On a grey afternoon in Minsk in November 2020, journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova were filming from an apartment. It looked down onto a courtyard, colloquially known as the ‘Square of Change’, where hundreds were gathered to peacefully demonstrate and demand justice for the death of pro-democracy activist Raman Bandarenka in police custody. Andreyeva, whose real surname is Bakhvalova, and Chulstova were livestreaming the protest for Belsat, a Poland-based independent Belarusian-language broadcaster. Within a few hours, the protest was dispersed by authorities and 10 riot police officers broke into the apartment. The two journalists were detained and their equipment seized.

In the days that followed, a criminal case was opened against the journalists and their homes and those of their families were searched by the authorities. Three months later, on 18 February 2020, Chultsova and Andreyeva were sentenced to two years in a prison camp, where they remain to date. Viasna, a Belarusian human rights watchdog, has recognised the two as political prisoners. In October, Andreyeva and Chultsova were jointly awarded the 2021 Prize For the Freedom and Future of the Media for their live coverage of the protests.

Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), says that the prosecution of journalists in criminal proceedings marks a significant escalation in risk for journalists working in Belarus. Prior to Chultsova and Andreyeva, journalists had been held for a maximum of 15 days under administrative sentences. “That is a very serious situation for press freedom,” she says. “Of course, [Belarusian journalists] don’t want their country to become a black hole of information. They have sources in the country, but it’s more and more difficult to report there on the ground.”

This year, Belarus dropped a further five places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, to a ranking of 158 out of 180 countries. A joint report by RSF and the World Organisation Against Torture has characterised the situation in the country following the contested presidential election of August 2020 as “the most difficult time for mass media in the entire history of independent Belarus”, characterised by “systematic and massive human rights violations and crackdown on civil society and independent media”.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) was liquidated at the end of August, and then their website censored. According to their figures, the number of violations of journalists’ rights by government representatives in Belarus were more than eight times higher than the average of the previous ten years. “Lukashenko has full responsibility for the crackdown and everything that’s going on,” says Cavelier. “His aim is clearly to destroy all independent media in Belarus. We have seen crackdowns previously, but this is unprecedented.”

Zmicier Mitskevich, another reporter working for Belsat and a close colleague of Andreyeva, explains how he was angry, but not surprised, when Andreyeva was arrested. Mitskevich had also been arrested for livestreaming a protest in June earlier that year. “I was a little bit luckier,” he says. “They let me out, and I managed to come [to Poland], where I am now.”

Three months before Andreyeva’s arrest and detainment, she and Mitskevich narrowly avoided arrest while working together in Minsk. Voting for the election had closed the day before. He describes how difficult the situation already was – the internet was almost completely blocked, and the centre of the city was surrounded by officials, who appeared to be seizing protestors and civilians at random. Knowing that they would be arrested if it was discovered they were journalists, their backpacks full of equipment that would give them away, they tried to move to a discreet location, where they noticed a minibus of officials tailing them.

Both Andreyeva and Mitskevich were wearing their wedding rings, so he quickly suggested that they pretend to be a married couple, taking a walk by the river. The minibus stopped in front of the pair for 10 seconds before moving on, apparently satisfied that the two were civilians. “Those ten seconds, were really, extremely long,” Mitskevich recalls. “This day we avoided being arrested two times.”

Cavelier explains that it’s not just the producers of independent journalism who are being criminalised. “What’s worrying me the most now is the charges of extremism and terrorism; the fact that more and more outlets are described as extremist by the authorities,” she says. “This means that anyone who would like to simply read their articles could be prosecuted.” Dozens of news outlets – including Belsat, newspaper Novy Chas, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe’s Belarus Service, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and multiple opposition Telegram channels – a private social media messaging app with two-layer encryption – have been designated as extremist organisations by authorities, with access blocked and subscribers facing up to seven years in prison.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has condemned the Belarusian government’s actions, stating that “all segments of civil society have been and continue to be targeted”, highlighting concern especially for the multiplying cases of criminal prosecution of “journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders simply for doing their job”.

In July 2021, the founder of Viasna, Ales Bialiatski, was detained by authorities, joining six other members of the organisation currently in prison. “The arrest of human rights defenders with such huge experience and reputations […] is an obvious threat and a signal to the entire Belarusian society,” a spokesperson for Viasna said. “The Belarusian authorities do not understand that an active and independent civil society is essential for the country’s development.”

Despite continued threats of harassment and detention, human rights workers and journalists persevere. “After searches and interrogations, some members and volunteers of Viasna left Belarus to be able to continue to work to protect and promote human rights in a safe place,” the spokesperson adds. “But to this day, dozens of our volunteers and members all over the country remain there. They continue to collect information on human rights violations and continue to provide assistance. Every week, dozens of people contact [us] for help.”

Mitskevich says that the situation has made him more motivated in what he does, but is saddened that he cannot bring back those years and days to those people who are in prison. “I know that [Andreyeva] will definitely be glad to see that we are working, that we don’t back down. Because she never backed down. That’s what many people can learn from her, and that’s really important now. Not backing down, not stepping back, standing our ground.”

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Picture: Trial of Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova. Minsk, 18 February 2021. Photo: Belsat TV.