Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Belarusian authorities have "escalated" repression against independent media over the past five months, arbitrarily detaining and beating journalists, imposing fines and prison sentences on politically motivated charges, revoking their media credentials, and raiding their homes and offices.
The crackdown "is part of the government's efforts to silence media reporting on human rights violations and peaceful, countrywide protests" that have rocked the country in the wake of an August election, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a report published on March 29.
The Belarusian opposition and the West say the vote that authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed extended his iron-fisted rule for a sixth term was rigged, and are demanding fair elections and justice for abuses since the vote.
Since protests erupted, more than 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten, several killed, and there have been widespread reports of torture, while most the opposition leadership has been arrested or forced into exile.
"Instead of ensuring justice for sweeping police brutality and other abuses, Belarusian authorities are prosecuting journalists reporting on sensitive issues," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
"The authorities should guarantee that all journalists in Belarus are able to carry out their work without fear of reprisals and without abusive restrictions," Williamson 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.
Between September and March, the authorities opened at least 18 criminal cases against journalists, "apparently in reprisal for their work," HRW said.
Three of them were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years, while seven others are awaiting trial behind bars on criminal charges of violating public order, tax evasion, and interfering with police work. One journalist accused of insulting the president is under house arrest.
The authorities "coerced lawyers representing many of these journalists into signing vaguely worded nondisclosure agreements, barring them from sharing any information about their clients' cases," HRW said, adding that several lawyers who refused to sign have faced disbarment.
In some criminal cases involving "bogus" charges, the authorities have designated journalists as witnesses and subjected them to "police and judicial harassment," according to the watchdog.
"The journalists reported being summoned for police questioning, threatened with criminal charges, and subjected to home and office searches and seizure of their equipment," HRW said, adding that at least one newspaper "had to temporarily close due to a threat of criminal prosecution, raids, and confiscated equipment."
Belarusian authorities "wrongly equate reporting on unauthorized demonstrations with participation in them, particularly if the reporter works for an outlet that the authorities refuse to grant accreditation," HRW said.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that about 400 journalists had been detained on administrative charges since August.
At least 100 of them were given short administrative jail terms since December, while others were fined on administrative charges of "violating the rules on mass gatherings," "disobeying the police," and "violating the laws on mass media."
HRW quoted several journalists as saying they were brutally beaten during their detention, denied medical assistance, and held in poor conditions. Some had their equipment destroyed.
It said the authorities deported at least two journalists with Russian citizenship in recent months, apparently in retaliation for their work in Belarus, and at least three journalists who were threatened with having custody of their children taken away fled the country with their families.
At least one media outlet was "unjustly" stripped of its media credentials for violating the media law, and state-owned printing houses refused to print at least five independent newspapers according to HRW.
In October, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry adopted new rules on foreign media accreditation in the country, "canceling all existing accreditations and making the accreditation process significantly more complicated," it said.