Belarus has come under international pressure for a crackdown on media in which at least 14 journalists were detained and three convicted for their coverage of protests against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka last week.
Dozens of trials, including around 50 in the capital, Minsk, were held on June 22 for participants of the so-called “chains of solidarity” protests. Most were charged with participating in an “unauthorized event” or “disobeying the police.”
Some of those who faced trials were journalists who were covering protests on June 19-20 supporting potential independent and opposition presidential candidates.
In an e-mail to RFE/RL, the U.S. State Department called on the government of Belarus to improve its record with respect to human rights and democracy and meet its human rights obligations and OSCE commitments, including those related to free and fair elections.
"Free and fair elections are about more than what happens on election day. We call on the government of Belarus to ensure a level playing field for all who wish to take part in the election, including in regards to candidate registration, access to media, and other aspects of the campaign," the State Department said, adding that "respecting fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of peaceful assembly, expression, and association is crucial to strengthening the U.S.-Belarus bilateral relationship."
People turned out on June 19, the last day to sign ballot petitions for those seeking to run in the Belarusian presidential election on August 9, when Lukashenka, 65, will be seeking a sixth term in office.
The harassment of media comes as Lukashenka widens a crackdown on opposition leaders and activists, including the arrest of a top potential presidential candidate, in what experts say is the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenka's rule.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists and 40 media outlets in the country issued a joint statement on June 23 demanding from the government stop the "persecution of journalists" and accused authorities of violence against media members.
"Some of the detained reporters, namely Alyaksandr Paznyak and Syarhey Bahrou in [the southwestern city of] Hantsavichy, were beaten during detention. And often police attacked journalists even during live broadcasts, and the violations of the journalists' rights were obvious," the statement said, adding that Belarusian laws guarantee journalists the right to carry out their professional duties.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused the Belarusian authorities of “trying to gag the media and keep suppressing all forms of pluralism, both political and journalistic.”
In a statement, the head of the Paris-based media freedom watchdog’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, Jeanne Cavelier, urged the European Union to press the Belarusian government to end the harassment of journalists and release of all those held behind bars.
A day earlier, the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) decried Minsk's crackdown on the media ahead of the election.
“Belarusian authorities should stop the detentions, arrests, and prosecutions of journalists covering protests in the run-up to Belarus’ presidential election, and ensure their safety,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Journalists should be allowed to freely report on important public events without fear of arrest or harassment.”
The CPJ said Paznyak and Bahrou, journalists for the independent news website Hantsavitski Chas (Hantsavichy Time) were convicted. Paznyak was fined $340 and Bahrou was sentenced to 15 days in detention.
A court in Babruysk, in eastern Belarus, convicted Syarhey Latsinski, a journalist for the human rights news outlet Viasna, and sentenced him to 10 days in jail for allegedly participating in the protests.
The CPJ said it had learned of the convictions from Barys Haretski, the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Haretski said police beat both Bahrou and Paznyak while in detention.
Among those detained on June 19 were RFE/RL reporter Alyaksandra Dynko and her cameraman, Andrey Rabchyk.
Acting RFE/RL President Daisy Sindelar condemned the journalists' detention.
"These are direct attacks on the independent press and the rights of Belarus citizens to be informed about important developments in their country," she said on June 20.
Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.