Belarus scales up crackdown on independent media

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Belarusian authorities have raided the offices of several media outlets and the homes of scores of journalists under a multi-pronged crackdown on dissent and free speech in the ex-Soviet nation, a media watchdog said Friday.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists, or BAJ, said the country’s law enforcement agencies have conducted nearly 30 searches at media outlets and journalists’ apartments and detained at least seven journalists in the past two days.

“A new wave of repression that is unprecedented in scope and cruelty has targeted the independent media,” said BAJ leader Andrei Bastunets. “The authorities arbitrarily designate any journalist as an extremist.”

On Thursday, Belarusian authorities blocked the website of Nasha Niva, a leading independent online newspaper, raided its offices and detained its chief editor Yahor Martsinovich and several other staffers for questioning.

Agents of the Belarusian state security agency, which still goes under its Soviet-era name, KGB, also conducted searches at several regional media outlets and detained several journalists.

The crackdown continued Friday, with KGB officers raiding the apartments of Nasta Zanko, a journalist of the independent news outlet in Minsk and journalists Andrey Kukharchyk and Maksim Khlyabets in Brest, on the border with Poland.

They also searched the apartment of journalist Tanya Smotkina in the town of Glubokoye in Belarus’ north, and the offices of Informprogulka and Media-Polesye media outlets in Luninets and a local newspaper in Hantsevichi in the country’s west.

Overall, 32 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said.

Konstantin Bychek, a deputy head of the KGB’s investigative department, said the raids and arrests were part of a broad sweep against “radical-minded individuals.”

Bychek alleged that those targeted are suspected of involvement in helping to stage “mass disturbances and even acts of terrorism.”

The independent media and journalists targeted in the crackdown have covered months of protests against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, which were triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged.

The authorities responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. Leading opposition figures have been either jailed or forced to leave the country.

The European Union and the United States have responded to the crackdown by slapping Belarus with sanctions. They also imposed new, tougher restrictions after Belarus diverted a passenger jet on May 23 to arrest an opposition journalist.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the election who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the vote, urged the EU to respond to the crackdown on independent media by ramping up pressure on Lukashenko’s government.

“The attack on the Belarusian media indicates that the regime is scaling up repressions and the democratic nations’ response to that must be maximally harsh,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. “We expect the EU to expand its sanctions list to include the collaborators of the regime who take part in today’s repressions.”