The day after diverting a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius in order to detain journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich, Belarusian President Alexandre Lukashenko approved draconian amendments to his country’s media law to step up his war on journalism.
The world has been stunned by the hijacking of a plane at this dictator’s behest in order to arrest a journalist. But this unprecedented event is just part of a growing crackdown on press freedom that has seen further developments in the past 24 hours.
Yesterday, Lukashenko signed several media law amendments that will take effect in a month and are designed to provide police abuses with a legal veneer. Reporters covering unauthorised events will henceforth be regarded as participants. Livestreaming (live broadcasting online) will be banned. Publishing polls by non-accredited entities will be banned.
The list of reasons for refusing press accreditation has been extended, as has the list of kinds of content banned in the media. It includes hyperlinks to content that is already banned, such as the Telegram news channel Nexta, because it is regarded as “extremist,” or statements by the regime’s leading opponent in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
The amendments also ban content that can endanger national interests (as defined by the authorities) and block Internet access to so-called “mirror sites” – websites that are exact replicas of other sites.
“The hijacking of the Ryanair plane is the most spectacular development in the war President Lukashenko is waging on journalism, which has entered a nightmarish phase,” said Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “We are outraged by this act of air piracy, involving state duplicity, and we demand Raman Pratasevich’s immediate release. Those responsible for this unprecedented event in Europe’s skies, in violation of international law, must be punished.”
Jails now holding 24 journalists
At least 24 journalist are currently detained arbitrarily in Belarus. A week ago, on 18 May, the country’s most popular independent news website, TUT.BY, was subjected to raids and searches and ten of its employees have been detained ever since. RSF condemns the trumped-up accusations of tax fraud brought against TUT.BY’s executives.
Belarus is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.