A court in Belarus has labeled the Polish-funded Belsat television channel “extremist” amid an intensifying crackdown on media and civil society.
The Interior Ministry said on July 27 that fines or jail time may be imposed on anyone sharing information from Belsat, a popular news source for Belarusians that closely follows opposition to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The court order blocks Belsat’s website and all social-media accounts in Belarus.
Lukashenka this month threatened to “cleanse” the country of activists, media, and civil society as the country approaches the one-year mark since a disputed presidential election that sparked unprecedented protests.
Belarusian authorities have ramped up their campaign against media and civil society, with more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists this month, according to Vyasna, a leading human rights center that itself has been targeted.
Around 50 nongovernmental organization face closure, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the biggest and most respected media organization in the country, and the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
Belarusian authorities have also shut down several media outlets, including top independent news portals Tut.by and Nasha Niva.
Twenty-seven journalists are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences. They include two female journalists from Belsat, Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, who were sentenced to two years in prison in February for their reporting of protests.
Broadcasting mostly in Belarusian, Belsat is a subsidiary of Poland’s public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska.
Belsat’s deputy director, Aleksy Dzikawicki, said in a statement that the channel would continue its work.
“The people holding on to power in Belarus call all those who oppose violence and terror against stolen elections ‘extremists.’ That is, the vast majority of their own citizens,” Dzikawicki said.
“In fact, extremists should be called those who arrest thousands, imprison them, and force them to leave their homeland,” he said. “Belsat will continue to work, continue to carry independent information in Belarusian, and without censorship.”
Belsat extensively covered mass protests against Lukashenka, which were met with the heavy-handed detention of tens of thousands of people, much of the opposition leadership being jailed or forced into exile, and the country’s international isolation.
The opposition and West say the August election was won by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was in Washington last week for meetings with Biden administration officials and U.S. lawmakers to drum up support for the pro-democracy movement.
In a video statement on July 27 from New York, one of several stops on a more than weeklong trip to the United States, Tsikhanouskaya expressed support for Belsat.
“The journalists know that they’re doing the right thing and are fighting for the freedom of our country,” she said.
The West, which has refused to recognize the official results of the vote and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country’s legitimate leader, has imposed several rounds of sanctions against the regime.