Journalists Assaulted And Detained At Belarusian Border

On the 16th of November, two photojournalists, Maciej Moskwa and Maciej Nabrdalik, along with their colleague from the Czech Republic, traveled to Wiejki, a Polish village close to the border of Belarus. The three reporters traveled with the assignment to take pictures of the ongoing migrant crisis at the Belarus-Poland border. According to Al Jazeera, “Poland [banned] reporters and aid workers” from entering or reporting on the area. When the reporters arrived, they stepped out of their vehicle and headed towards a spot where security guards were present. One of them had a recording device hidden away, and was recording the interaction between the reporters and security officers. In audio footage given to and published by Al Jazeera, the journalists first acknowledged and appreciated the officers’ work. Simultaneously, they highlighted their permission to be there and duty to investigate the current situation. 

“[G]ood evening, we’re here at work. We know that you are too. We’re allowed to take photographs here. Please respect that because we respect your work,” the journalists said, according to an Al Jazeera report. “[W]e don’t want to mess with you, but we need to know what the situation is and we know we have the right to take pictures here. Please respect that because we respect your work.” 

Further, in the audio recording, the reporters are heard at one point asking security officers if they were going to be detained. Al Jazeera says they responded, “no.” After the reporters began to sense an uneasy feeling which began to grow, they went back to their vehicle to de-escalate a tense situation. When they reached their vehicle, a man in an “unidentified” uniform began to hurl profanities at them, demanding that they step out of the car. “[G]et out of the car! Get out of the f*****g car, now! You’re getting out now for f**k’s sake, you have a minute!” the man yelled in the recording. A reporter could also be heard repeatedly mentioning that they were journalists, but the man ignored them. 

After the reporters were “forced” out of the car, they were forced to stand away from each other and with their arms above their heads. Security had forced them to either look-down or straight ahead and then proceeded to handcuff them. Moskwa said in an Al Jazeera report that officers also made them discard their jackets, and proceeded to check all of their belongings without a search warrant. 

“[T]hey didn’t give us any reason for taking off our clothes,” Moskwa said. “[I]t was very brutal and we felt threatened, armed people lined up behind us. They completely restricted our options to move. When I turned my head back… I heard that I can only look straight or down… officers went through all our journalistic materials on our cameras and tried to check messages on our phones. This is illegal… contravention of powers.” Moskwa also said that when his wrists began to hurt because of the handcuffs, the officers ignored him. When they later saw the wounds on Moskwa’s wrists, he recalled them saying these wounds appeared because of his watch. 

A week before the reporters were detained, Al Jazeera released a report which mentioned how critics called the restrictions “arbitrary and disproportionate.” They also placed special emphasis on transparency. Further, in a statement from the Ministry of Defence, they repeatedly pointed out that the journalists didn’t “look” like reporters. However, the nearly 20 minutes of recorded audio footage debunks this statement. 

“[T]he soldiers reported that on Tuesday afternoon, soldiers stationing in a camp in the town of Wiejki saw three masked men photographing the camp and soldiers… These persons walked along the camp, had white masks on their faces and hoods on their heads, they did not have any outside signs identifying them as journalists.” The white masks worn were COVID-19 face masks. According to Moskwa, he was not wearing a hoodie. Further, the Ministry of Defence also stated that their vehicle, “did not bear any signs that it belongs to journalists.” 

According to Moskwa, between being forcibly removed from their car and detained, there was no opportunity for them to retrieve their press IDs. Moskwa also said he was wearing his press lanyard around his neck. He pointed out that officers continued to display their aggressive behavior by stating, “[Y]ou will no longer want to take f*****g pictures.” Despite this threatening experience, the journalists remain committed to sharing the stories of migrants.  

Anti-journalism crackdowns in Belarus have occurred repeatedly, especially when President Alexander Lukashenko rose to power. In a report released earlier this year by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Belarus was ranked at the 158th position in the press freedom index, making it “[E]urope’s most dangerous country for journalists.” In a second report, RSF also reported the chilling stories of two journalists who were kept in jail cells for their reporting. Aleksandr Burakou, “a German public radio broadcaster,” was stripped naked and told to stand in a corner, prevented from sleeping for several nights, and items that were brought to him by loved ones were never delivered to him.

Ulad Zimir Laptsevich, a second reporter with traumatic experiences, told RSF that he “suffered from a hypertensive crisis for which prison had to summon a doctor to his cell.” The case of Belarusian journalist Roman Prostasevich is one that was reported globally after he and his girlfriend were arrested on the “Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius,” according to Reuters. Prostasevich had been a long-time critic of Lukashenko on Tellonym and YouTube.

Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Defence’s statement was released to justify the actions of officers. Journalists do not have a particular external “appearance,” nor do all reporters travel to destinations using a company-issued news van. It is clear from the audio footage that security did not want the reporters to be at the border, and resulted in barring their entrance using hostile methods. Additionally, the descriptions used by Belarusian soldiers practically vilified the reporters wanting to do their jobs.

While it can be challenging to change Belarus’ system on how the media continues to be censored, there are multiple solutions suggested by independent Belarusian journalists in an article for The Fix. The report said that reporters need “flexible and rapid financial support,” “opportune editorial work,” “psychological support,” and “help with relocation.” However, it’s not solely the job of diplomats and lawmakers to provide these solutions, as stressed in the article. International journalists are also responsible for further exercising their voices, platforms, and resources to keep other journalists safe. 


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