By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Belarusian authorities called the local service of the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty an extremist and launched a criminal investigation against one of its journalists on Thursday.
It was the latest stage in a multi-fronted crackdown that lasted for months on the country’s independent media.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry added the media outlet, known in the country as Radio Svaboda (Radio Freedom), and its journalists to the government register of extremist organizations. Earlier this month, a court in the Belarusian capital Minsk ruled to designate Radio Svaboda’s social media pages as extremists.
Journalists and members of the public in Belarus face up to seven years in prison for disseminating material produced by “extremist” media.
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Also on Thursday, authorities opened criminal proceedings against Andrey Kuznechyk, a 43-year-old media journalist, his relatives said. The charges against Kuznechyk were not immediately clear.
The journalist was arrested a month ago and sentenced twice to 10 days in prison. According to RFE / RL president Jamie Fly, he remains in detention even though he has served both sentences.
âAndrey Kuznechyk has finished his sentences. As far as we know, the Belarusian authorities continue to hold him, mainly as a kidnapped hostage. Andrey should be allowed to return to his family immediately. Journalism is not a crime, âFly said in an online statement.
More than 300 independent media outlets and channels on the Telegram messaging app have been named “extremists” in Belarus after covering the mass protests that erupted after a contested presidential election in August 2020. Official results have given authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term, but have been denounced by the opposition and the West as a sham.
In response to unprecedented anti-government protests, Lukashenko’s government launched a violent crackdown on protesters, arresting more than 35,000 and brutally beating thousands of them. All the main opposition activists have left the country or have been imprisoned.
After the protests ended, authorities targeted independent media, human rights groups, individual journalists and activists.
A total of 31 Belarusian journalists are currently behind bars, serving sentences or awaiting trial.
On Thursday, prominent RFE / RL blogger and journalist Ihar Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a court in the city of Gomel.
“Journalism in Belarus has been considered a criminal offense, and dozens of colleagues have been thrown behind bars for simply fulfilling their professional obligations,” said the president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrei Bastunets. “For freedom of expression in Belarus, North Korea’s standards have been set.”
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 elections and was pressured by authorities to leave the country soon after the protests began, told Lukashenko on Thursday. ‘Associated Press that “the truth cannot be beaten with a baton”. and put in jail.
“The regime hopes in vain that the crackdown on journalists will help them,” Tsikhanouskaya said, commenting on the action against RFE / RL.
“It is a fear that journalists will continue to denounce corruption schemes, to investigate who orchestrated the migrant crisis (at the borders with the EU) and how, to write about horrific torture in prisons . And for Radio Svaboda, it is an evaluation of its work, (a) recognition of its necessity and its effectiveness, âTsikhnaouskaya said.
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