Almost 70 journalists were detained in Belarus and half were beaten and injured after pro-democracy protests began against the contested re-election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists said it is aware of 69 cases of journalists being detained since 9 August, the day of the election, and said on Monday that two remained in custody despite demands for their release.
The BAJ added that 36 of the detained journalists had been beaten and injured while two female reporters were wounded in the leg by a rubber bullet and an unknown shell respectively while covering the protests.
Thousands of people joined peaceful protests last week that were met by rubber bullets, tear gas, clubs and stun grenades after Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, 80% of the votes.
The official results gave leading opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya only 10% but critics both in Belarus and abroad have claimed they were falsified.
London-based photographer Patryk Jaracz, who travelled to Minsk on the eve of the election, wrote in the Times about his experience being detained for 85 hours.
“…as I stood with other photojournalists at a protest rally near Galleria Minsk on the day after President Lukashenko declared victory, I was grabbed. Officers from Omon, the special paramilitary police unit, were randomly beating and detaining anyone they could.”
He said he was forced to kneel on concrete for four hours, stripped naked, beaten with batons, put into a filthy crowded cell and given only one meal of porridge in the whole time he was detained.
Belarusian journalist Rasl Kulevich was arrested on the evening of 11 August while covering demonstrations in Rodno for https://t.co/GK1gQRrfBk.
The police beat him and broke both his forearms.#Belarus pic.twitter.com/9uEWfISKAK
— EFJ (@EFJEUROPE) August 16, 2020
Alena Scharbinskaya who is a correspondent with independent broadcaster Belsat TV, said she was beaten so badly while she was in custody for almost three days that she was hospitalised after she was released without charge.
She told the Committee to Protect Journalists: “As I was being released, I fainted because of terrible pain. I was taken to the hospital.
“The doctors say that there are huge inner injuries in the lower part of my body, hematomas and bladder injuries. I also feel pain in my back as [a female police officer] had beat my back with a baton.”
Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray said: “It is essential that journalists the world over as well as our politicians voice their support for our media colleagues who are struggling to provide the people of Belarus with accurate and impartial coverage in their country.
“We urge the authorities in Belarus to ensure the safety of journalists who are simply going about their legal employment.”
The European Federation of Journalists urged the European Council to sanction the Belarusian leaders who are allowing such treatment.
EFJ general secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez said: “We demand the immediate release of the detained journalists.
“And we call on the European Council to impose the strictest sanctions on those responsible for and complicit in the repression of journalists.
“The management of state propaganda media must not be spared. Threats by the head of state television BTRC Ivan Eismant against strikers cannot go unpunished.”
Journalists on state TV station Belarus One went on strike on Monday morning, leaving an empty studio on air during the morning news programme.
It came after protests outside the TV station in Minsk, which initially did not cover the post-election demonstrations and later sought to blame violence on protesters, on Saturday.
Some 600 employees gave their support to a call to be allowed to report on the protests independently, objectively and without censorship.
This is what this morning's state TV show looked like:pic.twitter.com/IonISHw8bh
— Alex Kokcharov (@AlexKokcharov) August 17, 2020
Eismant had told everyone who did not agree with the Government to quit their jobs, according to the EFJ.
Backing the strike, Gutiérrez said: “The Belarusian authorities must understand that journalists will continue to do their work in the public interest.”
The European Broadcasting Union condemned the police brutality against journalists and supported the state TV journalists’ calls to report objectively without being put under political pressure or threats.
EBU director general Noel Curran said: “Journalists have to be free to do their job without fear of violence and intimidation and we are deeply concerned by recent incidents in Belarus.
“The people in Belarus have the right to receive truthful information on what is happening in their country. We urge the government to ensure freedom of expression and safety of journalists.”
A group of UK journalists have launched an open letter, so far signed by about 30 people including Gutiérrez, former Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor Iain Overton and Tech Crunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher, in support of their Belarusian colleagues.
The letter, also backed by the Society of Editors, said: “This is a pivotal moment in the history of Belarus. There may be risks to you personally from the current situation, and we recognise how hard it may be to do your jobs. And no journalist should be harassed, threatened, censored, jailed, or murdered because of their profession.
“But journalism only makes sense if it serves the citizen. The people of Belarus will owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude as you do your job faithfully and professionally. Now, more than ever, your public service is important.
“Therefore, we the undersigned, wish to support you and show solidarity as you protect and strengthen media freedom and independent journalism in Belarus by reporting on the current protests sweeping the country. As colleagues, we wholeheartedly support you in these efforts.”
Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire