Belarusian authorities continued its brutal media suppression efforts last week, shutting down the country’s largest independent news organization, Tut.by. The government took Tut.by offline, and raided the office and several homes of reporters. The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that 13 journalists were arrested and are currently being held in detention centers.
The crackdown on news organizations, like Tut.by, is yet another of the government’s increasing efforts to suppress demonstrations against the country’s leadership. The country has been embroiled in massive protests since President Lukashenko’s re-election last August, an election that many consider fraudulent. Widespread protests have been largely peaceful, yet met with intense police brutality. Thousands of protesters have been brutally beaten and over 34,000 arrested, according to reports by the Associated Press.
Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Alexander Lukashenko has been the President of Belarus for the last 26 years. Since his initial election, he has ruled Belarus with an iron-fist. Lukashenko has increasingly restricted public access to information and media, and the right to assemble. The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) has deemed every election since Lukashenko’s initial win in 1994 as fraudulent. The E.U. and U.S. have also refused to recognize the results of the 2020 election and have imposed sanctions on Belarus. Whitehouse Spokesperson, Scott McClellan, noted that the election’s flaws were caused by “a climate of fear.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who by some estimates was the actual winner of Belarus’ 2020 presidential election, denounced the government’s actions by tweeting, “This is a planned attack on our journalists and media, and they need legal protection and emergency relocation. It is crucial to help media continue their work.” After the election, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus and is currently living in Lithuania.
In last week’s raid, officials charged Tut.by with violating media laws by publishing information in support of BYSOL, which supports Belarusians suffering under President Lukashenko’s regime, and for “large-scale tax evasion.” Prior to that, the Belarusian government had stripped Tut.by of its media credentials for its coverage of the country’s protests last summer. The news organization continued to report, leading the government to target Tut.by journalists. One reporter, Katsiaryna Barysevich, was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail following her investigation on the death of protester Raman Bandarenka. Amnesty International has named Barysevich a prisoner of conscience.
Barys Haretski, Vice President of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, stated that, “The destruction of Tut.by leaves millions of Belarusians without access to objective news and shows that the authorities are ramping up repressions against journalists that stand up against the state propaganda machine.”
Of the Tut.by raid, the European Union issued a statement saying, “The harassment of journalists must stop and all those detained must be immediately released, together with all political prisoners.” Additionally, the E.U. reaffirmed its support for “civil society and independent media.”
The Belarusian government’s extreme and escalating suppression of independent media and peaceful protesting is alarming. Western countries have tried to pressure Lukashenko to act more democratically by implementing sanctions. However, this measure has only strengthened the relationship between Belarus and Russia, and has allowed their economies to become increasingly integrated. Western nations need to find a different way to support the Belarusian people’s demand for fair elections and basic liberties.