Serious unrest followed the December presidential elections in Belarus. Journalists came under surveillance by authorities.
A month after the controversial Belarusian presidential elections were held December 19, the situation remains tense. Immediately after the vote demonstrators took to the streets protesting against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. They accused the government of election fraud. Riot police cracked down on the demonstrators, reportedly injuring thousands and detaining scores of opposition protestors as well as 22 journalists.
President Alexander Lukashenko
“Some journalists were released the same night or the following morning. Others, along with many demonstrators, were sentenced to up to 15 days in prison for taking part in the protests,” says Dorothea Wolf. A German, Wolf is head of the IBB Media Academy in Minsk. IBB is a DW-AKADEMIE project partner in Belarus.
“As far as I know all those who served their sentences are back at work. Two journalists, Iryna Chalip and Natalja Radyna – both with close ties to the former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his team – are still in jail. They may be charged with inciting mass disturbances. Under Belarusian law that can bring up to 15 years in prison,” says Wolf.
During the several days of unrest in the capital, authorities searched numerous apartments and editorial offices and confiscated broadcasting equipment. The media, says Wolf, continued their work nontheless. “Belarusian journalists have been very creative and supportive of each other.”
In the months leading up to the elections there had been apparent signs of progress towards democracy. Hopes, however, appear diminished after the bloody crackdown. It is unclear how the situation will develop, particularly for the media. “Various scenarios are possible – from the situation returning to normal within a few weeks to some of the media facing administrative difficulties,” says Wolf. There is currently no clear direction. And it remains to be seen whether a few state-owned television programs will be able to retain their more liberal tone. “In the long term it’s still unclear when or if the new Internet law will be extended to include concrete provisions obligating online media to register the same way the conventional media have to.”
Despite this particularly tense situation for media workers, Dorothea Wolf says the IBB Media Academy can continue its work as customary. “We’ll be organizing seminars for state-controlled and independent media workers as well as journalist club meetings, where current topics can be discussed controversially. The key to all our events is to strengthen and progress a dialogue within the country as well as with the West. This is how the IBB Academy has been working for the past 15 years. And with this approach, I’m confident that the DW-AKADEMIE can continue to work successfully in Belarus.”