Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling for international solidarity with Belarus’s “persecuted” independent journalists as a crackdown on media and civil society intensifies following last year's disputed presidential election.
“We call on the international community to vigorously support their resistance and to continue offering a refuge to journalists who are forced to flee the persecution,” RSF said in a statement on September 1, nearly a week after the Belarusian Supreme Court ordered the closure of the country’s only independent journalists’ association on “spurious grounds.”
The Paris-based media watchdog said the move to close the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh) was “a political decision culminating a crackdown on independent media in Belarus that began more than a year ago.”
The ongoing crackdown on Belarusian opposition and independent media started after the official results of the August 2020 presidential election awarded authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term, sparking an unprecedented wave of protests amid allegations the vote was rigged.
Mass protests against Lukashenka were met with the heavy-handed -- and sometimes violent -- detention of tens of thousands of people. Much of the opposition leadership and many independent journalists have been jailed or forced into exile.
The order to liquidate the BAZh came on August 27 after the Supreme Court upheld a lawsuit filed by the Justice Ministry. The formal reason for the order was that the association did not correct alleged violations identified by the Justice Ministry during an inspection launched in June. The BAZh argued there were no legal grounds for its dissolution.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
The BAZh had been “constantly harassed” by the authorities, according to RSF.
“It was denied access to its headquarters, its bank account was frozen, and it was subjected to searches and seizures carried out in the absence of any [BAZh] representative and without being told anything about the searches," RSF said.
The organization "has been promoting press freedom for more than 25 years in very trying circumstances, but it never had to face a crackdown of this scale,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Reacting to the Supreme Court’s dissolution order, BAZh President Andrey Bastunets said that its 1,500 members were “united by the awareness of their mission: to expand the space of freedom of speech in Belarus.”
“We will continue to do our work regardless of the decisions of courts and administrative bodies, by all legal means," he said.
RSF noted that the authorities have also disbanded other organizations such as the Belarus Press Club and PEN Belarus, which defended writers’ rights and freedom of expression.
Belarus, described by RSF as Europe’s “most dangerous country” for journalists, ranks 158th out of 180 countries in the group’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.