MINSK -- Belarus's Interior Ministry has added RFE/RL's Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda, to its registry of extremist organizations, in a continued clampdown on independent media and civil society sparked by an eruption of protests against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's claim he won a presidential election last year that the opposition says was rigged.
According to the statement issued by the ministry on December 23, "a group of citizens associated via Radio Svaboda's Internet resources were determined to be an extremist group."
The move means that Belarusians who subscribe to Radio Svaboda online could face up to six years in prison.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said that “we condemn the Belarusian government’s campaign to criminalize honest journalism and deprive the Belarusian people of the truth. We again adamantly reject this ridiculous, regime-imposed label -- Radio Svaboda is not an ‘extremist organization.’”
The Interior Ministry’s declaration against RFE/RL’s Belarus Service comes as actions were reportedly taken against two other journalists in the country, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Hruzdzilovich.
Fly condemned those actions as well, saying that Hruzdzilovich and Kuznechyk “are hostages taken by this lawless regime, not criminals. Factual reporting is not an ‘extremist’ activity, and journalism is not a crime.”
The action comes almost three weeks after a court in Minsk designated its official Telegram channel and some of the broadcaster's social media accounts as extremist.
Authorities in Belarus have declared hundreds of Telegram channels, blogs and chatrooms as “extremist” since the country was engulfed by protests since the August 2020 presidential election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth consecutive term.
In response, the government has cracked down hard on the pro-democracy movement, arresting thousands of people and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, and several people have died.
Dozens of news websites have been blocked in Belarus and independent media shuttered as part of a sweeping crackdown on information in the wake of the unprecedented protests.
The website of RFE/RL's Belarus Service has been blocked within Belarus since August 21, 2020, while the accreditation of all locally based journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL, were annulled by the Belarusian authorities in October 2020.
Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any fraud in the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on a political transition and new elections.
The West has refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and in response has imposed several waves of sanctions against the government and other officials accused of aiding and benefiting from the crackdown.
Separately on December 23, relatives told RFE/RL that Kuznechyk, a jailed freelance journalist who has worked for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, is facing unspecified criminal charges.
Kuznechyk was not released from jail last week even though the second consecutive jail term he was handed on a controversial hooliganism charge ended.
His relatives told RFE/RL that they were officially informed that the journalist will be transferred from the notorious Akrestsina detention center, where many inmates have said they were tortured, to another detention center in Minsk as a criminal case on unspecified charges had been launched against him.
Kuznechyk was initially sentenced to 10 days in jail on November 26 after a trial in which he refused to accept the guilty verdict.
And a rights group reported that Hruzdzilovich, a correspondent of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, has been seized and held by masked men who broke into his home in Minsk.
No other information was immediately available following the December 23 report from the Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group.
Hruzdzilovich and another RFE/RL correspondent, Ina Studzinskaya, in late July were released from jail 10 days after their arrest as part of Lukashenka's clampdown on the media.
When they were released on July 26, Hruzdzilovich and Studzinskaya said they were informed that they remain suspects in an unspecified criminal case.