Lately, Belarusian journalist Andrey Kuznechyk, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL's Belarus Service who is in a Minsk jail facing criminal charges that the state is keeping secret from the public, has been writing for a very limited audience: his family.
"Andrey gives a lot of advice and reflections on raising children," his wife, Alesya, said, describing his letters from custody. "I joke that he used to work a lot and could only take an hour or so away from his computer to be with the children.
"Now he reads our letters and thinks about the children constantly…. I think that, when he returns, he will pay more attention to them."
Kuznechyk has been in custody since December, after the authorities declined to release him upon completion of a 10-day sentence for alleged "hooliganism." The investigation against him was completed in March and his trial is expected to begin later this month. He and his lawyers have been barred from speaking publicly about the case and the charges have not been publicly announced.
Kuznechyk is one of two dozen Belarusian journalists currently in custody, as the government of strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues its nearly two-year crackdown on civil society. Journalists have been in the government's crosshairs since mass pro-democracy protests broke out after Lukashenka, in power since 1994, claimed a landslide victory in an August 2020 presidential election that millions of voters believe was rigged.
In addition, virtually all nonstate media outlets in Belarus have been tagged as "extremist organizations" and shut down. Many independent journalists have fled the country and are now trying to cover developments there from abroad.
"Even though the authorities have done everything possible to destroy the independent media, driving them out of the country and jailing an enormous number of journalists and chief editors, the media have found ways to reset themselves and begin coverage from abroad," said Barys Haretski, the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh), which itself has been liquidated by the government and its website blocked.
Haretski noted the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was assisted by Lukashenka and his government, was a second hard blow to Belarusian journalism because many journalists had fled to Kyiv and had to relocate a second time.
"But thanks to the resilience of Belarusian media, the country has not been deprived of the ability to get information and the world has not been deprived of the opportunity to learn about events in Belarus," Haretski said ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Because of this, Lukashenka's government has not been able to conceal its repressions, he added.
Journalists who remain inside the country face a panoply of charges -- including treason, which could mean a prison sentence of up to 15 years. In addition, the relatives of many jailed journalists are being pressured by the government to sign nondisclosure agreements barring them from talking about the cases against their loved ones or the conditions under which they are being held. RFE/RL has identified four such cases.
News Site Labeled As 'Extremist'
RFE/RL journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich was sentenced to 18 months in prison on March 4 for allegedly participating in a demonstration that he was actually covering. Hruzdzilovich's appeal is scheduled to be heard in Minsk on May 10.
Almost one year ago, in May 2021, 15 people connected with the Tut.by information website were arrested. The portal was declared "extremist" and blocked, while the detainees were charged with tax evasion.
The four main defendants -- Editor in Chief Maryna Zolatava, General Director Lyudmila Chekina, journalist Alena Talkachova, and IT Director Ala Lapatka -- remain in pretrial detention and almost no information has been released about the status of their cases.
"Judging from the fact that none of them has been allowed to meet with relatives, it would seem the investigation is still open," said a relative of one of the defendants who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions. "The investigation is being conducted very slowly, if it is being conducted at all."
Zolatava's daughter, Nadzeya, said she receives letters from her mother virtually every week.
"She writes that she reads a lot," Nadzeya said. "Now she has taken on the Harry Potter books."
'Not Yet The Bottom'
BAZh Director Haretski says Belarusian journalists abroad are coping with the difficulties of reporting from afar, making use of social media and user-generated content.
"I think the journalists abroad have a good feel for what is going on in Belarus," he said. "I am very inspired by the work of my colleagues in the independent media and by the high level of their journalism. After all, under the pressure of war, of propaganda, of repressions, there is always the temptation to lower one's standards."
Belarusian journalists face additional pressures covering the war in Ukraine, because Kyiv considers Belarus -- which hosted Russian forces that drove across the border toward the Ukrainian capital before being repelled -- an aggressor country.
"Working in Ukraine with a Belarusian passport is very difficult," Haretski said. "But our colleagues have remained in Ukraine and continue covering events there."
In addition, he said, they have covered the impact of the war inside Belarus, reporting on protests against the war and the presence of Russian forces in the country.
"Much of what is written about Belarus in Ukrainian media is content originated by our colleagues in Belarus's independent media," Haretski said.
Despite the Lukashenka government's harsh repressions, Haretski fears the worst may still be ahead.
"This is not yet the bottom," he told RFE/RL. "Although in Europe, only Russia can compete with us in terms of harshness, even there the number of journalists behind bars is smaller."
Despite "enormous fatigue" following two years of repression, Belarusian journalists must still fight to maintain their audience inside the country, Haretski said.
"It is crucial not to lose the audience, to preserve media outlets and expand them, to try new formats in order to remain present inside Belarus – and eventually return there," he concluded.