Democratic governments and international organizations are this week expressing shock and outrage over the unlawful forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk, and the consequent arbitrary arrest of prominent Belarussian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofya Sapega. But despite statements of condemnation by key international actors, and of measures taken in response, such as the introduction of flight bans over Belarussian airspace by numerous EU member-states, the authorities there continue to viciously repress the independent press. Arina Malinovskaya, a local correspondent of a Poland-based broadcaster Belsat, which has been long targeted by the authorities, left Belarus after law enforcement officers tried to enter her apartment on May 21. Earlier that day, police raided Belsat’s studio in Minsk, detaining six staff. Three days later, a court sentenced them to 15 days of administrative arrest on charges of “disobeying lawful orders of an official.” On May 24 an investigator from Minsk phoned Malinovskaya from the cell phone of her brother-in-law Valentin Kucherenko, saying that the authorities had detained Kucherenko and threatening to take into custody Malinovskaya’s grandparents unless she returns to Belarus and reports for questioning. On May 25 Kucherenko spoke to Malinovskaya by phone, saying he would be kept behind bars until she comes back.
The attack on Belsat comes just after the crackdown on another independent news outlet, TUT.BY. Last week, financial police raided TUT.BY’s offices, blocked its website, and detained at least 13 staff who remain in custody on “tax evasion” charges. On May 25, authorities briefly detained another two journalists and two social media editors working for the outlet.
The Belarus parliament also adopted new legislation this week, further restricting the work of independent press and expanding official grounds for revoking accreditations, shutting down mass media outlets, and blocking their websites.
These actions, as well as the fact of and the shocking manner of Pratasevich’s arrest, show that Belarussian activists and journalists need help like never before. Support for the country’s besieged free press and civil society should be front and center of the international response to such an abusive and lawless government. .
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