Harlem Desir, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, has expressed his concerns and denounced the detention and imprisonment of journalists, including freelancers, in authoritarian Belarus over the past days.
According to the OSCE representative's statement published on May 12, Belarusian courts sentenced four reporters to 10 days of administrative arrest on charges of participating in "unauthorised events", while they were reportedly observing and covering public gatherings in support of the detained Sergei Tsikhanovski, the nation's popular blogger, who is critical of the Belarusian authorities.
The blogger, who has been touring Belarus over the past weeks and recording the local population amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, was detained on May 6. He was pulled over by traffic police. The blogger livestreamed the police’s attempt to get him out of the vehicle, including the country's special task force.
"I am alarmed by the detention and imprisonment of journalists and freelance reporters [...] for their alleged participation in unauthorised events," Desir said. "Journalists must be able to report on events of public interest such as public protests. I am very much concerned by this decision, which [impinges] on media freedom. I call on the authorities to release all journalists and freelance reporters concerned."
Belarusian law enforcers have detained or arrested around 120 anti-government protestors, activists and journalists in different regions of the country during the past week.
Meanwhile, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) has demanded the release of four journalists sent to jail just for doing their job.
"This new wave of attacks and imprisonment of freelance journalists in Belarus for doing their job is not only a shameless intimidation against all journalists, it leaves indeed great doubts about the judicial system in Belarus and this even more in times of COVID-19, when courtrooms are not open to the public," Renate Schroeder, EFJ director, said on May 12. "We also condemn the high fines of up to €500 for the freelance journalists."
Last week, the Belarusian authorities revoked the media accreditation of a news crew of the Russian Kremlin-controlled television Channel One and deported its correspondent from the country after his report about the snowballing coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in the post-Soviet republic, which refuses to implement the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The accreditations of the channel's correspondent Oleksei Kruchinin and his cameraman were revoked one day after Channel One aired on May 6 his report alleging that April's Orthodox Christian Easter services and a state-organised nationwide subbotnik had led to a surge in new coronavirus cases in the country.
The Belarusian parliament has set the country's presidential election for 9 August, local state-controlled media reported the same day.
Earlier in May, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, Central and Eastern Europe's longest-ruling head of state, said that the authorities were not going to postpone the election due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic.
"Belarus is going to have the presidential election sooner. We have no reason to postpone it [due to the coronavirus epidemic]. There is no possibility to postpone the election, according to the constitution," he said. "Therefore we will hold the election. We will set the date soon. It is going to be summer, definitely. The deadline is the end of August."
Lukashenko is going to remain at his post "for as long as the people will trust me", as well as "for as long as I am healthy," he told journalists in September 2019. "If you are unhealthy, there's nothing for you to do as president. The main things are health and people's confidence," he said.