MINSK – Belarusian authorities stripped accreditations from at least 17 journalists from major foreign news organizations who have been covering the country’s turmoil following the disputed presidential election. Two Moscow-based reporters with the Associated Press were also deported.
The move, taken on August 29 by a commission of the national Security Council, was a major escalation by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government as it continues to face popular protest and international condemnation for the August 9 election, and for the harsh police crackdown on opposition protesters.
In Minsk, meanwhile, thousands of people, mainly women, marched through the city center, in the latest demonstration of opposition to Lukashenka.
The crowds sang and chanted “Sasha, You’re Fired!" – a reference to Lukashenka. Some protesters carried signs that said “Fight like a girl!” and "This is our city!"
No arrests or violence was reported, though at one moment, protesters faced off with riot police who blocked the crowd’s progress.
The journalists targeted includes employees of major Western news organizations, including RFE/RL, the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence-France Presse, Germany’s ARD television, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France. Without accreditations, journalists are not legally permitted to gather news within the country.
The RFE/RL journalists affected were Ales Dashchynski, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, Alyaksandra Dynko, and Uladizislau Grydzin. Raman Vasiukovich, a journalist from Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, was also among those whose accreditation was revoked.
No reason for the government’s decision was provided.
The Belarus Association of Journalists reported 17 journalists had their accreditations canceled. Two Russian citizens working for the Associated Press were also deported.
'A Desperate And Ominous Move'
Journalists from Russian state-run and state-funded news media, such as the TASS news agency, Vesti TV, or the RT channel, did not appear affected by the accreditation decision. A live feed of Russia’s main state TV channel from Minsk made mention of the other reporters’ being stripped of accreditations, a group that also included several Russian citizens.
"Stripping our journalists of accreditation on grounds of 'extremism' is a desperate and ominous move by an authoritarian government to stifle the independent media and ruthlessly control the availability of credible information inside Belarus,” acting RFE/RL President Daisy Sindelar said in a statement. "It's a violation of international standards and an assault on the Belarusian people who rely on us."
Four journalists from RFE/RL’s Belarus Service were hit by the move, and one from Current Time, the Russian-language TV network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Others include two from the BBC, two from AP, two from AFP, two from ARD, and two from Reuters.
Many of those affected are Belarusian citizens.
BBC journalist Tatyana Melnichuk told RFE/RL that she had been informed that her accreditation had been revoked via a telephone call from the Foreign Ministry.
"They told us that our accreditation...had been revoked and that we had to return them today or on Monday," Melnichuk said. "They didn’t give any reason."
U.S. Calls For 'Restraint'
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk called on Belarusian authorities to "demonstrate restraint."
"We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the aspirations of the Belarusian people to choose their leaders and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," the statement said.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the revocation of press credentials.
"Instead of intimidating and hindering media in reporting, the authorities should focus on reflecting on and addressing the desires and aspirations of the Belarusian population as expressed in an unprecedented and peaceful way over the last few weeks," spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.
Two days earlier, around 50 journalists were detained while covering postelection protests in Minsk; the group included employees from Belarusian outlets such as TUT.BY, BelaPAN, and Belsat.
In all, more than 260 people were detained during at the time, according to the human rights center Vyasna.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists said most of the journalists detained at the time were released after police checked their documents.
Four journalists who refused to hand over their smartphones for police to check were charged with participating in an unauthorized protest, the association said. A Swedish journalist will also be deported, it added.
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 detentions came after nearly three weeks of protests against the official results of the election, which gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.
Demonstrators and opposition leaders are contesting those results, charging that the vote was rigged in Lukashenka's favor.
During their detention on August 27, RFE/RL journalists were searched by police, who appeared to be looking for recording equipment. Their laptops and cameras were seized, and they were ordered to open the photo galleries and other information on their mobile phones. In at least one case, a journalist was told to delete images of riot police.
One RFE/RL photographer was threatened with misdemeanor charges if he refused to comply with police orders.
Meanwhile, many websites of news organizations have seen curtailed access within Belarus amid reports that of sporadic Internet access.
Several bloggers also remain in prison, including a consultant for RFE/RL's Belarus Service on digital strategy. His detention in Zhodzina prison outside of Minsk has been extended to October 25.
Protesters, who are planning another demonstration in Minsk on August 30, have been largely defiant despite a brutal police crackdown, and 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.