KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarusian authorities labeled the local service of the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty extremist and launched a criminal probe against one of its journalists Thursday.
It was the latest step in a months-long, multi-pronged crackdown on the country's independent media.
Belarus' Interior Ministry added the outlet, known in the country as Radio Svaboda (Radio Freedom), and its journalists to the government registry of extremist organizations. Earlier this month, a court in the Belarusian capital Minsk ruled to designate the social media pages of Radio Svaboda as extremist.
Journalists and members of the public in Belarus may face up to seven years in prison for disseminating content produced by “extremist” outlets.
Also on Thursday, authorities launched a criminal case against Andrey Kuznechyk, a 43-year-old journalist with the outlet, his relatives said. It was not immediately clear what the charges against Kuznechyk were.
The journalist was detained a month ago and sentenced twice to 10-day jail terms. According to RFE/RL President Jamie Fly, he remains in custody even though he has served both sentences.
“Andrey Kuznechyk has completed his sentences. As far as we know, Belarusian authorities continue to hold him, essentially as a kidnapped hostage. Andrey should be allowed to return to his family immediately. Journalism is not a crime,” Fly said in an online statement.
More than 300 independent media outlets and channels on the messaging app Telegram have been designated “extremist” in Belarus after covering mass protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election in August 2020. Official results handed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office, but were denounced by the opposition and the West as a sham.
In response to unprecedented antigovernment demonstrations, Lukashenko's government unleashed violent crackdown on the protesters, arresting more than 35,000 and brutally beating thousands of them. All top opposition activists have either left the country or been jailed.
After the protests subsided, the authorities targeted independent media, human rights groups, individual journalists and activists.
A total of 31 Belarusian journalists are currently behind bars, either serving sentences or awaiting trial.
Last Thursday, prominent blogger and journalist with RFE/RL Ihar Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a court in the city of Gomel.
“Journalism in Belarus has been equated with a criminal offense, and dozens of colleagues have been thrown behind bars for merely fulfilling their professional duties,” the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Andrei Bastunets, said. “For freedom of speech in Belarus, standards of North Korea have been set.”
Belarus' opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 election and was pressured by the authorities to leave the country shortly after the protests broke out, told The Associated Press on Thursday that “the truth can't be beaten up by batons and put in prison.”
“The regime hopes in vain that repression against journalists will help them,” Tsikhanouskaya said, commenting on the move against RFE/RL.
“It is a fear that journalists will continue to expose corruption schemes, investigate who orchestrated the migrant crisis (on the borders with the EU) and how, write about horrible torture in prisons. And for Radio Svaboda it is an evaluation of its work, (a) recognition of its necessity and effectiveness,” Tsikhnaouskaya said.
Yuras Karmanau , The Associated Press