MINSK -- Around 50 journalists, including six from RFE/RL, were detained while covering postelection protests in Minsk on August 27, in the latest intimidation of the press in Belarus as authorities widen a crackdown.
More than 260 people were detained during August 27 protests in central Minsk, according to a list compiled by the human rights center Vyasna. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said about 50 journalists were detained, but most were released after police checked their documents.
However, four journalists who refused to hand over their smartphones for police to check were charged with participating in an unauthorized protest, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said. A Swedish journalist will also be deported.
A total of six journalists working either for RFE/RL's Belarus Service or Current Time -- the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA -- were among those detained while covering demonstrations in two different Minsk locations on August 27. All were eventually released.
Andrey Yaroshevich, a freelance camera operator working for Current Time, was among those charged with an administrative offense that can result in a fine or a jail sentence. However, his case was temporarily dropped after a court appearance on August 28 because police failed to properly fill out forms.
“Authorities are treating the media in an increasingly arbitrary manner. Not only are they refusing to accredit journalists, but they are using a variety of pretexts to detain fully credentialed journalists and prevent them from reporting what they see,” said RFE/RL’s Acting President Daisy Sindelar. “We are also alarmed that authorities have threatened to bring arbitrary charges against journalists who refuse police orders to surrender photos and other information. This is blatant retaliation, and an outrageous breach of norms and laws."
The detentions came after nearly three weeks of protests against the official results of the August 9 election -- which gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide victory.
Demonstrators and opposition leaders are contesting those results, charging that the vote was rigged in Lukashenka's favor.
The demonstrations have been met with a brutal police crackdown, with widespread evidence of beatings and torture of detained protesters.
The leading opposition candidate, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told the European Parliament this week that at least six people have been killed in the crackdown and dozens of protesters have gone missing after being detained by authorities.
But the roundup of journalists who are covering the crisis appears to signal a new strategy by Belarusian authorities.
Demonstrators on August 27 first assembled in the capital's Freedom Square to continue their calls for Lukashenka's resignation and fresh elections. The demonstration later moved to Independence Square, where police dispersed a crowd of about 1,000 and detained more than 260 people.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
The Interior Ministry says detained journalists were put on a minibus and transported to a police station where officers checked whether they had valid accreditation to work legally in the country.
Belarus has received international criticism for the way its August 9 election was conducted, and for the harsh treatment of postelection demonstrators.
The official vote tally showed that Tsikhanouskaya finished a distant second to Lukashenka. But she says she is the rightful winner of the vote.
Belarusian prosecutors have jailed two leading members of Tsikhanouskaya's recently formed Coordination Council. Other leading opposition figures also have been summoned for questioning as part of what authorities in Minsk have called a "criminal investigation."
The Coordination Council's stated aim is to negotiate with Lukashenka's government for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and a peaceful transition of power.