part of the ongoing suppression of media freedom in Belarus, a court in Minsk opened the trial of freelance journalist Alyaksandr Zyankou on Friday. He has been charged with participating in an extremist formation for covering anti-government protests in 2020.

If convicted, Zyankou faces two to six years in prison, according to the Belarusian Journalist Association. Last year alone, 46 journalists were arrested, and 32 of them remain behind bars, the association claims.

The human rights organization Viasna reported that, by Friday, the government’s "List of extremists" contains 3,686 names.

Press freedom restrictions and human rights violations increased after the 2020 presidential elections, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, stated "were not transparent, free, or fair."

Subsequent protests led to mass detentions of journalists, human rights advocates, and supporters of democracy and press freedom. President Lukashenko persecuted political opponents like Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She fled the country after the vote and was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for treason. She now leads the Belarus opposition government in exile from Lithuania.

Lukashenko has not invited OSCE observers to monitor the forthcoming parliamentary elections on February 25, although the country has been an OSCE member since 1992.

The OSCE ensures that its members adhere to values promoting democracy, human rights, and press freedom. Its representatives have long monitored elections in member states to assess the democratic process.

“The Belarusian government's decision to shirk its obligation to invite OSCE observers is concerning and goes against the best interest of the Belarusian people,” said OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Pia Kauma.

The OSCE has monitored elections in Belarus since 1995, and this is the second time that Minsk has not invited its observers. They were not invited to monitor the disputed 2020 presidential elections either.

Further eroding democracy in his country, Lukashenko - often described as the last dictator in Europe - signed a law granting himself lifelong immunity from legal actions and blocking opposition leaders abroad from participating in future presidential elections.

The law practically allows him to do whatever he wants as it states that a president "cannot be held accountable for actions committed in connection with exercising his presidential powers," and extends this immunity to his family for life, even after the end of his political mandate.

This move is viewed as a strategic maneuver to consolidate his power and eliminate potential contenders in the anticipated 2025 presidential race.

The law imposes stricter requirements for presidential candidates, excluding opposition figures residing in neighboring countries. Eligibility is now limited to Belarusian citizens residing in the country for at least 20 years without holding residency elsewhere.

Furtheron, Viasna warned on Thursday that, in 2023, "at least 207 people were detained after border checks for political reasons" upon returning to Belarus, with numbers possibly incomplete due to the lack of data.

These actions seem to stem from various factors, including photos from the 2020 protests, donations, social media comments, "extremist" reposts, and images featuring white-red-white symbols found on phones and social media profiles. Security forces identify these elements during border phone checks.

Among the detained were citizens from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia, in addition to Belarusians, explained Viasna.

The majority of them face days in detention and fines, mainly for actions such as reposting independent media news, engaging in "petty hooliganism," or participating in "picketing" with national symbols.

The NGO reported that at least 18 individuals faced convictions under criminal charges, with 12 being sent to penal colonies.