Belarusian authorities have detained at least 17 members of the press covering protests that erupted across the country this week, in a move decried by activists and watchdogs as part of a campaign of repression ahead of a presidential election next month.
The wave of protests has rocked Belarus in the days since the Central Election Commission (CEC) on July 14 denied several opposition presidential candidates the ability to register in the upcoming vote.
Hundreds of people were detained and physically attacked, including five journalists from RFE/RL, in the cities of Minsk, Brest, and Homel on July 14-15.
In a statement on July 16, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the authorities to stop "harassing, detaining, and charging" media workers.
"Belarusian authorities must stop detaining and prosecuting journalists if they want the country's upcoming elections to be seen to have even a shred of legitimacy," Gulnoza Said, the media-freedom watchdog's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement on July 16.
Events in Belarus have drawn criticism from the United States and the European Union, which in recent years have eased sanctions slapped on the country over its human rights record as part of a nascent rapprochement with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Lukashenka, who is seeking a sixth term in the August 9 poll, has rejected Western criticism of the government's violent dispersal of the demonstrations and the disqualification of candidates.
On July 15, RFE/RL journalist Anton Trafimovich was detained and beaten by riot police who left him handcuffed and kneeling on the floor of a police van, bleeding with a broken nose, as he was taken to a precinct station. He was later released without explanation.
The previous day, RFE/RL journalists Ales Piletsky and Andrey Rabchyk were detained during a live broadcast about the CEC’s decision and held by police for several hours.
"That our colleagues were attacked in the middle of live broadcasts leaves no doubt that the government is trying to stop our coverage and prevent audiences from having access to reliable news," RFE/RL acting President and Editor in Chief Daisy Sindelar said.
The upcoming election comes as Lukashenka faces mounting public opposition to his rule. The country has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with more than 65,000 confirmed cases as of July 16, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Lukashenka ignored calls to institute any lockdown measures, dismissing the virus as nothing more than a "psychosis." Hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers have been arrested as the government has cracked down hard on rallies and demonstrations despite calls for restraint from Western governments and institutions, including the United Nations.
Last month, Belarusian authorities detained at least 14 journalists for allegedly participating in unsanctioned protests, and in May, five journalists covering opposition candidates were detained, according to CPJ.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the authorities to "stop this escalation of the repression of the fundamental freedom to express oneself and to inform."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service is known locally as Radio Svaboda (Radio Liberty).