Sunday, 13 Jun 2021

Opinion | Every Belarusian Journalist I Know Is in Jail or Exile

MOSCOW — In 2019, I was invited to speak at the press club in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, by Yuliya Slutskaya, a celebrated journalist with 30 years of experience. This past December, she was detained for “tax evasion.” She is still in custody.

Then there’s Marina Zolotova, the editor in chief of Tut.by, Belarus’s most popular independent news site, whom I met last August. Dubiously charged with “tax fraud” — as was the website itself, which the authorities shut down last week — she’s also now in pretrial detention.

And there’s Yan Avseyushkin, with whom I worked to expose the extent of Russian propaganda machine’s involvement in propping up the regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko when it was rocked by protests last summer. In November, he spent 15 days in jail after a “trial” that lasted less than a minute, and then fled the country.

Those are just the journalists I know. Belarus is full of similarly distressing stories. Even those who have left the country aren’t free from Mr. Lukashenko’s grasp — as Roman Protasevich found out on Sunday when his flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was grounded in Minsk and he was arrested on “terrorism” charges for once helping to run an anti-government Telegram channel, Nexta.

The day before Mr. Protasevich’s arrest, Arina Malinovskaya, a journalist at a Poland-based news channel that focuses on Belarus, Belsat, fled the country fearing for her safety. Soon after, she received a phone call from a relative who was being held by the authorities until she returned and surrendered. She refused, and the police are now threatening to arrest more of her loved ones. Mr. Lukashenko’s crackdown, under which at least 34,000 people have been arrested since August, is no longer confined to Belarus’s borders.

Nor is its significance. What’s happening is not just about the rights of journalists in one country; it’s also about the criminalization of a free press in parts of the world where it is the most vital — and about the obligation of the international community to stand up to leaders who intimidate and silence journalists. It would be calamitous if the pressure campaign on Mr. Lukashenko — targeted sanctions, boycotts and condemnation — were to fade away.

In Russia, reporters, activists and ordinary citizens are watching the news with a sinking feeling, wondering how many months it’ll take before our country catches up with Belarusian levels of repression. What’s happening there could easily soon happen to us.

Things seem well on their way. This year, in response to the protests set off by the return of Aleksei Navalny to Russia in January and in advance of parliamentary elections in September, the Kremlin has stepped up its repression of independent media and organizations.

On April 23, Meduza, an independent news outlet where I work as the investigations editor, was declared a “foreign agent” by the Russia’s Ministry of Justice. The result was an almost total collapse of our business model. The Russian law requires “foreign agent media” to preface each message on its website and social media with a legal disclaimer, which few of our advertisers — including major international corporations and even Russian state-owned companies — were prepared to see plastered all over their promotional materials. We had to severely cut back on our operations. Our long-term survival is questionable.

At least we know that Meduza has not been singled out. A few weeks after we were branded a “foreign agent,” another independent publication joined us: VTimes, an outlet founded by exiles from another publication, Vedomosti, a respected business newspaper taken over and hollowed out by Kremlin loyalists. Together, we are the first independent media organizations to be added to the “foreign agent media” list since Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2017. There’s little doubt that more “foreign agent” designations will follow.

It’s a disastrous development for independent media in Russia — but the situation in Belarus is much more dire. In August, for example, a Meduza reporter, Maksim Solopov, traveled to Minsk to cover the protests. There he was detained by the police, beaten, held for two days and finally deported with a travel ban. At least he wasn’t forced to record a “confession” like Sofia Sapega, Mr. Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend, who was arrested with him.

Even by Mr. Lukashenko’s brutal standards, this week was an escalation. On Monday, he signed a sweeping anti-press law that effectively criminalizes reporting from “unauthorized” — that is, all — protests and allows the authorities to shut down any news outlet without even a perfunctory court decision. For those who wish to pursue independent information, the choice is between exile and a prison cell.

In Russia, by contrast, it’s the legal cost of reporting, rather than outright suppression, that is increasingly prohibitive for independent media: Journalists who covered the protests in support of Mr. Navalny have been hounded by the police and summoned for questioning weeks later. But the country, in truth, is not too far behind its already fully dictatorial neighbor and ally — as the moves to outlaw Mr. Navalny’s national grass-roots activist network and block its hundreds of thousands of supporters from running for office show.

For all the drama of Mr. Protasevich’s arrest — plucked from the sky at a president’s demand — repression doesn’t usually happen in a snap. It drags on for weeks, months, years. Foreign media bureaus are expelled or restricted in their reporting, local outlets are muzzled, information dries up and international attention shifts elsewhere. Bit by bit, the space for independent inquiry shrinks, until it’s gone. And all that’s left is state propaganda.

Alexey Kovalev (@Alexey__Kovalev) is the investigations editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet.

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