Belarus: The journalists jailed for doing their job as crackdown continues following disputed election

Tuesday 23rd February 2021 16:45 GMT

Inside there is a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, spare underwear, a magazine and four photographs of his wife, Katya, carefully printed out so he can look at them in detention.

The backpack belonged to Katya but she won't be needing it for a while.

Last Thursday, she and her colleague, Darya Chultsova, were sentenced to two years in jail for live-streaming a protest. Two young women, 27 and 23, imprisoned for doing their job.

Behind the white bars of the cage in the court room, they hugged and kissed one another, Katya dressed all in white, looking a little like angels beyond the throng of journalists and iPhones, and the darkness of what passes for justice in present-day Belarus.

Mr Ilyash was allowed in to see her shortly after the sentencing. "I doubted her poise at the time," he said.

"I felt she was acting for the public, but it turned out she wasn't. She told me: 'I feel perfectly at peace inside, based on my certainty that I am doing everything right.'"

It is brave to be a journalist at the moment in Belarus.

Since protests broke out after allegedly rigged presidential elections in August last year, 400 have been detained.

At least 62 cases of physical violence against journalists were recorded, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Criminal proceedings have been launched against nine of them.

Last week, the authorities raided the homes and offices of 90 journalists and human rights organisations and will now be trawling through what they confiscated.

That will no doubt provide the "evidence" for a host more criminal prosecutions.

And yet they stay.

"Our relatives advised us to leave, before Katya was arrested," Mr Ilyash says. "It was unthinkable to us. We stood up for our choice, our identity. We didn't want to betray the way of living that we had."

Currently on trial in Minsk is Katerina Borisevich, a reporter for the Belarusian web portal Tut.by.

She had written an article in which she contradicted the official version of events around the death of a protestor in November last year who was attacked and beaten by suspected government thugs.

The Belarusian investigative committee claimed Roman Bondarenko had been drunk. Ms Borisevich quoted the hospital doctor as saying he was not. Both she and the doctor now face three years in jail.

The hearing is closed to the public but journalist colleagues pack the hallways outside the courtroom, cheering for their friend as she enters and leaves, cuffed and surrounded by police.

Journalists know they are under attack but they are not prepared to back down, certainly not without a strong and vocal fight. There are new rules to the game. You don't film on the streets. Interviews take place in homes or offices, or at a rented location just in case a flat is under surveillance. But the work still goes on.

"It is a matter of choice," says Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief of Tut.by. "We have chosen to do this profession in Belarus and we have chosen the principles we follow. But of course we were all unprepared for such lawless actions. Now it is quite obvious that there is no way back."

Tut.by was stripped of its media status in December last year. That means its journalists are not permitted to cover any official events. They have no press cards. The large office in Minsk stands vacant, row after row of empty desks - partly because of the pandemic, partly the repression. The press jackets are unused.

They don't do any good anymore in any case, they mark you out as a target.

Ms Zolotova is unsure what more the West can do to support Belarusian civil society.

"No one can save us but ourselves," she says. "Everything is in our hands, regardless of the fact that the repressive steam roller is getting all the more terrible. Our freedom, our future is something we need, not Putin or the West or anybody else."

The momentum has gone from the street protests for now. That is a direct result of the severity of the crackdown.

Some 1,000 people are subject to criminal prosecutions and there are 255 political prisoners, although President Alexander Lukashenko claims there are none.

Belarusians have had to resign themselves to the fact that their despotic leader has no intention of quitting in a hurry and that his suggestion of early elections will be a long time coming.

"I think Lukashenko will only initiate any kind of elections - be they presidential or any other - when he is absolutely sure that the space here has been completely cleared," says Andrei Bastunets, chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

His office was sealed in last week's raid and all the equipment seized. But he is still the first port of call when journalists are detained. He is still busy.

Mr Bastunets says: "Sometimes we wondered: 'Does the society support us? Does the society value freedom of speech as much as we do?'

"Now we have seen that it does. People come into the streets to support journalists and we feel their support.

"Freedom of speech is not only a fundamental human right, but it is also a criterion to judge the observance of other human rights."

The Belarusian democratic opposition are readying themselves for spring. That is when protests are expected to kick-start again, on 25 March which is the non-official Day of Independence or Freedom Day.

The brutality meted out on peaceful protestors since last August's election will resume. The persecution of journalists is not letting up. But it has made many even more determined.

"Katya and Darya were prosecuted for telling the truth and the authorities are afraid of the truth, so we have to provide them with more truth and more facts," says Mr Ilyash.

"For the authorities, this could be a lethal weapon so we must bombard them with the truth until this horrible, tyrannical regime falls."

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