Brussels (Brussels Morning) Belarus authorities has labelled the Polish-based Belsat news channel an “extremist organisation”, placing the channel’s employees and its viewers in Belarus at risk of being sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
Belarus authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been tightening his grip on the media in the country, following last year’s opposition protests and his heavy-handed crackdown on dissenting voices. All state media are now singularly supportive of Lukashenko, whereas the Warsaw-based Belsat offeris an alternative view of the events in Belarus, that is often critical of the government.
The Belarus authorities first targeted the channel’s journalists working in Belarus, arresting two of its employees in February for filming an anti-government protest. The state crackdown on the channel escalated in July, when its coverage content was declared “extremist”, making dissemination of its content punishable by up to 30 days in detention.
In the latest move, the Interior Ministry has declared that “all groups of citizens united through the Internet resources BELSAT are recognised as an extremist formation”, adding that all their activities are prohibited in Belarus. Belsat is already banned from broadcasting in Belarus, but it can be accessed through the internet with the use of virtual private networks, masking users’ exact locations.
The declaration comes just days after Belsat’s representative in Belarus, Iryna Slavnikova, was detained at Minsk airport together with her husband, according to Belsat deputy director Alyaksei Dzikavitski.
Commenting on the latest development, Dzikavitski called the Interior Ministry’s declaration absurd. “It’s like punishing people for gathering around a bookshelf in a library”, he observed. “Naturally, it is impossible to recognise the millions of Belarusians who watch us or read on social networks as extremists. This is the same as recognising the entire population as extremists.”