On Thursday the 18th of February, Belarusian journalists were charged with “organizing actions rudely violating public order,” resulting in a two-year jail term. The journalists, Katsiaryna Bakhvalava and Daria Chultsova were arrested in November while live-streaming the Belarusian protests in the cities capital. Over the past six months, more than 400 Belarusian journalists have been detained by authorities, with ten facing criminal charges.
The landslide presidential election in August of 2020 resulted in extreme unrest throughout the country. The opposition party and poll workers have claimed the election that granted authoritarian leader Lukashenko a sixth term had been rigged. Belarus has been rocked with protests, with over 200,000 demonstrators partaking in the capital protests. According to Human rights activists, hundreds have fallen victim to police brutality, and more than 30,000 protestors have been detained.
Many fear the removal of journalistic liberties is directly impeaching freedoms of speech in Belarus. In her statement to the court, Bakhvalava vowed to continue “building a Belarus without political repressions.” The convicted journalists remain firm in their resolve to report fair and accurate news to the people of Belarus. At the hearing, the women hold the symbolic ‘V’ sign, standing against the authoritarian regime.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists has deemed the sentence “politically motivated” designed to scare journalists and prevent accurate representation and reporting of socially significant events. EU representative Josep Borrell states the verdict aims to “intimidate journalists, who are simply doing their jobs.” In effect, the government has rendered a professional ban on the journalism industry. In a recent Belsat article, Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy says employees of the independent media outlet “pay with their personal freedom for promoting free speech.”
The Embassy of the United States government has declared the conviction “egregious”, urging the Belarusian government to “cease the persecution and prosecution of journalists and media outlets for covering the news.” The Embassy reiterates the fundamental freedoms the Belarusian authorities are committed to protect and uphold. The prosecution of media representatives violates the principles surrounding freedom of assembly, speech and press. Youned Mjahed, president of The Federation of Journalists declared the verdict an “attack on press freedoms.”
In response to Thursday’s verdict, the Polish president Andrzej Duda has expressed strong criticisms against the government’s decisions to repress freedoms of speech in Belarus. Poland is urging the European Union to respond to the blatant attack on Human rights enacted in Belarus.
Attacks on the free press are used as a tool to control the political discourse. If a government can successfully minimize and prevent independent organizations from reporting on national and global events, they can control the narrative. This grants any political entity extreme power, and totalitarian control over the mind of the people they represent. News outlets must operate independently of the state and political organizations. Worldwide we see a general distrust of the media, due to the commercial and political agendas saturating the industry. This distrust allows governments to attack the press and limit its reach within a country with little resistance. Therefore, the Belarusian movement must be reported by and followed through by organizations that operate independently of the state. The mass coverage of this event highlights the social, economic, and political restraints imposed by the current government. To ensure a peaceful solution is reached, it is imperative organizations such as the EU act swiftly against the basic breach of human rights that the Belarusian government is allowing.
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